Last year, I was fortunate enough to interview a true musical legend, Holger Czukay. He was part of Can, who were undoubtably, one of the most ambitious and innovative groups in the history of music. Their music was constantly groundbreaking. So much so, that it was always way ahead of the musical curve. As a result, Can’s music is timeless, and has influenced several generation of musicians. Especially, Can’s “golden quartet” of albums.
Can’s “golden quartet” of albums started with a stonewall classic, Tago Mago, released in February 1971. The followup to Tago Mago, was another groundbreaking, classic album.
Ege Bamyasi was released in November 1972. Just like Tago Mago, critical acclaim accompanied the release of what was called a pioneering album. However, despite Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi being recognised as two of the most important and innovative albums in musical history, Holger Czukay regards the third in the golden quartet, Future Days, as the “most influential” Can album.
This came about when I asked Holger Czukay what he regarded as Can’s best album? Straight away, Holger responded “Future Days,” which was released in August 1973. When I asked what his favourite Can album was, without hesitation Holger responded that “Future Days is my favourite Can album.” Holger spoke about Future Days almost evangelically. So much so, that he made me listen to Future Days afresh. Just like it’s two predecessors, Future Days is a classic album, but one where Can, constantly musical chameleons, reinvent themselves and their music. Can had come a long way since their early days in Cologne.
Can’s roots can be traced back to 1963. That’s when he met Conny Plank and Irmin Schmidt. Just like Holger, they were students of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The three studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen until the graduated in 1966.
Having graduated, Holger was enjoying life as a music teacher. Holger was enjoying his newfound career as an educator. He wasn’t a fan of pop or rock music. That was about to change in 1967.
That’s when Holger heard The Beatles’ I Am A Walrus in 1967, he was captivated by this psychedelic rock single. Holger describes this “as a life-changing moment…the music of the past and present came together.” At last, “here was music that made the connection between what I’d studied and I was striving towards” With the innovative use of bursts of radio and the experimental sound and structure, “I went in search of similar music.”
Soon, Holger discovered Velvet Underground, who Holger sad would later, influence Can.“Velvet Underground they were different, they were really influential” “They influenced the music I made…I remember the first time I heard Velvet Underground and where I heard it” This was “sitting in a friend’s flat looking through piles of albums. We’d study the sleeve-notes and then spread the album covers all over the floor. We scrutinised them, then immersed ourselves in the music. It was a shared experience. We listened and discussed the music. I can remember these times well.”
Inspired by what he’d heard, Holger decided to form his own band in 1968. In his new band, Holger was joined by another graudate of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Irmin Schmidt. They had spent three years studying together, so knew each other well. However, after graduating Irmin had headed to New York.
In New York, Irmin spent time with avant-garde musicians like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and La Monte Young. Soon, Irmin was aware of Andy Warhol and Velvet Underground. This inspired him to form his own band when he returned home to Cologne.
Back home, Irmin a pianist and organist formed Can with American avant garde flautist David C. Johnson and bassist Holger Czukay. Up until then, the trio had exclusively played avant-garde classical music. Now their ambitions lay beyond that. Their influences included garage, rock, psychedelia, soul and funk. So they brought onboard three new members of the group, which started life as Inner Space, and then became The Can. Eventually, they settled on Can, an acronym of communism, anarchy, nihilism
The first two new additions were guitarist Michael Karoli and drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Vocalist and New York-based sculptor Malcolm Mooney joined the band midway through 1968. By then, they were recording material for an album Prepare To Meet Thy Pnoom. Two tracks, Father Cannot Yell and “Outside My Door were already recorded. Unfortunately, record companies weren’t interested in Prepare To Meet Thy Pnoom. As a result, it wasn’t released until 1981, when it was released as Delay 1968. Undeterred, Can continued to record what became their debut album, Monster Movie.
Despite not being able to interest a record company in Prepare To Meet Thy Pnoom, Can were confident in their own ability. So Can continued recording what would become their debut album Monster Movies. That’s despite being what Holger referred to as “a poor man’s band.” They didn’t have the equipment that other groups did. What they did have was “an ambition to create innovative music.” However, before long, there was a problem.
David C. Johnson left Can at the end of 1968. He was disappointed at the change in musical direction. Little did he realise that he’d lost the chance to be part of one of the most groundbreaking band’s in musical history, Can.
