It’s about time. Not the obvious reaction when one of your heroes dies. But Holger Czukay was all about time. Not just in the sense, as Can’s bass player, of playing in time, though few could better Czukay there (just listen to “One More Night”), but in the sense of sequencing time: ordering and shaping it, as an editor. Between the two approaches, his two roles, Czukay created a sense of time speeding up, time slowing down, time as an elastic, malleable essence. Working against the regulation, the containment of capitalist time. But Holger Czukay is all about time in another sense. Due to both forming a band late – in his thirties – and dying relatively late in musician terms, Czukay’s life spanned a huge stretch of history and culture. Czukay could remember the Second World War, the pivotal event out of which Can and krautrock emerged: the products of a post-war suspicion of the old guard, of the “known,” of the charismatic leader, leading to an emphasis on the communal in krautrock, and, during the Cold War of ideologies, an emphasis on ownership of the means of production. For Can, like Faust, Kraftwerk, Harmonia or Klaus Schutze, were a product of the studio that they owned and incorporated into their music: inside-out (the studio’s live, ambient sound) and outside-in (the effects and limitations of technology upon sound). Can were born in a studio; their engineer and editor, Holger Czukay would die there.
Can and Czukay also charted a big chunk of my own time, but the snapshots which follow are not autobiographical. They are cultural, the individual as conduit. So as politics shifted from Cold War to 90s interregnum to War on Terror, so pop culture shifted from beat to psychedelia to prog to punk to new wave to indie to dance to ambient to post rock to punk-funk. And Czukay and Can managed to be relevant to every single shift. Picture Holger, the archetypal mad professor, with his shock of white hair, his beret, his twinkling eyes, clutching his trademark shortwave radio, tuning into the past, the present and the future.
Snapshot 1. February 1983.
My first memory of Can is gazing at a too-expensive copy of Tago Mago as a teenager in a secondhand record shop in Canterbury, the green UK cover with sleevenotes that called Can “a German Hawkwind.” Back home I look Can up in my Bible, The NME Encyclopedia of Rock. The names entrance me: album titles like Tago Mago or Ege Bamyasi; the names of the band members – Michael Karoli, Irmin Schmidt, Damo Suzuki. It never occurs to me that Holger Czukay was a stage-name (born Holger Schüring, in 1938, in Gdansk, Poland), while it will take me years to realize that drummer, Jaki Liebezeit’s name sounds like a stage name (“love-time”; all about time). It also does not occur that Can are an alliance of the Second World War defeated, the Germans and the Japanese, but, formed in 1968, a revolutionary anti-matter to the imperial, the traditional, the closed, the racially pure. Can’s first singer, Malcolm Mooney was African American, while their late 70s lineup included Jamaican bassist Rosko Gee and Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Bah, making Can one of few multi-racial bands alongside the Family Stone, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Love. And while Can’s seems a largely male world, their manager was a woman: Hildegard Schmidt (Irmin’s wife), while Czukay’s primary collaborator for his last two decades was his wife, Ursula Kloss.
Snapshot 2. November 1984.
I first actually hear Can in the mid-80s in my college room in Bristol. Siouxsie Sioux is playing some of her favourite tunes on the radio, amongst them Can’s “Vitamin C.” In the mid-80s we are still living through the punk wars, and a pre-year zero anti-canon has been created by the punk priesthood” Sioux, John Lydon, Pete Shelley, Nurse with Wound, Mark E. Smith. It’s a compact canon: The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, The Velvets and solo offshoots, Bowie, Roxy, Eno, and a holy trinity of German bands, Can, Neu and Kraftwerk. Lydon played “Halleluhwah” on his infamous Capitol Radio broadcast in July 1977 and shortly afterwards formed the Can-influenced Public Image Ltd with Jah Wobble (soon a regular Czukay collaborator). Can will shortly be Smith-endorsed via The Fall’s “I Am Damo Suzuki” (on 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace).
