Can Box: Book
Hildegard Schmidt & Wolf Kampmann

IN 1968 Can walled themselves up in a Cologne studio and, give or take the odd defection, stayed there for the next nine years making music that could blind you with its brilliance. This compelling tri-lingual tome (the text runs concurrently in English, French and German) gives us a glimpse of the band's inner workings. The bulk of the text is devoted to Wolf Kampmann's interviews with Can's four core members (although sadly not singers Damo Suzuki and Malcolm Mooney) and Irmin Schmidt's wife Hildegard, whose benefactory role helped the bond attain financial self- sufficiency. Like all the best music books, Can Box propels you into a regular shuttle service to the record decks to re-acquaint yourself with seminal moments from the band's prolific output.

Destroying pre-conceptions at every turn ("Can was actually more pop than rock," claims
  Jaki Liebezeit), Kampmann's interviews reveal the extent to which Can were, from the outset, deschooling themselves of all prevailing musical tendencies. Contrary to received wisdom, they rejected rather than embraced the official avant-garde. "We never wanted to be just an art band, making avant-garde music for a couple of wise men," declares keyboard player Irmin Schmidt. "We never combined Stockhausen with rock music," echoes Holger Czukay later. "We forgot everything that we learned with him." In fact, they reject altogether the Cage- Stockhausen binary that some writers have claimed was their founding premise.

This rigour has them questioning everything from the paradoxical "conventions" of free jazz to their supposed role in pioneering world music (which Schmidt cells "touristy") and ambient. Schmidt's definition of ambient favours sensuality over passivity. "If ambience is a kind of interior decoration, he says, "then we've never made ambient. If you want to be entertained while eating a nice dinner Can will get on your nerves.

They were also fervently anti soloing, the
  province of "musicians who become victims of their own skills", according to Czukay, a philosophy which at a stroke separates them from the ego drive of most of their prog rock contemporaries. In fact, the only echoes of prog here are in some of Kampmonn's more earnest questions (shades of Melody Maker readers' letters circa 1972) and his desire to construct hierarchies out of organicism and anarchy. (Shades of the gospel according to Julian Cope as rigidly applied by oil Krautrock arrivistes.)

If the interviews reveal the driving sense of purpose that runs right through Can's music they also illustrate the price that was paid for such discipline and devotion, Czukay actually having a fist fight with Reebop at one point. They are acerbically honest about one other too. "Holger sometimes thinks he's funny when he's not," understates Karoli, while Liebezeit reasons that maybe they should have broken up after that first clutch of classic albums.

"They knew they were great," says Hildegard Schmidt. So did we. We know even more about the reasons why now.

from MOJO 02/99






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