THE ALTERNATE REVIEW: Can – Tago Mago (Spoon/Mute)
By Wallace Wylie
Have you noticed that most attractive people are also stylish?
You would think being attractive would be enough. It gives them an advantage over lesser mortals and makes them stand out in a crowd. On top of that, their clothes look great too! Why would they bother? I’ll tell you why. Attractive people are not competing against unattractive people; they’re competing against the other attractive people. Now I’m not saying these are conscious thoughts, given that forces beyond our control drive each of us in ways not understood. I’m just saying that when an attractive person is looking to make an impact they don’t check out the uglies, they check out the direct competition. Are you with me so far? Good, because we’re going to make an all-important leap.
In cultural terms, hardcore music fans belong to the beautiful people. They are the gatekeepers, the knowledgeable ones, the historians. One thing you need to know about hardcore music fans is that they know what’s on the CD and LP shelves of other hardcore music fans. This means that even if a band is not that well-known in the grand scheme of things, among the beautiful people it’s not going to raise any eyebrows when you say that you’re a fan. Take Can for instance. Obviously the beautiful people know about Can. There was a time in the 70s when owning a Can album made you interesting but, like the small town beauty who travels to the big city only to find that there are beautiful people everywhere, owning a Can album means nothing these days. Mojo write about Can. Liking Can is almost passé. Sure, the uglies still don’t really know about them but who gives a fuck?
Ever wonder how gushing about Pop music became so fashionable among music critics? Wonder no more. They weren’t trying to buy into the mainstream so much as upset some of the other beautiful people. Oneupmanship. Oneupwomanship. Pure evolutionary psychology. There’s still a battle going on, it having started in the late 70s, between ‘serious’ music critics and ‘post-punk’ music critics who embrace Pop as a way to ruffle the feathers of the serious music critic.
Both approaches have their faults. Serious music critics tend to focus on some imaginary golden age that usually coincides with their youth or the time just before their youth, while post-punk critics have a tendency to champion awful, mainstream garbage and do so in a way that makes it seem like they’re discussing Athenian philosophy. Can have a foot in both worlds. Much loved by studious, Mojo reading rock historians, they are also an important bridge between 60s psychedelia and post-punk. In truth, they were a bunch of longhaired hippies who probably didn’t wash much. They recorded in a castle and relied on musicianship and groove rather than song-structure. A thousand post-punk hipsters, desperate to avoid rock‘n’roll clichés, would later champion their rejection of rock norms. Loved in equal measure by beard-stroking rock anal retentives and skinny jeaned hipsters, the real question is are Can any good?
To answer that question let’s actually get down to business and talk about the album being reviewed.
Tago Mago, outside of Silver Apples, sounds like almost nothing on earth. In a relatively short amount of time Can managed to transcend their influences and create something unique and exhilarating. The single most important element of Can’s music was the drumming and in Jaki Liebezeit they had the greatest drummer in rock music. I know you’re probably thinking that means next to nothing, but Liebezeit was phenomenal. He played like some demented, funky, relentless machine. It didn’t hurt that they also had Michael Karoli on guitar, whose ability to interchange between bluesy leads and scratchy grooves made him the most interesting guitarist east of the Atlantic. In 1971 he had no rival outside of Eddie Hazel. Yeah, Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt did stuff too, probably more important than I realise, but Liebezeit and Karoli are my guys. Then we have Damo Suzuki, whose voice, lyrics and melodies provide important inroads into the Can sound. Though nonsensical, asking what a Suzuki lyric means is like asking what a Karoli guitar solo means. It means what it means. It is part of the sound. It is.
Have I answered the question yet? Yes, Can are good. Can are astounding. When Suzuki goes “Oooh” at the start of ‘Halleluhwah’ my pulse triples in speed. Just for an “Oooh”. Then he sings something about a snowman and the song does not stop for another 18 minutes. Eighteen fucking minutes. Can’s music is groove-centric pagan Germanic hippiesexfunk. Its intent is to beckon forth witches on Walpurgisnacht. Things begin slowly with ‘Paperhouse’ but this is merely a ruse to draw you in. ‘Mushroom’ explodes and all around you bonfires blaze. Broomsticks and bats fill the twilight skies above. ‘Oh Yeah’ keeps the momentum flowing. Are those people nearby naked? By the time the aforementioned ‘Halleluhwah’ is done you need a break. With reality. ‘Aumgn’ and ‘Peking O’ are part Stockhausen, part hippie prankster devilment. Scott Creney nails the half-laughter, half-screaming sensation perfectly. ‘Bring Me Coffee Or Tea’ is the gentle sound of tides receding. It is the melancholy end of the trip. Nothing left to do but play it all again. You could also play the bonus material which is, though admittedly great, just another way to get those Mojo readers to buy the album all over again. And they will.
Does anybody actually dislike Can?
There’s a temptation to play the antagonist whenever a vast critical consensus exists. It’s a healthy mentality overall, but if it closes people off to Can then something has gone wrong. No doubt if I read one more Bobby Gillespie Can anecdote I’ll vomit but we need to make sure that Can don’t end up being the property of the rock‘n’roll music collectors, the peddlers of comforting myths, the worshipers of the past. Can belong to the iconoclasts, the cynics, the lovers, the thinkers and the visionaries with hungry ears and a low threshold for boredom. They don’t belong to the beard-stroking, Jagger-imitating, amp-discussing, future-smothering, timid, frightened, white-flag-waving band of rock‘n’roll imitators and music librarians that seem to re-emerge every generation to drag music backwards.
By the late 60s, rock music was already ailing, with a high number of rock ‘n’ roll pastiches already denting the chart. Can ignored this trend, ignored the nostalgia trip, and went off on their own journey. By all means listen to the music of the past, by all means be inspired by it, but for the love of god don’t try to sound like it. If at first you can’t help it then work to transcend those influences. Listen to Can then go somewhere else. If you don’t, then this truly groundbreaking band will become another touchstone for the wrong kind of music worship, and that would negate everything they stood for.
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