Can: Tago Mago
Written By Mr. Harold Zo
Our thirty-five city tour of India has been a blast. That may have been an unfortunate choice of words to use about our performance in the Jaipur fireworks warehouse, but the less told of that night the better. Other than that incident and some minor larceny from our touring van while we were snarled in traffic in New Delhi (one of our roadies was hogtied and stuffed into a suitcase but later called and said he was fine so we saved some money on bribes), it has gone swimmingly. The unfortunate thing about touring as a mid-profile music act is that your priorities are publicity and profit. Lingering becomes a crime against your career, because even though you have to consider your context and know something about the crowd you’ll be playing to, that’s the extent of your interaction with a place before you have to pack up and move on. It’s all a mite too utilitarian for the band and me, which is why we need frequent balms for the pressures of the road. One of my favourite healing agents is the fortieth anniversary reissue of German band Can’s 1971 double-album Tago Mago.
As one of the leading members of a genre called “Krautrock,” Can holds a peculiar place in popular music history. While they called themselves progressive and are counted by most as being a progressive rock band, their relationship to rock music is far more tangential than British bands like Yes or even King Crimson. Though they certainly share the latter’s cold-blooded discipline and commitment to crafting jewel-precise musical statements over showmanship or theatricality, their priorities were, if anything, even more radical. While British prog bands were obsessed with claiming cultural acceptability for rock music by trying to inscribe its youthful spirit into sophisticated Romantic structures, Can, along with many others in the Krautrock genre, embraced the electronic innovations and more inhuman structural experimentation of modern composers. Can’s group members were all affiliated with non-rock traditions and all had a total ignorance of rock music, so their music’s connection to the form is even more tenuous than most British prog. This means that German bands, including Can, escaped most of the popular notice and, later, critical disdain that came to crust around progressive rock after the mass market for experimental music collapsed in the mid to late 70s.
On Tago Mago Can featured Damo Suzuki on vocals, Michael Karoli on guitar, Holger Czukay on bass (and more), Jaki Liebezeit on drums, and Irmin Schmidt on vocals. Look at them a certain way, and they might have looked, complete with their long hair and outré fashions, like rock musicians. While they were close enough to that archetype to eventually have a profound impact on popular music, those men did not at any point compose anything that could be labeled a rock group. Czukay, who also basically invented sampling and served as the band’s engineer, and Schmidt had studied under progressive composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, an example of whose work can be heard below. Czukay was also a professional music teacher, and Karoli one of his pupils who had also been involved in gypsy music. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit had a background playing rhythm for various jazz groups. This eclectic gathering, synthesis, and sharpening of sharply different musical sensibilities helped lend an avant-garde edge to the group’s compositions.
Each of Tago Mago’s seven pieces is constructed around a mechanistic groove laid down by the rhythm section and often accentuated with piercing guitar work. Damo Suzuki, who has been called a “stone age” vocalist, sings disconsolate lyrics while the sonic landscapes rise and fracture around him, often pushing his voice into a shout. Mostly singing in English, he also sings a verse in Japanese on “Oh Yeah.” That title indicates the usual level of lyrical intrigue on the album. Vocals are always either chants, as in the anxiety-ridden ode to nuclear devastation entitled “Mushroom,” where Suzuki ends the song by simply shouting that he is “dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.” Other times the words invoke surreal imagery, as on “Halleluwah,” but their value mainly derives from their sound, the way they nestle into the prickly mass of sound around them. Still, while poring over lyrics sheets like a Kabbalist mystic might earn you some pleasures with other groups, it would be like sticking your face so close to a Hieronymous Bosch painting that you think it’s just a portrait of some birds. Nice, and all, but not what you were all hyped up for.
Can’s lyrics are largely expendable, or at least the content of the words is. Confronted with the wordless, frenzied sonic collage that is “Aumgn,” I marvel at the inadequacy of written language to describe it. Constructed through sampling and splicing, this nearly 18-minute long track is Can colouring entirely outside the lines. While other tracks, like opener “Paperhouse,” have a semblance of structure, “Aumgn” breaks open musical structure so that all we have left is an intriguing, vital mass of sound. It’s still an enthralling experience, and a liberating one for this rock guitarist. You can’t pin down blocked-out movements, but the song still manages to generate energy and evoke a powerful response through its myriads angular twists. Its climax is an almost volcanic percussive pulse, sounding like a descending scream, worthy of awed terror as much as admiration for the technique and discipline of the group that produced it. Tago Mago always prefers to batter the listener rather than coddle, bring down the thunder and wrath instead of communicating through elegant or mannered gestures. Its mechanical rhythms never sound boring because despite their regularity they never lack a spontaneous energy. Can’s members are masters of blowing your mind without ruining the aftermath by trying to continually top themselves. They just make another hard left turn and expect your full cooperation.