A vault of Can live recordings has been jemmied open for a series of exciting new releases, starting with ‘Live In Stuttgart 1975’. Irmin Schmidt, the band’s instigator and sole surviving core member, talks about the unique onstage experience of Germany’s ur-band
The abundance of previously unheard Can riches on 2012’s ‘The Lost Tapes’ felt like the last word from the Inner Space archives. But almost 10 years later, having lost both Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, a new series of Can live recordings is about to be released. It kicks off with ‘Live In Stuttgart 1975’, a gig that Irmin Schmidt, the only remaining member of the core group of four, can’t remember a blind thing about.
“I have no memory of it!” he says. “Even listening to it very often, which I did while working on it, I don’t have any image of what the hall looked like, what the audience was like… nothing. It’s different with Brighton, for instance. I have a faint memory about the place we played there. It was on this kind of pavilion on the water. Water was under you and around you, so it sort of has an influence. At least I have some positive thoughts about Brighton, but Stuttgart I don’t remember at all.”
Another live show that Irmin Schmidt has stronger memories of took place in Taunton.
“The audience were just having a party,” he chuckles. “After 30 minutes of playing, our roadie came onstage and said, ‘Look, they don’t care what you play, there are people fucking in dark corners!’. And Michael Karoli said, ‘Oh wow! Really fine! Making music for fucking people! That’s great!’, and for the rest of the gig he played only a really wild rhythm guitar and no solos.”
It’s a brilliant anecdote, not just because it confirms that early 1970s freak-out concerts were bacchanals of free-loving hippies slipping out of their kaftans and getting naked, but also because it reveals that Can were by no means an insular musical unit, locked into each other and each other alone, the crowd reduced to onlookers at a sonic experiment being conducted before their very ears (or naked bottoms). The wider environment always impacted on how the band played. If music for fucking was required, then they would play music for fucking. Live, Can were a site-specific, ever-shifting, never-the-same-twice musical force of nature.
“We acted very consciously,” says Irmin. “People thought what we did was sometimes very contemporary art stuff that needed lots of concentration, but we didn’t feel like this. If people were in the mood for partying, we partied with them. If they were sitting in a hall on chairs and concentrating on listening, we made another kind of music. You could be more complicated, more structural, more inviting of the strange and unusual ideas. And if they were in dark corners busy with… [laughs], you made wild rhythms, which was very inspiring for them!”
This is why Can’s live performances were a revelation and why they are releasing this bootleg concert recording from Halloween 1975, tarted up with all the studio whizzery 2021 technology is capable of. The result is a fascinating document and a welcome addition to the Can discography. It’s planned as the first of at least four releases of live sets and, if ‘Live In Stuttgart 1975’ is anything to go by, they’re going to provide Can fans with a dense few hours of music that will take years to properly digest.
In September 1975, Can released ‘Landed’, their sixth studio album. The band’s contract with United Artists had expired after 1974’s ‘Soon Over Babaluma’, which had delivered them a surprise not-really-a-hit-but-let’s call-it-a hit in ‘Dizzy Dizzy’, and they’d been snapped up by the krautrock enthusiasts at Virgin Records for Europe and Japan. ‘Landed’ was their second long-player as the primary four-piece made up of Irmin Schmidt, Michael Karoli, Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit. Japanese vocalist and Can shaman Damo Suzuki had left after ‘Future Days’ in 1973, and while the group tried out various potential fifth members, they released three albums and played over 100 gigs as a foursome. In 1977, they rolled out a new iteration of the band, with two former members of Traffic, bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah.
“The real definition of Can was the four of us,” states Irmin. “Sometimes there were singers, and we did wonderful work with them, they were really a part of what we were doing, but it was the four of us that were the seeds. After Damo left, we tried some other singers and we found we didn’t need them. We realised we were actually an instrumental group.”
Replacing a character like Damo Suzuki was never going to be easy. They’d struck gold with him in the first place. In 1970, in need of a vocalist to replace the recently departed Malcolm Mooney, they discovered Damo busking in a Munich street one afternoon. That same evening, he fronted the band. Can were born again and were soon to enter their imperial phase, even though Damo was a long way from a traditional vocalist.
