This week we remember Holger Czukay of the German experimental rock group Can, who passed away last week at the age of 79. We’ll also spotlight Popol Vuh, a similar German group that rose to prominence around the same time as Can in the late 1960’s. Both these groups led the “Krautrock” movement in Germany during the 1970’s.
Multi-instrumentalist Czukay (pronounced CHOO-kai) and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt together founded Can in 1969. Other members of the group included drummer Jaki Liebezeit, guitarist Michael Karoli, and vocalist Malcolm Mooney. The band’s name stood for “communism, anarchism, nihilism”—a name perhaps reflecting the turbulent era of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Although the group never became famous in the U.S., it nevertheless influenced many better known groups such as Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing Buildings), Public Image Ltd, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, and others.
Czukay worked in a radio repair shop as a teenager growing up in Berlin. In addition to learning about electronics and how to repair them, he studied the ambient sounds of radio broadcasts and would later incorporate shortwave radio sounds into Can’s recordings. His early work experience also taught Czukay how to modify instruments to make them sound different, creating new and unusual sounds. Can’s innovative use of tape loops and other mixing technology of the times likely provided inspiration to artists like Brian Eno. The group scored their first #1 hit on the German pop charts with “Spoon,” a quirky TV theme song in the early 1970’s wherein the group mixed a drum machine along with live drums.
We begin the show with Can’s “Persian Love,” which I first heard on a Womad LP produced by Peter Gabriel back in the early 1980’s. The song remains wonderfully odd. We also hear Can’s adaptation of the Chinese national anthem on the track “Der Osten Ist Rot” (“The East is Red”).
Next we check out a 1980’s collaboration between Czukay, bassist Jah Wobble and U2’s The Edge called “Hold On to Your Dreams” from an E.P. on Island Records U.K. (Sorry about the skips, but I wanted you to hear it anyway.) We then hear an instrumental track from Can’s keyboardist Irmin Schmidt from his vinyl album Filmmusic #1 on Spoon Records, which was formed in 1979 to release the music of Can and its members. Schmidt scored the track “Der Tote Bin Ich” for a 1979 German TV movie of the same name.
Also prominent in the Krautrock universe, the group Popol Vuh was named after a Guatemalan manuscript recounting a creation myth. I recently re-watched Werner Herzog’s amazing movie Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a crazy and outlandish movie if there ever was one. In the film, Klaus Kinski leads a doomed expedition to the Amazon to find the mythical land of gold, El Dorado. The strange music by Popul Vuh is heard in jungle and nature scenes as the expedition falls apart. We listen to the track “Aguirre I (L’crime di rei)” from the movie’s soundtrack. Similar to Can, Popul Vuh creates odd distortions and early electronic sounds—all pre-digital soundscapes. We wrap up the show with a more recent release by Popol Vuh called “Tears of Concrete,” from the CD City Raga.
Rhythm Planet Playlist for 9/15/17
- Can / “Persian Love” / Cannibalism 3 / Mute
- Can / “Des Osten 1st Rot” / Cannibalism 3 / Mute
- Jah Wobble, The Edge, Holger Czukay / “Hold On To Your Dreams” / Snake Charmer / Island Records
- Irmin Schmidt / “Der Tote Bin Ich” / Filmmusik 1 / Spoon Records
- Popol Vuh / “Aguirre I (L’acrime di rei)” / Aguirre OST / SPV
- Popol Vuh / “Tears Of Concrete” / City Raga / Milan Records