The German band Can, whose former singer Damo Suzuki has died at the age of 74, were innovators in many ways, but particularly because the group harboured two of the most original rock vocalists who ever lived. While their 1969 debut album, Monster Movie, featured the machine-gun poetic stylings of American expat Malcolm Mooney, it was Japanese free spirit Kenji “Damo” Suzuki, who appeared on three stunning studio albums between 1971 and 1973, who most completely embodied their adventurous ethos.

A 1971 TV clip from the long-running German series Beat Club shows guitarist Michael Karoli, drummer Jaki Liebezeit, bassist Holger Czukay and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt – all in luminous psychedelic colour – methodically coalescing around the abstract groove of the song Paperhouse. After about a minute of jazzy extemporisation, the camera cuts suddenly to the extraordinary figure of Suzuki, stick-thin with cascading hair and naked to the waist. He sings in blank verse with no rhyme scheme, often hard to decipher and gliding freely between soundalike words – but the gentle, reflective longing is unmistakable. Towards the end, you finally catch one line clearly: “You can make everything what you want with the head”. The sense of infinite possibility that suffused Suzuki’s lyrics resonated perfectly with the adventurous spirit of Can – whose genesis in part was through the West German art scene – and his fluid wordplay was at the heart of some of the strangest and most exotic rock of the 1970s.

If it sounded like he was making it up as he went along, that was just how he and the band liked it. He arrived in Europe in 1968, and spent a couple of years drifting around from a Swedish commune to rural Ireland, stopping off in France, Germany and the UK, busking, painting and playing guitar along the way, a period chronicled by Rob Young in his Can biography All Gates Open. Around the time he appeared in a stage production of Hair in Munich, he serendipitously crossed paths with Czukay and Liebezeit. Suzuki was doing some kind of improvised performance in the street, and Can wanted a singer for a four-night residency at the city’s Blow Up club. Suzuki asked if there would be a rehearsal; when he heard there would not, the deal was as good as done.

Can, with Kenji ‘Damo’ Suzuki second from right. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

In Suzuki, Can found a vocalist who was every bit as versatile and unpredictable as they were. His abstract lyrics allowed him to slip in and out of long songs seamlessly, at a time when the group were expanding their horizons and working extensively in film soundtracks. Suzuki was the riddler who swirled cryptic wisdom through wild, bombastic Can jams like the 14-minute Mother Sky (“I say madness is too pure like mother sky”) and Halleluwah (“Searching for my brother, yes I am”). But his impish and sometimes naive lyrics – like Syd Barrett’s, often akin to nursery rhyme – could miraculously slot into more anthemic pop contexts too, such as on Moonshake, and the 1971 German hit single Spoon (“Oh, sitting on my chair where nobody wants to care”).

The trio of studio albums Can and Suzuki made together – 1971’s Tago Mago, 1972’s Ege Bamyasi and 1973’s Future Days – trace a sharp arc which runs from mystic rock through intricate funk-fusion to a multi-layered tonal drift that can be considered one of several precursors of ambient music. As well as marking a creative zenith of West Germany’s wondrous rock scene of the 1970s, these records progressively gained traction with adventurous independent music communities around the world – perhaps most notably, with the adventurous US and UK post-rock scenes of the 1990s, the European electronica movement of the same era, and British post-punk institution The Fall.

Suzuki left Can as suddenly as he had joined them, storming out of a recording session in 1973, at a time where he was starting to show more interest in esoteric Christianity than music. In the decades since, he often downplayed his years with the group, preferring to explore the creative possibilities of whatever project was next than mythologise his own past. He let actions speak louder than words by willing into existence Damo Suzuki’s Network, a global fellowship of local musicians who jammed with him when he passed through town – spontaneous right until the last moment.

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