“Damo didn’t actually sing songs,” says Irmin. “He sang strange words, using weird syllables and words from English, German and Russian, as well as Japanese, of course. He mixed it all up. It didn’t make much sense as lyrics because Damo was really an instrumentalist using his voice. So when he was gone, we realised that we shouldn’t look for another singer, that we were an instrumental group, which made us quite different from nearly all the other rock bands. We were more of a contemporary music ensemble. We were four people who created music that had elements of rock and jazz, who used rock as the foundation from which to make music that contained all styles of the 20th century.”
Rock was Can’s Trojan horse, through which they expanded the minds of their fans with the gamut of influences that had formed them, from Stockhausen to jazz, from Ligeti to African drumming. Normal rock bands needed someone out front, but Can were not a normal rock band.
On the few occasions that vocalists were given a trial run, they usually didn’t go that well. Magic Michael (aka Michael Cousins), a well-known face on the 1970s London hippy scene, played a few shows with the group in 1976, as did the almost mythical figure of Thaiaga Raj Raja Ratnam, who would seem to have disappeared in a puff of sandalwood smoke since his very brief association with Can. With typically arch fondness, Irmin remembers how a crowd in Paris responded to one of these experiments.
“I really loved the Paris audiences,” he notes. “They were incredible because they were unbelievably excited, but at the same time they were extremely critical. They reacted to every single piece in different ways. We tried out one singer at a Paris gig and he wasn’t very good. After the first piece he sang – because he didn’t sing the whole concert, only single pieces in the first set – the people booed. Then we played a piece without him and they were full of enthusiasm. Then he came onstage again and they booed again. And when he didn’t appear in the second part of the concert, they really screamed, ‘Yeah!’. You could see they didn’t like him, they thought he didn’t fit, and they were totally right. A little while later, we played another concert with him in Germany and the people there were just sort of lukewarm.”
Three weeks after the Stuttgart gig, the American singer-songwriter Tim Hardin, who wrote ‘If I Were A Carpenter’, joined Can onstage for a gig at Hatfield Polytechnic. It wasn’t a tryout, just a musical get-together.
“Just by chance, Tim was staying in the same hotel as us. We met at the bar and then he came to our room, where he and Michael played together. We were making a little bit of music in the hotel room and then we said, ‘Well, tomorrow we are playing, why don’t you join us?’. He had nothing to do, so he said that he would. The idea for him to make a guest appearance – not playing the whole concert with us, but a part of the concert – arose very naturally. And that was it. There was no thought of him becoming a member of Can or anything, it was just a spontaneous thing. And it was fun. It was good.”
Hardin also guested at the group’s London show a couple of nights later. There’s a story that there was a big argument afterwards and the American singer ended up throwing a TV set through a car window. Is that true?
“I don’t know,” replies Irmin. “Maybe I wasn’t present when he did so. He was really nice. I mean, it’s known that he was full of drugs…”
Tim Hardin was hopelessly lost to heroin addiction by the time he had moved to the UK in the mid-1970s. He returned to the US in early 1980 and died from an overdose later that year, aged just 39. Not that Can were what you would describe as straight edge either.
“We used quite a lot of drugs,” affirms Irmin. “But none of us were real junkies. None of us used heroin excessively. Maybe sometimes, but none of us were dependent on any drug. We swore to each other to avoid it and also not to let anyone be a member of the group who was dependent. We did not discuss the question of whether Tim could join us or not, because it didn’t arise.”
For those of us who never witnessed a Can gig, ‘Live In Stuttgart 1975’ is a tantalising glimpse of what we missed. The studio albums left a breadcrumb trail of what they were capable of, some of which stand as examples of the best and most influential of the era. From their 1969 debut ‘Monster Movie’ (“Made in a castle with better equipment”, as their label enigmatically announced, immediately forging an essential Can foundation myth), to the flat-out masterpieces ‘Tago Mago’ and ‘Ege Bamyasi’, Can made records that seemed like rock music, but weren’t. Sometimes it felt like jazz, but it wasn’t that either. Some people called it prog, but they certainly didn’t sound anything like the other bands who were classified in that way. It had a sharpness and a clarity about it, which resonated with the post-punk era almost a decade later, and the relentless, hypnotic dance groove they produced often evoked a kind of sci-fi euphoria in listeners.
