Can is one of those bands that always lurked on the periphery of my musical awareness, but never received my undivided focus. I knew they were early innovators of experimental rock music. I knew that bassist Holger Czukay recorded some beautiful instrumental albums with David Sylvian. I knew I should listen to them, but I just never got around to it.
Now that I've checked out Tago Mago from EPFL, I know what I've been missing. This is a difficult album, but it is completely unique and undeniably awesome.
On first listen, I guessed that Tago Mago came out somewhere in the mid 1970s, when punk innovators like Wire and Television were proving that you didn't need mad technical chops to create vital and relevant musical experimentation.
I was way off. Can's first album came out in '69, and Tago Mago was released in 1971.
I can't even begin to describe what this sounds like. It's rock music, but it embodies the spirit of punk and the spontaneity of jazz. It's adventurous and experimental, even for a time when the musical world was filled with the adventurous experiments of artists like Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground. It's chaotic, but it holds together without ever exploding.
This is punk before punk existed. This is jazz without the stodgy elitism. This is rock without the constraints that normally define rock. This is, quite simply, everything that makes the greatest punk and jazz and rock so damned exciting.
I haven't read much of British rock critic David Stubbs' writing, but if his essay here is typical of his style, he should be banished to the dark recesses of romance novels and open-mic poetry. His words epitomize the pseudo-intellectualism that makes people despise music journalists. For example:
"There's a moment here when, so in synch are the band that the song actually levitates."
No, jackass, the song did not actually levitate. Your inability to use proper punctuation or sentence structure, however, did make my blood pressure rise.
Anyway. Stubbs' commentary on the album is rotten, but the essay by Primal Scream vocalist Bobby Gillespie clearly demonstrates a love for Can's music, and his story about jamming with 2/5 of Can is genuinely exciting. Best of all, he doesn't resort to any Stubbs-isms like "beetling basslines" or "impassioned vocals creating a mist of condensation."
(Here's some obscure music trivia I figured out from reading the liner notes: The name of the band The Mooney Suzuki comes from the surnames of original Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney and his replacement, Damo Suzuki.)
Listen if you like: Kraftwerk, Sonic Youth, Miles Davis' fusion experiments from the late '60s and early '70s, Zappa, Pink Floyd's early records, Wire, Television.
If it were food, it'd be: One of my co-workers turned me on to the fact that Huy Fong's Sriracha hot sauce is delicious with pretty much everything, including pizza, popcorn, veggie dogs, mac & cheese, and even peanut butter sandwiches. Tago Mago is like the unholy combination of Sriracha and peanut butter: it shouldn't make any sense, but it's utterly fantastic.