Jun 20, 2012

Jackie Says: Listen to The Lost Tapes by Can

CAN - THE LOST TAPES (Mute Records 2012) 
Contributed by Jackie McKeown (fearless leader of the following bands: 1990s, The Mars Hotel, and The Yummy Fur, and resident of Glasgow)

My first encounter with Can was in the late 1980s. Me and some pals made the 400 mile journey from Glasgow to London to see Neubauten play at the Astoria. Having no friends to crash with, we slept rough in the streets. The next morning we made the journey to the Rough Trade shop on the Portobello Road. It was like an Aladdin's Cave of musical treasures. It felt good blowing Thatcher's girocheques on Pussy Galore albums and the beautifully sleeved 'Yu Gung' 12". My mate took a chance on a copy of the Cannibalism double album. Can was a name that'd been floating about since we'd ditched our Duran Duran Duran albums for the Velvet Underground. Actually, I think I was first aware of them thru a cover of 'Mushroom' on a Mary Chain single from '87.  Anyway, we caught the hellish megabus back to Bonnie Scotland and sat up all night listening to this bizarre compilation over and over again.

The Malcolm Mooney-era tracks made the deepest cuts. 'Father Cannot Yell', 'Outside My Door' and 'Yoo Doo Right' seemed to pick up the baton dropped by the Velvets when Cale got booted out for being too interesting. It took us a while to fully appreciate the Damo Suzuki stuff. 'Mother Sky' fit right into our noise-fixated teen psyches but some of the other stuff seemed a bit....well......'funky'. You have to understand that, living in Glasgow in the late 80s, the only time you heard funk was via the blue-eyed-soul of Hipsway and Love & Money whom we wished upon a slow, miserable death. It wasn't till we started bombarding our bodies with drugs that the joys of Funkadelic, Yoko Ono's 'Fly' and Damo-era Can opened up to us. I think with every passing year I've come to appreciate them that little bit more. They're probably the only band I can think of where, no matter how many times you've dived in, there's always something new to be discovered from within their icy teutonic grooves and warm bubblebath glow. But I truly miss that mainline hit of hearing something like 'Oh Yeah' (my favourite) for the very first time. Well finally here's a chance to do exactly that.

Thanks to (Can keyboardist) Irmin Schmidt's wife's incessant nagging, they've finally rolled up their sleeves and set about documenting what lies at the back of the cupboard. And the fruits of this is The Lost Tapes. A three CD set covering the band's unreleased history from 1968 - 1975. I wanted it. And I wanted it yesterday or sooner. Luckily I remembered that my good friend and all-round stand-up guy Tim B. had been pestering me to write something for Stupefaction. I immediately hit up the caustically funny but warm-hearted Zoe at Mute Records and promised to have 500 words on her desk by Monday morning if she'd send me a copy to review. It is now midnight on Tuesday and I'm due an as yet unknown but surely vile punishment for missing my deadline. Fuck it. I have the recordings and there's 400 miles between me and my sweet executioner. Anyway, this is what I wrote after listening to the whole thing three, maybe four, possibly five times over. Bear with me, this is not a review for the layman (it's not even a review, certainly not in the commercial sense). I can't be arsed knocking out a potted history of the band. If you're unfamiliar with their music or back-story, track down 'Monster Movie', 'Tago Mago', 'Ege Bam Yasi', 'Future Days', 'Delay 1968' and 'Soundtracks' then type 'Can (band) wiki' into yr browser. If yr of the herbal persuasion, call yr guy and order a man-size bag too. You'll be glad you did when the first sweet moments of 'Bel Air' or 'Halleluwah' trickle into yr wee fluffy ears. Anyway, here's me talking at you about german hippies from the future we call the 70s. (Con't after the jump.)

It opens with echoed rim-shots unnervingly close to Jamaican dub reggae (freshly invented that same year), a sub-sonic throb rises with intent before quickly retreating. A hesitant pause.....then WHOOSH!  'Millionenspiel' comes crashing in like a second invasion of Poland.

We're into a propulsive jet-engine attack. What sounds like a slide guitar appears to be in fact the distorted shimmer of an electric organ. Czukay marches up and down the neck of his bass with Jaki calling time like a demented drill sergeant. He suddenly switches from eights to sixteenths on the hats and Karoli ushers in a wobbling, decayed melody on the guitar. With everything going full tilt / hi-octane, the listener is surely thinking "this could only be improved if the music were to suddenly fade out and be replaced by a hippy-dippy flute basking in an Elizabethan waterfall of languid guitar". Of-course nothing of the sort happens. Except it does.

