Can 'Tago Mago'
'a masterpiece' Can 'Tago Mago'

Can ‘Tago Mago’ 40th anniversary 2 CD
Mute
album review
9/10

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Spoon Records and Mute release a 40th anniversary edition of the classic Can album Tago Mago on 14th November 2011. Ian Johnston is in awe
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Can 'Tago Mago'
'a masterpiece' Can 'Tago Mago'

“The music was like nothing I’d ever heard before, not American, not rock & roll but mysterious and European, a true occult sound.” ”“ Bobby Gillespie, Primal Scream, writing about Can’s Tago Mago.

Can 'Tago Mago'
'a masterpiece' Can 'Tago Mago'

If ever an album deserved a special edition release, then surely the German group Can’s 1971 epochal Tago Mago is it. As Miles Davis’ groundbreaking Bitches Brew (released the year before) is to ”˜jazz’, then Can’s daringly exploratory yet rhythmically grounded and melodic Tago Mago is to ”˜rock’. The new edition of this genre-defying album comes packaged in the original UK artwork for the first time since 1971, and includes a bonus CD featuring 50 minutes of searing unreleased live material from 1972, remastered in 2011. For Can devotees the stunning live recordings of Tago Mago tracks ”˜Mushroom’ and ”˜Halleluwah’ and ”˜Spoon’ – the studio version of which was released as a hit single in Germany and featured on their remarkable 1972 opus Ege Bamyasi – further evinces the thrilling and celebrated near telepathic musical interaction between each member of the group.

If you are unfamiliar with Can’s trailblazing “Krautrock”, the epic double album Tago Mago is as good a point of entry as anywhere to their utterly distinctive and timeless music.

Can were formed in 1968 by ex-student of Stockhausen Irmin Schmidt, who, excited by the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa abandoned his career in classic music to form a group which could utilise and transcend all boundaries of ethnic, electronic experimental and modern classical music. Improvisation was the key.

Tago Mago the first album with the mercurial, fearsome Japanese singer Damo Suzuki on vocals, features the classic Can line up of Holger Czukay on propulsive bass, the late, great Michael Karoli’s (1948-2001) exploratory, improvisational guitars, the mesmerizing drums of Jaki Liebezeit and Irmin Schmidt on rhythmic keyboards, and was recorded at Schloss Nörvenich in 1971, released later that year on United Artists. 

Can’s influence is well known and comprehensive. The forceful impact Can have made on popular music since the group’s formation continues to induce creative seismic reverberations.

The band has always been impossible to pigeonhole and reflecting this, the scope of artists who in recent years have cited Can as a major guiding force is varied. Of all the band’s recorded work, Tago Mago has been most often alluded to as an influence for a host of artists including Mark E. Smith (The Fall’s 1985 LP, This Nation’s Saving Grace, features the tribute track ”˜I Am Damo Suzuki’), Ariel Pink, Radiohead, Fuck Buttons, Sonic Youth, Julian Cope, Factory Floor and Queens Of The Stone Age. Recently Geoff Barrow of Portishead mentioned Can as his favourite group and the most inspirational band ever.

Arguably Can’s most influential aficionado, who introduced the group to many young previously uncomprehending ears, was John Lydon. In July 1977, at the height of ”˜punk’, during an interview with DJ Tommy Vance on Capital Radio, entitled The Johnny Rotten Show: The Punk And His Music, Lydon insisted that all 18 minutes of Tago Mago’s enthralling, hypnotic, ”˜Halleluwah’ be played as one of his favourite records (to his eternal credit Mr ”˜TV on the radio’ did just that). “They’ve got the most amazing drummer I’ve ever heard, it’s like he keeps the beat, plays two at once,” Lydon enthused. “It’s good!” When Lydon formed Public Image Limited a year later, the group’s subsequent recordings would reveal the full extent to which the leading light of ”˜post-punk’ had been stimulated by Can’s unquenchable thirst for musical adventure within an ever pulsating rhythmical construct. The Happy Mondays’ 1989 track ”˜Hallelujah’ obviously presented the massive influence of Tago Mago upon Shaun Ryder’s group.

