All Gates Open: The Story of Can
25th March 2018
Authors: Rob Young & Irmin Schmidt
In a musical world where soul-lite owes as much to R&B as car-tracked, oil-stained, soot-flecked slush owes to freshly fallen snow, where struggling city and regional theatres are hostages to Abba and Queen tribute bands (all of them, a paean to dentistry) and where the absence of Mark E. Smith, punk’s own MacArthur who faded away in a bloated delirium, has removed all the fun out of urban decay…we need the music of Can more than ever.
Krautrock (a name I would only ever use behind the backs of the sainted kosmiche through a mixture of reverence and cowardice) might be German per se but it remains ‘our’ music. The Americans have New Orleans, we have Berlin, they have Memphis we have Dusseldorf and so on. The majority of Westerners live in cities with a uniquely European flavour. Who better to tell their stories than people who were brought up in a place ladled with devastation by location, blame by association and guilt by generational blood? Krautock bands knew. They were linked and simultaneously detached enough to comment. World War 2 was – and still is – our collective glue. Our shared experiences. Our history. Our pain and our hurt. We live with the aftermath still.
In the second part of All Gates Open. a 572-page book, published by Faber & Faber, co-written by Rob Young (editor of the Wire magazine) and Can keyboard player Irmin Schmidt, Schmidt recalls a childhood experience in 1945, “The Americans were in our village, occupying the large guesthouse and operating an army field kitchen in the courtyard. The cook was an enormous Russian who always had a deadly serious look on his face. Not even the hint of a smile. But us kids sometimes received pancakes from him. One day he wanted to give me a piece of chocolate, when he suddenly froze, stood completely still and looked at me, squinting strangely, before pulling me with both arms to his chest and bursting into tears, really heaving with sobs. A couple of soldiers ran over but I had wrapped my hands around his head and held him tenderly in total silence. I had no fear.”
You see, it’s not the banks of the Mississippi that Europeans should be looking towards for spiritual solace, it’s the Rhine. More specifically, it’s Hitler’s bunker. For that was the spot where a world ended – Adolf’s world, complete with 3D models of his New Dream, the only buildings in Berlin left standing intact, an architectural state and a testament to his fractured rantings – and a new world began, complete with fractured promises that seemed real and achievable for all of 10 minutes.
Paris might be the centre of culture and even of love but it’s Germany’s almost primitive physicality that is so arresting to the eye and it’s Krautrock’s physicality that is so arresting to the ear. Whether that be the Motorik (a word meaning ‘motor skill’) beat of Neu! or the synthesised tales of the autobahn from Kraftwerk.
Can were one of the early Krautrock bands to point a finger at the ‘kitsch krooners’, the schlager scene that was so safe and so middle of the road that The Carpenters stood as Metallica in comparison. When schalger was the German people’s cultural Prozac, to help them forget. The din helped them stop asking questions of themselves and of others.
You would think that All Gates Open would follow a single narrative, Schmidt acting as a supplicant, a silent yet expert witness to the tales told. Not so, both men retain a singular and active freedom. Young offers a biography of the band and asserts that his statements will not reach beyond that…even though, two and half pages later, he is talking about a 19 year old Schmidt trying to read among the “babble” of his fellow Conservatory students and then two pages after that he wallows in Schmidt’s childhood. So is Young an unreliable guide? I wouldn’t go that far. A man of unbridled musical passions and musical enthusiasms, you might say, and you can’t damn him for that.
Hence, as ever with biographies the usual template is triggered. All Gates Open presents the band’s early days, their musical and artistic education – whether than be in the company of Stockhausen or Andy Warhol – but you will also experience the early context, whether that be student riots, the ‘reason’ behind the Baader-Meinhof gang (and how Can guitarist Michael Karoli and his girlfriend of the time, Eveline Grunwald were often stopped by the police because they drove a similar car and looked like Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof) and or the politically centred writings of playwright Peter Weiss. As expected, this context gradually filters down to band matters, especially as the individuals coalesce. We learn of the importance of the band’s first lead singer, Malcolm Mooney, “Can wasn’t sure which way to go until Malcolm jumped one day to the microphone and pushed us into A RHYTHM.” said the band’s late bassist, Holgar Czukay (his emphasis, incidentally).
You also hear how the original Inner Space Productions was changed to Can at the instigation of both Mooney and drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Firstly, Andy Warhol had made the can concept fashionable with his Campbell-based art, it was a short name – attractive in itself to the group – while Mooney mentioned that it also meant “ass” in New York slang. That clinched it. Actually, the band began as ‘The Can’ but that was “…one word too much!” So Can it was then.
And off we go on a fact-filled testament detailing a host of events such as the leaving of Mooney and the joining of Kenji “Damo” Suzuki (and the band’s later fight with their very own Yoko Ono or, in this case, a female Jehovah’s Witness missionary which lead to Suzuki’s eventual departure) and the band’s work for film and TV.