Monster Movie had been recorded in Schloss Nörvenich, a 14th-century castle in North Rhine-Westphalia. Can recorded Monster Movie between 1968-69. It was the released in August 1969. This marked the debut of Can. Their career started as they meant to go on. A groundbreaking, genre-melting fusion of blues, free jazz, psychedelia, rock and world music, Monster Movies has a Velvet Underground influence. It’s as if Can have been inspired by Velvet Underground and pushed musical boundaries to their limits.
Throughout Monster Movie, Can improvised, innovated and experimented. Multilayering and editing played an important part in Monster Movie’s avant garde sound. So did spontaneous composition, which Can pioneered.
Spontaneous composition was hugely important in Can’s success. Holger remembers “that the members of Can were always ready to record. They didn’t take time to think. It was spontaneous. The music flowed through them and out of them.” Holger remembers that he was always “given the job of pressing the record button. This was a big responsibility as the fear was failing to record something we could never recreate.” In some ways, Can were an outlet for this outpouring of creativity, which gave birth to a new musical genre.
This new musical genre was dubbed Krautrock by the British music press. So not only was Monster Movie the album that launched Can’s career, but saw a new musical genre, Krautrock coined. The founding father’s of Krautrock were Can, lead by Holger Czukay. Can would soon, begin work on their sophomore album Soundtracks.
Released in 1970, Soundtracks, was Can’s sophomore album. Essentially, Soundtracks is a compilation of tracks Can wrote for the soundtracks to various films. It’s the album that marked the departure of vocalist Malcolm Mooney. Replacing him, was Japanese busker, Kenji Damo Suzuki. He features on five of the tracks, contributing percussion and vocals. The addition of Damo wasn’t the only change Can were making.
Soundtracks was a coming of age for Can. It marked a move away from the psychedelic jams of Monster Movie and a move towards their classic sound. That saw the music becoming much more experimental and avant-garde. The music took an ambient, meditative, mesmeric and thoughtful sound. This marked the beginning of what became known as Can’s classic years, when albums like Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days were released.
The first instalment in the golden quartet was Tago Mago. This was the first album where Kenji Damo Suzuki was a permanent member of Can. He and the rest of Can spent a year in the castle in Schloss Nörvenich. It was owned by an art collector named Mr. Vohwinkel. He allowed Can to stay at Schloss Nörvenich rent free. For what Holger described as “a poor man’s band,” this was perfect.
Holger remembers Can during this year as “just jamming and seeing what took shape. Songs started as lengthy jams and improvised pieces.” This Holger remembers is “how Can always worked” After that, Holger worked his magic. He edited them and these mini masterpieces featured on Tago Mago, which was four months in the making.
For four months between November 1970 and February 1971, Can recorded what would become one of their most innovative and influential albums, Tago Mago.
A double album, it featured seven groundbreaking tracks. Tago Mago was released in February 1971. Straight away, critics realised the importance of Tago Mago. Here was a game-changer of an album. It has an intensity that other albums released in 1971 lacked. Jazzier with an experimental sound, the music is mysterious, mesmeric and multilayered. It’s innovative, with genres and influences melting into one. Nuances, subtleties and surprises reveal themselves. No wonder. Can deliver a avant garde masterclass.
This comes courtesy of jazz-tinged drumming, improvised guitar playing and showboating keyboard solos. Then there was Kenji Damo Suzuki’s unique vocal style. All this, resulted in an album that was critically acclaimed, influential and innovative.
Released to widespread critical acclaim in 1971, Tago Mago was the start of a golden period for Can. Their reputation as one of the most innovative groups of the seventies started to take shape. Can had released one of the most innovative albums, Tago Mago. Holger remembers the reaction to Tago Mago. “I knew Tago Mago was an innovative album, but I never realised just how innovative an album it would become?
On Tago Mago’s release, it was hailed as their best album yet. However, not in Holger’s opinion. “Tago Mago is a classic album, but I much prefer Future Days.” Despite Holger’s preference, several generations of musicians have been inspired by Tago Mago, a true Magnus Opus, that belongs in every record collection. So does the followup Ege Bamyasi.
