Michael Karoli, guitarist, singer, violinist and cellist: born Straubing, Germany 29 April 1948; married 1981 Shirley Argwings-Kodhek (two daughters); died Essen, Germany 17 November 2001.
The guitarist Michael Karoli was a member of the German avant-garde electronic group Can, whose unique blend of freewheeling improvisation, sonic experiment and tribal rhythms influenced several generations of musicians, from the Buzzcocks and Public Image Limited to Radiohead and the Aphex Twin via the Fall, Julian Cope, Primal Scream and U2. Famed for marathon live performances and the almost telepathic interaction between its core members, Can, along with Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Amon Düül and Faust, defined the "Krautrock" genre.
Born in Straubing, Lower Bavaria, in 1948, Karoli was the rock element in Can. A fan of the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, he played in various bands – "beat music, very simple, very primal", as he put it – while reading Law and studying music theory under Holger Czukay, a former pupil of the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.
In 1968, Czukay picked up a bass, decided to form a group and recruited the jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, who had also studied under Stockhausen. Karoli famously remarked to Czukay that the Beatles were more interesting than Stockhausen and, impressed by his cheek, Czukay invited Karoli to join the quartet. Rehearsals began in a castle near Cologne. At first, they called themselves Inner Space, before opting for the name Can because of its multiple meanings. They didn't have a blueprint; or rather they threw the blueprint away and simply improvised. Karoli explained,
We called it instant composition. The composition goes away from the personal and to the collective, like an ant state is the individual and not the ant. The individual was Can. We were just helping Can. We made a point of developing a collective mind. It came from somewhere outside, we only worked as an interface, we really tried to let inspiration flow through us. Can music was a geometry of people, the product of the struggle between four or five people and the struggle was the most important thing.
Two months into the experiment, the African-American sculptor Malcolm Mooney became Can's vocalist and the group recorded its début album, Monster Movie, on a two-track machine at its castle base. But, by the time United Artists picked up the album and gave it a wider release in late 1969, Mooney had departed. He was eventually replaced by Damo Suzuki, a Japanese singer they had met busking in Munich. In 1971, this line-up recorded the album Tago-Mago as well as the haunting track "Spoon". "Spoon" became a hit in Germany when it was used as the theme tune for Das Messer, a television crime series. "It was one of the sacred institutions of German TV. When it was on, you could not get a taxi in the whole country because everyone was at home watching this thriller. We had a No 1 for two months," Karoli said.
Can subsequently released the albums Ege Bamyasi (1972) and Future Days (1973) and toured extensively throughout Europe. In September 1973, Suzuki left to become a Jehovah's Witness and the group carried on as a four-piece with Schmidt and Karoli taking the occasional lead vocal. Following Moon Over Babaluma (1974), Can signed to Richard Branson's fledgling record label Virgin and issued three albums (Landed, Flow Motion and Saw Delight). In 1976, they charted in the UK with the naggingly catchy "I Want More", following up their hit single with unexpected versions of "Silent Night" and the Can-Can. When Czukay distanced himself from the project, the bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah from Traffic were recruited.
Can split in 1979, but the four founding members kept in touch and contributed to each other's solo projects. Karoli moved to Nice in the south of France, and built a studio where he recorded the album Deluge with the British singer and actress Polly Eltes. However, he still played the occasional concert in Germany with Czukay or Liebezeit. In 1989, 20 years after their first rehearsals and 10 years after their break-up, Can released Rite Time, a new album co-produced by Czukay and Karoli and featuring Mooney. Three years later, they featured on the soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World (1991). In the late Nineties, Karoli renewed his partnership with Suzuki for Japanese and American tours, while the Can-Solo-Projects tour showcasing all four members also came to London.
By then, the Can legend had grown considerably. In 1997, the Mute label issued Sacrilege, a two-CD collection of remixes of classic Can material by the likes of Brian Eno, Sonic Youth and the Orb, and repromoted the group's back catalogue, adding an album series, Cannibalism, compiled of out-takes and compiling the boxed set Can Box.
Michael Karoli's unusual, economical and ever-evolving style consisting of choppy, scratchy riffs, insistent, undulating patterns and piercing, gliding notes always surprised the listener. Karoli said: "I've never liked to be forced to describe the kind of music I create. Is it rock'n'roll? I suppose that depends on how you define that term. If you consider Captain Beefheart to be rock'n'roll, or Miles Davis, OK, I play rock'n'roll. I don't like to be bothered with categorisations, though."
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