Spent the morning listening to a live bonus CD included w/a recent reissue of Tago Mago and thinking how The Fall needed two drummers in order to sound like Can, and what that says about the depth of Jaki Liebezit’s talent. There have been loads of great drummers, but it takes someone special to play for 20 minutes and keep it interesting the entire time.
Tago Mago isn’t my favorite Can album (Ege Bamyasi in case you’re wondering), but it’s the most awe-inspiring. I wrote about that reissue for Collapse Board when it came out, sitting in a makeshift office out in the woods, my brain fired by adderall and surfing the cosmos. It’s near-impossible to access the last 2 pages of the article on CB, so I’ll repost it here in its entirety. As for Liebezit’s death, all I can say is it’s hard to feel sad when mourning someone who led such a full & glorious life. And I’d advise you to check out his post-Can activities as well. This one here is just the beginning.
Can – Tago Mago (Spoon/Mute)
by Scott Creney
October 27, 2011
This isn’t an album; it is a universe. It’s a sacred text obsessed with space, with silence and sound, with magic and power. It is music as a lifeforce — one as equally capable of destruction as it is of creation.
More practically, it is a double album that came out in 1971, consisting of seven songs, two of which take up an entire side. Tago Mago is the album where Can, the German rock group (oh, but they were so much more than that — it’s like calling James Joyce a man of letters) left their early influences — Pink Floyd, Stockhausen, Hendrix, et al —in the fucking dust and went charging ahead into a style of music that has echoed endlessly through pretty much every style to come along since then — dub, post-punk, hip-hop, acid house, trip-hop, techno, ambient, dubstep, etc — but has yet to be duplicated. It features avant-garde tape manipulations, hooks galore, keyboard drones and stabbing guitars (along with guitar drones and stabbing keyboards) cool-ass poetry from a singer who was almost as original as Yoko Ono, and probably the greatest rhythm section in the history of recorded music.
The music ebbs and flows like nature, as a wave, as the cycle of the moon, as the female orgasm, as radiation, as a psychedelic trip. And it is every bit as cleansing and dangerous, as open and unself-conscious, as shifting and transcendent. As apparent and indescribable. And, for now, Tago Mago is also legal, and easily accessible.
Like every great album these days, it is celebrating an anniversary — in this case its 40th — by being reissued in a deluxe edition with a bonus disc that contains never-before-released live recordings taken from the following year. The live disc features three songs and lasts for nearly an hour. The performances are more physical, more breathless, than the ones on the album. The version of ‘Mushroom’ is a complete reimagining of the song from the bottom up. It, along with the others — one of which is a 30-minute version of ‘Spoon’ off the following year’s Ege Bamyasi — is absolutely essential listening.
Tago Mago communicates in backwards vocals and flickering rain. It is the sound of being sucked down the drain of your shower and turned back into a child. It is a whisper in your ear that you cannot understand, that you are pretty sure you do not want to understand. Not yet, not fully. When listening to this album, try not to imagine that a spider, let alone armies of spiders, are crawling toward you, burrowing up from beneath your feet. You will shriek loud enough to wake the neighbors, if not the spiders, if not the babies hatching out of their eggs, crawling all over your spine.
The magic of Tago Mago is frequently, if not black, then leaning towards the darkness. It has the power to induce hallucinations of horror and ecstasy in equal measure. It has the power to attract and repel both demons and angels with equal effectiveness. At times it sounds like a quarter spinning across a waxy surface that suddenly strikes a nail and goes bucking and bouncing to a stop.
Tago Mago is, in its extended middle — the twin side-long suites of ‘Halleluwhah’ and ‘Aumgn’ — the sound of your 11-year-old self exploring an old abandoned house in the middle of the night, armed only with a flashlight and your bold fluttering heartbeat caught up in murmurs and arrhythmia, a series of persistent high-pitched hums that sound like voices droning in your ears, the fog of your cold breath rendered still-born by the cold battery-powered light leaking from your hand. You will probably be afraid at some point; you will most certainly be uncomfortable. Do not try to run. You will only trip and fall, and be captured in the hammock-like grip of the floorboards that bend underneath your weight but do not splinter or break. That laughing sound you hear behind you is not a sound made by humans. It belongs to the legions of rats pissing and splashing in the pools below, the collection of puddles in the basement — Was that a dog barking? From where? Was it sent to help or sent to kill? — their whiskers soaked in oil from the boxes of abandoned lamps, the ones that must have belonged to the previous owners of the manor, the ones who moved away so suddenly without saying goodbye, without anyone seeing them leave. You have heard legends; stories get passed around town at certain times of the year, about their true identity, about their actual fate, but nobody can tell you what happened for sure.
