Few notes about the most out-there band in rock
It was only a note on the Holger Czukay’s website, www.czukay.de, that announced to the world that guitarist with the seminal Kraut-rockers’ Can, Michael Karoli, had passed away on November 17 at his home in Essen, Germany, “playing on his favourite instrument.” The tragedy is greater because he was the youngest member of the band who was talking with Czukay about a video-interview that would cover the history of the band.
The 53-year-old guitarist was instrumental in forming Can, back in the enthusiastic times that were the closings years of the 1960s. Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt – both students under the most famous avant-garde composers of the last century, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, John Cage and Pierre Boulez – were in their 30s and had been talking about forming a rock band for a number of years.
Karoli was Czukay’s student who introduced the teacher to the delights of The Beatles’ ‘I’m The Walrus’ which prompted the two ‘veterans’ to finally form that band one night after listening to Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention and Velvet Underground. They called themselves Inner Space, found a drummer in another 30-year-old jazz-hand, Jaki Leibezeit, and started making music in a friend’s castle, Schloss Norvenich, a donated rehearsal space they named Inner Space.
Karoli was only 19 at the time and, after Schmidt’s wife Hildegard found them a singer, Malcolm Mooney, an Afro-American sculptor who was not a vocalist, became (on his suggestion) The Can. The name had multiple-meanings in different languages: in Turkish (pronounced ‘chan’) means ‘life’ and ‘soul’, in Japanese it is ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions’, as well as ‘love’ (when used in salutation) and there are all the English meanings, although Schmidt would claim it stood for “Communism Anarchism Nihilism”.
However, the members knew too much about music and had to define a ‘theory of restriction’ that, according to Czukay, is “Inability is often the mother of restriction, and restriction is the great mother of inventive performance.” The band jammed, played extended pieces that were later edited by Czukay into ‘songs’, and the first result, ‘Monster Movie’ (1968), displayed the band’s rock influences a tad too much; Captain Beefheart, Zappa’s MoI and Velvet Underground but moving on, making fascinating noises and bearing nectar-like fruits in its search of monotony that took its repetition to the point when you were trance-ported. (Drugs were optional and neither helped nor detracted from the actual listening experience.)
Loosing Mooney to a nervous breakdown, the four replaced him with a Japanese busker Kenji ‘Domo’ Suzuki who would lead the band through its most productive period that includes ‘The Can Soundtracks’ (1970, containing one of the band’s greatest songs, ‘Mother Sky’ that occupied ¾ of side 2, talking about vinyl, baby), ‘Tago Mago’ (1971), ‘Ege Bamyasi’ (1972) and ‘Future Days’ (1973). Karoli’s role in an essentially anti-rock outfit was minimal but deadly effective, leading but never overwhelming, playing asymmetric chords that would influence thousands.
Karoli remained with the band until its final days – Suzuki left after their show in Edinburgh on the 25th of August 1972 – and was replaced with a couple of former Traffic members who helped them, with a song written, produced and played on by Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, ‘I Want More’ (#26 in 1976 for Virgin) but it was all over. The band has become comfortable in its restrictions and let more of their knowledge drip in which negated the original sonic-primitivism.
The band split and embarked upon a myriad of solo work and collaborations but all over-shadowed by the monster they’d created. The band reunited for a 1989 album ‘Rite Time’ but it was ill advised as it sounded – well passed it. (Damo knew they had left operating in the uber-welt before ‘Future Days’.) It is very sad that Karoli departed so young but there can never be another stain on the remarkable career. Having grown up with this music (Can’s period of 1968 to 1974 is my favourite by any band, full-time) I can only warn you – it will freak you out by its perplexity. You’ve never heard anything like it (since or in the future, I bet) can be written without any trace of being a cliché.
Even if you’ve listened to the people they influenced – Johnny Rotten’s Public Image Ltd, Julian Cope’s Teardrop Explodes, The Fall, Primal Scream, Sugarcubes, Mogwai, Sigur Ros – nothing has prepared you for this free-form avant-rock.
While writing this little reflection on the man and the band, I’ve had ‘Chain Reaction’ (from ‘Soon Over Babaluma’, 1974) on with a stuck repeat-button. More albums followed – ‘Landed’ (1975), ‘Flow Motion’ (1976), ‘Saw Delight’ (1977), ‘Out Of Reach’ (1978) and ‘Can’ (1979), plus a plethora of compilations including ‘Limited Edition’ (1974) and its sister ‘Unlimited Edition’ (1976) – but its legacy had been chiselled in before the mid-1970s.
Michael Karoli was born on 29 April 1948 in Straubing, Germany and died 17 November 2001 in Essen, Germany.