Last week, 29 April, would have been the 63rd birthday of Michael Karoli, the German musician who died in 2001 at the age of 53, after a long battle with cancer. A talented and creative musician, possessed of the rare gift of being able to get a tune out of any instrument he picked up, it is nevertheless his work as the guitarist in Can which for me, at least, is his most enduring legacy.
Can was an experimental rock band formed in Cologne, West Germany in 1968. Later labeled as one of the first krautrock groups, they transcended mainstream influences and incorporated strong minimalist and world music elements into their often psychedelic music.
Can constructed their music largely through collective spontaneous composition which the band differentiated from improvisation in the jazz sense sampling themselves in the studio and editing down the results; bassist/chief engineer Holger Czukay referred to Cans live and studio performances as instant compositions. [Wikipedia]
I remember buying the bands 1971 album Tago Mago pretty much on spec after reading the (admittedly hyperbolic) sleeve notes which namechecked other bands I liked at the time, but it took only seconds from dropping the stylus on to side one, track one, to realise that the music was like nothing else Id ever heard. Even now, forty years later, its impossible for me to pick out just one favourite track from that album but I still remember two distinct click moments from that first listen. The first is Michaels lead guitar break at around 5m 45s into side twos Halleluwah; the second is in the middle of Bring Me Coffee Or Tea, the closing track of the album: the combination of Michaels acoustic guitar and the plaintive murmur of Damo Suzuki nearly reduced me to tears. I cant really argue with Julian Copes description of Tago Mago in his 1995 book Krautrocksampler, that it sounds only like itself, like no-one before or after.
From there, I began to delve further into Cans back catalogue and bought all their official releases from then on, always finding something inspiring and uplifting on each of them, invariably something played by Michael. I was fortunate enough not only to see the band play at the (long since demolished) Liverpool Stadium in March 1973, but also to actually meet them all backstage before they played. Suffice to say, the evening is etched into my memory as one of the best in my life.
Over the years, time and distance hasnt dulled my love of Cans music and the coming of the internet has, from time to time, enabled me to add various unofficial recordings to my collection and my sense of anticipation and pleasure at hearing Michael play has never dulled, be it a not-great quality live recording made by another fan, or a leaked outtake from a recording session, or an official recording by another artist on which Michael guested. It also has to be said that Cans output was prolific; they seemed to tour endlessly with the time between tours spent jamming for hours on end in their own Inner Space studios in Köln.
I can think of only three albums that Ive loved unconditionally (uncritically?) from the moment I heard them and Tago Mago was the first the others being John Martyns Solid Air (1973) and Lee Scratch Perry and The Upsetters Super Ape (1976). Each of the three profoundly affected my own approach to making music, each in its own way although, with the benefit of hindsight, its perhaps the importance of the spaces in music that has struck me most and stayed with me longest. Julian Cope again: Writers often celebrate the musician with sense enough to leave space in music, but Michael Karoli was one of the very few real masters. And with that in mind, its time for me to leave some space in this vaguely elegaic, very personal, retrospective piece and go and listen to the music of one of the greats: Michael Karoli.