I was very happy to hear the news that Irmin Schmidt – composer, keyboard player and a founder of seminal 1970s German experimental band Can – has received a knighthood from the French Government for his work in art and culture and is now a Chevalier des Arts Et Des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters). However, my happiness is tempered with a measure of sadness as I also remember the band’s guitarist, Michael Karoli, who would have celebrated his 67th birthday this year and I thought this would be as good a moment as any to pay my own small tribute to a talented and creative musician, possessed of the rare gift of being able to get a tune out of any instrument he picked up and whose most enduring legacy (for me, anyway) is his work as the guitarist in Can.
“Can was an experimental rock band formed in Cologne, West Germany in 1968. Later labeled as one of the first “krautrock” groups, they transcended mainstream influences and incorporated strong minimalist and world music elements into their often psychedelic music.”
“Can constructed their music largely through collective spontaneous composition – which the band differentiated from improvisation in the jazz sense – sampling themselves in the studio and editing down the results; bassist/chief engineer Holger Czukay referred to Can’s live and studio performances as ‘instant compositions’”. Wiki
I remember buying the band’s 1971 album Tago Mago pretty much ‘on spec’ after reading the (admittedly hyperbolic) sleeve notes which name-checked other bands I liked at the time, but it took only seconds from dropping the stylus on to side one, track one, to realise that the music was like nothing else I’d ever heard. Even now, over forty years later, it’s impossible for me to pick out just one favourite track from that album – but I still remember two distinct ‘click’ moments from that first listen. The first is Michael’s lead guitar break at around 5m 45s into side two’s ‘Halleluwah’; the second is in the middle of ‘Bring Me Coffee Or Tea’, the closing track of the album: the combination of Michael’s acoustic guitar and the plaintive murmur of Damo Suzuki nearly reduced me to tears. I can’t really argue with Julian Cope’s description of Tago Mago in his 1995 book Krautrocksampler, that it “sounds only like itself, like no-one before or after”.
From there, I began to delve further into Can’s back catalogue and bought all their official releases from then on, always finding something inspiring and uplifting on each of them, invariably something played by Michael. I was fortunate enough not only to see the band play at the (long since demolished) Liverpool Stadium in March 1973, but also to actually meet them all backstage before they played. Suffice to say, the evening is etched into my memory as one of the best in my life.
Over the years, time and distance hasn’t dulled my love of Can’s music and the coming of the internet has, from time to time, enabled me to add various unofficial recordings to my collection – and my sense of anticipation and pleasure at hearing Michael play has never dulled, be it on a not-great quality live recording made by another fan, or a leaked outtake from a recording session, or an official recording by another artist on which Michael guested. It also has to be said that Can’s output was prolific; they seemed to tour endlessly with the time between tours spent jamming for hours on end in their own Inner Space studios in Köln.
I can think of only three albums that I’ve loved unconditionally (uncritically?) from the moment I heard them and Tago Mago was the first – the others being John Martyn’s Solid Air and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and The Upsetters’ Super Ape. Each of the three profoundly affected my own approach to making music, each in its own way – although, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s perhaps the importance of the spaces in music that has struck me most and stayed with me longest. Julian Cope again: “Writers often celebrate the musician with sense enough to leave space in music, but Michael Karoli was one of the very few real masters”. And with that in mind, it’s time for me to leave some space in this vaguely elegaic, very personal, retrospective piece and go and listen to the music of one of the greats: Michael Karoli.
Video – Oh Yeah
Video – Bring Me Coffee Or Tea