All Gates Open by Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt review – in praise of the rock band Can

Whether or not the German experimental band, beloved of the Fall and John Lydon, are the ultimate chin-stroking rock outfit, their albums will endure

Can, the German rock band active between 1968 and 1979, have in many ways, through no fault of their own, become the ultimate chin-stroking outfit. Born from Europe’s ruins, boasting two former students of avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a free-jazz drummer who restricted himself to relentless grooves and two ethnically diverse singers, their collision of postwar high culture with 60s counterculture makes them prime egghead material. Yet they were remarkable.

Improvisation was the source of their albums and their incendiary live performances, but they still retained an ear for melody and even a pop sensibility. In concert they could be intense and, ironically for a group now so beloved of fashionable music commentators, a good few early fans were downright “heavies”: bikers and stoners drawn to the Can lack of compromise. In their first six albums, the band managed to anticipate jazz-rock, punk and sampling, as well as drum’n’bass techno.

Can’s reputation in the UK took off when they began to be namechecked by new wave musicians: Pete Shelley, John Lydon, Gary Numan, Ultravox, then later the Fall, the Jesus & Mary Chain and Primal Scream. To my generation, this cast Can as a mythical band, whose improvised three-hour concerts have a trapped-in-amber feel, confined as they are to the lost 70s. Owning their own recording studio, they amassed hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of unreleased music. The astonishing early albums – the raw Monster Movie, the epic Tago Mago, or the blissful Future Days – were strong enough to support any myths we wanted to believe. Later, recordings did emerge from the vaults, but nothing quite equalled the originals, and due to record company neglect, no perfect, definitive recording of their in-concert prowess remains – just tantalising segments.

In 1997 Can gave over their entire back catalogue for the album Sacrilege, allowing classic tracks to be radically remixed by drum’n’bass musicians. It is very hard to imagine many other bands of the 70s allowing their work to be similarly reformed – nor the motivation to embark on such a project. But the music of Can seems to offer something uniquely creative to each new generation of musicians and listeners. It is telling, 20 years on, how dated Sacrilege now sounds compared with the original albums.

Rob Young’s All Gates Open might or might not be the definitive biography of this slippery and protean band. It is an admirable work of loving and careful research. Young handles facts efficiently and turns up gems such as a cracking 1971 letter from Stockhausen to the immigration department of Cologne, protesting the possible expulsion of Can’s Japanese vocalist, Damo Suzuki. For someone just discovering the band’s music, All Gates Open has a superb narrative arc, especially when dealing with their formation, background and the creation of those great early albums.

For Can trainspotters like me, there is not enough new material: where are the specific tour details and dates, an analysis of the mythical Can recording archives, fleshed out lives of the Can members while the band was active? Sometimes the eccentric, unique personalities of the band members get lost in the march of events and album chronology. A single page can reference Goethe, Roman emperor Carus, Alexander von Humbold, Schopenhauer, Beethoven and Schubert. This is justified as a serious and successful attempt to position Can in the cultural context they deserve to be situated in. But again we often feel we are getting away from the quotidian facts, from the grit of what it was actually like on tour with Can in 1972.

The book is enhanced by the inclusion of an appendix of writings curated by Can’s keyboard player Irmin Schmidt and includes some of his personal journals. In many ways this anthology of reflections and dialogues on art, on Can and on life, is a more revealing endeavour than traditional rock biography, with all its demands and limitations. The only surviving German member of the band, Schmidt is a European intellectual with a love for all the arts; but he is also a mischievous iconoclast. His exchanges with figures as diverse as Wim Wenders, Mark E Smith and John Malkovich make for fascinating and thoughtful reading. The Can story continues because their music lives – and those albums will still sound as great to our children.

• Alan Warner’s Can’s Tago Mago is published by Bloomsbury. All Gates Open is published by Faber. To order a copy for £21.25 (RRP £25) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Alan Warner

The GuardianTramp

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