The German progressive-rock band Can made some startlingly visual music in their day. But the band members themselves were never much to look at. In the average Can album-jacket photo, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt resembles a geekier Ozzy Osbourne, singer Damo Suzuki is a space-case in a beanbag chair and everyone else looks vaguely like Crosby, Stills or Nash.
Can's music was another story -- alien, kinetic, scary, as rhythmically compulsive as James Brown's "Sex Machine" or the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray," spawned in hash-hazed all-night recording sessions and alchemized with dimension-warping tape edits. Drummer Jaki Leibezeit practically built a fort behind his kit, while the rest of the band surged from Miles Davis modes to cat-scratchy funk to pre-Sonic Youth sound sculpture, producing a primal racket that bubbled up between the beats like magma through undersea faults. Lost somewhere in the mix, a singer -- first the African-American Malcolm Mooney, then Suzuki, a Japanese street performer who sang in English -- crooned or bellowed indistinct mantras.
An improv-based outfit that rolled tape 24-7 from 1968 through the next decade, Can released their share of garbage. But their best jams throbbed and resonated, hissing like a jungle in the summer, channeling the sensuality and danger of the natural world through primitive electronics. The music was ethnic without referencing specific cultures -- Indonesian, African and Middle Eastern sounds continually surfaced, but only as untranslated signals. Can made world music for some other world, and provided a rhythmic-rock blueprint for everyone from Public Image Ltd. to Liquid Liquid to Tortoise to Underworld.
But as countless weak rock bios have demonstrated, visionary music doesn't always equal revelatory reading. "Can Box: Book," a thick text included with the new Can box set, is no exception. It includes mostly unrevealing interviews with Can's founders: Leibezeit, Schmidt, bassist Holger Czukay and guitarist Michael Karoli all weigh in; Suzuki and Mooney are conspicuously absent. Interviewer Wolf Kampmann, who co-edited the book with Can manager Hildegard Schmidt, doesn't exactly grill his subjects (sample question, asked of Irmin: "At that time, did you have any inkling of the visionary power which you gave on that day to songs such as 'Yoo Doo Right' or 'Father Cannot Yell'?")
If anybody freaked out on drugs or slept with someone else's wife, you won't find out about it here. Choppily translated from the original German, the interviews have their moments. (Karoli: "For 'Sing Swan Song,' I sat with my guitar in the garden ... An enormous centipede crawled out of my collar. Those things bite, but I was spared.") But for the most part, the book (which also includes some poorly Xeroxed NME articles, low-impact commentary from Duncan Falowell and the Wire's Rob Young and testimonials from Can fans like Jim O'Rourke of Gastr Del Sol and Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo) just proves that there's nothing funnier than a very serious German musician.
The double-CD portion of the set, "Can: Music," compiles live material from throughout the group's 10-year history. Its lows are pretty low -- Disc 2, which opens with a 40-minute (!) slog called "Colchester Finale," might as well be a Can souvenir Frisbee -- but the highs capture Can's volatile experimentalism. On revamped album cuts like "Dizzy Dizzy" and "instant compositions" like "Jynx," the band seems to reference "Wipeout" and Fela Kuti's Afro-funk; Schmidt coaxes electronic squalls from his keyboard like a free-jazz Mixmaster Mike, Karoli stretches out like Eddie Hazel and Czukay muscles his bass like he's pulling taffy.
By the end of the '70s, whatever force Can had harnessed was essentially tapped out. Rosko Gee (of Traffic fame, uh-oh) replaced Czukay on bass (he stayed on in an atmospheric role, contributing short-wave noises and, according to the "Can: Music" liner notes, "impressive plant displays"). On a 1977 recording of "Cascade Waltz," the band's hallucinatory repetition sounds as mellow as a spinning carousel, and they've become an eccentric but not mind-blowing jazz-rock crew, like Phish if they'd trained with avant-garde composer Stockhausen.
The only part of the package that comes close to capturing the group in all Can's enigmatic, wacked-out glory is "Can: Video." It compiles a 1972 concert film directed by longtime Wim Wenders collaborator Peter Przygodda with a rambling collection of archival footage and vintage TV clips. Fast-forwardable material abounds -- Can got back together in 1997 to promote the disappointing, presumptuously titled remix album "Sacrilege," and there's some speeded-up footage of the reunited band members mugging like the art-rock Monkees. But there's classic stuff here, too. German variety-show appearances offer evidence that the "Sprockets" skit on "Saturday Night Live" was a remarkably faithful depiction of German television. Schmidt karate-chops his Farfisa organ on the BBC's "Old Gray Whistle Test." And a "Top of the Pops" announcer introduces the band and wonders if they'll (yuk yuk) "make the Top Tin."
The real revelation here, however, is Damo Suzuki. An unhinged nut in red velvet bell-bottoms, long-haired and frequently shirtless, he head-bangs like the Boredoms' Yamatsuka Eye and works a Mansonian 10-yard stare. He practically jumps off the screen to break dance on your coffee table, and his beautifully freaky presence personifies Can's transporting unpredictability in ways the rest of the box's cold scholarship can't.