10 Thoughts on Holger Czukay, the Cosmic Dad Jokester of Krautrock, Who Is Dead Now
The 79-year-old co-founded the legendary German art-rock group Can, who produced some of the most influential music of the 70s and 80s.
Music fans are mourning the death of Holger Czukay, a founding member of krautrock group Can and solo artist celebrated for his innovations in the realms of world music and sampled-based composition. According to reports, Czukay, who was 79, was found in his apartment on September 5, 2017 and had died a few days earlier. What follows is an appropriately distracted tribute to the German musician loved by record geeks the world over.
1. A vocoded smear, a synth schvitz, 1981's "Ode To Perfume" by Holger Czukay twitters and vibrates like a mosquito whipping past your ears for awhile and then lands on an askew groove. The same could be said of plenty of at-first-formless songs from Can, the legendary German art-rock group Czukay cofounded, whose songs began as hours-long improvisations which he culled down, into compositions, movements, experiences, happenings, picking out the best parts, locating not so much the needle in the haystack as it were, as specific piece of hay among a haystack that only he and the band could see as different from all the rest. This technique occasionally resulted in obscenely catchy avant-garde ("Spoon" and "Vitamin C") but mostly transformative sprawl such as the almost 12-minute "Peking O" featuring Can's most famous vocalist Damo Suzuki sputtering like Beavis as Cornholio highlighting the freedom of psychedelia and the possibility that psychedelia might could freeze you, caught up in a loop of nonsense.
2. "Ode To Perfume" was according to Czukay at least, a song made for roller skating. I dunno, man. His music often operated amid this kind of ecstatic abstract. Even as the ostensible bedrock of Can when he was on the bass, plucking out cryptological party music, keeping time and bending it along with cyborg-precise Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Like so many Germans from the 60s, Czukay beat down the possibility of fascism via art—rigid and free, he offered a crack in the sky, a fly in the ointment, something slippery that couldn't quite be described and coopted and twisted for nefarious means.
3. Can's roots are academic. Four people, two Karlheinz Stockhausen acolytes (Czukay and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt), a free jazzbo (drummer Liebezeit), and a teenaged guitarist who could play the shit out of everything (Michael Karoli), they had the late 60s buzz of revolution in 'em and went visceral—a typical story though one that's a bit different than most. For one, Czukay was in his thirties in 1968 when Can began, so what you hear is the sound of one getting turned on, not out of youthful obligation but because he was open to it and thing clicked—"I Am The Walrus" specifically hooked Czukay and its goofy chug would stick with him it seems. So Can slipped away from the heady shadow of Stockhausen and all of that and flirted with rock and psych instead and then constructed thing that wasn't quite any of those things. On "Father Cannot Yell," the opener to Can's 1968 debut Monster Movie, Czukay plays a bassline that's jacks the Velvet Underground's "European Son" and makes the Velvets' sound like they're playing music wearing gardening gloves and well from there, the group was off. Not long after, Can were part of a whole alleged scene and sound which English-speakers dubbed "krautrock" (Faust and Kraftwerk and Amon Duul II and Neu!), a know-it-when-you-hear-it sort of trip music all about the never-resolved tension between eerie order and creeping chaos.
4. There is Can in 1975 playing "Vernal Equinox" on The Old Grey Whistle Test, Czukay looking like David Crosby dressed as a punk rock Han Solo anchoring the soupy fusion with his bass and there he is, two years later on Top of the Pops, in canary yellow pants and a baseball jersey playing an upright bass buttressing Can's disco hit "I Want More," that was, like lots of smarmy dance, thing that both did the job and commented on doing the job, a commercial song about commercials and never-ending desire and thirst ("I want more and more and more and more and more") that also really, truly, unabashedly goes. If these academic dorks from Deutschland could swing like this, what the fuck is everybody else's excuse? Czukay kept it moving later on, with "Bänkel Rap '82," off 1982's Der Osten Ist Rot, which is kind of like parts of Boz Skagg's "Lido Shuffle" playing over answering machine messages, and blippy horns that recall the ska-not-ska of OutKast's "SpottieOttieDopalicious"—the song is a blur; and "How Much Are They?," with Jaki Liebezeit and Jah Wobble, which is proto-hard house Wax Trax shit, predicting techno's sonic reducers and then, it's a series of clouds parting and the sun coming through musical moments.
