It’s rare that a band whose most celebrated recordings were originally released almost 40 years ago can generate excitement among classic-rock fans, prog-hating punks and musicians whose parents were still in elementary school at the time — but then Can were no ordinary band.
The release last week of Can’s “The Lost Tapes,” a box set of unreleased recordings by the celebrated German experimental band, sent a flutter through several generations of musicians and fans. So, now seems to be an ideal moment to take a look at the legacy of Michael Karoli, Jaki Liebezeit, Holger Czukay, Irmin Schmidt and vocalists Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki (Mooney left in 1970 to be replaced by Kanagawa Prefecture native Suzuki) and the diverse musical movement they created, dubbed with a characteristically uncouth sense of humor by the British music press as “krautrock.”
Part of what made krautrock so important was the pretentiousness of the U.K. punk movement. With their fundamentalist “year-zero” approach that forbade the appreciation of the country’s rock scene in the 1970s — and progressive rock in particular — they shot themselves in the foot, denying themselves the delights of brilliant but long-haired and hippy-tainted art-rock luminaries such as Canterbury scenesters Gong and Soft Machine in favor of a dead-end obsession with Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry.
One ’70s star the punks couldn’t quite airbrush out of history was David Bowie, and in 1977 he was ensconced in Berlin’s Hansa Tonstudio with Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti, soaking up the sounds of West Germany’s underground. Bowie’s adoption of the German scene (coupled with Virgin Records’ decision to release German krautrock pioneer Faust’s “The Faust Tapes” for a mere £0.50 ) gave the more forward-thinking punks an excuse to listen to progressive rock without looking uncool to their pals, and the influence is clear on vast swaths of British music from this period. John Lydon’s (The Sex Pistols/Public Image Ltd.) vocal style owes a huge debt to Klaus Dinger’s yobbish snarl on Neu!’s 1975 song “Hero,” and postpunk/new-wave bands from Wire (the arty minimalism) to The Teardrop Explodes (the looping, cyclical rhythms) to The Human League (the electronic and synth experiments) all adopted elements of krautrock.
In Japan, the most obvious influence can be seen in Yellow Magic Orchestra, who took Kraftwerk’s cold, ironic technopop, added a splash of color, a dab of Asian exoticism and a lot of funk. However, a look around the current Japanese underground scene reveals a much wider legacy taken from 1970s Germany. Acid Mothers Temple’s name is a clear nod to the spaced-out, Kosmische psychedelia of Berlin’s Ash Ra Tempel; Tokyo’s Captain Trip Records has been a consistent friend to German experimental music; Mani Neumeier of Guru Guru is an occasional resident of Tokyo’s musical ghetto of Koenji; and even Tokyo Tower’s wax museum features a corner devoted to the likes of Manuel Gottsching, Klaus Schulze, Faust and others.
The influence has been adopted in different ways though. For many in the U.K., krautrock is synonymous with “motorik,” which is actually a very specific, minimal, driving beat employed most famously by Neu! and on Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” (Neu!’s Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger were both former Kraftwerk members). Pretty much every U.K. rock band with an experimental bent — from My Bloody Valentine to The Horrors — has done at least one Neu! homage (Stereolab’s entire early career was an extended homage to the second Neu! album).
In Japan, however, it’s Can’s free-form, jazz-influenced style that is more widely apparent, with the complex beats and polyrhythms of Natsumen, Panicsmile and Music From the Mars, and the improvisation and eccentric vocal utterances of Hikashu being more representative.
Part of the reason for this might lie in the different rhythmical foundations of Japanese versus British and American popular music. Listen to the beat on Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances,” garage-rock band The Human Beinz’ “Nobody But Me” or The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” and tell me you can’t hear the origins of Neu!’s “Hallogallo.”
Japanese music, on the other hand, has its roots in the jazz boom of the 1960s, with R&B never gaining the same foothold here as it did in the West. It’s telling that one of the few Japanese underground bands to have gained easy acceptance among foreign audiences in recent years has been the decidedly motorik Nisennenmondai.
But we can make too much of these differences. Can’s Japanese vocalist Damo Suzuki continues to enjoy popularity in both Britain and Japan, playing with a wide range of musicians wherever he goes, and Can’s legacy has continued to grow the world over. One of the things “The Lost Tapes” reveals, from the driving beat of “Millionenspiel” to the formlessness of “Blind Mirror Surf,” is that they, like the scene with which they are associated, had as playful and eclectic an approach to music as exists in any of the places where their influence still lingers.