Can - The first four album reissues

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For those who aren't aware that Can made some of the greatest rock music ever, read on.


     

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Can – Monster Movies (1969)


Can – Soundtracks (1970)


Can – Tago Mago (1971)


Can - Ege Bamyasi (1972)


 


Who could, in all honesty, sound like Can? For starters, who could possibly replicate the musical background of the band? Irmin Schmidt (keyboards) and Holgar Czukay (bass) studied with Stockhausen. Michael Karoli was a rock guitarist and Jaki Liebezeit was a drummer on the German free jazz scene. Liebezeit's decision to ditch free jazz noodlings for massive motonous grooves must go down as one of the most serendipitous moments in the history of rock. May we all be truly thankful.


 


A simple precis for those in the know – The first four reissues come with no extra tracks but do sound a whole lot better. There's a mini essay in each and some photos showing them in their pomp. And that's it. For those who aren't aware that Can made some of the greatest rock music ever, read on.


 



 


Released in 1969, Monster Movies finds Can at their most megalithic. "Father Cannot Yell" kicks off with a hyperactive car alarm, a menacing bass line and singer Malcolm Mooney nonsensically riffing. For some reason a massive sonic burp interrupts things; after it Karoli's hectoring guitar joins in and Liebezeit's metronomic forms the framework for everyone else in the band to do their thing. On "Mary Mary So Contrary" Mooney recites the nursery rhyme before moving on to his own verbal flights of fancy. Fantastically, he sings the nursery rhyme with the intensity of a great actor tackling the bard. "Outside my Door" sounds like classic rock. Almost. Chimes that sound like a harmonica, a chugging guitar and an almost insanely bluesy chorus seem normal enough but then Mooney completely loses it, shrieking himself hoarse, before gongs herald the final freak out. And then we come to "Yoo Doo Right". Where to begin? Condensed from a 12-hour improv session this is Can utterly primal and essential. Menacing rolling drums assault Mooney who sounds distant and stoned. Soon the drumming becomes heavier; much heavier. Monolithic drums batter keyboard drones and Mooney has begun to plead as he repeats the same few phrases over and over again – 'You made a believer out of me.' After a while, once Karoli has unchained his guitar, there are the sounds of heavy machinery, scraping and collapsing. Imagine a steel works having a mental breakdown – this is what it would sound like. And then everything fades away until just Jaki's drumsticks and Mooney can be heard...and then it all starts again, and we're not even half way! The nearest thing to it has to be Sister Ray and not just because they are the same length; rather it is because both are so simple – dumb, even – and both are incredibly timeless, powerful and, above all, brilliant. Towards the end Mooney breaks up the words, turning them into a nonsensical Dadaist stew. On and on he sings – if you can call it that – until he begins to make sense again, talking about a drum beat going on for twenty one hours a day. Well, I guess that what's being with Can must be like. Sadly for Mooney he couldn't take it – in a later concert he found himself repeating over and over again the phrase 'Upstairs, Downstairs.' He suffered a nervous breakdown. Well, all I can say is – imagine 12 hours of Yoo Doo Right. He probably got off lucky.


 



 


Mooney hardly appears on Can's follow up album, a collection of songs for films (hence the title Soundtracks). You have to wonder at the thought process that went into the decision to shunt Can onto the soundtrack of a film, and if it didn't necessarily help the films much (they all languish in obscurity these days) the strictures of scoring for films didn't help Can all that much either. This is certainly the weakest of the first four reissues but there's still some great stuff here. "Tango Whiskyman" features effortlessly skitterish funky drumming, dislocated vocals and, shockingly, a chorus that can only be described as poppy. "Don't Turn the Light On, Leave Me Alone" highlights the problems Can had. Yes, it's languid and funky, but by the time they are really getting locked into the groove the track ends, rather than hurl itself pell mell into the monumental wig-out you're hoping for. The utterly un-Can like "She Brings the Rain" ends the album. The highlight of the album – "Mother Sky" - precedes this lazy, jazzy trundle. "Mother Sky" is full-on Can, and not least because it goes on for almost a quarter of an hour. It starts with insistent guitar from Karoli and apache drumming that Klaus Dinger would be proud of. A couple of minutes in and the guitar disappears and leaves just the beat – the rest of track conjures up images of a bad trip on a long train journey as Jaki batters you with drums, drums, and more drums.