So what to call this strange futuristic sound? British baby boomer music press hacks, whose fathers had fought in the war, came up with the dismissive and yet enduring genre name krautrock. Rock made by krauts. Yet for all its insensitivity, the krautrock moniker works. It begins and ends with K and it has a modernity about it on the page (as does Kraftwerk). In the 50 years since the term was coined, it has largely shrugged off its negative connotations and is now an enticing name to look out for on handwritten dividers when crate-digging in unfamiliar record emporia.
The point being, Can music is just that – it’s Can music. It is dense, fluid, ever-changing, expansive, wild and yet intensely controlled. The virtuosity of its players is so casual that it takes you by surprise. It remains hard to categorise without resorting to the krautrock neologism. The band’s studio albums were edited from hours and hours of tapes, a technique so skilfully employed that even the hard-crash edit in ‘Mushroom’ on their 1971 album ‘Tago Mago’ sounds like they played it that way. But live, Can were composing this new music on the fly. And it emerged without deliberation or planning.
“We never discussed it, we never said we would do this and that,” says Irmin. “I wouldn’t call what we did improvising… it was more inventing. Holger always called it instant composing. It was creating on the spot, spontaneously, together, and that was the important thing. It wasn’t really like in jazz, where one player after another improvises about the theme of the piece, it was constantly inventing collectively. We came onstage and we didn’t have a plan. We just started. What we did was always a reaction to the whole environment – to the sound, to the acoustics, to the crowd, to our mood, and to the moment.”
You can hear this process on ‘Stuttgart 75 Eins’, the opening piece of ‘Live In Stuttgart 1975’. Irmin holds a cluster chord on the organ, a signature kosmische Can starburst, which mutates into trilling arpeggios. Michael and Holger find the key and Jaki creates a hissing cymbal wash. The guitar pushes into a distorted thrum and Jaki introduces a beat as the guitar and the keyboard start to create a gorgeous two-note harmony, which is dropped as soon as it appears. This endless motion continues, tunes and riffs eddying around, sometimes coalescing into something that lasts. A middle section featuring Michael’s wah-wah guitar and a funk bassline begins to sound like a dark Miles Davis excursion of a similar era, when Miles was into distortion, rage and heroin, until Irmin comes in with a dramatic chord and forces another shift in texture and direction.
“Of course, in Stuttgart in 1975, we’d already had six years of practising this spontaneous invention onstage,” says Irmin. “So there was a certain knowledge around thoughts such as, ‘What happens if I do this?’ or ‘How will they respond if I do that?’. We even played games together, surprising each other with something that might not have been expected, maybe by changing the harmony all of a sudden. It was not trying to fool anybody, it was more like ping-pong. You play, you give him a certain harmony, and you find out, ‘Oh! What does he do with that?’. So you had to react and that created different forms.
“Every piece had a particular characteristic, so it was not a totally anarchistic, anything-can-happen situation. It’s more like where there are very secret and very strange sorts of rules. In this kind of spontaneous invention, the first 30 seconds will create something that will act as a rule for the piece. And then there are certain principles you have to follow, but it’s the piece itself that leads the way.”
It sounds very risky. It must have gone wrong sometimes?
“Definitely. Not every concert we made was a nice one. Stuttgart was nice. It succeeded. On the recording, in parts, it’s really very good, but it came about with this jeopardy, this idea of going onstage and letting it happen. Of course, there were other concerts where it went totally wrong, where it really didn’t click between us, and there were concerts where the risk was visible. One astonishing thing, though, was that when it went really wrong and it wasn’t good, the audience understood what was going on. They weren’t saying, ‘Oh shit, what are you doing?’. They tried to be helpful. It happened sometimes that the first set was quite bad, but people weren’t hostile to us about it. And the second set – we always played two sets with an intermission – may have had more trust between us and it was perhaps brilliant. So playing this way was full of surprises.”
