September 8, 2017
Hail and farewell: Holger Czukay
by David Stubbs
We were deeply saddened to learn this week that Holger Czukay, bass player for the foundational Krautrock band Can, had died at the age of seventy-nine. We reached out David Stubbs, author of Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music, to ask if he had any thoughts to share. And wouldn’t you know it, he sure did. We’re delighted to share them here, and to offer a $14 discount off the list price of Future Days through the weekend.
It’s sad that his last years were shrouded in personal adversity and exile from the music world. In July of this year, he lost his partner Ursula Schüring — she had been unwell for many years and he had dedicated a great deal of time to looking after her. It’s sad also that there won’t be an official day of mourning in Cologne today, sad that far more people, not least his own compatriots, don’t know who he was. But with the death of Holger Czukay, the world has lost one of the absolute greats.
Holger Czukay understood at a deep, mechanical level the workings of musique concrète, but also understood that Vanessa Paradis’s “Joe Le Taxi” was, as he said, unimprovable. He personally bridged the supposed chasm between the postwar classical avant garde and contemporary pop. He studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen but went on to appear on the UK’s “Top Of The Pops” and record with, among others, Annie Lennox.
With his upturned chin and twinkling gaze, he always reminded me of Salvador Dalí, both inflating and puncturing high art, expanding its possibilities while mocking the sense of remote, pop-less superiority exuded by its senior practitioners. With Can, the outfit he co-founded in the late sixties, he would help reconfigure what it meant to be in a rock band. Beginning with 1969’s Canaxis, and more properly after 1979’s Movies, he would flourish as a solo artist. A sampler before there was sampling, a proponent of world music long before the phrase was coined, he opened up giant vistas of possibility with tools as basic as shortwave radio and tape. He made the world his musical instrument. His solo music, with its recognisable recurring motifs (those flurrying blasts of French horn), was all wide-eyed joy, cunning mischief, subversive whispers, ingenious plotting, Dadaist collage, a sublime funk derived from the aural cuisine of a hundred nations.
Born Holger Schüring in 1938 in Danzig, Czukay’s most formative experience was working in a radio repair shop as a teenager. It was the beginning of a fertile, lifelong fascination with the radio as a conduit for global and even cosmic energies. Following his studies under Stockhausen he became a teacher of European art music, only to have his head turned shortly thereafter by popular music as it entered its psychedelic phase.
Along with Stockhausen co-pupil Irmin Schmidt and disaffected jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit, Czukay formed Can in the late sixties. The name worked on multiple levels: as an allusion to Warholian art (Can were influenced by the minimal, back-to-first-principles music of The Velvet Underground), to positivity, possibility — but there was also something about the cylindrical nature of the can that spoke to the music they made. Wishing to avoid the anchorage of West German beat groups who imitated either The Beatles or blues-based Anglo-American rock, they sought to find new, formal approaches that were non-derivative. They were, in other words, the product of a West German culture razed to zero by the war, and seeking, as a cultural imperative, to “begin again,” establish a new, postwar cultural identity. Along with a handful of like-minded sixties and seventies groups across West Germany—including Kraftwerk, Faust, Tangerine Dream, and Neu!—they would constitute a new movement, waving the banner of Krautrock.
In their music, Can eschewed blues clichés, and, although great players, dispensed with the ostentatious virtuosity-for-its-own sake that characterized Prog rock. Prog was an attempt to “elevate” rock music to the levels of classical sophistication. Can, by contrast, sought to bring the formalist lessons of their modern musical training to bear on rock.
Driven by Liebezeit’s cyclical percussion, and framed by Czukay’s bass and Schmidt’s keyboards, Can created a discreet but intense context, often achieved through jamming and repetition, in which energy and ideas could flow, in which guitarist Michael Karoli’s guitar could rove and explore, in which successive vocalists Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki could float free and disorientated. On albums like Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and Future Days (a title I borrowed for my book on the history of Krautrock), Can dispensed with the conventional, front-to-back hierarchy of the rock format, with the singer as God and the rhythm section as backline subordinates; “No Führers!” was their battle cry. All were equal, in free play.
As new, multi-track studio technologies began to impinge on the Can aesthetic, Czukay became restless, retreated from instrumental duties within the group. Eventually he quit, and developed a solo career in which he inspired and worked with members of a post-punk generation who had felt alienated by pre-punk rock music in the seventies. These included David Sylvian (with whom he worked on albums such as 1984’s Brilliant Trees and 1989’s Flux + Mutability) and Public Image Ltd’s Jah Wobble, with whom he recorded the EP How Much Are They? in 1981. He was in sync with a new wave of musicians for whom concept meant more than musical competence, creativity more than aptitude. Ideas flowed — suggestions of ambient sound, sampling, world music, and more can be found in Czukay’s solo work, albums such as 1981’s On The Way To The Peak Of Normal and 1984’s Der Osten Ist Rot. Meanwhile, the spliced collages of found Eastern musics and TV and radio broadcasts that comprise the likes of “Cool In The Pool” and “Persian Love” from Movies still astonish almost forty years on.
As serious as he was funny, as sublime as he was preposterous, Holger Czukay was a colossal influence on everyone from Talking Heads to musicians yet unborn. He is also utterly irreplaceable. RIP, voyager of inner space.
David Stubbs is an author and music journalist. Alongside Simon Reynolds, he was one of the co-founders of the magazine Monitor before going on to join the staff at Melody Maker. He later worked for NME, Uncut, and Vox, as well as The Wire. His work has appeared in the Times of London, the Sunday Times, Spin, the Guardian, the Quietus, and GQ. He has written a number of books, including Fear of Music, a comparative study of twentieth-century avant-garde music and art, and Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music. He currently lives in London.