Holger Czukay – A Fan’s Eye View
Like many I was saddened to learn that Holger Czukay of Can (and much, much more) had passed away. I was lucky to meet Holger a number of times; once at the remarkable reopening ceremony of the Inner Space Studios at the Gronau Museum of Pop and Rock where he gave me a cake and a cuppa and inquired whether I knew Damon Albarn, (you can read all about that if you want, here and here). Another time was in the Paard van Troye in Den Haag, when he showed me how to blow into a tuba* and tried chatting my girlfriend up. There were a few other times that involved drink and paper games which I can’t really recall. Every time I met him, even though he was charm personified, I was never quite sure where I stood with him. To me, Czukay was like those weird, wild Slavic spirits; Banniks or Leshies, atavistic folk spirits that could be dangerous and benevolent in equal measure. Which is all well and proper. I believe Holger Czukay was a genius, a catalyst, a key representative for a musical movement that has become an actual sound, a common feeling in people’s heads. He was a magician; able to conjure up the essence of artistic adventure in a trice and transpose it to new forms of music, or new ways of playing music. And his ideas are ones that have gone around the world.
I want to make it very clear that this piece is a fan’s eye view, not some in-depth appraisal of his work (that would take years and there are others far more qualified to do that). The points I make aren’t “proven” in any sense, just hunches born of listening to his records (when I could find them) as a wide-eyed fan since the late 1980s, and snippets of information picked up in the usual roundabout way. Just thoughts, really, as Marwood said to Uncle Monty. The only thing you should really take from this article is that you need to hear all of his music.
Inner Space Trickster
I am not going to talk about the great Can records, as there are plenty of places online that discuss at length and in great detail the work they made. I will say now that his magical, elemental bass playing, along with the great Jaki Liebzeit’s fundamental drumming, is the keynote Krautrock sound for me. In terms of Holger Czukay’s role in Can, two releases – for me – really emphasise Holger’s contribution as bass player, producer, arranger and elemental spirit. One is 1975’s Landed. I don’t know why I end up playing Landed more than I do, say, Monster Movies. I’m probably way off mark but this record, especially the way it’s presented, the itchiness from the snaky beat and its sense of otherworldliness, feels like a dry run for his later records. Especially bits of the last track Unfinished, or the trickiness on Vernal Equinox and Red Hot Indians; tracks which have Czukay’s fingerprints all over them. For a supposed glam pop record it’s very mercurial, too; you’re never sure what’s going on. And the way it fires up with Full Moon on the Highway, is hilarious and a classic Holger moment; a bug-eyed rant that sounds like a bunch of teens on a road trip in dad’s car. FFFOOLL MOON ON ZE HIGH-VAY! I always feel this is the point where Can start to come apart at the seams.
Another record that may give a different insight into Holger Czukay’s work in Can can be seen with The Lost Tapes (2013). Consisting of tracks that never saw the light of day over the band’s lifetime this is, unsurprisingly, a gargantuan work. You get postcards of the band’s musical wanderings which act as creative markers for the listener, from thumping late sixties cuts like Deadly Doris through to the marvellous, chamber pop pomp of Dead Pigeon Suite. The reason I have chosen it is simply to highlight the vast amount of work they created. Remember this is the stuff they didn’t use, and this was edited too. There’s probably much more in boxes somewhere. This release should also be a testament to Czukay’s unrelenting inventiveness in the studio, both on his own and alongside Rene Tinner, in synthesising and presenting this band’s music to the world. And viewing Can’s work as the raw material shaping another process (the mixing, the editing) and not as a finished result, may give a clue to his creative personality. You could see Czukay as a painter in a studio, constantly busy, reconfiguring ideas, bullying it into shape, slashing through ideas that may have previously seemed perfect. More guesswork from me but this release reminds me or a similarly gargantuan work that is also a summation of a mindset and a modus operandi: The Fall’s Peel Sessions.
