The 34 Great Recordings of Can

As selected by Scott McFarland, November 1997

What can I write about Can? What can I communicate about this important, influential, inimitable entity? Biographical or discographical information is plentiful for this band as for most bands. (Pascal Bussy's The Can Book exists as a seminal reference.) I've decided to cut across all the band's periods - the intense 60's recordings, the avant-garde Miles Davis-styled early 70's work, the mid-70's abstract excursions into keyboard ambiance, and the late 70's flirtations with dance and reggae forms - and to pick out what I think was strongest among these. Hence we have - the 34 great recordings of Can. To promote suspense among any Can fans who want to read this list sequentially, I will count the recordings off in reverse order, the way that Dick Clark or Casey Kasem would do on one of those silly top song countdown things.

34. Butterfly (on Delay) - An early recording with Malcolm Mooney. It sounds a bit like a couple of the tracks which came out later on "Monster Movie", although this is its own entity. I once read a review which stated that fans of The Fall would be amazed to hear this (and to note its date of recording - 1969 I believe). It also referred to the piece as being frightening. Enough said.

33. Pinch (on Ege Bamyasi) - An incredibly abrasive live jam guaranteed to clear most any room of people. The heart of the piece is Jaki Liebezeit's incredible drumming, which is what makes Can's sound so inimitable. While not easy listening, this piece does have it's charms. Takes the phrase "rhythm and noise" to a new level.

32. All Gates Open (on Can) - A nice radio-friendly piece of progressive rock, actually. It's relaxed and has a strong hook in the chorus where Schmidt and Karoli do a nice unison bit. I respect the piece for its ability to set a mood.

31. Halleluwah (on Cannibalism I) - Well, this is an intense groove. On the original Tago Mago version, which is over 18 minutes long, each musician does some brilliant things. But it does go on for quite a while, harshly, without much structure or concept. The cut-down edit on Cannibalism by contrast is quite good and a very impressive piece. Of course a few good ideas do get lost - still, it makes for easier and better listening. The names James Brown and Miles Davis always come into my mind when I hear this.

30. Mother Sky (on Soundtracks) - This is really a frightening work. It's loud and aggressive as all heck, obviously Velvet Underground inspired but played by musicians with more capability and firepower. They blow through this in brutal fashion, with the drum and bass grabbing you by the throat while the guitar and keyboard assault your ears (Karoli is awesome), while Suzuki sings something about the raping of the Earth I think. You have to be in the mood for this. If you are, it's definitely a trip. The edited version on Cannibalism presents only some of the ideas contained in the original.

29. Return to BB City (on The Peel Sessions) - The sound of this track reminds one of flying. In fact, I've been told that it's a fantastic soundtrack to fly an airplane to in the morning. Schmidt's spiraling keyboard is probably the primary focal point on here. This does sound similar to other so-called "Krautrock" bands of the early 70's, but that's not to say that this isn't good music.

28. Cascade Waltz (on Flow Motion) - Quite a pretty, delicate little track played in tasteful and restrained fashion by the band. And, yes it is a waltz.

27. Half Past One (Cannibalism II mix) - Originally on Landed and pretty groovy there, but the mix of this on Cannibalism II might be just a little tighter. The band layers on top of a Liebezeit groove (played with the snares on the snare drum "off" - an easy trick), with plenty of keyboard present in the resulting sound. The Peel Sessions disc has a nice impressionistic reading of this as well, under the title "Geheim".

26. Tape Kebob (on The Peel Sessions) - A nice example of Can's collective improvisation. A restrained rock groove builds in intensity throughout and provides a showcase for some great keyboard playing by Irmin Schmidt. You can hear some classical technique in his playing here, fragmented into a rock framework.

25. Red Hot Indians (Cannibalism II mix) - Also originally on Landed, but with a slightly superior mix and a tighter edit on Cannibalism II. The band move away from their usual instruments (there's some trading off here, I believe) and do a loose little piece with a great sense of soul to it.

