Can Come Back

From The New York Times:

The German experimental-rock group Can has never been obscure. Though not quite a household name here in the States, Can recorded several European hits in the years they were together, 1968 to 1979. They have also had an impact on a diverse group of musicians, from David Bowie to Brian Eno to Radiohead, and pioneered whole styles of music that their followers later expanded upon. This week, Mute Records releases “The Lost Tapes,” a three-CD box set containing over 180 minutes of previously unissued material. More than a great listen, the set solidifies both Can’s oeuvre and their approach to music making as far-reaching influences.

The concept for the band first came to Irmin Schmidt on a visit to New York in 1966. Based in Cologne, Germany, at the time, he was a composer and conductor in the contemporary-classical New Music scene and a disciple of Karlheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti. As Schmidt explains, he had come to the United States to participate in the Dimitri Mitropolous conducting competition, but “once in New York, I met La Monte Young and Terry Riley, and I became much more interested in what they were doing.” The two American minimalists created long, drony, repetitive pieces strikingly different from the music Schmidt had been involved in, and he participated in some of their performances. (“I played with Terry for hours,” he says.) But what really struck Schmidt about the New Yorkers he met then was a mind-set that had not yet reached Europe: “They didn’t make a difference between high and low culture — between pop and art.” It was the era of Warhol, after all.

This progressive attitude led Schmidt to reconsider his own approach to music. Instead of conducting, he eventually decided to start a band that would “bring together jazz and rock with the openness of New Music.” In Cologne, Schmidt began playing keyboards with the core musicians that would eventually form Can: his fellow Stockhausen student Holger Czukay on bass; Michael Karoli, a young rock- and gypsy-music-influenced pupil of Czukay’s, on electric guitar; and the inhumanly precise jazz-trained drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Over the years, singers would come and go — most significantly, the African-American visual artist Malcolm Mooney and the wayfaring Japanese hippie Kenji “Damo” Suzuki — who each added a unique element to the music. An important principle underscored Can’s collaborative spirit: “There was no hierarchy, no single composer,” Schmidt says. “We all created together.”

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