All Czukay’s work with Jah Wobble and Jaki Liebzeit is brilliant and I could listen to the records they made all day long. There is always a hint of danger and mystery about LPs like On The Way To The Peak Of Normal. They never feel manufactured or academic exercises in making “clever” music. That may be down to Jah Wobble’s intuitive approach to working with the pair. He seems to have brought a level of street cunning into the mix; quick witted enough to slot in and to have picked up bass duties like it was a challenge. Not blessed with a temperament for the Civil Service himself, Wardle talks about the spiky relationship between Liebezeit and Czukay in his autobiography with a sort of wide-eyed wonder. Fights, pranks, hugs and personal agendas all feature. Nevertheless, the three of them created an energy and a spirit that is similar to what you hear on the early Can records. The 1981 EP, How Much Are They, is fabulous; spacey and mysterious (the title track is rave before rave, both a requiem for Ian Curtis and the first rumblings of the thing that shuddered round Baggyland in 1990). The Snakecharmer EP with The Edge is a righteously jazzy-wine-bar work out which threatens to sound like a quaint period piece now and again, but gets dragged away from The Land of Shoulder Pad by Holger’s tuba blaring into action.
But On The Way To The Peak Of Normal is a personal favourite. Just think of it; the thought of these three in a room together, brewing up a storm is akin to something out the Norse Myths; three elementals sat at the dawn of time, drinking mead and cleaving mountains in half with bass reverb. Even though I’m sure they all got pissed and ate pizza and watched Pat Benatar on MTV. The title track channels everything from Dr John’s serpentine grooves to Can to British psych. And the whistling “Clangers flute” gets me every time on this track.
Another classic track on this LP is Ode to Perfume; a groovy continuation of 1979’s brilliant Fragrance off Movies and also to the meditative Tago Mago opener, Paperhouse (that guitar break IS prime-time Michael Karoli, why deny it). Before you go “vain bugger, covering his own music!” it’s worth mentioning in that a lot of his work is retrospective and unafraid to constantly rework themes and ideas and keep them sounding like it’s the first time. The tuba parps make everything alright, yet again.
There’s a Can LP called Radio Waves, a ‘90’s compilation of unreleased tracks from Can’s golden period in the early 1970s. The reason I mention it is the cover, which has a boy sat at a table in front of an early radio set, headphones on, lost in his own “radio world”. I think that Czukay would have been very pleased with that cover (maybe he picked it) as it sums up a lot of what drove him as an artist. New electronic equipment and the radio held a magical power for kids growing up in post-war Germany. And three of Czukay’s greatest records, Der Osten Ist Rot (1984) the “live” LP, Radio Wave Surfer (1991) and Rome Remains Rome (1987) use the act of tuning a radio, of turning the dial, as an active component in the music; maybe the driver of the whole. Radio deliberately replicated in the record’s sound.
I could go into long raving descriptions of these records, but simply put you need them all; as they are extremely poppy and fun, and bursting at the seams with ideas. Radio Wave Surfer is full of short, poppy, but very mysterious interludes like the Voice of Bulgary and Get It Sweet. All the music on the three releases is impossibly moreish. Take the classic cod-pomp of the title track on Der Osten… (a track that brings a smile every time).
Or the first two tracks on Rome Remains Rome, bubbling opener Hey Baba Rebop and the woozy Blessed Easter, one of my all time favourite “left-rights” in pop music.
There is another aspect of Czukay’s work that looks to lean towards communing with visual artforms. This seems to have played itself out through a set of partially, or wholly ambient releases. He could have just made film score after film score and I’m surprised he didn’t; especially as he named his solo debut (if you discount Canaxis) Movies, which is considered by lots of people as both his masterpiece and the best place to start exploring his work. Still, given many turn-of-the-century groovers found out about his work through two tracks off Movies (Cool In the Pool and Fragrance) on the Morvern Callar soundtrack, maybe he received an unwitting accolade on that score.
