Monday, April 02, 2012

This blog has been going for over 7 years, and for some reason I have not once posted on the band known as Can. Or, if I have, then I can't seem to find any evidence of it. A crazy ommission in the grand scheme of things, since, if I was going to make a list (what, do you want me to make a list?! Well...), I'd rate 'em up there in my top 10 for all of eternity, or something to that effect. Certainly, their first five studio LPs, their "core" output, if you will - Monster Movie, Soundtracks, Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days - are a mindblowing disc-by-disc musical trip which few others have ever equaled. Along w/ Miles Davis' electric albums from roughly the same period, or Pharoah Sanders' massive, God-like output from the day, they remain brain-frying documents which organically meld together a disparate range of influences into a unique whole: avant-jazz, the sounds of the Third World, electronics, psychedelia and something you might even call a little rock & roll. Hailing Can as iconoclasts worthy of such praise has become a cliche in this day and age, since just about any worthy band you may care to mention, along w/ many an unworthy band I'd prefer not to discuss, have noted them as a, err, "influence" on what they are. But cliches are also often born from great truths, so let's get on w/ the show.
I first heard 'em back in '93, as the '90s Krautrock revival was taking place and long overdue CD reissues (remember them?) were finally bringing the likes of Amon Duul 1/2, Neu! and Faust back into the public eye (although that may be a falsehood: I fluked most of this stuff on LP, as CD reissues of a lot of this guff was still a year or two from happening). To be honest, after having been exposed to Neu! (via a secondhand Best Of LP on Cherry Red from 1982 which was located and purchased) and Faust (via a beat-up copy of IV on vinyl), both of which musically nailed me on the head to a tee - Neu!'s clinical precision and Faust's chaotic noise - Can didn't make much of a dent at first. It was the Soundtracks album I first procured, the band's 1970 release which collects together various soundtrack pieces recorded by the band and sees them in a transitional mode between their first two singers, Malcom Mooney and Damo Suzuki (the album features tracks by both). Of course, I love the record now, but at the time, barring perhaps the epic "Mother Sky", it sounded like a bunch of none-too-remarkable hippie jams. But persist I did, if only because I felt like I was being berated by all sides to discover the genius of this neglected band; I say this because at the time, a band like Can was neglected by all but a few, and until the mid '90s, most of the now-revered Kraut bands were considered forgotten cut-out fodder by many (true!).
And so Tago Mago was soon purchased, along w/ Ege Bamyasi and Future Days - the Holy Trinity of Can platters - along w/ a copy of their debut from '69, Monster Movie. Only when all these records are placed together as parts of a greater whole, do they truly make sense. I don't mean to demean them by implying that as individual albums they don't, but hearing the band in constant transition throughout these discs is what really illuminates their genius, as the three of them - or four of them, if I'm to include Monster Movie - are very different from each other.
Original singer, Malcom Mooney, an Afro-American artist living in Cologne at the time, sang on the first album, and whilst I wouldn't proclaim him to be much of a talented vocalist by "normal" standards, his propulsive, nervous bark is a perfect accompinament to the band during this raw period, when they sounded more like a Germanic take on White Light-period Velvets or the glorious, rough two-note drone of 1st-LP Seeds than the free-form, genre-crossing troupe they would soon become. The album is made up of three mid-length tracks on the A side, and the 20-minute monolith on the B side, "Yoo Doo Right", which, as everyone points out, is their "Sister Ray", if the band is/was to have a "Sister Ray" (and obviously they did. Got me?). MM is an incredible disc, totally out of the loop for its time, especially so for a German rock band (it's "avant-garde" in some respects, but way more rough-house garage rock & roll than just about anything else on the continent at the time), but for myself, once Damo Suzuki joined is when Can really hit the ground running.
The triumvrate of Tago Mago/Ege Bamyasi/Future Days, from 1971, '72 and '73, respectively, are hard to beat. The band was in total shapeshifting mode by this period, a 5-headed beast who disregarded the rules of rock music more than any outfit of their era, throwing in elements of musique concret, proto "world music", dub, psychedelic funk, ambient and possibly a moment or two of what you might call "punk rock". This has all been covered before; not by me, but many others. But still, since I haven't said it, I feel like I'm only repeating others, and not merely myself. Tago Mago is the 2LP magnum opus, a sprawling epic split into two pretty distinct halves: the first disc contains actual "songs", side B being the meta-funk of "Halleluhwah", a Can fave for moi, 18+ minutes of James Brown groove as Jaki Liebezeit and bassist Holger Czukay lock it in and don't let go. Much like Brown's rhythms, it's been ripped off a thousand times, not by gangstas and OGs, but white indie folks (particularly skivvy-wearing Limeys). The second half of Tago Mago is loose as a goose: two sides of extended studio bong hits which probably won't make a great deal of sense if you're into the band's more "rock" material, but for myself, "Aumgn", "Peking O" and "Bring Me Coffee Or Two" play out the rest of the set perfectly. Drones, noise, screaming, fucking around. There's been a lot of that stuff the past 40 years - I've seen it, I've done it - but Can did it better than you or me.