Immediately, I’m struck by the way “Vitamin C” starts with the bass and the drums, and emphasizes them throughout. Such a rhythm section-centred approach foregrounds the beat, the groove; what Julian Cope would later call a “funkless funk.” It was soul and funk records that would use such an approach back in 1972 – Gladys Knight’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” (1967), Aretha’s “You’re A Sweet Sweet Man” (1968), Larry Darnell’s “Son of a Slave of a Slave” (1968), Odetta’s “Hit or Miss” (1970). The difference is that “Vitamin C” does it for almost the whole song. The guitar is just there (somewhere); the keyboards don’t make their presence felt until near the end. It’s a fantastically democratic approach – no one is muscling in, showing off, dominating, with even Czukay and Liebezeit using their space not to preen and ham but to play with minimalist perfection. Czukay would tell David Stubbs later, “a group is a living organism. A band should be like a gang, everyone steaming from the same horn.” Can broke up in 1979 when, “everyone became more individual” Czukay told Stubbs. Note the date, 1979 of this individualism – Thatcher, Reagan, the birth of neoliberalism.
What really makes Can unique is that although “Vitamin C” is funky, it’s also mechanical (people call Liebezeit a “human metronome”). There is no ghost of blues here; this is European and Asian music. Suzuki’s vocal is passionate (rasping out each “losing” a little more harshly), but somehow also detached, the other lyrics elusive, distracted, barely formed. It’s not even clear what language he’s singing in. The song therefore is both warm and cold. All of which makes Can, amongst many other things, key precursors of post-punk.
Snapshot 3. March, 1988.
Nurturing a David Sylvian obsession in the dark days of British pop, I know Czukay featured on Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees (1984) and Alchemy (1985), though, in my rockist way, I’m confused by what Holger actually does: he’s credited not with bass but with “dictaphone” and “shortwave radio”: sampling, essentially. Browsing a Newcastle record shop, I discover Sylvian’s next release is an ambient, instrumental collaboration with Czukay, Plight and Premonition. The follow-up, Flux and Mutability (1988) – two more long-form instrumentals - doesn’t beckon much more invitingly. Three years before The Orb or KLF’s White Room, none of us is quite ready for ambient, and it will take me 20 years to discover the ethereal wonders of these albums, which feature most of Can alongside the found sounds and radio bursts.
In fact, Can’s own Future Days (1973) is a key precursor to ambient at its lighter, prettier end: rock’s edges worn away, dynamics eroded, water against rock, guitar solos a wash of sound, Suzuki’s vocals such a combination of liquid and air he’s almost evaporating as you listen; barely there. Soon Suzuki would not be there at all by the next album, leaving Can in late ‘73.
Snapshot 4. November, 1989.
Manchester is aflame. As the Second Summer of Love stretches from 1988 into 89, much is being made of dance music’s influence on the “Madchester” indie scene – black meets white – so it’s a little discombobulating to hear the Happy Mondays’ “Hallelujah” at the Hacienda, because it’s, basically Can’s “Halleluhwah” (from 1971’s Tago Mago). I’d bought Soundtracks (1970) and Tago Mago earlier the same year but don’t realize there’s any connection between this rhythm, repetition and texture-centred cultural moment and what I love about those albums.
Czukay’s engineering created the crystal-clear sound that defined early Can, while his editing turned that dread word “jam” into music, into art. They called it “instant composition,” capturing a live immediacy which was finessed in the studio not by multiple overdubbing, but by judicious pruning – Czukay literally snipping up tape with a Stanley knife – creating shape and structure out of the shapeless and unstructured, an organized chaos in which the disorder lives – indeed thrums – within the order. Can’s music, via this methodology, is organic and mechanic, mercury and aspic, free and contained. Czukay and Schmidt’s teacher, Karlheinz Stockhausen, had pioneered the use of “controlled chance,” although Can’s collagist principle was anathema to him.