His two records with David Sylvian, Plight and Premonitionand Flux and Mutability – both from the High Gloss late ‘80s – are fabulous slices of improvised ambient that still cast a spell now, and still avoid sounding like those overly artful E’G records from the same period. Out of the two, the improvised Flux and Mutability is a fave, especially the mournful A New Beginning Is In The Offing.
Czukay had popped up on Sylvian’s earlier LP Brilliant Trees LP, intoning mad wisdom over the track, Backwaters. Maybe this was the first place I encountered him, alongside the Mary Chain’s cover of Mushroom Head. I just remember thinking, who is this, with his “other possibilities”?
My favourite of Czukay’s more ambient releases would have to be Moving Pictures (1993); which is an incredibly atmospheric record. Pieces like Floatspace and Longing for Daydreams take the work he did with David Sylvian into a more collective direction. This record sounds so modern, at times, that you wonder whether all those C21st Canadian bands like Thee Silver Mount Zion, or Esmerine completely copped its vibe. Certainly if some unknown act re-released LP this under a different name on Constellation Records, say, no-one would turn a hair, it’s that contemporary. The whistle on the broody Dark Moon is a typical gesture.
ReMake / ReModel
As said above, one of the most appealing things of Czukay’s body of work is that he consistently returns to themes, ideas, licks, riffs, noises, practices in the studio, or thoughts he had back in 1968; you name it. Despite his deserved reputation as an innovator, the idea of throwing things away isn’t really his thing. You can hear his credo on his 2011 release, Music is A Miracle; where he says there “music is a certain vibration of time”. It’s as if Czukay comes back to re-examine the vibrations he made, over time, again and again. Using, as he says, “fantasy and discipline at the same time”, to make the “international language” of music “understandable”.
One record that really shows this aproach off is Good Morning Story (1999). I adore this record, it is both prime-time pop that seems to disappear into the ether, and ridiculously irrelevant, cod-pretentious excursions into sound. Something that, done by anyone else, would be a dog’s dinner. Listening to it on vinyl (or on a proper stereo system whacked up loud) is a joy, as a deep, rich, mysterious sound is made manifest. It’s a “classic Holger Czukay record” really; stabbing bass lines, whispered vocals, rapier-like cut ups and inquisitive plucked guitar lines all to the fore. Invisible Man is a funny, typical Czukay track, whimsical, seemingly meaning nothing and everything at once.
It’s an incredibly funky record too, the reworking of Vitamin C in the title track is a brilliant piece and the perfect counterpoint to the original; the old man addressing the younger with a gentle warning that rock stars have to go and do the shopping. You really get the emotional power of his genial crackly vocals here, too.
And we can’t leave this LP without talking about Mirage, which is the strangest time-trip, a complete zone out. At once an extremely busy piece of music, made up of infinitesimal layers of sounds and samples and beautifully paced, Mirage sounds as if every second has been scrutinised and evaluated for maximum effect. This is the work of a craftsman, not some burgered-out droyd with an AppleMac letting things run to slack whilst checking their Twitter feed. No; Mirage is laced together with a dexterity and a 20-20 hindsight (seemingly dragging hippie odes like AD2’s Marilyn Monroe Memorial Church out of storage, or addressing prime-time Coil, things on Mute, early C20th field recordings, etc.) and addressing them with a scrutiny worthy of Sherlock Holmes, often far beyond the track’s needs or wants. I mean, do you really NEED to do this over 20 odd minutes?
Rest in Peace Holger. I’m for ever grateful to have met you. And thanks for countless hours of pleasure.
*Important cock up note! The very knowledgeable Jono Podmore, who regularly worked with Holger, has graciously pointed out that it was a FRENCH HORN. So; when you see a Tuba reference in the text, please, think French Horn. I suppose this oversight (ahem) is in keeping with Holger Czukay’s prank-playing.