Think of how many rock bands have existed on Earth. Millions, right? In my lengthy tenure on the planet, I've heard tens of thousands—at least. And after careful consideration, I confidently conclude that CAN is the best. I am certainly not alone in this sentiment. The Singles, a new 23-track collection (out today), reminds us all over again why these krautrock paragons are worth all the hyperventilating praise.
Hardcore CAN fans (are there any casual ones—I mean, besides Kanye West?) will know most of these songs, as many have appeared on albums that have been reissued several times over the decades and have long been part of the krautrock canon. So, in a sense, The Singles may best serve as a basic intro for newcomers to the multifaceted splendors of CAN’s catalog, while containing just enough rarities to snag longtime aficionados who may have missed some limited-edition 7-inches over the years. One caveat, however: Eight songs appear in edited form (the time/space limitations of singles and all that), but most of them deserve to be heard in their entirety, especially “Halleluwah,” “Future Days,” and “Don’t Say No.”
Nevertheless, The Singles amply reveals why CAN have garnered such a fervent cult following and inspired so many musicians; it’s no exaggeration to say that their impact has been nearly as far-reaching as the Velvet Underground’s. While many hundreds of bands have imitated CAN, none have surpassed them in sheer quality of composition and improvisation, rhythmic inventiveness, and mastery of a diversity of styles.
From 1969 to 1974, CAN maintained a torrid streak of creativity that is practically unparalleled. Even later LPs like 1976’s Flow Motion, 1977’s Saw Delight, and 1978’s Can (aka Inner Space) possess several excellent tracks, tracks that any adventurous DJ should proudly spin in clubs or on the radio.
One thing that makes CAN special is that they had no definitive sound, yet no matter in which mode they created, they stamped the studio air with an unmistakable CAN-iness. Much like The Velvet Underground & Nico encompasses vast sonic universes, so does CAN's discography.
For example, the first two songs on the chronologically sequenced The Singles—“Soul Desert” and “She Brings the Rain”—find these brainy Germans (guitarist Michael Karoli, drummer Jaki Liebezeit, bassist Holger Czukay, and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt) accommodating the percussive, soulful voice of American vocalist Malcolm Mooney to spine-tingling effect. “Soul Desert” presents some of the tensest funk you’ll ever clench your musculature to, while “She Brings the Rain” lends a creepiness to lounge-ballad tropes with poise. These songs ain’t krautrock as the world commonly perceives it, but they sure rivet you, and they reflect CAN’s impressive range.
Another thing that elevated CAN from most of their German rock contemporaries was their extraordinary funkiness. No, this wasn’t funk in the James Brown or Meters sense, but skittery cuts like “I’m So Green,” “Halleluwah,” and “Vitamin C” (the latter’s a breakdance staple) shifted funk’s center of gravity to places it’s rarely gone. Further, the loony anomaly “Turtles Have Short Legs”—which rapper Busdriver fortuitously sampled for “Avantcore”—takes funk to a Dadaist circus and proves that CAN can rock a party raucously, even though their members had studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen and played free jazz. Throw in the wild-card vocals of Damo Suzuki, and you have another weapon to subvert musical conventions.
The Singles also proves that CAN’s rock tunes rarely hewed to traditional specs. “Mushroom”—which Jesus & Mary Chain reverently covered—summons a novel way to make impending nuclear war seem unbearably thrilling. “Moonshake” and its near twin “Don’t Say No” cast surf rock in an alien haze, while also hitting upon incredible, trance-inducing grooves. “Future Days” invents the seldom-explored subgenre kosmische cha cha; it enchants even its radically truncated 3:25 version here.
In the mid ’70s, CAN began to branch out into dub/reggae (“Dizzy”) and a strain of complex proto-techno on Soon Over Babaluma (“Splash”) while dipping an obligatory toe into disco (“I Want More,” “…And More”) on Flow Motion, the latter move gaining them chart success in the UK. While they may have been half-heartedly chasing trendy styles, CAN never failed to imbue them with their superior ingenuity, never failed to lose their peculiar je ne sais quoi.
Then there are the tracks that could only be described as CAN musik: “Vernal Equinox” exists in its own lane, a bizarre hybrid of freak rock and oblong disco, while “Return”—a close relative of the godlike 1978 jam “Aspectacle”—is a hyperkinetic fusion of funk and post-punky dub that makes similar efforts by later bands like the Pop Group and A Certain Ratio (both of whom are great, by the way) seem a bit lackadaisical.
Finally, let’s admit that CAN—who are taken very seriously by very serious people—had a goofy side. It may not have always yielded great material, but even legends deserve to indulge in studio shenanigans once in a while. Hence, tracks like the sped-up classical spoof “Can-Can” (these guys loved their self-referentiality), “Silent Night” (xmas music sucks just a little less when CAN do it), and the self-explanatory “Cascade Waltz” speckle their catalog. They, too, are fascinating for the glimpses into playfulness that these world-class experimental rockers could flaunt, just for the sheer hell of it. If the Beatles could drop a “Rocky Raccoon” or “Yellow Submarine,” CAN could certainly offload a gimmicky club-music trifle like “Hoolah Hoolah.” Genius has its prerogatives.
As with Walt Whitman, CAN sometimes contradicted themselves; they were large and contained multitudes. And you can experience some of them on The Singles. But it would be a grave mistake not to obtain everything else CAN did, too—except for Out of Reach. You can probably live without that one.
The Singles tracklist
Soul Desert 1969
She Brings The Rain 1969
Shikako Maru Ten 1972
Turtles Have Short Legs 1971
Halleluwah (Edit) 1971
Vitamin C 1972
I’m So Green 1972
Future Days (Edit) 1973
Dizzy Dizzy (Edit) 1974
Splash (Edit) 1974
Hunters And Collectors (Edit) 1975
Vernal Equinox (Edit) 1975
I Want More 1976
…And More 1976
Silent Night 1976
Cascade Waltz 1976
Don’t Say No (Edit) 1977
Can Can 1978
Hoolah Hoolah (Edit) 1990