Rob Young & Irmin Schmidt All Gates Open: The Story of Can – book review
All Gates Open: The Story of Can is the new biography of legendary German avant-garde group Can. Consisting of two books. All Gates Open is written by Rob Young (Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music) and draws on unique interviews with all the founding members of Can, their vocalists, friends and music industry associates. The second book, Can Kiosk, has been assembled by Irmin Schmidt, founding member and guiding spirit of the band, as a ‘collage’ – a technique long associated with Can’s approach to recording. There is an oral history of the band, collated by former Electronic Beats and Spex editor Max Dax, and Robert Defcon, drawing on interviews Irmin conducted with musicians who see Can as an influence, like Bobby Gillespie, Geoff Barrow, Mark E. Smith, Daniel Miller and many others. Simon Tucker reviews.
When it comes to Can you can take approaches. You can think of their music as part of a unique moment in European culture where through the atrocities of war and the following strive for recovery created a group of artists lumped together by a confused but intrigued UK press as Krautrock, or you can see the entire DNA of musical history and all its myriad forms converging in the minds and bodies of a core quartet of disparate characters (and including the drifting appearances by two celebrated vocalists and a few temporary members). Can’s music walks the line between high-art and primal rhythms, the upper classes and the tribe’s shamanic rituals. To hear and connect to their music is indeed the sound of all gates opening and what Rob Young achieves with this biography is to walk that same line. Young’s prose performs a miraculous act where it can sometimes feel like an academic text book, made for study and analysis, then flip into a more traditional style “rock” biography telling tales of drug use and infidelity. This tone is perfectly suited to the subject matter and makes for one of the definitive biographies of our time.
Through interviews with the original members and various associates we learn of a group coming together who really shouldn’t be in a group at all and which certainly shouldn’t have worked. You have the classically trained Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay who studied under Stockhausen on a mission to take what they have learned and also absorb the influences of more populist musical outfits such as Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, The Velvet Underground & Captain Beefheart. Then enters one of Czukay’s pupils, nineteen year old Michael Karoli on guitar and the final piece of the original puzzle Jaki Liebezeit, a drummer of extraordinary talent who was disenchanted with the world of free-jazz which he had been playing and instead wanting to get the original pulse and beat of human existence.
What is striking about the early chapters in the book is the discovery that each member was equal to the other. There was never a “leader” and whilst Schmidt had had the original idea to start the band and Czukay was the producer/editor of the reams of the tape that the band would produce in their marathon sessions, each member had a final say on what the end product would sound and feel like with Liebezeit in particular being very vocal about his likes and dislikes when it came to the music the band were creating.
Travelling through the bands history Young keeps the writing fresh and as rhythmic as a Liebezeit beat, every now and then straying to search out other areas of interest but always returning to the main linear narrative at the exact right moment before we get lost in the moments that would not hold the attention for long.
When first vocalist Malcolm Mooney and then Kenji ‘Damo’ Suzuki enter the story we see a group transform from what could have remained a more fringe-based interest for people into a fully-formed powerhouse. Each vocalist would bring something else into the mix with Mooney and more rhythmic style of performance locking in beautifully with Jaki’s drumming style creating a form of music that managed to encompass the momentum that Germany was pursuing at the time both socially and politically with the repetitive playfulness that people like James Brown and Miles Davis were investigating in the U.S. One truly jaw-dropping moment in the book is when Young finds out that Mooney’s vocal on Father Cannot yell was a first-take effort and was literally the first thing the band did together with him entering the studio, hearing the track and riffing of the top of his head. After Mooney departs the group, Kenji ‘Damo’ Suzuki eventually takes over the microphone duties and the group evolve once more with Suzuki’s more ethereal vocals lending different textures to the sound making the band morph with him again into the band that would record the seminal triplet of albums Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days each one different from its predecessors.
Young continues his journey with the band right up to their split and the sad passing of Karoli, Czukay and Liebezeit and throughout the book he never strays from what makes the band so important. He hardly ever mentions the Krautrock label or the other groups associated with it (unless it is necessary to the group’s narrative) and also never shies away from placing the group in the social and political climate of the time and their importance to the rebuilding of Germany and the influence they had on musicians from across the globe. Young writes in a style that should appeal to the casual fan and the obsessive Can follower.
Cafe Kiosk is the second book included here and in keeping with Can’s creative style is a collage of interviews by Irmin Schmidt with various musicians, film directors and actors which not only tells the story of Can and how influential they were but also tells us about the art of creation. Cafe Kiosk could easily have been a back-slapping exercise with Schmidt meeting people who so admired his work all telling him how great Can were etc but this is not the case. Yes a few of the people here have been very vocal of their love of Can (Geoff Barrow, Bobby Gillespie & Mark E Smith, whose interview is as wonderfully witty and eye-opening as you’d expect) but Schmidt always turns the discussion around from his and the groups work to that of those he is speaking to and opening the subjects up into much more loftier subject matters. It is at once humorous and philosophical, in-depth and lighthearted. The way it has been put together lends itself to multiple readings and it serves as a wonderful insight into the minds of creative people and their working processes.
All Gates Open: The Story of Can is the book this most inspiring of groups has long deserved. It is an in-depth look at a group forged via the one simple desire to create a musical art form unlike any other never shying away from influences but instead of taking and copying them they absorbed them and transformed them into a new musical language. The two books contained within are a study of not only a group but of a hugely important time in European history and a recovering Germany where the young were forced to create something new for themselves thanks to the mistakes of many of their elders. All Gates Open: The Story of Can will sit comfortably on either the syllabus on a degree course or on the armchair of music fan and it is in that balancing act where Young and Schmidt truly give respect and due honour to the subject matter making this not only one of the essential books of this year but one for many years to come.
All Gates Open: The Story Of Can will be available from the 5th of May via Faber & Faber.