Hidden Gems: Can’s “Flow Motion”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

Before starting this piece, I emailed the editors at MAGNET to ask if they thought Can was well-known enough to warrant a Hidden Gems. Not that they are an incredibly unknown band, but this column celebrates “big name” artists and Can is surely the most obscure artist I’ve detailed yet. To further complicate things, these Hidden Gems articles celebrate albums that are aren’t as popular as some other items in a group’s catalog, when in fact, Can’s 1976 LP Flow Motion is probably its highest selling release, even scoring a hit single. So it’s clear I have some ‘splaining to do.

First, a history of Can: After studying musical composition in his homeland of Germany, including some time with legendary avant-garde pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, pianist Irmin Schmidt traveled to New York City in early 1968. There, he would not only come in contact with the radical work of composers Terry Riley, Steve Reich and La Monte Young, but also the revolutionary rock band who they inspired: the Velvet Underground. Back in Germany, now armed with the knowledge of American rock and funk sounds, Schmidt formed Can with bassist Holger Czukay, guitarist Michael Karoli and drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Taking a free-flowing and improvisational approach to rock music with even more emphasis on rhythm, Can joined up with American artist Malcolm Mooney, who would become its singer. The band’s first release was 1969’s Monster Movie, a psychedelic masterpiece that sounded like little else of its era. Though some more work with the group soon followed, Mooney suffered a breakdown during rehearsals, in which he repeated the phrase “upstairs, downstairs” ad nauseum for over three hours, long after the band had stopped playing. He returned to his home of New York on his psychiatrist’s orders soon after.

After a chance meeting with Japanese runaway-turned-German street busker Damo Suzuki, Can had found its new singer, performing onstage together mere hours after their introduction. Beginning with 1971’s Tago Mago, the next few years would forever be viewed as Can’s best work. On Tago Mago and its follow-ups (Ege Bamyasi, Future Days), the group perfected its naturally gliding sound, which could alternate between glacial-paced ambient noise and fast acid freakouts in the same song, held down by Liebezeit’s perpetually groovy beats. Most of Can’s “songs,” however, were edited versions of sometimes hours-long jams recorded live on a two-track recorder, intricately spliced together by Czukay; it was also not uncommon for their live shows to exceed three hours. Having no formal (or informal) voice training, Suzuki’s singing style was completely his own. Unlike the rest of Can’s German members, Suzuki was Japanese born and fluent in its language, though most of his lyrics were sung in incredibly broken English, which ended up sounding like a new tongue all together. All of these idiosyncrasies added up to one of the most original bands in rock history. Can was progressive, but not superfluous; loud, but subtle; quiet, yet powerful; you could dance to its music, though you could just as easily reflect quietly and not seem out of place. It wasn’t the blues, it wasn’t jazz, it wasn’t krautrock—it was just Can.

Before work began on sixth album Soon Over Babaluma, Suzuki left the group to settle down and get married, again leaving the band with a singer-less void. 1974’s Babaluma and 1975’s Landed were both transitional records for Can, with one foot in the quiet ambience it mastered on Future Days, and another in a new, poppier sound. Now signed with Virgin Records, who pushed the band’s music upon fresh ears, Schmidt and Karoli traded off vocal duties during this period. The duo’s thick German-accented English was fine, but it appeared the band still agreed something was missing. Several possible replacements were tried out between ’75 and early ‘76, such as famous folky Tim Hardin, Malaysian singer Thaiga Raj Raja Ratnam and British artist Michael Cousins, among others. Studio recordings and concerts were performed with these pseudo-applicants, including early versions of several Flow Motion tunes, though difficult integration with the band’s unique style led to underwhelming results and none has been officially released. It would have been an astronomical occurrence if lightning struck the group a third time, delivering yet another extraordinarily distinctive frontman, but it was not to be.

