[21 June 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Considering the wildly different backgrounds of the players in Can, it’s amazing they could all exist in the same band, let alone establish their groundbreaking, cohesive sound. Keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and bassist Holger Czukay were trained in avant-garde classical music, drummer Jaki Liebezeit came from free-jazz, Michael Karoli was a rock guitarist and former student of Czukay’s, original vocalist Malcolm Mooney was a sculptor from America, and second vocalist Damo Suzuki was found busking on the street. So, yeah, they came from all corners and, along with fellow German acts like Neu! and Faust, created a whole new set of sounds. With all their training, Can came at music with a serious intellectual bent, but it wasn’t all in the head. They thumped with life and brought energy to their sound. Theirs was as funky as any music that ever came out of Europe, and they’ve got a slew of classic records—especially their run from 1971’s Tago Mago to 1973’s Future Days—to prove it.
Now Can fans, and really anyone who has still only heard about Can’s influence without ever actually hearing the band, are being treated to over three hours of new material. The Lost Tapes is a huge swath of recordings culled from over 50 hours of tape salvaged from the band’s old studio in Weilerswist. It includes unreleased tracks, unreleased music from soundtracks, and some live tracks. It offers an interesting alternate history to the band, one the albums never quite told.
Curiously enough, The Lost Tapes may cover material from 1968 up to 1975, but the songs here aren’t delivered in chronological order. Perhaps this speaks to the ever-shifting sound of the band, its ability to experiment at any one time. It ends up being a smart move here, since the albums themselves give us something of a timeline of the band, a way to look back and see Can’s evolution, their peaks and valleys. Instead, what we have here is a well-sequenced cross-section of what Can was doing when no one was looking, and some of what they were doing is as brilliant as their classic records.
Though their first album, 1969’s Monster Movie, was a fully formed and brash first statement, the early material here suggests Can struggled to get to that point. There are some fascinating moments. Disc two opens with the dreamy rumble of “Your Friendly Neighbourhood Whore”. Malcolm Mooney whispers a high-register over a circular, brittle guitar line and rolling toms. It’s a bare-bones approach, but maintains all the krautrock insistence and deep groove of Can’s best stuff. “Midnight Sky” is a deeply funky soul tune, with jangling guitars and a more lively performance from Mooney, part James Brown charm, part Mick Jagger’s swagger. There’s also the ten-minute repetitive madness of “Waiting for the Streetcar”. Over blistering guitar work, rumbling bass, and one of Liebezeit’s most wandering, jazzy beats, Mooney repeats, over and over again, “Are you waiting for the streetcar?” There are a few other lines in there, but the obsession that sets in as he sings that line again and again is both hypnotic and troubling.
Aside those highlights, there are early recordings that feel more like floundering. The feedback experiment of “Blind Mirror Surf” starts interestingly enough, but never gets itself going. “Evening All Day” is a patchwork mess of glistening keys and distant bass and tape scratch that wears out its welcome, while the spoken-word “True Story” not only doesn’t make sense, but feels too much like Velvet Underground’s “The Gift”, and that kind of borrowing is an odd fit on a band so unique. In these early moments,which are still interesting to hear even if they don’t work, we see a band trying to master the kind of meaningful repetition that would define its sound. Their best work rides the same intense groove for as long as it can, while these early works would instead focus on one note, one sound, to lesser effect.
The soundtrack work fares very well here, as you can feel the atmosphere of a film, the picture that goes along with these sounds, framing the band’s far-flung experiments. The nearly 17-minute “Graublau”—recorded in 1969 for the film Graublauer Vogul—is a downright triumph, moving from a swampy rock charge to spaced-out squeals and squeaks. “Millionenspiel”, from the album Das Millionenspiel, opens The Lost Tapes with a more concentrated, tensed-up rock sound. It’s like surf-rock turned on its head, with swirling guitars cresting over a sprinting beat and around dreamy flutes. Later soundtrack work like “Midnight Men”, from the short-lived German TV series Eurogang, is a bit too wide-open for its own good, but offers a shimmering counterpoint of layered keys to all these early skronking guitars.
The best stuff here, though, is surely the live material. There are leviathan jams of two classics from 1972’s Ege Bamyasi “Spoon” and “One More Night”—here called “One More Saturday Night”. “Spoon” was a hit single on that album, running three minutes, but this live take stretches it to 17 minutes, and you can hear just how powerful this band was in front of a crowd. They were experimenters, no doubt, but the members of Can were no mere studio tinkerers. You see all those disparate styles of play cohere perfectly on stage, and you also get a taste of second vocalist Damo Suzuki’s oddball charm.
There are plenty of other highlights here—“Abra Cada Braxis” is one of the finer extended jams in Can’s early-‘70s catalog, soundtrack tune “Messers, Scissors, Fork and Light” is a funky, eccentric gem—but the point is that The Lost Tapes is never dull in its three-hour runtime. It doesn’t tell us anything new about Can, necessarily. We already knew they were innovators, great experimenters, and a damned tight, rollicking band able to cut loose with the best of them. What The Lost Tapes does is remind us of all the band’s talents, and gives us even further evidence to bolster their reputation. The band may have petered out in its later years—long after Suzuki left—which is why there’s little focus on work after 1973 in this collection, but what we have here is more of the band at its peak, and more of the sounds that helped Can become the unique entity it was. These kind of closet-cleaning releases can be dicey propositions, big messy collections created to cash in on super-fans and completists. Make no mistake: The Lost Tapes is big and messy, but that’s the point. So was Can, in the most controlled, volatile way possible.