Thankfully, sense prevails and we're back to the dub echoes of the intro, this time with military drum rolls and distorted organ. The full band regroups for a second assault....only for it to be hijacked again, this time by a very Coltrane-esque sax and the sound of bongos from a distant room. It's extremely eclectic. Schizophrenic even. But then this IS part of a film soundtrack ('Das Millionenspiel' or 'The Game of Millions', a German action/sci-fi television film from 1970). Still, all the constituent components of the early Can sound are fully in place: Holger Czukay's Son-of-European Son bass oscillations, Irmin Schmidt's 'hold on, that's not a guitar, how did he get a keyboard to do that?' organ attack, Michael Karoli's knife-wound electro convulsive guitar shocks and Jaki Liebzeit's metronomic drum pulse like a repeated punch to a willing face. All that's missing is a voice...

Enter Malcolm Mooney. Afro-american hipster artist. Possibly a bit mad when he joined them. Close to certifiably nuts when he left. Malcolm's approach to vocals was to take a catchy little phrase and repeat it non-stop from the first bar to the last (usually 20 mins later) without pause for breath nor beverage. This technique is best illustrated here in the neurotic hip-breakers, 'Deadly Doris' and 'Waiting for the Streetcar'. On the latter, Mooney leaves no bar un-sung. It's possibly thee most annoying vocal ever committed to tape. Halfway thru you wanna scream "NO! I am NOT waiting for the fucking streetcar, I'm waiting for you to have a nice hot cup of shut-the-fuck-up so I can listen to the band". And yet, hours later, you find yourself on the street with Malcolm's mantra swirling in yr brain and you know you must return to the scene of the crime and this time turn it up even LOUDER.

This is the Panzer Tank version of the band. Clearly taking their cues from about ten minutes into the Velvet's Sister Ray, they nevertheless give it that street-wise, struttin' funkitivity that only classically-trained music conservatory caucasians from Cologne can. 'Midnight Sky' conjures up visions of a Beat Club TV special with cuts to young german teens dancing with fear in their eyes. The more sedate (and wonderfully titled) 'Your Friendly Neighbourhood Whore' has Mooney opening with his languid 'Soul Desert' vocal style before switching to the clipped syllables of the monumental 'Father Cannot Yell'. Strangest and most illuminating of the Mooney-led tracks are 'When Darkness Comes' and 'True Story'. The former finds the singer in a bleak industrial landscape of dead factories and half-life traces. It's somewhere between Throbbing Gristle's '2nd Annual Report' and the Eraserhead soundtrack. Malcolm sounds nervous, paranoid and exposed: "When darkness comes how do you deal with something? I ask you". His anxiety sounds all too real and anticipates his exit from the band not long after this recording was made. But psychosis is a game of ups and downs. On 'True Story' (from the same final sessions), he sounds playful, mischievous and life-affirmingly in-the-moment. This delicate duet between Mooney and Schmidt draws you in with it's wonderful close-miked intimacy.
Schmidt's organ is by turns Hammer Horror then church-like before slipping into dense atonal clusters. Malcolm relates a disarmingly honest, sometimes very funny and always colourful tale of taking drugs in a basement with some guy he meets on the strasse. Mooney and Schmidt seem entwined, constantly second guessing each other's next move and usually guessing correctly. It makes you feel like he just passed you the joint with a cheeky wink as he recounts the encounter.

As if anticipating possible ear fatigue thru the sheer brutality of much of the Mooney period, the first two CDs intermittently take little breaks to let ye stick the kettle on, phone up for more Mary Jane or just breathe a while. 'Evening All Day' is like unlocking a forgotten echo chamber in the spooky palace of 'Aumgn'
(on the later 'Tago Mago' album). Gentle music box tinkling suddenly bursts into jolts of screeching mania only to be replaced by the sound of tiny metal springs and creaking footsteps. 'The Agreement' is quite literally Mooney taking a/the piss. 'Evening All Day' and 'Blind Mirror Surf' betray the band's
Stockhausen roots (Czukay and Schmidt studied under him). At the same time, they anticipate the future stylings of both Pere Ubu and Neubauten. 'Blind Mirror Surf' evokes the smashed glass paranoia of Ubu's 'Sentimental Journey' and the wheezing asthma attack of Neubauten's 'Thirsty Animal' (right down to
the barking dog). These are 'headphone numbers' and you're left feeling sorry for the studio cleaners when they arrive in der morgen.