In the break, would you talk about how the first set went? Would you argue?
“Not much. We just tried to concentrate. We didn’t let people into the dressing room. And the intermission mood often changed. If the first set was good, we were in a very relaxed mood. If it was bad, we were sort of down. We didn’t really argue, but we might try to put our finger on why something went wrong. We never knew definitely what it was anyway and we were conscious of that, so we tried to get rid of the depression and look forward to the second set. Sometimes when it was bad, we had the feeling that the second one would be good, because the audience was fully on our side. We did talk about what we had done much later, but most of the time we knew what had happened anyway.”
About four minutes into the second piece on the new album, ‘Stuttgart 75 Zwei’, fans of The Fall may find their ears pricking up, as a section swirls into focus from the loose and sunny opening movement, with Michael’s guitar glistening against Irmin’s haunting ambient pads and Holger’s inimitable sliding bass figures. It gradually disassembles itself and then there it is – the unmistakable downward progression of The Fall’s ‘I Am Damo Suzuki’ from their 1985 album ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’. The drumbeat is the same, as is the rattling guitar riff and the ominously descending bass. It’s gone in 30 seconds, but the band circles around it for another couple of minutes before taking off elsewhere and eventually losing themselves in one of Jaki’s breathtaking drum storms.
“‘I Am Damo Suzuki’… yes, they did that years later,” says Irmin. “Maybe they took it. So they were either at the concert, or there was a recording going around. Well, that was not so unusual. We influenced quite a lot of musicians.”
As well as The Fall’s Mark E Smith, John Lydon was a champion of Can in the early days of Public Image Limited and he places ‘Tago Mago’ in his Top Five albums of all time. Can are one of the most identifiable influences at play on PiL’s ‘Metal Box’ and you can sense their long shadow in a myriad of other bands since.
“At times you hear it in their work, at other times you don’t,” says Irmin. “I think it can perhaps be more a kind of mental or spiritual influence. They do something different, but the spirit of what they do comes from having an experience with our music. Sometimes you hear it clearly and sometimes they, well, I wouldn’t say they steal… they quote it. Sometimes you can call it sampling and sometimes they pay for this. We earned quite good money when Kanye West sampled ‘Sing Swan Song’ [from 1972’s ‘Ege Bamyasi’]. He named the track with the words he could understand from Damo – ‘Drunk And Hot Girls’. He sold three million records, so that meant he had to pay, which was very welcome.”
The almost extrasensory connection the members of Can appeared to have was the result of years of playing together, as well as the time each of them spent honing their unique skills before joining the band. It all started with a piece of magical musical alchemy at Schloss Nörvenich, a castle near Cologne. This was in 1968, when communal living was all the rage with the counterculture heads and Can seemed like just the kind of group to represent the band-as-commune ideal. How close were they as individuals? Was Can a commune experience?
“From the first days of the band, the four of us spent at least 12 hours together in the studio every day, so we got very close,” says Irmin. “We developed a kind of telepathy, even when we had different opinions about musical problems, so we were not just a gang of good friends who all lived in the same style and went to the same parties. It was not a commune. Everybody had their own home. We each had our own life. I had a family. I was the only one with a child, the only one who was married. Holger very rarely was with a girl, well, sometimes he was, but very rarely. Michael always had big love stories, mostly three at the same time. Jaki was with one girlfriend for years.
“Our musical backgrounds were also totally different. I came from a classical education and practice. I was a conductor, I made piano recitals playing Messiaen, Webern, Schoenberg, Brahms and Debussy. Michael was much younger. He had just given up studying law after a year when he joined us. He was from a very cultivated, bourgeois family. So the disparity in our musical backgrounds caused lots of tension, but it was part of the mystery of Can’s work. I think that’s why it still exists and still has so many fans all over the world, because it holds a kind of richness as a result of these differences – of classical, of contemporary, of jazz from Jaki, of the latest rock records – and it all melted into something that was so full of references. You can discover them over and over again, so that makes something quite special about this music which has kept it alive for the past 50 years.”
