What I find so fun about Can is that no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot compartmentalize them. They were psychedelic, but also extremely disciplined. They played around with rock and free jazz ideas, but their two founding members were students of classical innovator Karlheiz Stockhausen. They could knock out a taut, three-minute single, but that would often be the end result of hours upon hours of jams that they were recording. They were a phenomenal live band, yet they were experimentalists in the studio. Heck, they even recorded a disco track, and typically, it sounded like aliens trying to replicate what they thought was disco. And it still became a hit. And no matter how many albums you collected (and I collected them all) you knew there had to be a treasure trove of unreleased recordings – studio and live – waiting to be released.
Which brings us to Can’s two outstanding releases from 2021. Keyboardist/founder/leader Irmin Schmidt, now 84, has been carefully overseeing the reissue of Can’s studio discography along with his wife and manager Hildegaard and his daughter Sandra Podmore, and this year they kicked off what is expected to be a landmark series of official live recordings, starting with a pair of full concert performances recorded in 1975, one in Stuttgart, Germany, and one in Brighton, England. What’s fun about these two recordings is that they come courtesy of Rob Hall, a fan who cleverly snuck a Sony tape recorded hidden in his oversized pair of pants. While these shows have been circulating as bootlegs for a while now, Schmidt and his engineer gave the original recordings an absolutely beautiful clean-up, and the two resulting albums are every bit as revelatory as such classic albums as Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi.
These two 1975 recordings come from a very interesting transitional time for Can. They were two years removed from the departure of singer Damo Suzuki and were still trying to regain their footing. 1974’s Soon After Babaluma ranks as one of their best albums, but 1975’s Landed served up a much tamer, polished version of Can compared to their work of the previous eight years. Ironically, for a band as musically innovative as Can, the more high-tech they got, the safer their music started to feel. The same cannot be said of their live performances at this time, as Stuttgart and Brighton resoundingly attest. These fully improvised, without-a-net performances were every bit as edgy and daring as anything they had done in the past: they’d incorporate ideas from songs like “Spoon” and “Dizzy Dizzy”, but construct something completely different. Schmidt, bassist Holger Czukay, drummer Jaki Leibezti, and guitarist Michael Karoli would all do their own thing, but the journeys are never aimless. It’s astounding, really, to listen, think that the song is going to fly off the rails, yet every single time it all comes full circle. It’s a circuitous route, but there’s always a satisfying resolution.
Each performance has its own unique highlights, but the Brighton show has stuck with me the most. Leibezeit is on fire behind the kit, and he sounds equal part Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Gene Krupa, showcasing incredible power yet nimbleness as well. He remains the tightest timekeeper in rock ‘n’ roll history, and it’s exciting to hear him not only anchor these wild trips, but gracefully steer them as well. His solos on “Fier” and “Sieben” are jaw-dropping. The same goes for Karoli, who displays his lead guitar chops again and again. Only the very best bands could work on this level of collective telepathy, and what you hear on Stuttgart and Brighton is something special. So immersive are these recordings, so well-mixed, that you forget that there’s an audience and are startled when the final burst of applause starts. This stuff is magic.