Sunday, 18 April 2021

CAN - Paperhouse


When I first started watching this it took me back to the early 90s when I would attend gigs in crappy pubs or clubs and watch a line-up of bands featuring 'friends' of friends who were 'really cool', usually judged by the length of the lead singer's hair. Back then, within ten minutes I would invariably be asking myself why I'd had so much FOMO and bothered coming before swiftly reverting to the trusty strategy of getting absolutely shit faced to the point of not being able to stand, talk or hear anything anymore.

However, this performance was different. Had I been lucky enough to know people who knew people who could pull off a live performance like CAN I would have remained standing throughout and then creepily rushed up to the band afterwards to tell them how good they were (they needed my endorsement of course), probably avoiding the bassist and his stare. I would probably still be talking about the experience today too. I love how this progresses from what sounds like a warm up and a drummer in need of better cymbals to a fairly standard woe-is-me progression, before quickly turning into a belter of an instrumental. Sounds and looks very Doors-y and I loved the jazz influence. Brilliant.


A few years ago I spent a summer delving into krautrock, immersing myself in the other-worldly sounds of Can, Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Amon Düül II and the like, and I found there was something unsettling yet compelling about the genre; once I was sucked in I found it hard to climb out again for quite a while. 

For me it’s the way the music is so sparsely produced: desert-dry with no frills whatsoever to fill the gaps between the notes; your ears take a while to adjust to the economy of sound, so cosseted in endless overdubs and reverb as we are now. It all sort of hangs together in a way that suggests it’s about to fall apart like a house of cards at any moment, but of course it never does; and the opening track of the trance-like masterpiece Tago Mago from 1971 is no exception.

In the opening bars Holger Czukay doesn’t play a standard bassline, he’s almost acting like a second lead guitar, playing arpeggios which hint at a harmonic foundation – but it does mean that Damo Suzuki is very exposed with his gentle opening vocals, and it makes for a rather shaky, uncertain start to the song; but it’s after a minute or two when the pace picks up, Czukay’s role becomes more traditional alongside Jaki Liebezeit’s expressive drumming and Michael Karoli can rock out in front with some soloing which is halfway between structured and improvised. 

For me, Suzuki’s vocals are far more suited to the rockier sound, so when he screams out “YOU JUST CAN’T GIVE BACK NO MORE!” it really has an impact and brings the song to a satisfying, expressionist climax. Fraught, melodramatic, but always somehow in control... this is great stuff. I can see myself getting sucked in again for another summer.


For what seemed like years I used to humour a friend of mine who would regularly rant about the impossibly brilliant music created by Can. At a certain time in the night he would put down his pint and elucidate at length about the devastating contribution made by each exotically named band member. In truth his words never moved me to actually want to listen to the music though I always liked to listen to his overbown fervour, even though he repeated it in Clapham, Bow, Kilburn or wherever else our nocturnal ramblings might take us. Many years later I still find myself wandering the nooks and crannies of the city, only now I do it to a soundtrack of actual music, acting out my own personal movie. And in the last month this soundtrack has been exclusively scored by Can.

Paperhouse is the opening section of one of a compelling quartet of startling quasi-rock LPs that sound quite unlike anything else being recorded in the early 70’s. The band started out mixing Stockhausen with a shot of Velvet Underground then started to shake it all up with James Brown-like funk and jazzy-rock noodling. The music lent itself well to ambient atmospherics and they soon found themselves treading the same landscape as pre-Dark Side Floyd, scoring soundtracks to obscure art-house Euro-films. I’ve seen a couple. One of them “Deadlock” is a contempoary western shot in the disputed Israeli territories during a lull in fighting between the 6-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. The other “Deep End”, an erotic tragi-comedy with the flame-haired Jane Asher set in an East End Swimming baths filmed in Munich. It’s ideal music for background colour, leaving any number of actors to wander around vacantly whether on film or in the flesh, like me wandering up and down Earls Court Road in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. 

Their albums were assembled from miles of tape and then edited down like Miles Davis’ stuff into what we might describe as suites of sound, so in the midst of the seriously funky Hallehuwah we get a mini section where a helicopter seems to arrive to play a little jazz thing on the keyboard before giving up to take off again. A listen to this one and Pinch always make me think of The Stone Roses, another band with a semi-articulate vocalist. I’ve often explained to people that a band can prosper without a great vocalist as long as they are compensated by having a great drummer. A fact proven that in reverse it doesn’t matter how talented the singer is, the band will always fail with an agricultural, if enthusiastic tom-tom basher. Can are a case in point.

When you listen to their stuff like the live bootleg taped at Hatfield Poly in 1975, it becomes evident how true this is. For a good, continuous 40 minutes or so the band lock themselves into a groove peppered with guitar riffs and cascading washes of keyboard, punctured now and then by thunderous bass notes booming in and out. Way up front, disciplined in his funky metronome, the drums of Jaki Liebezeit lead a sonic assault clattering and throbbing across the soundscape. The band take off in the directions he dictates and you feel that if the rest of the band fell off the stage it wouldn’t matter too much, he’d just keep on going, holding it all together; like a grooving Hannibal mountaineering pachyderms over the alps, scattering troops asunder, lumbering on over hill and dale.

