When Holger Czukay, who has died aged 79, became one of the founding members of the Cologne-based band Can in 1968, his role was that of bass player. “The bass player’s like a king in chess,” he reflected later. “He doesn’t move much, but when he does he changes everything.”
However, Can described themselves as an “anarchist community”, and the group’s experimental spirit allowed Czukay plenty of room to explore various aspects of electronic music and recording. Right from their first album, Monster Movie (1969), they broke new ground with their fondness for improvised playing shaped by editing, layering and electronic effects, and Czukay took a prominent role in producing and engineering the band’s albums. Can never achieved huge commercial success, though they did achieve a Top 10 hit in Germany with Spoon, the theme from a TV thriller series, in 1972. Nonetheless their work – not least their mastery of the minimal, repetitive “Motorik” beat, which became a trademark, of Can, Neu! and other German bands – left a lasting impression on countless artists who came in their wake.
Czukay remained with Can during the period that saw them release their most accomplished and admired recordings, Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972) and Future Days (1973), on which they brewed a flavoursome concoction of ambient and electronic music mixed with rock and avant garde. By the time he made his last album with them, Saw Delight (1976), Czukay had stopped playing bass to concentrate instead on creating electronic effects.
His subsequent solo career would take him on an open-ended voyage of discovery in which he explored techniques of music collage and “found” sounds, often mixing random fragments recorded from short-wave radio broadcasts into aural tapestries. He built a home studio using vintage recording equipment acquired from a 1950s radio station, and considered material captured on a simple dictaphone recorder every bit as valid as sophisticated studio recordings. He strove to maintain a fresh, almost naive approach to his work. “The universal dilettante is actually the most precious musician you can imagine,” he claimed. His fondness for the films of WC Fields suggested that he did not take himself entirely seriously.
Czukay was born in the Baltic port of Danzig, then the Free City of Danzig, but his family fled as the second world war reached its climax and the Russians advanced towards the city (which became Gdansk, Poland). Czukay recalled arriving in Berlin by train in February 1945. After the war ended the family were sent to a camp run by the Russians, but managed to escape and reach the nearby American zone.
By the start of the 60s Czukay was studying music with a bass player from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. “He told me ‘OK, if you continue playing like this, you can become a bass player in an orchestra,” he recalled, but this did not appeal to him. He moved to Cologne and sought out the avant-garde composer and electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who took Czukay on as a pupil. A fellow student was the keyboard player Irmin Schmidt, who felt inspired to start a band after seeing Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground on a trip to New York. The result was Can, which Schmidt formed with Czukay, the guitarist Michael Karoli and the drummer Jaki Liebezeit.
Czukay credited Leibezeit with broadening his own musical thinking. “Jaki is one person whose criticism I take to heart,” he said. “He made me understand rhythm is the greatest concentration of music, that one single drumbeat can contain all the music in the world.”
Czukay had made his first solo foray with Canaxis 5 (1968), on which he worked with co-producer Rolf Dammers. His post-Can career comprised a string of solo albums as well as collaborations on albums, singles and remixes. In 1979 he released Movies, and further solo works included On the Way to the Peak of Normal (1981), Rome Remains Rome (1987), the live album Radio Wave Surfer (1991) and Moving Pictures (1993).
In 2015 he released Eleven Years Innerspace, a collection of new material and reworked older pieces. In 1981, he and Liebezeit played on Eurythmics’ debut album, In the Garden, and in 1983 he recorded the album Snake Charmer with Liebezeit, Jah Wobble and U2’s guitarist The Edge (Liebezeit and Wobble were regular contributors to Czukay’s solo recordings). He teamed up with David Sylvian on the albums Plight & Premonition (1988) and Flux + Mutability (1989). He played bass on Cluster & Eno (1977), a collaboration between Brian Eno and the German electronic band Cluster, and appeared on The Mermaid (1992), an Anglo-German project that featured Peter Gabriel and Annie Lennox.
Czukay’s wife, Ursula, died in July aged 55.
Obituary taken from The Guardian.
Sometimes the treasure chest of the past seems to continually and magically replenish itself.
When the CONNY PLANK box set, which included several as yet unheard treasures from his career as a music producer was released, no one reckoned with the rerelease of his obscure LES VAMPYRETTES recording less than a year later. Originally issued in 1980, this limited edition EP will delight fan bases beyond that of CONNY PLANK’s, as the featured musical collaborator in the LES VAMPYRETTES is none other than the congenial HOLGER CZUKAY of the band CAN.
