Throughout All Gates Open, Rob Young is a consistently trustworthy guide, ushering readers deftly across the life and times of a band that, including reunions and solo projects, spanned over 30 years.
April 22, 2019 | by Andy Mascola
All Gates Open: The Story of Can
By Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt
Faber & Faber, 2018
Along with Irmin Schmidt, the only surviving consistent member of the German experimental rock band Can, author and editor Rob Young takes a deep-dive into the history and legacy of one of the most influential avant-garde musical groups of the 20th century with his latest book, All Gates Open: The Story of Can. Comprised of over 500 pages (not including the four glossy photo sections or index), the hardback edition consists of two separate books in one.
The first, All Gates Open, makes up two thirds of the tome and finds Young detailing postwar Germany and the original band members’ backgrounds and lives prior to getting together. Young then goes on to detail Can’s many ups and downs as they rehearse, record, release, and tour in support of some of the most pioneering rock, funk, and electronic music ever made, particularly during the initial six fertile years of the band's career.
The final third of Young and Schmidt’s book is titled Can Kiosk. Just shy of 200 pages, Can Kiosk is made up of Schmidt’s journal entries as well as transcribed conversations between Irmin and notable Can aficionados, including: The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, director Wim Wenders, and the actor John Malkovich, among others.
Casual Can fans looking only for juicy anecdotes detailing debauched backstage antics and band members' journeys in and out of rehab may be disappointed. Although they formed in the late '60s and partook of plenty of illicit pharmaceuticals, Can was never the kind of band who threw TV sets out of hotel room windows or indulged in afterhours depravity. Sure, Can had their share of drama, but the disagreements between the band’s members almost always concerned the music they were making.
What readers with a cursory knowledge of the band will instead find intriguing are stories detailing odd coincidences and mystical occurrences. This is a band whose eccentric co-founder and bass player, Holger Czukay, once attempted to play the same note for four hours during one of the band’s many elongated live performances. In the music world, this kind of intense patience and Zen-like concentration is tantamount to Uri Geller’s use of psychokinesis. In Can's realm, clocks would mysteriously break, members of the band would find they could start and stop pieces of studio equipment with their voices, and music journalists would leave interviews with confusingly blank audio cassettes.
Can’s initial lineup consisted of Irmin Schmidt on keyboards, the aforementioned Holger Czukay on bass, Michael Karoli on guitar, and Jaki Liebezeit on drums. Can never had a consistent lead singer. Their first vocalist was Malcolm Mooney, an African-American conscientious objector who, in 1967 at just 19 years old, fearing the draft, decided to "vanish into the big world, carrying nothing but his sax and a change of clothes in a duffel bag." While hitchhiking his way across Europe, Malcolm met Hildegard Schmidt, Can’s manager and Irmin's wife. Malcolm only appeared on one Can studio album, their first, 1969's Monster Movie. Mooney’s time as a member of Can was short-lived, due in part to an incident during the band’s residency at a theater in Switzerland in the late summer of 1969. Evidently, Malcolm became psychologically locked in a manic episode of sorts that had him screaming, "Upstairs! Downstairs!" over and over for hours. Similar events became increasingly more prevalent during the months that followed, which ultimately led to Mooney being replaced.
In 1970, Holger and Jaki discovered the band’s next vocalist, the Japanese musician Damo Suzuki, while he was busking in Munich. Suzuki’s anarchic vocal style was a good fit for Can, and he ended up staying on through 1973 and appeared on three iconic albums: 1971's Tago Mago, 1972's Ege Bamyasi, and 1973's Future Days. Suzuki ended up leaving the band after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Curiously, Can didn’t replace Suzuki and never had another lead singer. One interesting tidbit Young’s book reveals, however, is that John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten), evidently tried numerous times in the late '70s to coerce Irmin into letting him join Can as their lead singer. Obviously, this was never to be.
Some of All Gates Open's most fascinating factoids regarding Can and the artists and bands that were influenced by them are revealed in the Can Kiosk portion of the book. In one transcribed interaction, Schmidt engages Factory Records' art director, Peter Saville, in a discussion regarding album cover aesthetics. Through the conversation, it's revealed that the members of Joy Division initially wanted the pulsar image on the cover of Unknown Pleasures to be black on white and were unhappy with the final product. Schmidt then goes on to talk about how he and the other members of Can never liked the painting that graces the cover of the US edition of Tago Mago, referring to it as "Kotzkopf" — "vomit head."
Other entertaining pieces of gossip are revealed through conversations between Schmidt and Mark E. Smith when the two men discuss how both of their bands are hated in certain parts of France, and between Schmidt and Geoff Barrow when the latter admits to attempting to buy Ege Bamyasi at a hip record store in Bristol and being denied because he didn’t know if the band was called Can or "Vitamin C."
Throughout All Gates Open, Rob Young is a consistently trustworthy guide, ushering readers deftly across the life and times of a band that, including reunions and solo projects, spanned over 30 years. Although many of the references to German culture and Can’s earliest tutors and more experimental musical progenitors will be esoteric for some, Young manages to namedrop enough modern cultural lynchpins to keep the story relevant and engaging for a diverse range of music aficionados. If you're a hardcore fan of Can and krautrock, or if you’re just a fan of influential bands and their histories, you can’t get much more of a comprehensive account than All Gates Open: The Story of Can.