 



 


None of which, incredibly, prepares you for Tago Mago (1971). With new vocalist Damo Suzuki in full flow, Can now take things to the next level. And at times that can be pretty frightening. "Paperhouse" opens the album innocently enough. There's a light groove, much more spacious than the ones on Monster Movies, but then everything begins to contract. The spaciousness disappears, the air is being sucked out of the studio and a black hole seems to be pulling everything into it...until eventually the black hole turns itself inside out and air and light returns. The earlier groove sees out the rest of the track. On "Mushroom" the drums sound like they were being played in a different room (or building, even) whilst Damo sounds, as ever, as though he were singing from a different planet. "Oh Yeah" kicks off with a huge explosion and then settles into a typically insistent groove with Damo supplying backwards vocals. Keyboard drones join in before everything is inexplicably interrupted by what can only be described as the sound of a giant metallic elastic band being twanged. Can don't seem to notice. But it's with "Halleluhwah" that Can really begin to move things on. For one thing its eighteen minutes were created by editing rhythm loops and for another it contains more invention than most bands could hope to summon up in an entire career. It's a groove, of course, at times funky, and at times it sounds like the drums will surely do for you. But there are also keyboards that sound like Autobahn in the (very) slow lane, guitars that plead and wail and what appears to be the violent assault of several violins. By the time the end is in sight a whirl of evil carnival keyboards race up a helter skelter into what must be oblivion...this is, if you haven't gathered, epic stuff. "Aumgn", on the other hand, is probably the most frightening and disturbing record ever made. Low moaning drones, the sounds of violin bows being used on rat cages, dog barks, drills - an air of deranged madness. Like Scott Walker's Tilt, this is best listened to in small doses and maybe, unlike Tilt, in another room altogether, with the door closed. "Peking O" heads off in similar territory to Halleluhwah with a dark shimmer and Damo sounding pretty nuts, even for him. Then everything lurches into an unusual territory with a cheesy organ part and a discordant piano. Its not long though before drum machines kick in and Damo really loses it, speaking in hysteric gibberish like a man possessed not by the devil, but by a lunatic that's overdosed on Sunny Delight and Speed. "Bring Me Coffee or Tea" ends the album and sounds like the most peaceful and melodic thing you'll ever hear. It isn't, but after the previous 45 minutes of Halleluhwah, Aumgn and Peking O you could be forgiven for thinking so.



Fans of a band will often point to either the earliest or the most 'difficult' work as the best. To like a band at their most obtuse is a badge of pride and Tago Mago's place as the Can album perhaps owes something to this factor. But there is no doubt that Tago Mago is astounding, even if it isn't always easy to listen to. You are in no doubt that this is a band that could do anything it wanted to. It turned out that Damo and Irmin wanted to play chess, and this fact meant that Can were actually short of material for Ege Bamyasi (1972). This lack of material meant that they had to add the single "Spoon" to the album. Incredibly, Spoon sold 300,000 copies due to its use as the theme to a TV thriller series. The show must have been pretty frightening because there is an air of dark, ancient menace about the track that is palpable. Ege Bamyasi kicks off in typical Can style with "Pinch", the groove being augmented by slinky, funky guitar stylings and sci-fi keyboard squiggles. Damo uses his voice as an instrument, alternatively murmuring and shrieking and being utterly unintelligible until he ends the track by saying its name. "Sing Swan Song" opens with running water and proceeds to showcase Can at their most languid. It conjures up the feeling of an incredibly hot day where moving is an effort, shade is non-existent and the horizon is a permanent shimmer. It is Can in slow (rather than Flow) motion. "One More Night" is also laid back although it sounds as though there is a Faust-like dentist's drill interrupting the proceedings for a while. "Vitamin C" features military-funk drumming, crashing cymbals, medieval keyboards and mournful wails before disintegrating into cosmic chatter. 'Hey you!' Shouts Damo. 'You're losing, you're losing, you're losing, you're losing your Vitamin C!' Genius all round, as Mark E Smith was well aware. "Soup" returns to the outer limits of Tago Mago, though it all starts off innocently enough. Halfway though everything breaks down in wailing, sonic (g)rumbles, drills – more sounds of madness. It probably reflects pretty well the inside of Malcolm Mooney's head on the way home to America. And, along with "I'm So Green", a three minute pop number that could almost be described as normal, there we are. Utterly unrepeatable genius. 


 


Words : Chris Dawson