In the spring of ‘76, recording sessions began at Can’s Inner Space Studio in Cologne for what would become Flow Motion. Starting with Landed, the group abandoned its old two-track recorder and replaced it with a state of the art 16-track machine. This not only changed the way the band made records, but really, the band itself. In an interview with Wolf Kampmann, Liebezeit explained, “There was no mixer. That’s why Can’s early stuff is the best. That definitely had something to do with the production. We played everything live, there were no overdubs, and few possibilities to do an overdub onto the master copy later … With a 16-track, everything is a little bit broken up, and each person works for himself. One would send the others home and say, ‘Now I’m going to record my track.’ We didn’t work as a team anymore, and with that, it was really all over. In my opinion, the first records are much better than the ones that came later.”

With its dynamic changing, the sound of the group changed as well. Can was continually experimenting with different rhythms, world music and funk in particular. In a famous quote attributed to Brian Eno, he (supposedly) states, “There were three great beats in the ’70s: Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, James Brown’s funk and Klaus Dinger’s Neu! beat.” While this statement is true, Can’s music uniquely took equal parts from all three. Additionally, on Flow Motion, the group adds two more styles: disco and reggae. Jamaica’s reggae had made its way all across the world by this time, as had disco, which had become more or less inescapable. For Can, these influences were just new toys to play with, though the accessible albums of later-period Can is a major reason why the band is ignored by purists. Opener “I Want More,” is soaked and simmering with disco sheen, precisely the reason why it became a hit single in the U.K.; it’s short, it’s catchy, and you can dance to it, so what’s wrong with that? Although this was a new wave of experimentation for the band, rather than cashing in on a fad, hardcore fans of the group couldn’t have enjoyed seeing the band members lip-synch and dance on Top Of The Pops.

Can’s obsession with reggae seeps into almost every track on Flow Motion, yet warps it into something else. “Laugh Till You Cry, Live Till You Die” features Karoli playing a Mediterranean bağlama, while slide-guitar showcase “Cascade Waltz” just so happens to quirkily combine a reggae beat with a waltz. On the delightfully strange “Babylonian Pearl,” Schmidt helms lead vocal duty, professing his love to his eponymous obsession, a girl who “comes from a land where woman is man.” (All of the record’s lyrics were penned by Peter Gilmour, band friend and live engineer.) Schmidt is not only responsible for the song’s breathy voice, but also its shimmering keyboard flourishes. The slick and shiny atmosphere from the synths throughout the album is a major part of why the new sounds work so well.

The title track is the sonic culmination of the group’s career so far. It features the dreamy soundscapes from Can’s ambient works, the repetitive grooves of the rhythm section, the out-there background noises and the new reggae skank. Liebezeit’s drum work is perfectly in time, as it always is, while Czukay’s bass is restrained and bolted down on the groove. (This would be his last album as bassist; ex-Traffic bassist Rosko Gee would take over on the next year’s Saw Delight, while Czukay would “play” shortwave radios. Only in Can could that be true.) The real star of the song—and Flow Motion itself—is Karoli. His guitar playing was always an interesting aspect of Can’s work, riding rhythmically along the edges of songs, while only occasionally standing as the focal point of the music. With the band’s two-track improvised recording method, Karoli had the unique job of keeping the beat and playing leads, with another overdub here or there. Now armed with 16-tracks on Flow Motion, Karoli has a field day, laying down multiple guitar lines and showing off his energetic lead playing. It’s the most guitar-heavy album Can ever made, but Karoli is smart enough to know how not to overpower the others, willfully walking out of the spotlight when necessary.

Can would go on to make three more albums before calling it quits in 1979, as the post-punk and new-wave bands it gave way to were blossoming. In 1986, the band would reunite with original singer Mooney to record Rite Time, though besides a few various one-offs, that would be their last. Most fans (and the band themselves) consider the Mooney/Suzuki eras to be vastly superior to the later albums, and for the most part they are right; those were absolutely Can’s most groundbreaking works, as well as the most difficult, yet rewarding, music of its career. But to write off the last half of the group’s story, which many do, is a disservice. Flow Motion stands among the band’s best, if for different reasons. It’s not life-changing by any means, but the level of musicianship and lively joy is as gratifying as anything in Can’s history.

Bryan Bierman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. He’s very quiet and enjoys puzzles. You can e-mail him here.