Can Live: An Eyewitness Report

In the 1970s, the legendary Friars Aylesbury club welcomed many of the best and most enduring artists of the day. Among them were Can

“What do you think if we booked Can?” 

By 1973, I had been closely involved with my local rock club Friars Aylesbury for around four years, first as part of the unusually receptive crowd giving early encouragement to David Bowie, Mott The Hoople, Genesis and more, and then later as the designer of its flyers. When promoter David Stopps phoned with details of the latest bookings, he often asked my opinion on potential artists.

I’d been praying for the Can question ever since John Peel started rewiring my internal circuitry with ‘Monster Movie’ in 1969. I had relished ‘Soundtracks’, ‘Tago Mago’ and the mesmerising ‘Ege Bamyasi’, but I had missed their fleeting UK visit in April 1972, so when the question did come it was all I could do to gibber in the affirmative. With Can duly booked for 24 February 1973, I inked their flyer with immeasurable pleasure and excitement. It would be 80p to get in.

Can were praised as unique sonic pioneers and went on to become part of the very fabric of modern music. So to fully capture the impact of that mind-blowing gig (compounded by another Friars appearance the following year), it’s necessary to empty my brain of everything that came after that night – all the catch-up press, books, documentaries, reissues and bonkers fan-driven analysis from subsequent generations. 

When Can came to Aylesbury in 1973, most of the audience didn’t know what they were in for. Other than John Peel, they weren’t heard on the radio and, with the exception of Melody Maker’s Richard Williams and a couple of others, they largely escaped the once powerful music press, although their albums generally got good reviews. For their few rabid fans, Can carried an irresistible alien mystique hot-wired by myths, chiefly that they lived in a medieval castle, where they improvised for hours and then edited their recordings into albums, and their original singer had gone mad before they found his replacement busking on the street.

All I knew was their records sounded like no other band on the planet. And now these mysterious beings were going to be landing on our stage. As I vaulted the concrete steps of the Borough Assembly Hall, which had been Friars’ permanent home since 1971, I was so excited I could have feverishly milked the nearest goat. Having seen better days (and Jimi Hendrix in 1967), the venue was a typical dance hall of the time, with frayed red velvet curtains in the bar and wooden floorboards on which progressive rock fans sat cross-legged on their greatcoats, most sporting army surplus and grandad vests, with maybe the odd Pink Floyd T-shirt.

Sandwiched between Mott and Barclay James Harvest, Can’s Friars debut attracted a healthy mix of curious regulars, ragged hippies, and a handful of local fans of the band, all of whom witnessed one of the most incredible shows in the club’s illustrious history. For me, it was up there with Bowie’s unveiling of Ziggy Stardust the previous year. 

Irmin Schmidt, Michael Karoli, Holger Czukay, Jaki Liebezeit and Damo Suzuki took the stage with little fanfare and eased into the evening’s interstellar journey. No set-list, no two shows the same, a slow-burn build-up for their first hour-plus session, then launching the heavy artillery to blast past the outer limits in the epic second half, which Michael had once called “the shameless impact, the wickedness”. Watching with ever-dropping jaws, it was a privilege to be witnessing this astonishing spontaneous combustion forged by supernatural telepathy, like experiencing miracle gases coalescing into a new planet, or riding an astral train gawping at the constantly changing scenery (a metaphor often later used to describe Can live).

Due to my memory banks now behaving more like arcane film projectors sparking up surreal movie clips, it’s the oddest of details that remain from that magical night. An awesome powerhouse bass drum painted by Jaki in big black and white stripes. Michael moving like a sinuous snake. The ponytailed Irmin karate-chopping his keyboard set-up. Holger wearing thin white gloves to surgically pluck his Fender bass with minimal propulsion. Damo immobile in his Afghan-style sweater, his hair hacked back from the waist-length look I’d seen in photos but still obscuring his face the entire time. 

Clearly plugging into the rapturously expectant vibe, Can might have had only a faint idea of where they would be going when they left the launchpad. They glanced at each other every so often while snatches of vocal lines, melodies and rhythms from ‘Halleluwah’ or ‘Spoon’ or ‘Pinch’ or ‘Vitamin C’ loomed like iridescent ghosts, then quickly flashed past as the roller coaster continued. 

Being a massive James Brown fan, I homed in on Holger frequently playing just two notes, which Jaki used as vague markers for his relentless mutant groove exploration, on this occasion favouring compelling shuffle rhythms and thunderous funk. ‘One More Night’ was one of the most amazing displays of human drum machine pressure cooker virtuosity I’ve ever seen (the other was Magma’s Christian Vander). Enhancing the jazz impulse, Jaki’s complex yet sometimes featherlight polyrhythms were always at the core of Can, riding the flow while simultaneously directing it with intricate precision. And then there was Irmin’s keyboards. I’ve said it many times but, between his flurries of unorthodox classical grandeur, Irmin routinely sounded like a flying saucer taking off.

After hitting a stratospheric peak that threatened to send the old hall into orbit, the kinetic energy and simmering tension became so tightly wound it erupted into one of the cathartic meltdowns they called “godzillas”. Watching these wildly diverse oddball scientists at work was monstrously impressive and would sit deep in my soul for life. 

Stunned by what I’d experienced, I didn’t dare venture up to the dressing room after the show. But when Can suddenly materialised in the auditorium, I couldn’t resist bowling up and burbling unfettered fan-gush. Pleasantly humouring this gurgling nutter, they turned out to be nice guys. A year later, when it happened all over again, this time without Damo, they even agreed with my theory about the seasons that the albums were recorded, their set now also traversing ‘Future Days’ (a summer scorcher).

If you’d told that wide-eyed kid that, 24 years later, he’d be contributing to Can’s ‘Sacrilege’ remix project and appearing in ‘Can: The Documentary’ as a veteran fan and wizened old fart, let alone attempting to recall the band’s first Friars gig for an electronic music magazine 48 years later, he would have guffawed uncontrollably. 

The one crystal clear thing that night in 1973 was that Can sounded like the future.

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