In 1977 Holger Czukay left Can, the band he was part of since its inception in 1968. After acting as the bass player for the band on the classic albums they released in the beginning of the 70s, he moved to a role similar to Brian Eno’s on Roxy Music’s first albums, manipulating tapes and producing sounds via short wave radios and other sources. In 1978 he labored on an album that immediately upon its release in 1979 became a hugely influential recording for many artists due to its unique use of sampling.
The art of sampling in musical recordings existed long before Holger Czukay recorded the album Movies, on which the addictive Persian Love appears. Modern composers including Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Karlheinz Stockhausen, with whom Czukay studied in the mid 60s, have all composed music that used tape loops along with other traditional instruments as far back as the 50s. Some of these compositions went farther and comprised solely of loops and electronic devices. The Beatles have incorporated non-musical sounds into their songs during their studio experiments in 1966 for the album Revolver. Songs such as Yellow Submarine and Tomorrow Never Knows would not have been what they are without those sounds. In some cases sounds were the basis for a whole song, as in Pink Floyd’s Money, where the seven-beat tape loop made up of coins and cash register sounds make the rhythm that defines the song.
However Holger Czukay is considered a pioneer of sampling for a number of good reasons. To start, he painstakingly created a whole album based on samples taken from various sources such as ethnic music performances from around the world, sport broadcasts and movie scenes. Many of these sounds were recorded using an IBM Dictaphone, a business office recorder that was popular in the 60s and 70s. A total of several thousand edits were made during the recording process for Movies, a huge amount given the pre-computer technique that required splicing – cutting tapes with razor blade and pasting them together. The most noticeable development on the record is the use of sampling to drive the song’s melody and harmony. The best example is Persian Love, including voices of Iranian singers singing various unrelated melodies, captured via short-wave radio. The samples are weaved together into a coherent song with a guitar accompaniment built around the musical phrases of the singers and a simple repetitive beat.
Techniques like that are very common today and fairly easy to use with computer software that allows musicians and recording engineers to add any number of pre-recorded sounds, mix them with recorded instruments, correct their pitch and perform a multitude of audio manipulations that in the late 70s were unthinkable or extremely laborious. Today we do not give most of these songs a second thought nor think of them as unique, unless the use of the samples is done extremely well and the result is simply good songs, as in the case of Moby’s record Play.
Czukay recorded the album at Conny Plank’s studio in Wolperath, south of Cologne, located on farmland. Using the low-fi quality of the short-wave samples was just the thing Plank loved doing in his studio. Plank has worked with all the major acts of the Krautrock scene, including Can, Kraftwerk and Neu! and what mattered to him was the sound that was produced in the studio regardless of its original source. Brian Eno, who was present at some of the sessions, was heavily influenced by the technique Czukay and Plank used to create Movies and utilized it soon after when working with David Byrne on another milestone album – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. That led to the masterpiece follow up of that collaboration: Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, an album that took the art of music studio editing to new heights, but owes a good amount to Czukay’s work two years earlier.
Plank had a good intuition when it came to capturing the best creative moments from the artists he worked with. When asked about the role of a producer he said: “The job of the producer – beyond the technological aspect – is, as I understand it, to create an atmosphere that is completely free of fear and reservation, to find that utterly naïve moment of ‘innocence’ and to hit the button at just the right time to capture it. That’s it. Everything else can be learned and is mere craft.”
Czukay called his album Movies not only because it featured samples from various movies he was watching while playing his bass along with the scenes, but also for the similarities he saw between the work he was doing in the studio and the art of film editing: ”With four editing machines, I made a sort of four color print out of the whole thing. That means, here I took from this mix, quite good with the guitar, but it is far too loud over here, and suddenly you start becoming a sort of film maker. Films are made like that, you shoot the scenes and shoot it several times and later you put it together by these different takes, and this is the way I make my music. And suddenly I found out as well that the music creates a certain sort of vision, it has a visual character.”