Ege Bamyasi is a single LP, just as good as Tago Mago, possibly better. It's got 7 tracks, two of which hover around the 10-minute mark. Again, it's the perfect meeting point of 5 heads which surprisingly ever found common cause in the first place, the band being a strange combination of older, academic eggheads (Czukay, Liebezeit and keyboard player Irmin Schmidt were all well into their 30s), a younger "head", guitarist Michael Karoli, and the itinerant Japanese busker on vocals, Mr. Suzuki. Ege Bamyasi is the perfect bridge twixt the two discs it's surrounded by: it possesses the harsh, avant sound of Tago Mago, w/out ever going off the deep end, paving the way for the awesome, minimal drift of Future Days.
FD has 4 tracks, the B side taken up wholly by the 20-minute number, "Bel Air". The 9-minute title cut is one of the best things the band ever did, a percussive glide w/ lots of room to move and Suzuki's barely-audible vocals on top; the 3-minute mover, "Moonshake" being the best 3 minutes of start-to-finish they laid to tape. FD shows that the band knew all about space within a song. Can were essentially a "jam band": the group and their truckload of gadgets would hibernate in the studio, Inner Space, for days on end and pick out the best of it for release. In one very real sense, Can were a "prog" band, as "progressive" as it gets, but since the term "progressive rock" got hijacked by gear nerds w/ neo-classical ambitions, Can fit nowhere in that scene. Their approach was totally garage-oriented, grabbing whatever was at their disposal and, despite their obvious chops, celebrating a certain amateurism and desire to make a distinctly primitive noise.
After FD, things got a little tighter, perhaps a little slicker. Suzuki had left, and band members shared vocals on 1974's Soon Over Babaluma. It's a record I like a lot, one which sounds cleaner, more full in sound, but still has that Can groove throughout, sounding a whole lot like Miles ca. Big Fun or In A Silent Way. And there was more to come from the band after that, both good and bad, but that's another story. There's also another Can disc from the period well worth getting your mitts on: 1976's Unlimited Edition, which collects together outtakes and unreleased tracks from 1968-1976. Some are long - edging the 20-minute mark, and some are short (just over a minute) - and some are from the band's mythologised "Ethnological Forgery Series" in which Can attempted the emulate the music of different regions like a Folkways document. The sequencing is something I have trouble with - it jumps from brief, semi-atonal musical sketches to fully-realised ambient pieces - not perfectly clustering the music styles together the way I think they should've been, but hey, that's nitpicking and no slight on the actual music. If you're going to own everything else from the crucial 1968-'73 years, then Unlimited Edition is also something you definitely need. There's also Delay, from 1968, ultra-primitive recordings which were originally slated to be their first LP (until no one would release it), mandatory if you're super-keen on the '60s garage-rock side of the band, but for me this remains a great historical curio with a few hot tracks, but not something which musically satisfies the way their later, more expansive material does.
For just about any post-1976 music worth a dime, Can - much like the Stooges or Captain Beefheart - are seen as a Ground Zero band: that is, their music remains a part of the basic template for any music from the past 35 years worth listening to, their sound so all-encompassing, so defining within the realms of left-field sounds that their classic '60s/'70s period remains a before/after equation. Or, to frame it another way, you couldn't possibly have made music worth listening to within the past 35 years without having heard and been influenced by the music of Can (or the Stooges et al). Not true, of course, but the strike rate's high enough that it's a good line to throw around at cocktail parties and I wouldn't necessarily laugh in your face if I heard you uttering it. There's a 3CD box comin' out in a few months of previously unreleased material from the glory years. I need it. You need it. I don't think this entry has contributed greatly to the canon of Can worship within the global community, but I've said my piece.

1 comment:

Steev Hyooz said...

Is it true that Can recorded everything up to Soon... on a 2-track? I can't remember where I heard that, but its pretty amazing if its true.