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July 10, 2018

Rob Young's Playlist for His Book "All Gates Open: The Story of CAN"

All Gates Open: The Story of CAN

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

All Gates Open: The Story of CAN is composed of two books, Rob Young's 350-page biography of the band along with a collection of anecdotes and diary entries from founding member Irmin Schmidt .

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"This two-part book is a portrait of a fiercely intellectual, but hugely sensuous, band who improvised and jammed, but sneered at those terms, preferring 'intuitive music' and 'collage' to describe the spacy, evolving compositions the collective co-authored in a kind of mutual trance-state. They were virtuosos who hated virtuosity, or anything that smacked overtly of American forms."

In his own words, here is Rob Young's Book Notes music playlist for his book All Gates Open: The Story of CAN:

My relationship with the German band Can – who formed in Cologne, Germany in 1968 and broke up ten years later – dates back to my school days in the late 1980s. Here’s a list charting my own discovery and the tracks that for me, best reflect Can’s enduring influence.

From Delay 1968 (released 1982)

One of the great performances by Can’s first vocalist, Malcolm Mooney, an American on the run from the Vietnam draft, and a wonderful example of the heaviness of the group in their early incarnation. Mooney’s ash-throated voice is gripping and haunted, and within a few months of this recording, he would be shipped back to the States after a nervous breakdown. The song was written for a stage production of the Prometheus story – so the thief is the mythical stealer of fire. The actor spent most of this production hanging as if crucified in the middle of the stage.

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Hymnen (1967)

Not so much a track, more a mammoth 20th century modernist masterwork. Stockhausen is unavoidable as one of the father figures in the Can story. Founders Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay first met during new music courses delivered by the great man, inspired but eventually turned away by his over-dogmatic music philosophy. Hymnen, completed in 1967, remains an extraordinary work of sonic art. Constructed largely from tapes and electronic treatments, it’s an outernationalist avant garde odyssey which updated the universalism of that other great German composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, for the age of Marshall McLuhan. Early Can collaborator David Johnson worked on this piece, and the group used to steal rolls of tape from Stockhausen’s studio in Cologne to record their own early work.

From Tago Mago (1971)

What can I say? This is the one I always recommend to anyone who’s starting from scratch with Can. OK, so it lasts for 18 minutes, but you won’t notice the time flying, as this is one sustained flow of monstrous, mechanised funk that never quite sounds the same each time you hear it. This track is for me the perfect example of the telepathic state Can always tried to reach when making their music – a zone where all individual egos were wiped out, and they sucked the music out of the air. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit has never sounded better and, after he died in early 2017, ‘Halleluwah’ is really his epitaph.

James Brown
From Hot Pants (1971)

It’s fascinating to listen to this track in parallel with Can’s ‘Halleluwah’, partly because they were recorded almost exactly at the same time on different sides of the Atlantic, but especially because they sound like weirdly distorted reflections of each other. Both James Brown and Can treated the group as a kind of machine, to be honed and calibrated over hours of continuously chasing one locked groove. The riff here is almost exactly the same, just that there’s a touch more swinginess in the Godfather’s version, and a tightened-up clockwork quality to the Can iteration.

‘Future Days’
From Future Days (1973)

Future Days is probably my overall favourite Can album, at least the one that holds up as a complete piece of work. They reached a place that sounds serene, streamlined, soaring above the earth, and yet has none of the ‘cosmic’ pretensions of other ‘progressive’ bans of the early 70s. In fact the sound of this LP was influenced by the Mediterranean coastline in Portugal and has a sunny pastoral feeling to it. The title track for me also has a kind of melancholy that undercuts the futurism of the title – somewhere in Damo Suzuki’s buried vocal there seems to be a sentiment about the in-the-moment life we continually postpone because of thoughts of the future. Can are at their spacey zenith on this gorgeous track.

LCD Soundsystem
‘Yeah (Crass Version)’
From LCD Soundsystem (2005)

The first time I saw these guys on stage, they not only blew my head off, but lead singer James Murphy was wearing a Can Future Days T shirt. In terms of their energy, the mindless monotony of their rhythms, and their self-consciousness that never descends into camp, seeing this lot was probably one of the closest anyone could come to seeing live Can in the 21st century. What I love about this track is the way they keep turning up the heat – just when you think it can’t get any more intense, they collectively crank it up another notch. Can knew all about that too.

‘I Want More’

… And here is Can in disco mode. This was the band’s biggest international hit, and it got them on Top of the Pops, the flagship BBC chart show on British national TV. It works pretty well as a dance track, and adds another facet to this incredibly versatile group. They could do the avant garde stuff, they could do the long improve jams, they could do faux-ethnological primitive music, and they could craft perfectly formed pop songs.

Talk Talk
‘After the Flood’
From Laughing Stock (1991)

This band moved from crafting pop songs of their own to a more experimental approach with methods very similar to Can’s. In other words, spending hours and hours in one darkened studio, working over a musical idea until they uncovered the primal nub. This is one of their most Can-like moments, with an immersive, oceanic swing to the drums, abrasive noise solo, and a vivid sense of physical space around the music.

‘All Gates Open’
From Can (1979)

Early on in the process of writing my Can biography, it became clear that this would make the perfect title. Can was indeed a group that made itself open to many approaches, different ways of thinking about and making music. This song, from the album they made after key member Holger Czukay quit the band in 1977, sounds like taking control after a rough patch. It’s a meta-musical manifesto: the lyrics refer to the process of constructing sound. At the same time it’s a dignified, even triumphant swansong: the band split up right after this was released.

Kanye West
‘Drunk and Hot Girls’
From Graduation (2007)

I recently found an online video showing teenage B boys in New York body popping to Can classic ‘Vitamin C’. On this track Kanye remodeled Can’s 1972 track ‘Sing Swan Song’ in his own distinctive image. Both are evidence of Can’s power to endure and worm their way into the consciousness in unexpected areas. Minimalist beats, machine rhythms, drone rock, proto-hiphop grooves, cut-up sampling: they prefigured so much of the music that now surrounds us that it’s easy to forget how innovative they were in their lifetime. Tracks like this confirm their enduring appeal.

Rob Young and All Gates Open: The Story of CAN links:

excerpt from the book

Guardian review
New York Times review
Spectator review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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