Music: The band that saved Germany from kitsch

Can: a band that take as much from North Africa as from Steve Reich and Terry Riley

Can – The Singles
Mute/Spoon Records, vinyl/cd/download

Can, typically for a so-called Krautrock band, rejected Germany’s saccharine post-war music scene known as schlager, with its Euro-kitsch crooning, and evolved a trance-inducing, drum-driven dancefloor groove that borrowed as much from North African music as Karlheinz Stockhausen and the American minimalist composers Steve Reich and Terry Riley. It is difficult now to imagine how startlingly new Can must have sounded.

The band’s abidingly great 1972 album, Ege Bamyasi, showed an Andy Warhol-like image of tinned Turkish food on the cover, and was very far removed from the tepid, well-mannered prog rock of Genesis, Yes and other British stadium behemoths. Like their compatriots Faust, Neu! and Cluster, the Cologne-based Can eschewed not only the pseudo-hippie kitsch of Genesis but also the mellow denim heaven of Linda Rondstadt, the Eagles and other American middle-of-the-roadsters.

To mark Can’s 50th anniversary, all 23 of the band’s singles have been released together for the first time. A magnificent document, Can – The Singles foregrounds the band’s trademark hypnotic threnodies and loopy synth rhythms. “Halleluwah”, from their 1971 double album Tago Mago (still the bestselling Can album), has been cut down from 19 minutes to just three; its propulsive, repetitive rhythms are still thrilling to hear. “She Brings the Rain”, a jazz-tinged shuffle, is the work of Can’s first singer, the African-American poet and artist Malcolm Mooney, who had been introduced to the band in 1967, having evaded conscription during the Vietnam War. Like James Brown, Mooney had learned to keep rhythm in church gospel choirs, and it shows.

“Turtles Have Short Legs”, recorded during the Tago Mago sessions, is one of the strangest singles ever committed to vinyl. The band’s Japanese-born vocalist Damo Suzuki hollers “Turtles have short legs!” (adding for good measure: “not good for walking”), while Jaki Liebezeit on percussion, Michael Karoli on guitar and Irmin Schmidt on keyboards move the song along at full throttle.

The band’s other member, Holger Czukay (born in Danzig in 1938), was responsible for the “Silent Night” single released in time for Christmas 1976. With its insistent propelling synth riff, Czukay’s version runs counter to all known recordings of the post-Reformation carol. (Czukay, like Schmidt, had studied under Stockhausen in mid-1960s Cologne).

Overall, the album has a valedictory quality: Karoli died in 2001 aged 53, while the jazz-trained Liebezeit died last January. Without Liebezeit, one of the world’s greatest drummers, Can would not have left such a mark.

The opening single, “Soul Desert”, taken from the Can Soundtracks album (1970), is a reminder of what a great band Can were in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I just wish they had never recorded a single in 1978 of Jacques Offenbach’s galloping can-can. Kitsch is not the word …