The centrepiece of CD1 is surely 'Graublau'. Clocking in at a near seventeen glorious minutes, it doesn't waste time limbering up. Instead, they're in the red from the get-go. When I was a teenager, I thought Can must be thee most telepathic, intuitive and ESP-fueled group in the world. Considering most of their
stuff was entirely improvised, I could never account for the sudden, dramatic moodswings and gear-shifts of 'Mother Sky' and 'Halleluwah' etc. It was only years later I discovered that in reality those scene-changing moments were actually created by Holger Czukay meticulously splicing various jams together with two Revox tape machines and a razor. Rather than 'cheating' however, this judicious editing compacts the drama, gives the tracks a coherent narrative and spares the listener the inevitable noodling which comes from free improv jamming. 'Graublau' is a case in point (though I wonder whether engineer Jono Podmore just loaded the lot onto Pro-Tools and swapped a razor for a mouse, or if it was spliced zum Zeitpunkt von Holger).

Anyway, to use an old Schoenbergian musical phrase from the Second Viennese School, it fucking kicks OFF! Jaki Liebzeit's motorik beat snaps like a whip, Czukay and Schmidt anchor the ship, leaving Karoli to carve riffs into yr soon-to-be frazzled psyche (at 2:40mins in he almost launches into Spandau Ballet's 'To Cut A Long Story Short'). As each jam dissolves, the players spent and panting, the razor edits jump-cut to the next attack formation. It's a densely woven tapestry best kept hidden from Carol King. The fact that a 17 minute improv never rides a white horse to Rivendell speaks volumes about the tight-knitted communal vibe of these guys. Karoli was as much James Williamson as he was Hendrix and Irmin Schmidt is there to remind us that Keith Emerson was a bit of a dick. Near the end, Schmidt employs his karate technique to chop out a morse code distress call. Holger spends much of his time in the high bass register making little stabs at happiness. Sans vocals, Irmin feeds found radio transmissions into the mix, akin to Fassbinder's Baader-Meinhof news reports in 'The Third Generation' (1979). Entropy takes hold in the closing minutes as the music cracks, splits open, dissolves and decays into a steady hum. It's like somebody squeezed a microphone into a beehive. 'Graublau' sounds like a call for fighting and fucking in the streets. Recorded as a soundtrack to Thomas Schamoni's hallucinatory and paranoid  'A Big GreyBlue Bird', it evokes the street insurrection of May '68 and the twin horrors of Altamont and the Tate/La Bianca murders. It's Can kicking out the jams MC5-style to the sound of burning department stores in Frankfurt. Everybody talks about the weather.....but they don't.

The beautiful optimism of 'Oscura Primavera' would have made a perfect coda to the punishing 'Graublau'. It's the prettiest thing on the whole compilation. At first when it began my heart leapt as I thought it might be the soundtrack to Wenders' 'Alice In The Cities' (which Can scored in 1974). I've been searching for
this fruitlessly for over twenty years. It isn't. Though it begins with the same sad introspection of that piece, unexpectedly, the misty melancholy lifts and Micky's guitar switches from minor to major, bringing the sun out to play. It sounds like children sitting in a summer garden learning their instruments. A pretty supply teacher in a floral dress shakes a tambourine to keep them in time. Nobody seems to notice the burning DC-10 overhead on a collision course with Der Teufelsberg. Luckily Capt. Chesley B 'Sully' Sullenberger is at the controls and ditches perfectly in the River Spree. The children play on.

Strangely, it's followed by 'Bubble Rap' which features future vocalist Damo Suzuki. Chronologically perverse but who cares? Jaki and Holger fashion a groove which has ye dancing up, down, side to side and all points in-between. Meanwhile Karoli and Suzuki seem have become engulfed in some kind of sticky ectoplasmic glue which has attached itself to Damo's shoes, making him creep about like the Child Catcher whilst Micky tries to scrape it off his fretboard with little success. With it's depth-charge bass, wide-eyed vocal and wave after wave of crescendos, it's an album highpoint.

The final Mooney track on the comp seems especially poignant. On the advice of a psychiatrist, he quit the band in late 1969 and went back to America. On 'Desert' the singer comes across like a wide-eyed puppy trying to get someone to carry on playing with it. But the boys are tired and listless, managing only simple hits of the ball. This half of the game has come to an end and it's time for a substitution.

Enter Damo Suzuki. Diminutive japanese nomad. Bringer of melody.