In the mix the vocalist fills in spaces in the sound, almost jazz scatting in his rambling abstraction, bluesy and wordless at times, painting sound patterns, occasionally strangulating barely decipherable grunts. At about 25 minutes-in during a brief lull in play the vocals are suddenly exposed and a lone voice from the crowd lets out a cry of “Rubbish!” with the timing if not impact, of Morecambe to Previn on the 1971 Xmas Special. It provokes a sole wolf whistle in the crowd and a temporary restlessness that dissipates with the band dedicating the remaining 12 minutes of the gig to an entirely instrumental improvisation. I’d like to think that this was the moment the singer retreated into the street and launched a TV set through a car wind-screen but I understand he did that later in the month outside Drury Lane. But then Tim Hardin was forever awash with his demons.

Yes Tim “If I Were a Carpenter” Hardin. This was the third phase of Can as they began to unravel, filling that space in the sound with whoever might fit. Hardin was briefly passing through, having re-located to the UK to register for methadone on the NHS. His time with the band wouldn’t take him into 1976, or indeed anywhere else after an overdose in 1980. Someone needs to write a book about him. I digress. The Can peak years between 1970 and 73 are full of mystery and well worth the investment of multiple-listens. But it is telling if you listen to the mountains of retrospectively released un-edited stuff from Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way/ Bitches Brew” period, to discover there was good reason why jam material is edited down and it’s the same with Can. Various lost un-edited tapes have surfaced over the years that give us much more than we need diminishing their magic through interminable impro-ramblings that veer a little too close to the “Ummagumma” end of pre-Dark Side Floyd. This TV performance with the magical presenter zooming our way is frankly a bit sloppy too compared to the studio version (at the bottom). But when Can were good they were spell-binding. Give the albums Soundtracks, Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days a spin. Whether walking around W12 or not.


I first encountered Holger Czukay as a guest star in Canadian avant- garde science fiction comics by Matt Howarth. He was always outside the main plot twist, fiddling with tapes or waiting for the drums to start. He didn’t really play a role but the cartoonist always presented him in a universe of his own. Paperhouse is from Can’s golden period. It appears to be a jazzy improvisation with a shirtless man shouting over the top of it. A brief exploration of the literature credits Can as being one of the most influential bands ever. So what’s the fuss about?

Forget that Can spawned Krautrock. Forget that Holger Czukay studied under Stockhausen. Forget the influence of the late sixties German free jazz movement. Forget the undeniable gravity of American prog rock and the significant lures of Mammon. The music of Can defies categorisation.  Most music is produced to act like an arrow from a bow, its tone, rhythm and lyrical foreshadowing are directed at you to evoke a particular feeling by the musician. The musician whether low or high culture, aims to evoke a feeling in their audience that encourages a commercial response to their creation. It has created a sprawling industry of multi-facet genres, and subsidiary trades.

Compared to the structure of most music Can can read as less structured. Compared to most music using lyrics to support their communication bandwidth Can’s lyrical contents make their music more ambiguous. Compared to most traditional popular musical 3 minute song structures, the music of Can relies on a much looser structure, facilitating greater individual musical improvisation, which in turn leads to greater song length. So what do we have then, highly drum and bass driven explorations of conflicting scales, avant-garde titles, structured musical improvisation, ambiguous lyrical content, very early use of sampled and mangled tape effects and a demand that their audience listen. The drum and bass form the overarching structure of the piece and the guitar and keyboard and other noises join in and have a conversation. Its sounds improvised and free form, but the ardent student quickly learns the improvisation is highly structured and form is developed from hours of recorded improvisation. And as the cherry on the cake the vocalist starts speaking in tongues over the top of it all.

I've tried to like Can for years, and even though there would be no My Bloody Valentine without them, they create the illusion of music with no form or shape other than that the audience projects onto it. It’s very highly structured and would in my opinion benefit from a less is more approach. Its conception is too dense, and I fear that even Paperhouse is probably more fun to listen to than play. Going back to my original analogy of the musician being an archer. I don’t care if the musicians bow is made of the rarest sandalwood. I don’t care if they can get 5G reception twenty years before 5G is invented. I don’t care if they are making music no one has heard ever before. It’s important that I believe that they are thinking of me, and what they are trying to say to me, because my needs in the musical equation matter too. I need to know I am some kind of target, even if they miss. When I listen to Taylor Swift or the Sleaford Mods or Fiona Apple or Joanna Newsom (obviously not on the same playlist) their cast is more focussed on winning my acclaim, to the extent I can convince myself they care about me. Whilst I’m never going to the prom and get some cowboy to marry me, I can sort of understand what Taylor swift is singing about. It transports me for an instant into fantasy romance land, the transition is easy. With Can this is so much harder. They don’t give a shit about me, they exist in an intricate prison, endlessly talking to each other in a language I can’t even glimpse, never mind understand.