Holger Czukay 1938-2017 R.I.P.

Can bassist and sonic provocateur was a potent musical force from the ‘70s all the way through the present.

BY FRED MILLS

The music world has lost another giant: Holger Czukay, of Krautrock pioneers Can, has passed away from as-yet-undisclosed causes. He was 79.

According to The Guardian, Czukay “was found by a neighbour at his apartment, converted from Can’s old studio in Weilerswist near Cologne.” His body was discovered yesterday, Sept. 5.

Czukay was born in Poland in 1938, his family expelled after WWII. While growing up he took a job at a radio repair shop and became familiar with engineering and electronics, in particular shortwave radio. Later he studied music under avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen from 1963 to 1966 and eventually became a fan of underground rock music—which of course would lead to co-founding Can, for whom he oversaw most of their recordings as primary engineer.

Among the great German bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s none stand taller than Can. The group’s groundbreaking sound, a throbbing cauldron of psychedelia, dub/funk, jazz improv and warped worldbeat, influenced artists as diverse as The Fall, Gang of Four, PiL, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Sonic Youth and Stereolab, and the group’s back catalog continues to inspire new generations who whiff Can’s rare essence.

Speaking to me in 1999 in an interview to promote the archival release Can Box Czukay observed how in the band’s time, “Can was never very successful, commercial-wise. But as I said at the very beginning to all the others, ‘This, what we do here, will become one day our life insurance that we give our children, and you don’t need to make insurance contracts with insurers. Just this music will do.’ And it turned out exactly this way.”

Indeed. Although he was speaking to me from overseas, I could picture him grinning broadly as we talked, offering a mischievous little giggle from time to time as he reflected on his work over the years and his ultimate legacy, of which he was deeply proud—but there was no hint of ego or vanity, for the easy-going way we conversed suggested he was a man very much comfortable in his own skin. (Below, watch the videos for his “Good Morning Story” and “Cool In the Pool,” both of which showcase Czukay’s delightfully whimsical sense of humor.)

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Can came together circa 1968 at the hands of double bassist Czukay, classically trained pianist Irmin Schmidt (also a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen), free jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit, and rock guitarist Michael Karoli. Initially the group’s vocalist was American sculptor Malcolm Mooney, although he was soon replaced by Japanese street busker Damo Suzuki. Such diverse backgrounds, plus a collective appreciation for the underground sounds of Hendrix, Zappa, Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground, meant that Can’s goal of fusing leftfield and oftentimes incongruous musical elements just might be attainable.

That the world outside Can’s rehearsal space, an old castle near Cologne, was undergoing huge social and political upheavals meant the Can aesthetic was nothing less than an artistic imperative. And from the outset, boundary pushing marked Can recordings and performances. The former’s outlines and textures were shaped by Czukay’s mad-scientist tape-editing techniques (must-hear early Can: 1971’s sprawling, psychedelic Tago Mago), while the latter frequently left audiences so stunned they didn’t know how to react. (A striking display of Can’s live prowess is the Peter Przygodda-filmed  “Can Free Concert,” from Cologne ’72, included on 2003’s Can DVD.)

Can’s reputation soon spread beyond Germany’s borders – in ’72 the song “Spoon” became a hit single in Britain — even as the group evolved at a rapid pace. With 1973’s Future Days, Can arguably introduced ambient music to the rock world; 1975’s Landed was a then-unlikely collision of electronica, heavy metal, fake reggae and protopunk.

Still, internal pressures gradually mounted. Suzuki had left in ’73 to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, leaving behind a hole that was never fully filled. Czukay, whose attentions were turning towards non-traditional instrumentation (e.g., short-wave radios, Dictaphones), quit in ’77 not long after the arrival of bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah, both from English band Traffic. The original Can chemistry had been permanently altered, and as 1978 came to a close the decision was made to disband. (Go HERE at the Blurt site to download a pair of good sounding Can concerts from 1975 and 1976.)

The members subsequently took up their own projects, although they did come back together for a one-off reunion  to record 1989’s Rite Time (documentary footage of the sessions is on Can DVD). Over the years Can aficionados have also been privy to such treats as Liebezeit’s Phantomband and Club Off Chaos ensembles; Karoli’s Sofortkontakt combo plus collaborations with Damo Suzuki; Czukay in a dizzying array of solo and collaborative guises (see below); and Schmidt’s film scores, his Gormenghast opera and his work with producer/deejay KUMO.

1999 saw the release of the above-mentioned Can Box, an elaborate book/video/live CD package. Neatly coinciding with that were “The Can Concerts” in Germany: Schmidt, Czukay, Karoli and Liebezeit each presenting his then-current solo project on the same stage — although, significantly, they did not perform together as a unit. Karoli performed with Sofortkontakt, Liebezeit as Club Off Chaos, Schmidt as Kumo and Czukay with experimental vocalist U-She. During 2004-06 the group’s back catalog was reissued as remastered SACDs, while 2012 saw the release of The Lost Tapes, a box set comprising previously unreleased material. And in 2014 the group’s back catalog was reissued on vinyl.

Czukay’s non-Can projects over the years were nothing if not intriguing. 1981 solo album On the Way to the Peak of Normal remains a critical favorite (the psychedelic gem was reissued in 2013). Other notable solo releases were 1991’s shortwave-as-live-instrument Radio Wave Surfer and 1999’s Good Morning Story featuring U-She on vocals. Two collaborations with David Sylvian were also well-regarded, as was the album Snake Charmer that he recorded with Jah Wobble, The Edge, and DJ Francois Kevorkian. He also worked with Brian Eno, Trio, and U.N.K.L.E. And 2013 brought the reissue of the uber-obscure Les Vampyrettes, an esoteric 1980 recording of Czukay and Can producer Conny Plank described along the lines of “a metallic and ghostly voice in a state of nocturnal intoxication welcomes us to a sonic backdrop of hallmark krautrock pings, drones, susurrations and clatters.”

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Czukay’s beloved wife Ursula passed away this past July. Can guitarist Karoli previously died, in 2001. And Liebezeit died in January from pneumonia. Czukay’s impact upon music was profound and lasting—he will be deeply missed.

 

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