There were plenty of reasons to be mystified by the German band Can when they first appeared on the scene in the late 60s. Based in Cologne, they looked like hippies (despite most of the members being somewhat older), but played a dynamic brand of pop music that also incorporated elements of improvisational jazz, ethnological drones, late-classical experimentation and funky James Brown-inspired R&B that required its own designation – Krautrock – to attempt to codify it. (Actor David Niven, after witnessing an early live show, is reported to have said, “It was great, but I didn’t know it was music!”)
Can’s bassist and co-founder Holger Czukay – he of the prominent horseshoe moustache – was a student of experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, but it wasn’t until his introduction to the more out-there avenues of rock music (a la Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground) did he pursue a career as a performer. We are thankful he did, as his work with Can, as well as that of his numerous solo & collaborative projects, have helped expand our notions of the limits (or the absence thereof) in pop music, and thus we are saddened to learn of his passing on Tuesday at the age of 79.
Czukay (born Schuring) formed Can in 1968, along with keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, guitarist Michael Karoli (who died in 2001), and drummer Jaki Liebezeit (who also passed away earlier this year). Their first vocalist, Afro-American poet Malcolm Mooney, left in 1970, to be replaced by Japanese musician Damo Suzuki. For the band’s first decade of existence, Czukay helped push the band to dabble with electronics, world music, and even disco (their 1976 single, “I Want More,” was a Top 30 single in the UK). He was an early proponent of sampling, often using carefully curated snippets of tape to create different effects, while other times “playing” a shortwave radio & letting the serendipitous sounds of whatever was broadcasting at that moment be his guide.
After leaving Can in the late 70s, Czukay recorded a series of acclaimed solo albums, including 1984’s Der Osten ist Rot, which features a title cut that reimagines the Chinese national anthem. He continued to collaborate with most of the members of his former band, as well as establish new projects with the likes of David Sylvian, Jah Wobble, the Edge, Brian Eno, and the Eurythmics. Numerous musicians have taken inspiration from his work, including the bands Spoon and Hunters & Collectors, who both were named after Can songs. Many artists, from Public Image Ltd. and Radiohead, to the Fall and LCD Soundsystem, to hip-hop artists like Q-Tip and Kanye West, cite them as a major influence. Scottish writer Alan Warner’s award-winning debut novel, Morvern Callar, was written in tribute to Holger Czukay. In the grand scheme of things, although Czukay’s work is probably unfamiliar to the vast majority of American music fans, his footprint is quite immense, affecting much of what we consider modern pop music. His loss will be keenly felt by those who cherish the spirit of experimentation and a child-like sense of play in music.
KCRW DJ Travis Holcombe reacted to the news of Holger’s passing with a look back at his influential work throughout the years (stream below).
ERIC J. LAWRENCE