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The Singles by Can is an indispensable and compelling career spanning compilation available on digital, CD and an amazing triple album vinyl set. This is the first time Can’s singles have been presented together and is a cause for celebration, writes Ian Johnston.
Revealing scarce pieces and Can’s superlative film music (‘Soul Desert’, ’She Brings The Rain’), The Singles consists of incandescent music mostly produced by the classic Can line up of Holger Czukay on propulsive bass, Michael Karoli’s (1948-2001) exploratory, improvisational guitar, the late, great Jaki Liebezeit’s (who died in January of this year) mesmerising drums and Irmin Schmidt’s rhythmic keyboards, and on most tracks, vocals from Malcolm Mooney or Damo Suzuki. Brimming with unconventional music created with conventional instruments, The Singles provide an overview of one of the greatest German bands of the ‘rock’ era.
Can were formed in 1967 by an ex-student of Stockhausen, Irmin Schmidt, who, excited by the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa, abandoned his career in classical music to form a group which could utilise and transcend all boundaries of electronic, jazz and modern classical music. Improvisation was the key. The result was their first album, Monster Movie (1968).
The Singles perfectly represents what Michael Karoli would define as the band’s approach to “instant composition”. The composition would always be taken from the personal to the collective perspective. The music would come from without, to be channelled through the four pugnacious band members, flowing into Can. Initially, Can would draw uncomprehending comparisons with England’s Pink Floyd from certain quarters. But unlike the Floyd, Can’s musical destination was not outer space. Can christened their recording studio Inner Space for good reason and would have virtually no connection with standard American derived rhythm & blues/ rock ‘n’ roll or conventional popular music.
Can would only score one hit single in the UK; the funky, pulsing and hypnotic ‘I Want More’ (B-Side ‘…And More’ is also featured here). Can’s music was generally considered too demanding for the mainstream, and also many of the group’s compositions were considerably longer than the 45-RPM format. Yet The Singles make the case that in a parallel universe, Can should have repeatedly enjoyed considerable international chart success. The trance-like ‘Spoon’ (taken from the landmark Ege Bamyasi), which was actually a Top Ten hit in Germany during 1972, is included on this compilation, together with its beguiling ‘lost’ B-side, ‘Shikako Maru Ten’.
The band’s third single, ‘Turtles Have Short Legs’, (which has never before appeared on an album and was recorded at the same time as the band’s masterwork Tago Mago LP) defies description – a jolly novelty ditty with a catchy barroom chorus and berserk lyrics from Damo Suzuki. Elsewhere, the edited versions of such Can classics, such as the unstoppable ‘Halleluwah’ (also on Tago Mago), the dream-like album title track ‘Future Days’ (1973), the intoxicating ‘Dizzy Dizzy’ (from the 1974 album, Soon Over Babaluma, featuring Michael Karoli on vocals, replacing the departed free spirit Suzuki) and the bewitching ‘Hunters And Collectors’ and incendiary ‘Vernal Equinox’ (both from the 1975 Landed album), sound as good as their original incarnations.
The rulebook didn’t mean anything to Can, because they didn’t know what the rules were. Twisted 1976 Christmas single ‘Silent Night’, in which the seasonal traditional number is bent into unfamiliar electronic territory, while a similar feat is performed with a punky romp through Jacques Offenbach’s 1840s composition ‘Can Can’, (1978), provide ample proof that Can followed their own drum.
If you are unfamiliar with Can’s trailblazing “Krautrock”, The Singles is as good a point of entry as anywhere to their utterly distinctive and timeless music. No wonder the influence of Can endures throughout the best of contemporary music today.
All words by Ian Johnston. More writing by Ian on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.