24. I Want More (on Flow Motion) - A commercial success considered to be something of a flirtation with disco and dance. Be that as it may, it's in keeping with the minimalistic grooving contained on the rest of the album, but with a nice keyboard sheen provided by Schmidt which the public seemed to enjoy.

23. Empress & The Ukraine King (on Unlimited Edition) - The recording is flawed, as is the take. But the music shows A). A great sense of imagination and adventure on the part of the inimitable Malcolm Mooney, and B). A brilliant sense of fluid groove by the bass n' drums team of Czukay & Liebezeit who were just starting to play together.

22. Augmn (on Tago Mago) - definitely a "head" piece. Apparently hallucinogenics were involved, as was a Stockhausen influence (Czukay & Schmidt each studied music with Stockhausen). The piece successfully communicates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. The cut-down edit on Cannibalism is pretty good, but leaves out a slowed-down drum solo which makes the piece even stranger.

21. Father Cannot Yell (on Monster Movie) - The first piece on their first album. It's a bit of a nod to the Velvet Underground - the guitar sound nods in that direction (it sounds just like the Keith Levine sound that took the post-punk scene in England by storm circa 1978), and the bass line is partially copped from "European Son". Mooney's poem and delivery of it are effective and scary (the album is called Monster Movie, you know). The band's interplay, weaving gothic 60's rock and symphonic construct, is pretty amazing.

20. Animal Waves (on Cannibalism II) - Supposedly based by Michael Karoli on some gypsy music. The rhythm fragments and circles endlessly while the melody instruments float about gypsy-style. It's got an interesting ambiance. The shorter version on Cannibalism II is a more appropriate length than the 14-minute version on "Saw Delight".

19. Sunshine Day and Night (on Saw Delight) - The band (containing percussionist Reebop at this point along with new bassist Rosko Gee) layer together a tight polyrhythmic jam with an African feel to it. It's nice, it's groovy, it's tropical, and it swings. Like most Can recordings from this time frame, the primary elements of focus are Michael's endless soloing and Jaki's fractured drumbeats. Holger is putting a few found sounds into this also (way back in the mix - it's too bad they wouldn't let him do more of this). Perhaps Eno & Byrne had heard this when they began their own African-styled efforts. The shorter version on Cannibalism II is a reasonable edit, but a bit too short to get all the ideas in - although the original version goes on for too long, the found sounds really start to cook towards the end. I wish there was a 4-minute version but until then I suppose the original version is the preferable one.

18. Babylonian Pearl (on Flow Motion) - A song played fairly straight for once, sung by Irmin Schmidt. Well-crafted, fairly poetic, and it hangs nicely around Liebezeit's restrained beat.

17. Laugh Till You Cry (on Flow Motion) - Good advice from the band. Can, especially Czukay, seemed to be getting into reggae about this time and its influence was subtly weaving its way into their music. This hangs lazily around a slow groove and generally works out nicely. There's a shorter version on Cannibalism II but I think the sound and the concept are superior on the original.

16. Safe (on Can) - A nice loose jam powered along in part by Rosko Gee's bass. I once wrote that it "managed a genuine ethnic sensibility to it rather than merely an academic approximation of one" (actually, a lot of their music from this time frame does) and I guess that's still how I feel about it. It gently grooves.

15. Fall of Another Year (on Unlimited Edition) - A short piece sung by Mooney and notable for its poetic quality I think. Rather lovely and well-played.

14. Bel Air (on Future Days) - As has been noted by other reviewers, this is a real showcase for Jaki Liebezeit's drumming. He sounds "like helicopter blades" on a lot of this. The recording balance may have been off when they recorded this in their old castle, but the performance was definitely on. The band (all 5 of them) sound very comfortable with each other and are able to create a structured piece with great ambiance to it. A perfect piece (we're into the real classics now!).

13. Uphill (on Delay) - An early piece (Schmidt doesn't even play) with Mooney & the boys generating great amounts of groove and tension within this cautionary tale. It kicks the jams out, heavily and straight ahead, in ways that the Rolling Stones and other 1968/69 bands must have wished that they could. The fact that this lay in the vaults unreleased for 13 years or so is an amazing fact.

