Can – Tago Mago

Four Krauts and a Jap

My first Can record wasn’t this one. It was “Opener”, a collection of the band’s better known songs, published when I was fifteen. Don’t do the math, please. The reason why I write about this album and not about “Opener” is quite simple – I don’t have it anymore. It was stolen.

And not only that album. Probably a dozen more. There was a summer fest at our school, and true to the spirit of the 70’s we had a room reserved for listening to inspiring contemporary music. For some strange reason, I was one of the guys who were asked to play. I’m not sure if I already knew what a DJ was – but it sure felt cool to be asked.

I packed all the Krautrock albums I had (another term that I wasn’t aware of) and carried them to the party in a simple plastic bag. Apart from my newly bought Can album, the bag contained NEU! and the first La Düsseldorf, and two albums by another German band called Jane. The rest? No idea.

The gig itself has slipped from memory as well, overshadowed by the monstrous thing that happened afterwards. I had stashed the bag with the albums under my desk in the classroom, and when I returned an hour or two later it was gone. The worst possible thing that could happen to me at that age. I was devastated. And embarrassed. I should never have left my vinyl alone. Not for a second. Until today, when I DJ somewhere, I never leave my vinyl unattended.

Over the years, I have replaced what I could remember to have been in that plastic bag. NEU! returned, all of their albums, more Can (not “Opener”, though), and I re-bought some La Düsseldorf. Not Jane, after brief consideration. Didn’t age too well.

Growing up in Germany, it was probably inevitable to get exposed to Can’s music if you went out to dance on the weekend. In my favorite club, the music had plenty of variety. The whole place was dancing and everyone loved the really long pieces. Sometimes they would even play “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in full. Hendrix with “Who Knows” or “Machine Gun”, The Doors with parts of their live album. Some home-grown stuff as well – folks went berserk when they played “Gamma Ray” by Birth Control, and I am sure I first got into Can when they played “Mushroom” one night.

Decades later, I ran across Can again on a compilation called “I Like It”. Four musicians picking their favorite tracks. I found it rather interesting and even a little surprising that Richard Dorfmeister chose “Shikako Maru Ten”, the B-side of their “Spoon” 7″. Excellent choice. Yet another decade later I did get myself a Can compilation again – not “Opener” but “The Singles”, a pretty okay collection even if I never really liked three minute single versions of nine minute songs.

Especially considering the way Can produced their music. Even the ten-minutes-plus epics were short versions already, based on jams that could easily go on for hours. Czukay was in charge of recording and editing, sometimes not even telling his bandmates that their jams were put on tape. One more thing to love about this band. They didn’t just say that they wanted to do things differently, they absolutely did.

Just look at how Damo Suzuki was brought on. Czukay and Liebezeit having coffee, watching the man do his thing outside (“singing or praying in the streets of Munich” as Czukay put it), and asking him to join them on stage that same evening. Why? Certainly not based on Suzuki’s superior vocal abilities. Just like his predecessor Mooney, his primary skill was probably uniqueness, even if in a completely different way.

A really well-trained lead vocalist wouldn’t have been a good idea anyway. I watched a few videos of Can live performances after the band had sent Czukay off to the side of the stage to work on noises and effects, replacing him on bass with Rosko Gee, a much more versatile and funky player. Too much so, I thought. It felt like whatever the band thought was off in the way Czukay played bass was now missing.

Even in a decade when lead vocalists were often known for their unique approach to singing rather than their impeccable command of a handful of octaves, Suzuki was something of an extreme. It took me a while to get it. At first I wondered why they chose a guy that was close to incomprehensible and often challenging. Mostly on “Tago Mago”, less on the following albums. Why would anyone sing in a way that makes it difficult to enjoy?

At some point I realized that no, a singer doesn’t have to please the listener, and no, the meaning doesn’t just have to be taken from the words, and while we’re at it: it doesn’t even matter if they come across in a language that we understand. And if you think about it – meaning is probably overrated anyway, at least in the sense that a specific meaning would have to be intended and then understood.