There’s also time in All Gates Open to examine the band’s internal sound and what made Can…Can. For example, over on pages 210-211, we have a style profile on drummer, Liebezeit, and the inherent dangers in maintaining his beat and rhythm. It sounded like a stressful experience, “The whole thing is to avoid mistakes,” said Liebezeit. “I know what I should not do. So I don’t do it, otherwise I’ll fall down…The movement has to be absolutely harmonic…The brain should not interfere too much…it controls me not to make mistakes…” and so on.
The second part of this book features random thoughts, jottings and conversations via Irmin Schmidt. Spanning around 200 pages or so. As the publisher states, this section features, “…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, but also with artists and film-makers like Wim Wenders and John Malkovich, where he reflects on more personal matters and his work with film. Extracts from Irmin’s notebooks and diaries from 2013–14 are also reproduced as a reflection on the creative process and the memories, dreams and epiphanies it entails.”
In All Gates Open, Mark E. Smith talks about buying Tago Mago when he was 15, “I went to grammar school at that time and everybody was listening to Pink Floyd and the Beatles. They were shit. But Can were great. As was Gary Glitter (you feel that only Mark E. Smith could conflagrate the two). And the Velvet Underground.” He continued, “Can saved my life. Irmin, you fucking saved my life! And because you saved my life I even bought Soon Over Babaluma.”
And from the notebook, “27.3: We spent the night because we have a meeting today at 12p.m. with Julian Cope. We’re just on our way when his daughter calls us to cancel the appointment. No explanations given. (Well, never trust a hippy).”
At the end of the first part of All Gates Open, the band biography, Young lists Can’s contemporaries: Kraftwerk, Amon Duul, Neu!. Guru Guru, Ash Ra Tempel, Faust and more and positions Can thus, they were, “…both part of it and apart from it.”
If All Gates Open has one issue, it’s root is in that statement. It’s reflected in Young’s own media training, cultural bias and his record collector fan insistence of grading. He ends the book as if he were arguing the toss with another fan down the pub. Can was, “…apart from all of its contemporaries.” As if the other bands were lumped into one gelatine mass. Young believes that Can, “…did not so much lead the pack as keep its distance from the rest.” Again with the collectivisation of a diverse collection of artists investing their art into a wide array of musical genres such as psychedelic-type rock, electronic experimentation, fusion, esoterica, folk…and other non pack-type pursuits.
As a Can biographer and obvious fan, this is an understandable if regrettable stance but as a wider observer of culture and the music within, it is a grievous disappointment and I expected more than a pat rock critic conclusion. I wanted the conclusion to include a pinch of social history. Young drags a ball and chain of media-inflected brand-ism throughout the book to, presumably, satisfy the base rock fan and possible Can customer of future Mute-produced product.
‘Krautrock’ is fine for HMV, social media conversations and journalistic short-hand but as the board to attach a biographical conclusion to a major book that is around three foot thick?
Young tries to state his independence while pretending to peer at the media from afar, (“‘Krautrock’ has become press-release shorthand for any kind of vague mechanical beat coupled with unusual sounds”). He then becomes the victim of his own media training and influences. Young sees the music as a reductive genre, a recognisable entity, a thing, something to hold, reinforced by his notion of “a circle of ‘core’ groups” and the falling quality of other, lesser known artists that “rapidly went downhill”. I’m only surprised that Young didn’t award each group a mark out of 10. Why break the habit of a career?
As you can see, I rail against. Let’s remind ourselves. Krautrock is not a Germanic theme in itself. That is, within the German artists involved, there was no such thing as Krautrock, there was no scene. And with no scene, there can be no “core” and “downhill” is just a fan construct. A personal fictional preference inserted into a work of non-fiction.
Most musical styles emerge and do so over time and after slowly increasing pressures. They might appear to break suddenly in the public’s awareness but often for reasons resulting from slow fermentation. It is rare for any force of music to emerge and be contained within a single country and to do so largely because of a single, defining event. In this case it was WW2. A war that started and, in Europe, ended at the doorsteps of Can, Kraftwerk, Neu! et al. As soon as they were old enough to react (either consciously or, often, unconsciously), an entire generation rose up as one and put a voice to their emotions. Each was as valid and as important as the next. When you react to something like that, there really is no good or bad. Just varying shades of the same outpourings.
So, am I damning All Gates Open? Not at all. Young’s workmanlike and efficiently professional account offers no real insight or original thought, although it is factually valuable. The reason for buying the book belongs to the second instalment and the input of Irmin Schmidt. He fills gaps, gives the story life but is never hijacked by it and provides continual context. His conversational, sometimes rambling but always interesting, interviews, jottings from his notebook and other scribblings tell you more about the notion of ‘Krautrock’ than Young ever will.
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