The magic of Tago Mago is frequently, if not black, then leaning towards the darkness. It has the power to induce hallucinations of horror and ecstasy in equal measure. It has the power to attract and repel both demons and angels with equal effectiveness. At times it sounds like a quarter spinning across a waxy surface that suddenly strikes a nail and goes bucking and bouncing to a stop.
Tago Mago is, in its extended middle — the twin side-long suites of ‘Halleluwhah’ and ‘Aumgn’ — the sound of your 11-year-old self exploring an old abandoned house in the middle of the night, armed only with a flashlight and your bold fluttering heartbeat caught up in murmurs and arrhythmia, a series of persistent high-pitched hums that sound like voices droning in your ears, the fog of your cold breath rendered still-born by the cold battery-powered light leaking from your hand. You will probably be afraid at some point; you will most certainly be uncomfortable. Do not try to run. You will only trip and fall, and be captured in the hammock-like grip of the floorboards that bend underneath your weight but do not splinter or break. That laughing sound you hear behind you is not a sound made by humans. It belongs to the legions of rats pissing and splashing in the pools below, the collection of puddles in the basement — Was that a dog barking? From where? Was it sent to help or sent to kill? — their whiskers soaked in oil from the boxes of abandoned lamps, the ones that must have belonged to the previous owners of the manor, the ones who moved away so suddenly without saying goodbye, without anyone seeing them leave. You have heard legends; stories get passed around town at certain times of the year, about their true identity, about their actual fate, but nobody can tell you what happened for sure.
Talking about chart positions, how the album was received by the press, or the number of units it shifted, is like discussing lottery scratch tickets, or tanning salons, with Christ. It’s like talking water polo with Gandhi. Can didn’t just sidestep the more trivial aspects of the late 20th Century music industry. They made the whole process seem irrelevant. Why shoot for success when you can become immortal? Why aim for stardom when you can aim for in the stars? Why evolve as a musician when you can evolve as a member of the human race? The fact that they accomplished all of this with a more or less traditional rock lineup (drum, bass, guitar, keyboard, vocalist) only makes their accomplishments that much more impressive.
Even Beefheart, probably the most iconoclastic of their peers, still sang in the voice of a Mississippi bluesman, had one considerable boot firmly planted in the recognizable terra firma roots of classic rock and roll. Sure, the Captain moved beyond what he termed the ‘baby mama heartbeat’ but he still couldn’t stop singing about babies and mamas. Even at their weirdest, Can disciples The Fall sound straight-ahead compared to their heroes. ‘Fools Gold’ by The Stone Roses is a lightweight, bubblegum echo aimed directly at the pop charts. On Kid A, Radiohead sounded like Can the way Coldplay initially sounded like Radiohead — that is to say, both tried so nakedly, so reverently, to sound like the original that they missed the spirit entirely and looked pretty foolish in the process.
Joy Division might have gotten there eventually. They were certainly fascinated by new sounds, looking to transcend rock, and had a genius, like-minded producer to help them along the way. But without Ian Curtis to egg them on, they retreated back into pop and safety and perfect metronomic time. Nobody has had the guts to leave rock behind completely, to abandon the beat, to abandon the song, to abandon the desire to connect with an audience, to simply exist as sound, as nature. Can were able to push so far, and so effectively, beyond rock music, that those who emulate them directly can only end up sounding like people who wish to people who are pushing so far. Which, as we all know, is not the same thing. Not even close.