Can were on a roll. It seemed they could do no wrong. They released Spoon as a single in 1972. It reached number six in Germany, selling over 300,000 copies. That was helped no end, by the single being used as the theme to a German thriller Das Messer. It seemed nothing could go wrong for Can. The money the made from Spoon, allowed Can to hire disused cinema to record what became Ege Bamyasi.
Can advertised for a space to record their next album, Ege Bamyasi. Recording began in a disused cinema, which doubled as a recording studio and living space. The sessions at Inner Space Studio, in Weilerswist, near Cologne didn’t go well. Irmin Schmidt and Kenji Damo Suzuki took to playing marathon chess sessions. As a result, Can hadn’t enough material for an album. This resulted in Can having to work frantically to complete Ege Bamyasi. Despite this, Can were still short of material. So Spoon was added and Ege Bamyasi was complete.
Ege Bamyasi was a fusion of musical genres. Everything from jazz, ambient, world music, psychedelia, rock and electronica melted into one. When it was Ege Bamyasi released in November 1972, it was to the same critical acclaim as previous albums. Critics were won over by Can’s fourth album. It was perceived as a more accessible album than its predecessors. Just like Can’s previous albums, the quality of music was consistent.
Critics hailed Can as one of the few bands capable of creating consistent and pioneering albums. They were one of the most exciting bands of the early seventies. Can were continuing to innovate and influence musicians and music lovers alike. Just like its predecessor, Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi is an essential part of any self respecting record collection. Having released two consecutive classic albums and their first single, it seemed nothing could go wrong for Can.
Despite Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi being referred to as two of the most influential albums ever released, Holger Czukay prefers Future Days. This is the album he calls “my favourite Can album.”
Future Days, was Can’s fifth album. It was the third in Can’s golden quartet, and marked a change in direction from Can. On Future Days, Can’s music head in the direction of ambient music. The music is atmospheric, dreamy, ethereal, melancholy, expansive and full of captivating, mesmeric rhythms. It’s also pioneering and progressive, with elements of avant garde, experimental, psychedelia and rock melting into one. Rather than songs, soundscapes describes the four tracks written by Can.
Recording of Future Days took place at Inner Space Studios. Can’s rhythm section featured drummer and percussionist Jaki Liebezeit, Holger Czukay played bass and double bass and Michael Karoli added guitar and violin. Irmin Schmidt keyboards and synths. Damo Suzuki who bade his farewell on Future Days, added vocals and percussion. Once the four tracks were recorded, Future Days was released in August 1973.
On its release in August 1973, Future Days was hailed a classic by music critics. The move towards ambient music may have surprised some Can fans. However, Can were constantly determined to reinvent their music. Standing still wasn’t an option. Instead, Can wanted to move forwards musically. That’s what they did. Critics described the music on Future Days, as variously atmospheric, dreamy, ethereal, expansive and melancholy. Here was an album full of captivating, mesmeric rhythms. Future Days, you’ll realise, is also a pioneering and progressive album, were Can music moved in the direction of ambient music. This must have pleased Holger’s guru Karlheinz Stockhausen. He must have looked on proudly as Can released the third of a quartet of classic albums, Future Days.
Opening Future Days is the title-track, Future Days. Straight away, ambient and avant-garde combine. Swells of futuristic, sci-fi music unfold, combining with elements of what nowadays, is referred to as “chill out” music. The music shimmers, quivers, glistens and bubbles. Sounds flit in and out of this cinematic soundscape. They’re variously captivating, dreamy, haunting, hypnotic, mesmeric and always, understated. Resistance is impossible. You’re captivated. Hungrily, you wait to see what’s about to unfold. Surprises aplenty make flitting appearances. Some last longer, their beauty almost omnipresent. For nine minutes, instruments, and the vocal, flit in and out, of this genre-melting arrangement. It’s variously beautiful, dramatic, dreamy and ethereal, as ambient, avant-garde, Krautrock and psychedelia melt into one. The result is a track that sounds both cinematic and one that could have given birth to modern “chill out music.”
There’s an element of tension and drama as Spray unfolds. Again, the track has a cinematic sound. A bubbling, gurgling Hammond organ joins a rhythm section that combines funk, Kraurock and free jazz. It’s as of Can are jamming, feeding off each other and seeing what direction their music will head. However, it thanks to Hall makes perfect sense. The disparate genres combine to create a compelling, dramatic, dreamy and lysergic musical journey. As journeys go, it’s akin to climbing onboard the DB Netz and enjoying a journey from Cologne into the surrounding Saxony countryside.
