He hardly needs to give up his day job, but Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood seems to have a pretty good alternative career lined up as a film composer.
After his dissonant, overpowering strings on There Will Be Blood, he does sterling work on this week's excellent Norwegian Wood, adding to the Japanese teen gloom with sheets of orchestral noise and tender acoustic guitar melodies. But what caught my attention on the soundtrack was the welcome reappearance of Can, whose music not only fits the late-60s setting, but also reminds us how much Radiohead are indebted to the trailblazing krautrockers. They've made no secret of it, even covering Can's The Thief, but listening to The King of Limbs' precision clattering, jazzy guitars, slightly slurred vocals and unorthodox song structures, the spirit of Can still courses through them.
Another reason Can complement Norwegian Wood is the band's Japanese frontman, Damo Suzuki, who sounds like he is singing in his native tongue even when performing in English. The band famously recruited Suzuki off a Munich street in 1970 to play a gig that same night – where his incendiary improvised performance turned away all but the most hardcore, including, bizarrely, actor David Niven, who stayed till the end.
Two of the Can songs in Norwegian Wood are already from existing soundtracks, hence their inclusion on the 1970 album, er, Can Soundtracks: Don't Turn the Light On, Leave Me Alone (bet Radiohead wish they'd thought of that title), Suzuki's first recording with the band, which sounds like a stoned art-students' jam (someone's done a homemade video here); and She Brings the Rain, a mellow, bassy, jazzy melody that doesn't really sound like Can at all (it was performed by their original singer, Malcolm Mooney, shortly before he had a breakdown and left the band). The version in Norwegian Wood, however, sounds like a cover.
Back in my student days – when I should have been listening to Radiohead or studying – Can Soundtracks was a favourite on the electric gramophone. But before imdb, Amazon, iTunes or, in fact, the internet, it was difficult tracking down the films the songs were originally made for. And it still is. They all seem to be obscure German B-movies from the late 60s. Don't Turn the Light On…, for example, is from a film called Cream – Schwabing-Report, on which the only light imdb can shed is the salacious tagline: "What a bored child bride did until she got caught!" That's probably enough information. She Brings the Rain, meanwhile, was from a film called Ein Großer Graublauer Vogel (A Big Grey-Blue Bird). Apparently it's about scientists who invent a computer that solves the mysteries of the universe, but then forget they've done so. Has anyone ever seen this film? Does it really exist?
Fortunately Can's music has been used in edgier but more accessible movies ever since. Keyboardist Irmin Schmidt went on to produce scores of scores, including Wim Wenders's Alice in the Cities. Wenders used She Brings the Rain in Lisbon Story, as did Oskar Roehler in his 2000 film No Place to Go. And the band reunited to do a track for Wenders's Until the End of the World. There's also a lot of Can in Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar (the book was dedicated to bassist Holger Czukay), and their funky Vitamin C cropped up in Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces. Apparently Can's biggest earner, though, was the track Spoon, which was adopted by hit German TV cop show Das Messer. I thought I heard them recently in another fine and gloomy Japanese youth movie, Confessions, but it turned out to beBoris. Coincidentally, Confessions' soundtrack also features Radiohead.
The good news is that the best of those "lost" movies featuring music from Can Soundtracks is to become available for the first time. This is Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End, which the BFI is re-releasing in May. A teen drama set in a swimming baths at the end of Swinging London, it features the most legendary song on Can Soundtracks: Mother Sky, which plays as the hero trawls through sleazy Soho, steals a cardboard cut-out, makes the acquaintance of a prostitute with a broken leg and buys a hotdog from Burt Kwouk. Mother Sky is quintessential Can: a mighty 15-minute psychedelic wig-out with crazy screeching guitar, minimalist bassline, clockwork drumming and indecipherable Damo Suzuki chanting. It's garage punk with a longer attention span, math rock with a human soul, and prog without the self-indulgence. Nobody could get away with that now, not even Radiohead.
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