Coming full circle, Can would choose precisely this moment, the apex of acid house, to briefly reform: the fact that the vocalist was Mooney rather than Suzuki, highlighting the band’s channeling of white and black, mechanical and funky, warm and cold, making the reformation in retrospect more apposite than it seemed at the time. And with That Petrol Emotion already combining indie, dance and kraut and Julian Cope moving shortly from baggy (Peggy Suicide, 1990) to krautrock (Jehovakill, 1992), this further underlines the cultural currents, with Can a great pulsing pylon at their centre.
Snapshot 5. January 1996.
Post-rock reaches peak saturation with Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Alongside Stereolab, Gastr Del Sol, and later Fridge, Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, such bands occupy a space behind and beyond the obviousness of Britpop and grunge, a textural, expansive, thoughtful space created by electronic music’s rewiring of our ears. Suddenly everyone is talking about Can again. Because if you take Simon Reynolds’ definition of post-rock, “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords,” you’re basically describing Krautrock in general and Can in particular.
A month later, David Toop’s ambient book and compilation, Ocean of Sound arrives, and retrospectively seems like a post-rock polemic, a convincing claim for a canon of “ambient” based not on the plangency that would plague “chill-out music” (shudder), but on sonics, be they harmonious or harsh: Satie, Cage, Eno, King Tubby, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Terry Riley, the Velvet Underground sitting alongside Czukay’s own, 1969, “Boat Woman.”
The end result of these cross-currents is, the following year, 1997, a Can remix album. While there should be plenty of links between Can and dance music, the execution is fumbled. UNKLE (effectively DJ Shadow)’s “Vitamin C” simply reveals that Can had already invented trip hop, while Carl Craig’s “Future Days” only hints at what might have been if Aphex Twin or Autechre had brought contemporary listening techno’s invention to the project. In the same year, Czukay’s own collaboration with techno producer, Dr. Walker is, again, a disappointing Can-electronica hookup.
Snapshot 6. September 1999.
Discovering there’s a Kosmische Club at the Garage, London, makes for a distinctly surreal evening, where we reverently watch footage of the Neu/Kraftwerk hookup and dance to Can’s “Mother Sky.” All 15 minutes of it. Can didn’t often use the motorik – the driving, simple-but-complex drum beat that defines Krautrock – compared to, say Neu, but here the motorik powers on and on through the song. (Liebezeit would later provide the beat for Neu’s Michael Rother’s late 70s albums).
Sometimes it seems like Czukay’s entire bass career was to take what Roger Waters did due to technical limitations – those pivoting octave notes that typify Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” – and, unhampered by any limitations, make an art of it, make a career of it, ability sitting inside simplicity. “Mother Sky” homages early, experimental Floyd (Suzuki’s falsetto at 6:34 is pure “Careful With That Axe Eugene”) but takes it somewhere both more avant and more accessible. It’s not just about the bass and drums this time: Karoli splatters abrasive guitar all over “Mother Sky” like Jackson Pollock with a canvas, a hangover and a CIA grant. Schmidt even reverse-zooms into the foreground occasionally from his usual spectral middle distance. For this and for pooling the talents of Mooney and Suzuki, Soundtracks – barely mentioned in Stubbs’ book – remains my favourite Can album.
Snapshot 7, February 2002.
The late 90s saw a revival of disco: Daft Punk, Armand Van Helden’s filtered disco house; new interest in Larry Levan, Francois Kevorkian and Arthur Russell. It becomes hard to remember that arty types took a dim view of disco in the mid-seventies; a view canonized by punk – you chose, disco or punk. Which makes Can probably the first art rockers to experiment with disco with “I Want More” (on 1976’s Flow Motion), before punks belatedly came onboard in the late 70s and early 80s. Think: Public Image’s “Death Disco,” Gang of Four and New Order in the UK and ZE records, Talking Heads, ESG and indeed Blondie in the US. Similarly, in the early 2000s, a new wave disco revival – “punk funk”/”disco punk” – followed on from house-disco: The Rapture, James Murphy’s DFA productions, Playgroup, and later Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand. So “I Want More” fits in perfectly at central London’s Trash nightclub in 2002. It sounds like now, then, the future, any time.