A seventeen minute live take of the 'Ege Bam Yasi' track 'Spoon' makes a perfect intro to Can's most fertile period. Gone is the harsh, near-garage assault of the previous incarnation. Jaki Liebzeit's drumming is tighter, more metronomic yet syncopated. Czukay's bass seems more fluid and talkative. Karoli's guitar drips like quicksilver whilst Irmin Schmidt appears to have ditched the wheezing organ and splashed out on some brand-spanking new 70s keyboards, synths and tape delays. The whole sound picture has infinitely more space and yet there is so much more going on. And within it all is Damo. Wordless words dancing on see-saw melodies. 'Spoon' travels down many strange backroads before (at ten mins in) the band come off a sliproad onto the speed-limitless autobahn. Jaki floors it and everybody surges forwards. Karoli whips out the wah-wah and Damo conjures up another of his seemingly effortless yet highly melodic vocal lines.

'Spoon' and the next few tracks are a bittersweet thrill. The music is so inspired and yet it casts a strange light on the 'Ege Bam Yasi' album. That record always seemed like we were given only tiny glimpses into what felt like a much wider picture. 'Sing Swan Song', 'Vitamin C'. 'I'm So Green' and 'Spoon' are amongst the briefest tracks in Can's entire output. And they are surely some of the greatest. Michael Karoli recalled that the sessions were "frustrated by keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and vocalist Damo Suzuki's playing chess obsessively day in, day out" (it was the year Bobby Fischer captured the World Championship from Boris Spassky) and that "completing recording became a frantic process, with some tracks having to be recorded practically in real time".

And so the second half of CD2 gives us a glimpse of what 'Ege Bam Yasi' might have been had they the space and time to explore these ideas more fully. In my Can daydreams, that record is a majestic double-album like it's near-perfect predecessor 'Tago Mago', with 'Spoon', 'Vitamin C' and 'Sing Swan Song' having entire sides to themselves.

A case in point is the gorgeous 'Dead Pigeon Suite'. Opening with Irmin's mournful 'Vitamin C' melody, Holger plays the cyclic bass riff tentatively beneath it. Incrementally slipping in harmonics till his fingers are gently resting on the edge of the strings, it bubbles in the high-register before opening a portal into the
first of many strange rooms. Suddenly we find ourselves inside a clicking, whirring, insectoid robot factory. It's like Steve Reich's 'Drumming' (1971) compressed into two minutes and given a little heart and soul. Rising from the surface, the insectobots swoop into the air and Holger returns to his bass harmonics as Jaki's distant rolling thunder gets ever angrier. A crack of lightning and we're transported to a tranquil japanese garden. This is a place where early 70s NYC minimalism meets the analogue bubblebath of Ralph & Florian's eponoymous 1973 album but it all gets humanised in the teleporter and you never want the process to end. But it does. With a James Brown-esque shriek from Damo, the whole sound picture changes and we're suddenly in the very familiar ice-funk of 'Tago Mago'. Sporting one of the finest drum sounds of the 70s, Jaki snaps the beat taut and begins shaking the whole cell block. Each snare crack is like a firm hand on Severin's white ass. Damo throws in the familiar refrain: "You're losing, you're losing, you're losing your Vitamin C' but it abruptly drops back to the melancholy of the opening keyboard refrain. A few moments later the drums return, re-equalised in the mix, with a very distant Damo mourning the loss of ever-more vitamin c as the music fades to a close. It's a track full of what-ifs. The chinese water garden section in the middle is a mere two minutes. It ends just as you'd be expecting the vocals to usher in whilst Karoli never even gets a chance to tiptoe across the lilys with his guitar. The funky segment is equally brief. Expanded to the lengths they're crying out for, 'Dead Pigeon Suite' could have stood with broad shoulders next to the side-long glories of 'Yoo Doo Right', 'Halleluwah' and 'Bel Air'. As it stands, it's still one of the most exhilirating pieces in the Can catalogue.

Unfortunately 'The Lost Tapes' takes a while to recover after this. 'Abra Cada Braxis' has it's moments but it barely justifies it's ten minutes. The band struggle to achieve lift-off and Damo is on auto-pilot, content to coast along uninspired by the music (having played guitar for Damo on a few occasions, I can testify that he'll happily coast along to any old kraut-vamping but if you throw him a decent ball he'll run with it). At 3:40, Holger makes a brave stab at energising proceedings. Damo suddenly jolts from his slumber....but everybody else is still sleepwalking. Near the end he tries switching to his kooky kabuki scat style but the damage is already done. 'A Swan Is Born' adds very little to the ethereal magic of the album version ('Sing Swan Song' from 'Ege Bam Yasi') and 'The Loop' is charming in a "hey guys, I just bought Led Zep III, let's get pastoral and acoustic" way. CD3 stumbles at the first hurdle by opening with the pointless 'Godzilla Extract'.

