Mojo SEPTEMBER 2017 - by Ian Harrison


In Cologne's late-'60s acid-political tumult, musicians in the classical, jazz and electronic fields, plus a young guitarist, met an expat American vocalist and recorded spontaneous sounds of supernatural depth and power. But the volatile chemistry behind Can's mighty debut would be short lived.


Irmin Schmidt (keyboards) and Holger Czukay (bass) talk chaos, surprise and following your nose.

Irmin Schmidt: "I was in my late twenties and I had conducted at recitals, won prizes, and I am pretty sure I would have gone on to be a successful conductor. To give up a conductor's career and found a group with crazy ple was typical for '68.

I really wanted some kind of powerful rock or jazz grooves, myself [doing] all the classical up to contemporary, with a rock guitarist who maybe can only play four chords but who is just as inventive. I asked [former fellow Stockhausen pupil] Holger because he was crazy enough to join in with the idea, he was a very passionate musician and he did have a great deal of technical knowledge. Holger asked me if he could bring a very talented guitar player [Michael Karoli], who had been his pupil, and would love to join us if his parents didn't mind, because he was just starting to study law. David Johnson [flute] was also a student of Stockhausen and lived in my place, he was really into electronic music. I said to Jaki [Liebezeit, drums], Well, I would love to have someone able to play polyrhythms like Max Roach, with the elegance of Elvin Jones, having the power of Art Blakey. He said, 'Yeah I'll look,' but he ended up playing himself. We decided to meet the very first time without instruments, and here was an immediate sympathy.

Also I had this friend who owned this castle [Schloss Nörvenich], whom I knew because I was very much in the art scene - he said, 'You can come and play here.' It had such an incredible reverb, the sound you hear on the very early Can recordings, Little Star Of Bethelehem for example, are in fact the hallway of this castle. So even if I sort of founded the group, the others founded it too - Can is what happened to us.

First time we played, well, it wasn't good at all, it was total chaos. We knew we would have to go through a period starting from scratch. So violence happened. Jaki started playing a groove, and Michael started playing some real rock guitar over it and I was lost, I didn't know what I had to play. So there was a lot of fighting and, well, giving birth is quite a dirty thing, there is lots of blood and screaming. We gave birth to a new idea of music for us all, so it was full of trauma, until it became music.

When Malcolm [Mooney, New York artist] showed up [via Schmdt's wife Hildegard, who met him in Paris], it gave a sort of ignition to the rock side of the sound with his incredible rhythmic singing, linked with Jaki. The two of them became a sort of rhythm group. The very first pieces we considered to be us, you can hear them on the Delay 1968 record [1981 album recorded around the time of Monster Movie]. Father Cannot Yell was the very first piece where we all decided, that's where we want to go. It has a fantastic groove, it has its very own sound world and it has this Holger style of bass playing which you would never hear from any other bass player, that comes from a classical education, like a chromatic left hand on the piano. It was right at the time when Malcolm joined - he came into the studio when we were playing this piece and he joined in and it became Father Cannot Yell."

Holger Czukay: "When we recorded Father Cannot Yell we didn't have enough microphones. To the left side was a guitar speaker, on the right side was the organ speaker, all together recorded through an ordinary ambient microphone. I was editing it afterwards, and I said, Holger, would you have ever expected that you would play something like that? I was surprised by myself, I couldn't believe it. First of all I only was playing bass because I wanted to hide myself, because my opinion was, Nobody is listening to bass! I thought we make a group like Stockhausen. And then Malcolm Mooney came in and we think, Why not Stockhausen with a hell of a drive? I think Monster Movie, the very beginning, was one of the best periods for Can. You are young only once, when you start you follow your nose. That's what we did."


Vocalist Malcolm Mooney and drummer Jaki Liebezeit recall anarchy, cold turkey and vintage wine.

Malcolm Mooney: "Father Cannot Yell was the first piece I remember that we did. Irmin had done a linear A-B-C chart and being an artist, it was easy to follow. The other thing about most of the stuff we did, with a few exceptions, was I invented the words on the recordings as I went along, and then I wrote the lyric after and then made the changes. David Johnson had left, but with the five of us those components made for an interesting mix. Jaki was a big influence on my playing. Mickey [Karoli] was a wonderful guitar player and he was a listener. Most of the things we did were not planned out - we just started playing and a lot of good things came out of it.

It became a little bit difficult after we played Switzerland [Can provided the music for Heiner M¨ller's play Prometheus at the Zürich Schauspielhaus in September 1969]. I came to rehearsal late at the theatre and they were playing, and I heard them and said to myself, Four-man band. I heard some great stuff. That was the turning point. We didn't do much recording after that, we did Soul Desert and She Brings The Rain - that song was dedicated to Connie, Mickey Karoli's sister. We were walking one day and it started to rain and that's how it came about. I thought she was a fantastic person.

The thing was, maybe I was getting homesick [for America], and I was worried about my health. I didn't want to smoke marijuana anymore. I went cold turkey. I felt that I had to go. In a lot of the histories about Can, it's stated, 'Oh, he had a breakdown and on the advice of his doctor he had to go back to the States.' After you have run that story a thousand times, what else is new? Was it all about the publicity of that? Was it helping me? Or the audience to hear it?"

Jaki Liebezeit: "Malcolm is a great singer, his rhythmic ability was fantastic. We were all quite equal, it was a kind of an anarchistic group: one of us had abilities the others did not have, so together we were a good team. It was very bad for us when he left, because we had to have a vocalist. We played for a short time after, just instrumental. Then we met Damo Suzuki in Munich in the street, and immediately he came with us.

Monster Movie, I still like it a lot. With groups, the first records are good but then they start repeating themselves or they have no more good ideas. Of course, I am really happy it is still going, the Can material. That proves it was not just a fashion or a trendy thing, made by promotion. It proves the music has a quality which is timeless. Delay 1968, at first we thought, it's not so good. Like a bottle of wine, you leave it ten years and it might taste better. There were no commercial ideas. We just had fun to make crazy music."