Snapshot 8. January 2004.
Interviewing another iconic bass player, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, she claims Byrne stole the concept of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts from Czukay, whose studio he and Eno visited. What this means is that it was Czukay who invented sampling, not Eno. Not only is the timing right (Czukay’s Movies came out in 1979; Bush of Ghosts was recorded late ‘79 although released in 1981), but Czukay was plainly on Eno’s aural map, playing bass on Cluster and Eno (1977) and After the Heat (1978). While, to be fair, Eno has cited Czukay as a precursor, he also claims that it’s he, Eno, who is the first to use samples as lead vocal (contra Movies’ “Persian Love”), while failing to acknowledge that Bush follows Czukay in its penchant for developing world vocalizations– African, Arabic, Eastern – evidenced not just on Movies but as far back as 1969’s “Boat Woman.”
Eno also got the credit for the “back to Africa” movement of the next few years – Bowie’s Eno-featuring Lodger (1979), Talking Heads’ Eno-produced, Remain in Light (1980), Adam and the Ants’ Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980), The Pretenders’ “Message of Love” (1980), Peter Gabriel’s III (1980) and Security (1982), Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986). However, Can’s longstanding EFS – “ethnic forgery series” – was revealed on 1974’s compilation Limited Edition to go back to 1968. 1974s’s Soon Over Babaluma and 1977’s Saw Delight, meantime, are effectively Can’s “world music” albums (Flow Motion, in between, is their reggae album – much better than you might expect of Teutonic reggae). That emphasis on “forgery” both subverts the pompousness of some of world music’s protagonists, and emphasizes the inauthenticity and cultural appropriation inherent. So it’s only apt that Can should be sampled themselves: see Kanye’s use of “Sing Swan Song” on “Drunk & Hot Girls” or I Self Divine’s sampling of “Vitamin C.” Less felicitously, we can thank Czukay for the “singing producer,” like Kanye, Dre, Timbaland, the guy who sings not because he has great vocal skills, but because he’s manning the board and can do what he likes.
Snapshot 9. September 2017.
I’m not buying that there was anything sad about Holger Czukay dying in his recording studio. Holger died like he lived: in the studio – Can’s old recording studio, Inner Space, in Weilerswist, which Czukay and his wife and collaborator, U-She, had recently renovated and recreated. Czukay is the man, who, alongside George Martin, Lee Perry, King Tubby, Brian Eno, Teo Macero, Pink Floyd, Faust and Kraftwerk, helped invent the notion and practice of the recording studio as instrument. So much was Czukay a part of the studio process – an editor, an engineer, a musician – that it was hard to say where he ended and Inner Space began. Czukay lived, worked and died in the studio. If you wanted to get cosmische about it, you could say he has now fused with the studio forever. Certainly, his work/life divide was non-existent: Czukay’s friend, Jaki Liebezeit, who had continued to play on Czukay’s records, passed away earlier this year; Holger’s wife, Ursula Kloss, U-She, who sang on Czukay’s songs and designed his album sleeves for the last two decades, died a few weeks before her husband.
An apt location for such filmic music, the cinema was Inner Space’s second location after the first three Can albums were recorded at a rented castle near Cologne, Schloss Nörvenic. That Can itself was once known by the same name is again telling, blurring the boundaries between studio and band. Inner Space, moreover, while hinting at the sci-fi “space rock” for which mainstream journalism still salutes Can, actually references the human, the space within the mind, not necessarily in the restrictive senses of individualized psychology, of personal transcendence, but of communal human capacity. Can were a testament to just that capacity. Technology, after all, is only what humans create, and what humans use it for. Can spent hours, days setting up the studio, making the space into a sound installation, so that it would resonate: with the sound of humans, with the sound of itself, with the fusion of the two.
Toby Manning’s John le Carré and the Cold War is out via Bloomsbury in early 2018.