All Gates Open: The Story of Can by Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt – review

Rob Young’s scholarly history of the hugely influential 70s band, written with the one surviving member of the group, neglects their human qualities

It all begins, and ends, with Irmin Schmidt. A classical musician under the tutelage of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the young Schmidt travelled to New York in 1966 and immersed himself in the brave new music of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. His open mind was blown out even further by the possibilities of rock’n’roll.

The group he formed on his return to Germany became Can, one of the most influential experimental bands of all time: their sinuous creations went on to warp generations of sound-makers. Brian Eno became a fellow traveller; John Lydon begged to be their singer before forming Public Image Ltd. Happy Mondays’ song Hallelujah bows to Can’s Halleluwah. The Jesus and Mary Chain and Radiohead covered them, the late Mark E Smith of the Fall and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy worshipped them, and modern electronica owes a debt to Can’s early machine music, just as hip-hop later ran with the baton of their early sampling.

For their part, Can sometimes thought they were a dub reggae band; they certainly used their studio, Inner Space, as an instrument. They often made their money scoring films, allowing the group a staggering amount of creative autonomy. Can benefited, too, from the astute management of Hildegard Schmidt, Irmin’s partner, whose role in Can’s success is laid bare here as never before.

Tragically, Schmidt is the only surviving core member of this extraordinary band. Michael Karoli, formerly Holger Czukay’s pupil before giving up a law career to become Can’s guitarist, died in 2001. Both the melodic drummer, Jaki Liebezeit, and Czukay, bassist, keyboard player and sound engineer, died in 2017. The band’s two surviving vocalists – an American draft dodger called Malcolm Mooney (now a visual artist) and the Japanese busker Damo Suzuki (who has colon cancer but is still making music) – contribute to this definitive history, and quotes from latter-day members, the late Reebop Kwaku Baah and Rosko Gee, are part of the extensive research.

Still, it falls to the last Can standing – Schmidt – and former Wire editor Rob Young, whose previous book, Electric Eden, focused on the visionary seam of British folk music, to tell the story of a group who defied categorisation. Alongside Kraftwerk, Neu! and a handful of other German outfits – cringe-makingly lumped together as “krautrock” – Can became a nexus of Teutonic cool in the early 70s.

This two-part book is a portrait of a fiercely intellectual, but hugely sensuous, band who improvised and jammed, but sneered at those terms, preferring “intuitive music” and “collage” to describe the spacy, evolving compositions the collective co-authored in a kind of mutual trance-state. They were virtuosos who hated virtuosity, or anything that smacked overtly of American forms.

As Young attests in his (greater) part of the book, all the main Can players came from classical backgrounds and enthusiastically unlearned their craft. Schmidt was into modern art and inspired by Fluxus; the very name Can was a nod to Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup lietmotif. Liebezeit, who emerges from this account as one of the most unyielding defenders of Can’s groove, was a renegade jazz drummer who erupted any time Czukay spliced the band’s tapes insensitively – this was all painstakingly done by hand, often with tape reels liberated from Stockhausen’s studio.

Can’s tale is clearly Schmidt’s to tell. But Young’s scholarly doorstop suffers slightly from its heavy reliance on one perspective. The final third of the book is clearly Schmidt’s wily attempt to remix anything so dull and formal as “a book”, just as Can thumbed their noses at structure in their music. Schmidt’s notebooks include cut-up, sampled conversations with notable fans– Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, some of Primal Scream, Mute Records boss Daniel Miller, NME’s infamous Nick Kent, no women – on some illuminating topics and some waffle. Schmidt’s recent diaries, tacked on at the end, contain far too many accounts of his dreams and conversations with neighbours in Provence (although, in mitigation, one of them is John Malkovich).

Young, meanwhile, is a phenomenal scholar whose understanding of Can runs deep. He sets up this immersive story with accounts of the German postwar period, the swirling art and music scenes of the 50s and 60s, and the impact the war had on its children: Schmidt’s parents were Nazi supporters, a fact with which he struggled profoundly. Politics was never far away in those heady times. Karoli and his then girlfriend, Eveline Grunwald, were often stopped by roadside police who mistook them for Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof from the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Young is very good indeed at laying bare the fascinating workings of Inner Space (the studio survives in a museum in Gronau, North Rhine-Westphalia, presumably minus its help-yourself lump of hash). He is impeccably informed on every note of Can-related work, from their many porn film soundtracks to their world music Ethnological Forgery Series. But he can occasionally wax a little too eloquent on the music itself. One track, Yoo Doo Right, brings forth from Young “a squadron of mechanical deities manoeuvring through a ravine” to be “extruded” and “fractalised into an ever-shifting array of byways”. You can see what he means – Can tend to invite this sort of prose – but still: it sometimes feels as though a deservedly long book is unnecessarily extended by these authorial fugue states. And while Young and Schmidt handle the departure of Mooney very sensitively (he had a breakdown), you do wish for a better sense of these highly individualistic musicians as people; only the impish Suzuki manages to fly off the page. Inner Space was full of artistic tension; each member refused to show off or solo, but would argue vociferously for their vision of “the Can”.

All Gates Open is a cerebral book about a cerebral band; that is as it should be. But it would have benefited from an even greater emphasis on the idiosyncratic personalities involved. It would be wrong to give away one major contributory factor – hitherto unknown – to Can’s unravelling in the mid-70s. But the episode is one of the occasions in Young’s account where the members of Can are presented as flesh, blood and emotions, rather than lofty intellectuals of sound.

• All Gates Open: The Story of Can by Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt is published by Faber Social (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

  • This article was amended on 11 May 2018 to change the order of the Can members in the caption


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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