You can't keep a good Can down

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IT WAS customary during the Seventies to observe that the German group Can were ahead of their time. Clearly, any group that lived together in a real schloss, held incomprehensible post-Maoist political views, and employed singers on a conceptual basis, had to have something of the future about them.

IT WAS customary during the Seventies to observe that the German group Can were ahead of their time. Clearly, any group that lived together in a real schloss, held incomprehensible post-Maoist political views, and employed singers on a conceptual basis, had to have something of the future about them.

Also, their music did not fit. Can's was a rapturous fusion of profuse ethnic beats, yodelling, icepick guitars and the machine noise we might now call electronica, half structured, half whipped up spontaneously during epic passages of free improvisation, then left to cool in packaging that was invariably nasty and probably cheap. The lazy word for it then was Krautrock.

We know better now that the future has arrived and everyone is comfy with the idea of this being music and not something awful. However, Can stopped making worthwhile records in 1978. The intervening years have been spent nursing "solo projects".

Earlier this year, three members - Irmin Schmidt, Jaki Liebezeit and Michael Karoli - played a "one-off" concert in Germany to showcase current works and to publicise their recent live retrospective Can Box. The one-off quickly became a four-off, the last of which took place in Barbican Hall last Saturday before an audience composed largely of period freaks and blackly dressed young folk with no hair.

The event was a map of musical differences. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit now runs a trio called Club Off Chaos. His drums were used editorially rather than propulsively, his kit comprising four small drums, three cymbals and a tiny gong, which were patted rather than hit with stubby sticks in shifting, pointillist patterns. A sequencer supplied regulated pulse. A hockey-stick/guitar contraption on a stalk, played horizontally with chopsticks, supplied detail. The rest was generalised noise. Nowadays, we'd call this techno, which would also be to sell it short.

Irmin Schmidt was once an accomplished conductor and pianist. We never saw much of that in Can. But for this event he sat professorially at a grand piano and integrated himself with the tumult created by a chap called Kumo ( known to his mum as Jon Podmore). Kumo played a Theremin and fingered what appeared to be a fax machine, and then mutated these sounds with another box of circuits.

The contrast between Schmidt's thunderous playing and the thunder of Kumo's sound-manipulation was instructive, occasionally even startling, especially during a drum 'n' bass-style Cossack dance piece which actually speeded up, against all the rules of machine rhythm.

Time also played an unruly game with Michael Karoli's Sofortkontakt, but at a different level. Karoli entered bent at the waist, hobbling and supported by his violin bow, festooned with knobs and wires, his guitar slung across his back under his jacket to accentuate his hunch. He then failed to get inside the music played by his improvising rock quartet. Instead, he tinkered indecisively in fits and starts, rather as a man might waste time in his attic, rummaging among forgotten things from a former life.

Sofortkontact were actually the most Can-ish act of the evening - they even alluded to a couple of Can numbers. The word means "immediate contact". As if to elucidate this conception, Karoli spent the length of one number with a harmonica wedged between his teeth, ready for spontaneous hands-free action. He tooted it once into a microphone that wasn't switched on, and once, at the end, into one of the drum microphones. "Toot," he went. Toot indeed.

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