5. Eventually, Czukay got bored with the bass or bored with Can or maybe bored with songs within the loose jazzy definition Can prescribed to that idea, and Rosko Gee from Traffic stepped in on bass and Czukay began playing the shortwave radio and making noise in the background like an Eno Roxy Music role, eventually leaving the group after 1978's album Saw Delight, a dad joke of a title amid many dad jokes Can and Czukay made. See, Czukay ostensibly did the Kraftwerk thing, finding freedom in machines but he was sillier about it—I always thought Kraftwerk looked like four Pee Wee Hermans anyways—and emitted an intuitive maximalism, pulling not just from Can's hours and hours of jamming but whatever's out there in floating in the ether on the radio and on television. The progression then, was to sampling which made Czukay's options even more limitless. The music he made, especially as a solo artist is so wooly and so open. On the last record he released, 2015's Eleven Years Inner Space, there is a song called "My Can Revolt," which speeds up fervid Can jam from decades earlier and adds more noise. Why not?
6. Go listen to "Persian Love" off 1979's Movies, a compelling, artful piece of Orientalism. For what it's worth, Czukay's appropriation is knowing, aware, playful—there is a series of Can songs all categorized as part of the "Ethnological Forgery Series," all but admitting he was dabbling, intruding, invading—and you get the sense that this was all because he just didn't want to be German, because German culture meant Nazism and purity and therefore authenticity is suspect. There was a cultural plurality to Can too though. Their first two singers were black (Malcolm Mooney) and Japanese (Damo Suzuki) and the tracks were ultimately for the singers to vent spleen over—the rage of the unheard, oppressed, and fucked over. Tracks from 1971's Tago Mago nod to atomic death. "Oh Yeah" has an explosion of a bomb in the middle of it and "Mushroom," a rumination on the A-bomb ("When I saw, mushroom head/ I was born and I was dead"). That this is trip music too offers a solution: LSD as the supposed antidote to the bomb maybe.
7. Oh and into the 80s there's Czukay the goddamned goof, in the video for "Cool In The Pool," another arch disco song that works as disco just fine, wearing costumes, doing a Germanic Jerry Lewis routine with his face, and blowing into a French horn. It's a music video up there with The Tim and Eric-ness of say, George Kranz's "Din Daa Daa" or Peter Allen's jazzercising sweaty live rendention of "Fly Away," where hamming it up results in thing Real—what another #LBVS German, Werner Herzog called "ecstatic truth."
8. In 2007, Kanye West, on his all over print hoodie of an album Graduation interpolated Can's "Sing Swan Song" for "Drunk and Hot Girls," a misogynist lark featuring Mos Def. There is a way in which Kanye, who thought to put 50 Cent and Talib Kweli on the same track to fuck with people, to show they ain't all that different, would hear in Mos Def's mumble singing, Damo Suzuki. That is inspired—maybe the only thing inspired about what is objectively the worst Kanye West song—but you also know that what hit Kanye at first at least was Czukay's bass—the nimble, lumbering backbone of "Sing Swan Song" and most other Can songs.
9. So what to do with Czukay and U-She's 2003 collaboration The New Millennium? When it was released it all felt so dated and now it feels ahead of its time right on down to its cyberpunk-tinged streetwear design cover and Holger in the corner yelling in a white hat like Mike Love or shit. The New Millennium begins with "Le Secondaire," which remixes Czukay's "Le Premiere" and uses parts of Can's "Chain Reaction," a way to say that even seemingly, krautrock would eat itself. Maybe if Stereolab and so many other tastemakers could jack moves from Can, Czukay could too? Also: Echoes of Pure Moods grooves such Enigma's "Return To Innocence" on this strange thing along with the sort of MTV Amp fare at its goofiest such as Opus III's "It's A Fine Day." Learn to love it. U-She, who sings like a diva house Nico was Czukay's frequent collaborator later in life and his wife—she died in July of this year at 55.
10. A dour druggy interlude in the 2002 movie Morvern Callar—based on the novel by Alan Warner which is dedicated to Czukay; Warner would later on write a whole book about Can's Tago Mago—which ends in a three, all set to a series of Czukay and Can's zooted dance. Namely, the whines of "Ode To Perfume" and the dumb ugly thump of "I Want More." It is the right soundtrack for partying with a hint of danger or in this case, partying after you discover your boyfriend has committed suicide and instead of calling the police you ignore his bloodied body and go have fun and spend all his dough—that is the plot of Morvern Callar by the way. Director Lynne Ramsay understood this menace in Can and Czukay. A hint that things are doomed or might be, or could, all made apparent through the Czukay and Liebezeit's roughshod interplay (Liebezeit died earlier this year too, at 78 from pneumonia). Czukay the story goes, died a few days before yesterday probably and he was found in his apartment which was also formerly Can's studio (after they moved out of a motherfucking castle), presumably rotting a little bit. And for the rare moment in Holger Czukay's public life, there is nothing funny or goofy about that.
Brandon Soderberg is a writer based in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.