Can – The Lost Tapes – album review

Can – The Lost Tapes (Mute)
CD / LP
Available 18 June 2012

This is it, The Big Enchilada. Or should that read The Big Frankfurter? Either way, in the annals of the archaeology of ”Ëœrock’ music this really is a landmark event; akin to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Turin shroud or Joan Collin’s birth certificate.

The Lost Tapes is a veritable treasure trove box set of unreleased studio tracks, soundtrack compositions and live material by the Cologne-based “Krautrock” group Can. Can, surely one of the most daring, innovative and influential bands of the past 45 years (PiL, The Fall, The Happy Mondays and Sonic Youth would readily concur), release their Lost Tapes via Mute (in a limited edition 3CD 10” box with a 28-page booklet, eventually to be released on vinyl) on 18 June 2012.

Can ”“The Lost Tapes is an incredible cornucopia of music, recorded at the band’s peak between 1968 and 1977, which stands equal to their very greatest albums, such as Monster Movies (1969), Tago Mago (1971, see the previous Louder Than War review of the 40th Anniversary edition by your correspondent), Ege Bamyasi (1972) or Future Days (1973). The Lost Tapes have been assembled by Can founder member and keyboard player Irmin Schmidt and Mute records overlord Daniel Miller, compiled by Irmin Schmidt and his musical collaborator of recent years Jono Podmore, and edited by Jono Podmore.

When the celebrated Can studio in Weilerswist was sold to the German Rock N Pop Museum in 2007, they acquired the whole thing, including apparently the army mattresses that covered the walls for sound protection, and transferred it to Gronau. Whilst dismantling the studio, master tapes (not included in the sale) were found and stored in the Spoon archive. With barely intelligibly marked labels, no one was sure what the tapes contained until Irmin Schmidt and Jono Podmore started to go meticulously through over 30 hours of music, recorded at Wellerswist/’Inner Space’ (formerly a cinema) and the their legendary castle retreat, Schloss Norvenich (the owner of which, an art collector, let the band use the studio free of charge).

What they found was years of archived material, not outtakes, but tracks which had been shelved for a variety of reasons ”“ soundtracks to films that were never released and tracks that did not fit onto the final versions of albums due to restrictions of space in the vinyl era.

A most scrupulous approach to quality control differentiates The Lost Tapes from less significant anthologies containing previously un-issued compositions by other groups. Thankfully, The Lost Tapes does not contain any poorly recorded gigs, studio rough sketches or mediocre demos. This is all crucial, vintage Can, retrieved from the motherlode and vigilantly appraised, evaluated and classified to warrant that The Lost Tapes withstands comparisons with their pre-eminent work.

Revealing formerly unheard pieces, their superlative quality film music and invigorating live performances, The Lost Tapes is incandescent music produced by the classic Can line up of Holger Czukay on bass, Michael Karoli on guitars, Jaki Liebezeit on drums and Irmin Schmidt on keyboards, and on most tracks, vocals from Malcolm Mooney or Damo Suzuki. Brimming with unconventional music created with conventional instruments, The Lost Tapes is nothing less than an alternative history of one of the greatest bands of the rock epoch.

As Irmin Schmidt explains in the liner notes, in typical Can fashion the running of The Lost Tapes neither follows recognisable categories (such as soundtracks, studio jams, live recordings) or a sequential arrangement but followed his “feelings for the music. Like keeping to the natural flow of a narrative.”

Nonetheless, there are two main slabs of musical material: the recordings before, with or after Malcolm Mooney (CD 1 and CD2 until the fifth track ”“ Mooney left the group at the close of 1969); and the recordings with and after the departure of Damo Suzuki in September 1973 to become a Jehovah’s Witness.

The first CD set the tone for the entire set with the propulsive ”ËœMillionenspeil’, written for the 1970 German television movie, Das Millionenspeil (The Game Of Millions), focused upon a future shock survival of the fittest game show. ”ËœMillionenspeil’ pulsates and drones with the questioning bass of Holger Czukay, the late Michael Karoli’s utterly distinctive reverberating guitar and Schmidt fermenting keyboards, Gerd Dudek on saxophone (a guest from the Manfred Schoof Quintet) brings a touch of focussed free jazz, while Jaki Liebezeit’s incredible hypnotic drumming anchors the entire piece.

Malcolm Mooney, Can’s crazed visionary, African-American singer, enters the fray for the mesmerizing, ten-minute locked-in groove ”ËœWaiting For The Streetcar’ (which even eclipses the Can classic ”ËœUphill’, from Delay 1968, for a sense of trancelike derangement) the frantic, spellbinding ”ËœDeadly Doris’ (in which Mooney name checks The Beatles’ ”ËœSexy Sadie’ for his own amusement) and the truly spooked, free form ”ËœWhen Darkness Falls’.