Talking about chart positions, how the album was received by the press, or the number of units it shifted, is like discussing lottery scratch tickets, or tanning salons, with Christ. It’s like talking water polo with Gandhi. Can didn’t just sidestep the more trivial aspects of the late 20th Century music industry. They made the whole process seem irrelevant. Why shoot for success when you can become immortal? Why aim for stardom when you can aim for in the stars? Why evolve as a musician when you can evolve as a member of the human race? The fact that they accomplished all of this with a more or less traditional rock lineup (drum, bass, guitar, keyboard, vocalist) only makes their accomplishments that much more impressive.
Even Beefheart, probably the most iconoclastic of their peers, still sang in the voice of a Mississippi bluesman, had one considerable boot firmly planted in the recognizable terra firma roots of classic rock and roll. Sure, the Captain moved beyond what he termed the ‘baby mama heartbeat’ but he still couldn’t stop singing about babies and mamas. Even at their weirdest, Can disciples The Fall sound straight-ahead compared to their heroes. ‘Fools Gold’ by The Stone Roses is a lightweight, bubblegum echo aimed directly at the pop charts. On Kid A, Radiohead sounded like Can the way Coldplay initially sounded like Radiohead — that is to say, both tried so nakedly, so reverently, to sound like the original that they missed the spirit entirely and looked pretty foolish in the process.
Joy Division might have gotten there eventually. They were certainly fascinated by new sounds, looking to transcend rock, and had a genius, like-minded producer to help them along the way. But without Ian Curtis to egg them on, they retreated back into pop and safety and perfect metronomic time. Nobody has had the guts to leave rock behind completely, to abandon the beat, to abandon the song, to abandon the desire to connect with an audience, to simply exist as sound, as nature. Can were able to push so far, and so effectively, beyond rock music, that those who emulate them directly can only end up sounding like people who wish to people who are pushing so far. Which, as we all know, is not the same thing. Not even close.
Sometimes when I listen to Tago Mago I find it hard to believe that mere human beings made this music. It makes the experiments of Miles Davis sound pedantic and overwrought. It makes James Brown sound as white and lead-footed as Pat Boone. It makes Pink Floyd sound as stupid and tight-assed you already knew they were. Like the ancients who built pyramids simultaneously in different corners of the earth, one can’t help speculating that aliens must have come down on flaming chariots to assist them with their endeavors.
Start your morning with a glass of cold orange juice and a close listen to Tago Mago. If you don’t start seeing positive results within 30 days, try a different brand of orange juice. And If that doesn’t work, should probably quit your job and start wandering the earth. But be sure to bring Tago Mago with you in one format or another. We were not put on this earth to be comfortable. We are meant to learn. We are meant to transcend. And Tago Mago is the closest thing to a guidebook the citizens of the earth have so far been able to produce. Can went on to make other albums. And along with the albums they made before this one, nearly all of them are fantastic, but none of them go so far — melodically, experimentally, sonically, structurally — as Tago Mago. This is their masterpiece.
And at the end of this, I still can’t help worrying that everything I’ve written, every explanation I’ve made, every comparison I’ve reached for, has only served to diminish this album’s mystery along with its power. We know that dissection is always a form of murder — and, in the way it provides us with comfort, the illusion of understanding, also one of the most diabolical. For now I am done murdering. Go and find Tago Mago. How you do it is not important. But once you have found it, you need to purge this conversation from your memory. I don’t need to be remembered. I don’t need to be thanked. I just need to see you renewed and amazing. I need you to take our 21st Century technologies, our 21st Century experiences, and build new sounds from our modern tools. The marketplace is already dead, so you have nothing to lose. I need you to shock yourself with the audacity of your ideas. And in turn, I need you to shock all of us. So we will know that there are still new sounds to be created. So we can be reminded that the future will be worth showing up for.
Occupy The Planet. Occupy Sound. Occupy Can. Then leave them behind, the way they once left everyone else. The future will thank you for it.