Tago Mago perfectly represents what Karoli would define as the band’s approach to “instant composition.” The composition would always be taken from the personal to the collective perspective. The music would come from without, to be channelled through the four struggling band members, flowing into Can. Initially, Can would draw uncomprehending comparisons with England’s Pink Floyd from certain quarters. But unlike the Floyd, Can’s musical destination was not outer space. Can had christened their recording studio Inner Space for good reason. As writer David Stubbs has observed, Can were ”˜far in’ as opposed to ”˜far out’. Can would also have virtually no contention with standard American derived rhythm and blues /rock ”˜n’ roll or conventional popular music.

On ”˜Paperhouse’ Michael Karoli’s strange, efficient and ever-developing guitar style, featuring shifting, scratchy riffs, persistent, surging patterns and stabbing, sliding notes, blends with Suzuki’s uniquely non-demonstrative, half whispered vocals, Schmidt’s iridescent keyboard, Czukay’s shepherding bass and Jaki Liebezeit’s relentless drums.

The pace slows for the foreboding, Liebezeit driven ”˜Mushroom’, in which a mournful Suzuki reflects that “I was born and I was dead” in the shadow of a “mushroom head.” ”˜Oh Yeah’ begins with a sound that could be an atomic explosion, Suzuki’s Japanese vocals played backwards and the twin engines of Czukay’s driving bass and Liebezeit’s percussion, leading to Karoli’s dynamic guitar interjects underpinned by Schmidt’s seething keyboards.

The stage is set for the album’s centrepiece, the twisted mutant funk leviathan that is ”˜Halleluwah’. The group are one entity, pulsing ever forward through a series of rhythmic loops that inexorably build into a whirlpool vortex of sound.

Inner Space having been reached, the band enters far stranger, previously uncharted territory with ”˜Aumgn’, ”˜Peking O’ and the concluding track ”˜Bring Me Coffee Or Tea’. This is post rock/post everything abstract soundscape terrain, a dub like sonic chasm were violas are sawed, Suzuki’s vocal shrieks echo around in hallucinatory freefall and Czukay’s bass occasionally shudders into life. But this is not dry academic musical experimentation; this is the sound of a group naturally embracing a creative freedom that perfectly reflects their own questing personalities. This is unquestionably progressive music, in the true sense of the word.

Tago Mago is definitely one of those albums that every time you play it you hear something you missed before, and it has never sounded as good as it does on this release. Forty years on, Tago Mago remains an enigmatic and compelling masterwork.

Further good news is that all fourteen of Can’s studio albums have been newly cut to vinyl from the remastered tapes for release as a vinyl deluxe box set in early 2012. This will include CDs of all the albums, extensive booklets, an exclusive never released live album (vinyl only) and a newly remastered Out Of Reach, the group’s 1978 10th studio album. The vinyl deluxe box set will be available for pre-order at the beginning of October 2011.

The long anticipated Can box set, The Lost Tapes, will be released in March 2012. Supervised by Irmin Schmidt and Daniel Miller, and edited and compiled by Jono Podmore, this will include unreleased studio, soundtrack and live material.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Michael Karoli’s death on the 17 November 2011, Spoon Records will offer a Best Of Michael Karoli Edit for free download on their site.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I literally grew up with this album, discovering it, of course, from John Peel…then got seriously into what the NME called Krautrock, although I didn’t think that any of the other bands were as great as Can. I managed to see them 17 times, too, in London, Brighton, and on one memorable occasion, on Hastings Pier – as we came out of the venue after the gig there was a big storm, with massive waves crashing onto the beach. It seemed very appropriate!

    I’ve played Tago Mago to many people over the years; some loved it, some didn’t get it and others came back to it after initially finding it too strange…and I got a lot of stick from guys for liking “unfeminine” music, too – ha ha!

    Really looking forward to The Lost Tapes next year: I always knew that Can recorded just about everything they did, in the studio and live, so it will be interesting to see what’s been included.

  2. I’ve read a few fan reviews of the live disc & the general consensus seems to be that it’s been “Pitch corrected” & is now running too slow!

    Anyone else notice this?

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