Plus – we’re not talking Yoko Ono here, it’s Damo Suzuki. He is at least partly decipherable, and vaguely comprehensible. We may not be clear about what kind of “Mushroom” he is singing, but we know it’s a mushroom. And there’s an explosion at the end of the track. Hint! Some folks thought it might be the kind of mushroom that will send you on a trip – but if that trip leads to repetitively screaming about “despair” it’s not a mushroom I’d want to try.

It’s a track that exemplifies my slightly ambivalent feelings about the band early on. Suzuki sure doesn’t aim to please, the guitar is not making it easy either – oof, tough to swallow. What always keeps me listening is Jaki Liebezeit’s work on the drums. Not necessarily only for what he has always been praised for – how he combines absolute precision with maximum ease. What I always loved is how he just keeps rolling and rolling, almost completely avoiding the usual antics every 16th note, instead varying the elements that make up the beat to support, reflect or accentuate what the other band members are doing.

Liebezeit is the main reason why a piece like “Halleluwah” can keep chugging for eighteen and a half minutes without ever letting us wonder why it didn’t stop after about five or six. On a beat like that you can do just about anything and that’s exactly what his colleagues do. It ebbs and flows, it culminates and recedes, and where other bands might have adorned a long track like this with a series of serious solos, they just keep an experimental flow that still stays close to the concept of the song. Even the one actual guitar solo is closer to a bluesy jam. So much music that would define the following decades is audible here, from Radiohead all the way to Stone Roses.

The other day I saw this video of a veteran producer who said that today’s music was often coming across “clinical” because the band members would each contribute their parts individually, therefore not enabling them to influence each other during a recording session, and ultimately not creating the level of uniqueness a band could achieve. Can is probably the best example ever of what can happen when you put all musicians in the same room, simply press “record” and let things happen.

Which leads directly to the other really long piece on this double album. “Aumgn”. Supposedly, it was inspired by sinister weirdo Aleister Crowley’s interpretation of the Hindu mantra syllable “om”. Just a minute shorter than “Halleluwah”, it sounds like someone placed a microphone at an occult gathering held in a spacious cave with added avant-garde electronics, tribal drummers and a dog. Maybe a little too weird for some – but hypnotic, daring and well worth diving into for those who carry an open mind.

“Aumgn” is the center piece of the second half of “Tago Mago”, the decidedly more experimental half. “Peking O” is almost short at 11:37, but just as spaced out and challenging. Weird lyrics, vocal insanity and screaming, plenty of echo space, a drum machine (in 1971, can you imagine?) – it feels like something produced for a very strange stage performance. No, they don’t do that on stage anymore, and not in a studio either. “I carry a heart” is what Suzuki seems to say somewhere during “Peking O”. They all carry one and they put all of it into every track on this album.

If you listen to these two tracks in succession, as you’re supposed to, you will have spent almost half an hour exposed to truly challenging musical excursions. You will undoubtedly be ready for the closing track and a beverage. “Bring Me Coffee Or Tea” you will be inclined to say. It’s a soother after what you’ve been through, a reprise of the first half’s genius of building and creating songs from improvisation. It’s like “The End” after a particularly challenging Doors concert.

No surprise: I am more attached to the first part of the album. To “Paperhouse” with its touch of Blues set against a strikingly simple and mechanical, relentless drum beat that Jaki Liebezeit would probably still be playing if he didn’t have to do other stuff as well, like eating and sleeping. The way this song builds and pushes and evolves is simply fascinating. You jump on the track like jumping on a train, you roll along with it with no idea where it takes you, and when it finally stops and you climb off it, you feel a peculiarly satisfying kind of exhaustion.

“Oh Yeah” is not just the title of a song on “Tago Mago”, it’s the least you can say about the album and the song. Liebezeit with another drum pattern that only moves forward while Suzuki contributes vocals that run backwards, Karoli with the best guitar licks he ever played, Czukay doing only what is necessary, and the whole thing coming together as something that some dude on YouTube fittingly commented with “Radiohead based their entire career on the first minute of this song.”

He’s got a point there. Listen to the work of people who point to Can when they are asked who influenced them. Always great music.

Release for review:

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