“Watch where you stand / Watch where you step / All day and all night / Someone’s got you in their sight…”
A metallic and ghostly voice in a state of nocturnal intoxication welcomes us to a sonic backdrop of hallmark krautrock pings, drones, susurrations and clatters. A half year later Kraftwerk would casually declare computer surveillance a clear fact of life – “Daten da”? Yes, they are “holding our data”! – whereas, as LES VAMPYRETTES, Czukay and Plank slip into the comic-like guise of “BIOMUTANTS”. Back in 1980, LES VAMPYRETTES foreshadowed what the world came to realize just this year thanks to Edward Snowden. They take us to an acoustic world where “Plastic and plasma mutate” and “The mutants dance”. A menacing world where data flows like blood and e-waste poisons Mother Earth. The second track, titled “MENETEKEL”, reinforces the creeping feeling that one is basically hearing a fusion of the ghosts of H.P. Lovecraft (“madness”) and William Gibson (“cyberspace”).
“The schizophrenia of the freaks in our minds / Seeps through the brain and no one realizes / The madness creeps from west to east / The rust across the eyes increasing…”
The accompanying music sounds like a dark cell, a dank whole in a cellar, hazardous industry – the scrapyard of our time! Music produced by rust. The third piece on the EP more or less bridges the gap to planned upcoming releases, as Groenland Records has decided to rerelease out-of-print albums from the HOLGER CZUKAY back catalogue. This new series will kick off with On the Way to the Peak of Normal. The track “Witches’ Multiplication Table” is from this album, and superbly fits the occult mood created by LES VAMPYRETTES, humorously turning numerology and witchcraft into the culmination of an unexpected, psychedelic krautpop journey – featuring Conny Plank on synthesizers. Holger Czukay recorded the A-side of On the Way to the Peak of Normal – issued in 1981 – with the postpunk band S.Y.P.H., which had just split. A childhood drawing from Conny Plank’s son Stephan graces the cover of On the Way to the Peak of Normal; the original cover design itself was by Eveline Grunwald. Incidentally, Grunwald is one of the models on the cover of the legendary Roxy Music album Country Life, along with Constanze Karoli (sister of deceased Can guitarist Michael Karoli). It must be noted that Eveline Grunwald also did the cover art for Joachim Witt’s Silberblick (“Der Goldene Reiter”), on which Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit played drums. This little anecdote alone shows how krautrock’s pioneers, their entourages and the burgeoning postpunk/New German Wave generation helped one another out in the years around 1980. On the Way to the Peak of Normal reveals the experimental, utterly freaky side of this era – far removed from the German pop music chart show Hitparade with Dieter Thomas Heck.
However, in reality, it is not as far removed from that as people tend to believe.
Holger Czukay about ON THE WAY TO THE PEAK OF NORMAL
„When I was a child I had to leave my hometown Danzig in Poland. My mother had already bought the tickets for the ship, the Wilhelm Gustlof, when my grandmother warned us that the “water hasn’t got any planks”. I never forgot this sentence because it saved our lives. we didn’t go onboard the ship but went to the main station on January 13 1945. It was a freezing night We were extremely lucky that a train with wounded soldiers picked us up and they gave us a little bit of room on their matresses to sleep and we headed to Berlin. when we arrived i looked out of the window and all I could see were stones and a free field and I asked myself if this can be a capital city?”.
A long time passed by and I went on a trip to London. the baggage controller at the airport stopped me and asked “what ship are you on sir?” I answered “the General Belgrado sir”. The ship had just been sinking to the bottom of the ocean After it had been destroyed by the British navy during the Falklands war.
These ships stories have to be completed by another one where me and my friend Conny plank were on a trip to Hong Kong in 1982. Conny wanted to know more about his roots because His grandfather had left Germany with the imperial troops of Emperor William II to China as a ship builder and had settled down there.
Remembering Conny I must also think of my promotional tour to Japan in 1982 where we went together. The record company decided to do promotional spot for the album with the a famous Japanese Whiskey. a man enters a little boat rowing slowly away on a lake. He sometimes stop rowing in order to have a little sip and then continues. After 40 seconds a bottle of whiskey rises up out of the water saying ‘For people who are searching for independence and freedom’…