”ËœEvening All Day’ is musical thought set adrift on sea of strings and gongs (aptly described by Irmin Schmidt as “a magical sound-atmosphere”), ”ËœBlind Mirror Surf’ contemplates the Schloss Nörvenich’s ruined ballroom, while ”ËœObscura Primavera’ is a simply beautiful meditative piece, powered by tambourine and plaintive guitar. CD one is dominated by the full-on epic guitar attack/ shortwave radio buzz and airplane propeller noise of ”ËœGraublau’, from the 1969 film Ein großer graublauer Vogel (A Big Grey-Blue Bird). The 16-minute ”ËœGraublau’ (which mirrors ”ËœConnection’ from the 1976 compendium album, Unlimited Edition) manages to match the intensity of the magnificent ”ËœMother Sky’ (recorded for the cult classic movie Deep End) on Soundtracks (1970).

Disc two begins with Malcolm Mooney’s pagan for ”ËœYour Friendly Neighbourhood Whore’ (“Oh she works all night, with her cash register box”¦”), a swirling, Jaki Liebezeit fuelled groove. In ”ËœTrue Story’ Mooney recalls the power of “the great plant” rolled by a friend, ”ËœMidnight Sky’ is dazzling funked up Can, led by Mooney’s inspired, unfettered lyrical spontaneity, while on the minimal ”ËœDesert’ (a dry run for Soundtracks’ ”ËœSoul Desert’, for the film Mädchen mit Gewalt) the singer seems to expire and evaporate before our ears.

Japanese singer Damo Suzuki, a former busker, first appears on an invigorating, marathon live version of ”ËœSpoon’, a single from the monumental Can album Ege Bamyasi. Arguably, Suzuki was the ultimate Can vocalist ”“ introverted and whispering during certain passages of the band’s music, before launching himself into paroxysms of mania, a shrieking dervish, in others. One of Damo Suzuki’s prominent songs within The Lost Tapes is the 12 minute ”ËœDead Pigeon Suite’, taken from the score for the TV crime film Tote Taube in der Beethovenstrasse (Dead Pigeon on Beethovenstrasse). Integrating elements of ”ËœVitamin C’, another Ege Bamyasi track, ”ËœDead Pigeon Suite’ begins with beautiful flute and percussion, bells and reflective, echoing guitar. Then, after six minutes, suddenly ”ËœDead Pigeon Suite’ dramatically changes. Czukay funky bass kicks in, Damo Suzuki starts shouting the vocal of ”ËœVitamin C’, and the track takes off for destinations unknown. ”ËœA Swan Is Born’ charts the origins of Ege Bamyasi’s delicate ”ËœSing Swan Song’ while the live ”ËœAbra Cada Braxas’ creates a steadily building vortex of sound through which Suzuki manages to sing out his free, improvised lyrics and screams.

The third CD of The Lost Tapes contains debatably the most strange, abandoned and ”Ëœfar in’ material in the entire box. The furious drumming, the incandescent guitar soloing of Can’s alternative guitar hero Karoli and the gripping keyboard riff ”ËœOn The Way To Mother Sky’ offers a breathtaking four minute glimpse at the creation of ”ËœMother Sky’. The wraithlike ”ËœMidnight Men’ is a remake/remodel of the timeless ”ËœHunters And Collectors’/”ËœVernal Equinox’ tracks from Can’s oft overlooked 1975 LP, Landed. The glam rock tinged Landed was the second Can LP to be produced after the departure of Damo Suzuki, with Michael Karoli ensconced as occasional singer, but the simmering, driving ”ËœMidnight Men’ was, Irmin Schmidt reveals, used as the score to the pilot of the German TV series, Eurogang. ”ËœMesser, Scissors, Fork and Light’, from the music produced for the 1971 picture Das Messer, marks the same terrain as ”ËœSpoon’. The fearsome, jazzy, 12 minute live workout ”ËœNetworks of Foam’ (Can’s rhythm machine enveloped by wah-wah pedals) and the late period and deeply funky ”ËœBarnacles’, featuring the former Traffic bassist, Rosko Gee, mine a similar rich seam to the golden electric period of 70s Miles Davis.

How anyone could continue to listen to most comparatively vacant contemporary bands after eavesdropping the contents of The Lost Tapes defies belief. Though over four decades old, The Lost Tapes embodies Can’s inspirational desire to experiment, discover and make simple yet inventive rhythmic music. This magical, milestone box set is a real treat for Can aficionados and the uninitiated alike, if they are willing to take the plunge. Do not hesitate to purchase a copy, Can are still miles ahead.

TRACKLISTING

CD 1

Millionenspiel / Waiting For The Streetcar / Evening All Day / Deadly Doris / Graublau / When Darkness Comes / Blind Mirror Surf / Oscura Primavera / Bubble Rap

CD2

Your Friendly Neighbourhood Whore / True Story / The Agreement / Midnight Sky / Desert / Spoon (Live) / Dead Pigeon Suite / Abra Cada Braxas / A Swan Is Born / The Loop

CD3

Godzilla Fragment / On The Way To Mother Sky / Midnight Men / Networks Of Foam / Messer, Scissors, Fork and Light / Barnacles / E.F.S. 108 / Private Nocturnal / Alice / Mushroom (Live) / One More Saturday Night (Live)

All words by Ian Johnston. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Can’t wait to hear it! I think it’s gonna be the release of the year come what may. I was invited along for that Inner Space studio re-opening in 2007 – mental. Talked to Rene Timmer then and he never mentioned these tapes!

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