According to Schmidt's sleeve notes: 'There wasn't any more left of this on the tape we found, but I think we kept this bit for a good reason'. Think again, dude. Live rock climaxes with a crowd chanting for more don't really send me. If Can are, as the next title suggests, 'On The Way To Mother Sky' then they're on a long yellow brick road and Dorothy hasn't even met the scarecrow yet. It's just the death throes of a guitar solo with no killer riff, no vocal and no structure. This is on the way to 'Mother Sky' like a room full of monkeys and typewriters are on their way to 'Macbeth'. A lot of this stuff seems to be an attempt to make up for the lack of Suzuki era material, especially studio recordings. The CD ends with excellent live renditions of 'One More Night' and 'Mushroom' but the latter is the same recording that came with last year's 'Tago Mago' re-issue. Tut tut. Things pick up slightly with 'Midnight Men'. Basically it's 'Vernal Equinox' from 'Landed' (1975) but given the Peter Gunn treatment from Karoli. 'Networks Of Foam' is a muddy live recording that has a few moments (such as Jaki's drop to an opiated Glitter beat) but there are countless better Can live bootlegs to swipe material from. 'Messer, Scissors, Fork and Light' is a collage of the same soundtrack material which birthed 'Spoon'. It has some lovely sections (and Damo makes a welcome return near the end) but it lacks Holger's intuitive razor editing, with seemingly arbritary decisions linking the material. The sun comes back out (slightly) with 'Barnacles'. It has the same mid 70s funk/disco feel as 'I Want More' and the joyous 'Turtles Have Short Legs' but Rothko Gee's session guy bass brings out the worst in the band, esp. Karoli who plays like he's wearing raybans and pimp shoes. 'E.F.S. 108' is another of their ethnic forgery series. This one seems to be the Devil from 'The Exorcist' riding around on a shetland pony. At 2:07 it's probably two minutes too long.

Thankfully, they manage to pull a couple of pretty rabbits out of the hat for the end. 'Private Nocturnal' drifts like a sad ghost thru an empty city. Swathed in feedback and ever-filtering synth washes, it takes unexpected chordal routes thru the rubble of the bass and percussion. Occasionally wandering into Bowie's 'Moss Garden' via the plucking of what sounds like a koto, it's a spooky lament which easily justifies it's seven minutes. At times it had me recalling Rudi Vogler wandering thru the grainy monochrome of 70s Europe looking for Alice's grandmother in Wender's 'Alice In The Cities' (1974). I even thought I could
hear the steady hum of the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, a futuristic suspension railway featured in the film, and my mind drifted to thoughts of the little kid by the cafe jukebox humming along to Canned Heat. What I hadn't realised was that 'Private Nocturnal' had ended and I was now listening to the actual 'Alice'
soundtrack. Heavens! The Grail. It's only two minutes of it and it's missing the empty spaces where Karoli plays the melody by itself. But fuck it, it's the 'Alice In The Cities' soundtrack and I've been searching for it since I caught it on tv in the late 80s. It's impossible to be objective about this fragment of music. It's
completely hard-wired to the images in what is one of the finest movies of the 70s. Every time I play it I'm back to being a teenager sat up watching late night Channel 4. Irmin's funereal synths move with the same fluidity as Robby Muller's camera as it follows Rudy Vogler thru dusty americana searching
for....something.....forever trying to capture it in polaroid...and failing. This is one of those polaroids. Hazy. Indistinct. Sad landscapes and half forgotten memories struggling thru the grain. It's a lovely, touching coda to a mesmerising set of recordings. So what if it stumbles here and there? The Beatles' White Album can barely make it thru a couple of songs without dropping in a clunker every ten minutes. And that's only a double. The first two CDs here rarely put a foot wrong and, if CD3 is pretty patchy, there's still a good half hour of wonderful music on it. Pretty soon 'The Lost Tapes' will shake off it's novelty factor, settle down and take it's place in the Can back catalogue, filed somewhere between Delay '68 and the 2nd Cannibalism compilation.

There's a funny little bit in Irmin Schmidt's sleeve notes where he says: 'Holger would have liked to keep everything. He kept saying: "This will be your pension. You will thank me for this one day!" whilst Jaki would just insist on "Erase!"'. Thankfully Holger was the one sat at the two Revox machines. And he
was holding a razorblade, not just to splice the tape, but in-case Jaki got too close to the erase button. Halleluwah.

Can's The Lost Tapes (and much more) is available on Mute Records.
Buy Can albums via Amazon here.

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