For both the band themselves and their 1970s fans, Can live was a crucial part of the Can experience. It was where audiences could watch the players exercising their influences in real time. There aren’t many groups who have walked the same tightrope, whose gigs were unpredictable, shape-shifting affairs which could be glorious and enigmatic one night and horrible the next, or even one minute to the next. Perhaps The Fall, with its Can-obsessed leader, could stake some claim here. For Can, playing live was every bit as essential as the work they chose to commit to vinyl.
“We did feel that way at the time,” says Irmin. “Because of how we appeared onstage and improvised, when it went well, it was very convincing, very explosive, and it created a certain legend. It was totally different from our studio work, because we never tried to play the pieces that we had developed in the studio. On occasion, we sort of quoted parts of it. It sometimes happened in live sets that I played ‘Bel Air’, for instance, and Holger played the bass riff of ‘Vitamin C’, while Michael played something totally unknown and Jaki’s rhythm was nothing he had ever played before.
“So sometimes various pieces were quoted at the same time, but this created an important part of our work. I think it was at least as important as what we did in the studio. That’s why I really found it quite sad that we didn’t make proper recordings of many concerts and why we have now said, ‘OK, there must be something left’, and made an effort to find things again. I already did this, going through the old recordings and the old live performances for ‘The Lost Tapes’, and it’s not my favourite occupation [laughs]. But it had to be done.”
You can’t listen to ‘Live In Stuttgart 1975’ and ignore the fact that Irmin Schmidt is the sole surviving member of the group who performed that night.
“Yes, sadly enough,” he sighs. “I am still missing them all. It’s even hard to talk about it. The closest to me was Michael. He was one of the closest friends I ever had in my life, one of maybe three or four. Even after Can, he lived near me in the South of France. We spent lots and lots of time together and he worked on my two solo records, ‘Musk At Dusk’ and ‘Impossible Holidays’. Most of those records were produced in his studio. Losing him was already horrible, but then Holger and Jaki both dying one after the other… I mean, Holger and Jaki died within half a year of each other. When I came back from the funeral of Jaki, I got seriously ill. I had a breakdown, really…
“A few weeks before Jaki’s death, I was actually planning this idea of making something with prepared piano with him. It’s what became my solo piano record, ‘5 Klavierstücke’. We were at his home in Cologne and we discussed it. At this time, I also had an invitation to go to New York and to Mexico, so we talked about going together, although he was not very keen on travelling anymore. We made plans, but then all of a sudden he was gone. That was very, very hard.”
Barring the brief reunion with Malcolm Mooney in 1989, which spawned the one-off long-player ‘Rite Time’, Can lasted 10 years from 1969 to 1979. They recorded 11 studio albums and performed hundreds of gigs. The music they made influenced later generations in all manner of ways, from the post-punk experimentalists to contemporary megastars like Kanye West. In the intervening decades, Irmin Schmidt has released well over a dozen albums under his own name, produced many other artists, written an opera, and scored countless films and television shows. So where does Can sit in his own estimation of his life’s work?
“Those 10 years was a really incredible formative musical experience,” he declares. “And it shaped me in a way that has influenced everything I’ve done since. Whatever I do, Michael, Holger and Jaki are probably my most important teachers, even though I had great teachers before them. My first piano teacher was amazing – I’m a musician because of him – and I studied composition with Ligeti and Stockhausen. But I still insist that Michael, Holger and Jaki were by far the most important. Even considering all the experiences I’ve had since – my solo work, my symphony work, the opera and the ballet – the foundation of everything I do is Can.”
Well, that’s a very fitting thought to end our interview, I tell Irmin. He bursts out laughing.
“It sounded like my last words! But it wasn’t what I intended. It just came out like that.”
‘Live In Stuttgart 1975’ is on Spoon/Mute