12. Vitamin C (on Ege Bamyasi) - A massive groove built around Liebezeit's crazed drumming and Suzuki's crazed vocal. Almost frightening and psychopathic. Deep though.

11. Spoon (live version - on Free Concert bootleg - slated for legitimate release in 1998) - The studio recording of this song is used as a starting point for a massive jam. The rhythm (the one played by Schmidt) continues throughout most of this, amidst extended feedback-laden soloing by Karoli, until this reminds one of post-Bitches Brew Miles Davis music. Brilliant. I for one am eagerly awaiting the live Can album slated for arrival next year. I've heard that this performance will probably come out on video, too.

10. Doko E (27-minute excerpt - on Free Concert bootleg) - The short excerpt of this released on Unlimited Edition is only the tip of a deep iceberg. According to The Can Book, 45 minutes of this piece was recorded at the start of the Future Days sessions. Basically we have Suzuki improvising poetically around some of Liebezeit's massive playing, with someone playing some skeletal guitar chords (could be Karoli, could be Czukay). Get into the groove, as Madonna once said - the groove here is deep. This is worth hearing in its extended form and could easily have been released as one or more LP sides at the time - perhaps band politics were a factor (since only 3 people seem to be playing on most of it).

9. Outside My Door (on Monster Movie) - A shorter, song-length track with Mooney on (wild) vocals (and harmonica too, I think). The descending bassline herein is reminiscent of Pink Floyd's early singles. This might be superior even to that musically, though, as this formidable band really gets into it. This sounds like a runaway locomotive and might be one of the most underestimated rock recordings of all time.

8. Paperhouse (on Tago Mago) - The layered electric guitars on here remind some people of Sonic Youth (and remember, this came out in 1971). After giving Suzuki a forum from which to sing about ecological matters, the band go into one of those tribal helicopter-blade grooves that they do so well. It's pretty brilliant. 5 minutes or so of German TV footage exist showing the band doing (most of) this song live and really getting into it. Can's primary focus was rhythm and they really had some. I tell you, these white boys could groove.

7. One More Night (on Ege Bamyasi) - A minimalist masterpiece, and a stripped-down groove to end all stripped-down grooves. Kudos to Schmidt's keyboard playing especially on this one, including a "noise" solo - no guitar, no notes, just a little bit of gentle noise on top. And it works, completely.

6. Spray (on Future Days) - Groovy, somewhat jazzy band exploration. They had a nice, keyboard-oriented thing that they were doing here and for the next year or two and this might be a highlight of it. As with the whole of the Future Days album, there is a certain subtle quality to the sound of this that's hard to explain but easy to enjoy.

5. Sing Swan Song (on Ege Bamyasi) - A lovely little exploration of pulse and groove. Czukay is brilliant, as is the rest of the band. This sways along brilliantly and, I must say, is truly beautiful.

4. Spoon (on Ege Bamyasi) - Successful as a hit single in Germany, actually. A sophisticated little rhythm and some brilliant playing and singing around it by all concerned. 3 minutes of perfection.

3. Future Days (on Future Days) - Has anyone ever listened to this and not enjoyed it? It's a gentle, slowly unfolding piece with great ambiance to it which pulses like a river stream. It's a great rhythm (I cop from it all the time). Reminds me of dew-filled mornings on summer days during childhood.

2. Yoo Doo Right (on Monster Movie) - An incredible 20-minute piece. Liebezeit and Czukay were really laying down the law by this point, and Mooney stands up to their groove with a very nice vocal construction. Listening to this it's no surprise to hear that one of the band (Irmin Schmidt) studied African forms while in college. A real drum n' bass masterpiece the likes of which is a rare occurrence in this world.

1. Oh Yeah (on Tago Mago) - Another great drum n' bass groove. This one is layered in part with backwards constructions - they rolled the groove backwards while recording some of the guitar, keyboard, and vocals. It turned out to be a brilliant idea. This works and grooves in what is almost a supernatural fashion. Give this piece a chance, and it will provide you with endless hours of orgasmic pleasure.

Copyright © 1997 Scott McFarland < >.

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