Isle Of Dreams: Can’s 1971 Masterpiece, Tago Mago
We’ve all got our desert island discs and top ten lists, from Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak (certainly on my list, anyway). If you cast your net a little wider, though, than you might turn up a genre-busting album by a quartet of fearless, almost wantonly instinct-driven German musicians who—along with a charismatic mystic from Japan on lead vocals—decided to call themselves Can.
Co-founded in 1968 by bassist and producer Holger Czukay with his guitar student Michael Karoli, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and free jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit, Can started out in the clubs and galleries of Cologne, Germany as an electric improv ensemble with American singer Malcolm Mooney. They quickly swerved toward an experimental fusion of acid-rock, funk, bent electronics and extended trance-like grooves; both Czukay and Schmidt had studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen (often cited as the godfather of modern electronic music), while Liebezeit, true to his name (“love time”), was a self-taught human metronome on drums.
The band made two albums (one of them unreleased) before Mooney—tired and paranoid—quit in 1970 at the urging of his shrink. Enter 20-year-old Kenji “Damo” Suzuki who was a street performer busking his way across Europe.
“I met Damo outside a café in Munich,” Czukay recounts, clearly still amused by the memory. “We had a concert that night and no singer, so I asked him, ‘Can you join us? Do you want to become a singer?’ And he said, ‘When is your rehearsal?’ I told him, ‘No rehearsal—we just go onstage.’ Suddenly, we were in this packed disco hall and Damo was becoming like a furious Japanese samurai fighter. It turned into a battle with the audience!”
The band channeled that energy into their next studio project, recorded at a rented castle outside Cologne called Schloss Nörvenich. From hours of feverish live jams, Czukay cut and spliced together a double LP of raw, otherworldly music from the future—a “magic record” that was as much a rigid study in collective listening and band dynamics as it was a sonic riot, loaded with primitive effects like tape delay, regenerative echo and sine wave modulation. This was Tago Mago.
“We made a lot out of a little with the technical possibilities,” Czukay observes, “but the music always has to be right. We couldn’t rely on a lot of manipulations; the tape editing was the only place where we could do that. It’s like when Einstein invented the atomic bomb or something—the idea was to split the music into samples. That was it! Something that was recorded first might appear on the record last. It was a revolution. It was something you never could play and I loved this idea. This is why you can say that Can was one of the first groups who were sampling while recording.”
Named for an island off the coast of Ibiza that gilds the occult legend of Aleister Crowley, Tago Mago still inspires awe among a legion of fans that including Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne and the Mars Volta’s Omar Rodríguez-López. It all starts with the shaman Suzuki, whose improvised word salad suggests the ravings of a mad ghost forced to wander a purgatorial latitude (choice slices: his torrential rant in “Peking O,” and the signature song “Mushroom,” where he half-sings, half-murmurs, “When I saw mushroom head/ I was born and I was dead”).
Then there’s the 18-minute “Halleluwah,” which even surpasses Funkadelic in its visceral embrace of hypnotic rhythms, wobbly wah wah guitars and moody atmospherics, and the equally epic “Aumgn”—an avant garde maelstrom of nightmarish voices and tribal drums. Whatever your pleasure, poison or antidote is, you can probably find it on Tago Mago.
“I think it shows that it’s a really strong album,” Czukay says, assessing the Mute label’s deluxe 40th anniversary edition, which is packaged with the original U.K. cover art and a bonus disc of rare live performances from Can’s 1972 European tour. “There’s no doubt about it. I mean, with jazz, you [put] everything into it, and that’s the way it will appear on the record. Tago Mago was about becoming real by being artificial—by editing and mixing things unexpectedly. And that was the thing about Can—can we really duplicate ourselves onstage? Well, we can play, so what do you expect?”
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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