Formed in Cologne in July 1968, Can surfed the first wave of German innovators, with their debut album Monster Movie referencing Pink Floyd and Hendrix in the context of a radically simplified rhythmic structure largely dictated by drummer Jaki Liebezeit’s astonishing precision.
Their wildly disparate backgrounds held the key: jazz, classical, pop and experimental music percolated in their daily 12-hour long jams, and the resulting sounds were guaranteed to stir the deep unconscious.
Liebezeit’s drumming was astonishing. At a time when most percussionists needed a NASA control console to find their way around their kit, Liebezeit sat coiled behind the kind of minimal set-up that wouldn’t have disgraced a Fisher-Price monkey in a toy shop window.
Playing without ego or embellishment, he was the spinal cord that ran through the music.
After original vocalist Malcolm Mooney departed shortly after the release of Can’s debut Monster Movie in 1969, bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit chanced upon Japanese street musician Damo Suzuki performing in Munich and invited him to perform with the band that evening.
Suzuki’s flexible vocals – ranging from a calm whisper to wild shrieking – caused the 1500 strong audience to flee the venue.
The February 1972 release of Tago Mago showed a generation of listeners just how far “far-out” could go, and anointed Can as the ultimate “head” band. Named for a supposedly magical island off the coast of Ibiza, this double album is the most ritualistic of Can’s recordings.
Punctuated by bursts of thunder and disturbing silences and characterised by Irmin Schmidt’s sparing electronics and Liebezeit’s rhythmic hyper-power, it encapsulates the band’s ability to demonstrate musical freedom within strict bounds.
The album is also every inch a trip. The gentle eastern melodies of Paperhouse commence Tago Mago‘s vaporisation of reality, The Aleister Crowley-inspired Aumgn drowns you in its terrifying psychedelic soup (for 17 minutes!) and gentle closer Bring Me Coffee Or Tea is the haunting postscript.
Alongside groups like Kraftwerk and Faust, Can’s fusion of Stockhausen’s early electronic experiments and The Velvet Underground‘s art rock proved German rock bands were starting to find their own identity without resorting to a pastiche of American or British acts.
By Ege Bamyasi they were coupling avant-garde urges to a more melodic, groove-based formula that still accommodated vocalist Damo Suzuki’s bizarre phrasing and lyrics (eg: “You’re losing, you’re losing, you’re losing your vitamin C”).
But as the aggressive 10-minute-plus workout of Soup shows, Can’s visceral instincts were never far from the surface.
Damo Suzuki walked out on the band in 1973 – following the release of the Future Days album – and spent the next 11 years working in Customer Service at a Japanese company.
In 1983, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, underwent surgery, and started to make music again with The Damo Suzuki Network.
His cancer was kept at bay until 2014. Despite undergoing numerous surgeries, Suzuki continued to tour and perform until the arrival of COVID-19, when he took himself off the road and turned his attention to painting.
He passed away on 9 February 2024, aged 74.
Guitar, vocals, violin
Rebop Kwaku Baah