Moonshake is the shortest track on Future Days. It lasts just under four minutes. It’s very different from the previous tracks. Can’s rhythm section is joined by bursts of subtle, chiming guitars. They provide the backdrop for Damo Suzuki’s soft, pensive vocal. When it drops out, futuristic, robotic sounds grab your attention. This results in the track taking on a sci-fi sound. Then when Damo’s vocal returns, gone is the sci-fi sound. Replacing it, is one of the most accessible, poppy songs Can produced.
Bel Air closes Future Days. It’s the centre-point of Future Days. It’s a twenty-minute epic, that’s one of Can’s finest hours. The multi-layered, ambient arrangement meanders into being. This comes courtesy of a chiming guitar, probing bass and washes of synths. Meanwhile, waves break on a beach. Soon, an ad-libbed vocal and searing rocky guitar combine. Both sit back in the mix, ensuring neither overpowers the mix. At the heart of the mix, is the rhythm section, who provide the heartbeat. They take the arrangement in the direction of Krautrock, free jazz, avant-garde, experimental and rock. Joining them, are synths and percussion, in what at one point, is a freeform jam. However, it’s more than that. Later, Bel Air heads in the direction of minimalist, ambient music. There’s even a nod to avant-garde music. From there, the music grows in power, becoming bold, confident, expansive and rocky. Can are on a roll, and become a musical powerhouse during this musical tour de force. It’s the musical equivalent to an impressionistic painting, where layer upon layer of disparate musical genres are spread upon Can’s musical canvas. These genres and influences are the equivalent of colours and hues, and play their part in an innovative and expansive musical epic.
Future Days was the third in Can’s golden quartet. Just like Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi, Future Days was hailed a classic. However, Future Days was very different from Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi. It saw Can, forever the musical chameleons, reinvent themselves and their music. This time, Can’s music moved in the direction of ambient music.
On Future Days, the music is atmospheric, dreamy, ethereal, melancholy, expansive and full of captivating, mesmeric rhythms. It’s also pioneering and progressive, with elements of avant garde, experimental, psychedelia and rock melting into one. Rather than songs, soundscapes describes the four tracks. Future Days and Bel Air showcase Can’s new sound. Bel Air was the Future Day’s epic. It lasted just over nineteen minutes, and takes you on an enthralling musical journey. That’s why critics called Future Days, a classic. However, Future Days wasn’t Can’s final classic.
That was Soon Over Babaluma. It marked the end of Can’s golden period. This was the end of a period where Can were releasing some of their most innovative and groundbreaking music. There was a change of direction on Soon Over Babaluma. Can were without a vocalist. Kenji Damo Suzuki left Can and married his German girlfriend. He then became a Jehovah’s Witness. Despite the lack of a vocalist, Can continued as a quartet. They released Soon Over Babaluma in November 1974.
When Can released Soon Over Babaluma in November 1974, it received praise from critics. With a myriad of beeps, squeaks and sci-fi sounds, Soon Over Babaluma is like musical journey into another, 21st Century dimension. A musical tapestry where layers of music are intertwined during five tracks on Soon Over Babaluma. It followed in the ambient footsteps of Future Days and brought to a close the most fruitful period of Can’s career. Following the “golden quartet,” Can didn’t go into decline. Instead, Can continued to reinvent themselves and their music. That was the story of Can’s career.
Throughout their career, Can were innovators. Although innovative is an overused word, that’s the perfect description of Can. They were an innovative and pioneering group, who weren’t afraid to push musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, way beyond. That’s what record buyers came to expect from musical mavericks, Can, when they released their fifth album Future Days.
On Future Days, Can’s reputation for releasing ambitious, innovative, and influential music continued. Can had just released their third consecutive classic album. It seemed Can could do no wrong. That’s why forty-two years after Can released Future Days, they’re regarded as one of the most innovative and influential bands of the past fifty years. That’s why today, and in the future, Can music will continue to influence and inspire further generations of musicians. Especially, Can’s “golden quartet” of Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, Future Days and Soon Over Babaluma.