Birthed in the Cologne of late sixties Germany, from the offset Can were a fascinating band. One of the key players in a new-wave of experimental bands cropping up throughout the country, they were unique even by the deeply subversive standards of the movement they helped define. Initially led by the American beat poet Malcolm Mooney and later Japanese singer Kenji ‘Damo’ Suzuki, they were a racially diverse group in a time long before such integration had become mainstream. Musically they were every bit as innovative and cutting edge as the liberal politics they – and a wave of like-minded young German bands – came to represent. Bound by a mechanically tighter drummer in Jaki Lieberzeit, Can meshed the guttural, tribal repetition of deep funk with a ghostly ambience and spooked, wild-eyed sense of improvisation. Soon gaining a reputation for wildly vital live performance – a trait that Suzuki certainly hasn’t lost, see our review of a recent live show for proof – Can were a band capable of capturing the breathless essence of their live show and refining it on tape, creating a series of superlative albums in the process.
Their output with Suzuki remains the group’s best known work; however, to say it’s their only great material is to deny a goldmine of lesser known but still incredible work. We’re going to take a look not only at the band’s most essential output (beginners, start here) but also the band’s second tier Classics before finally taking a look at what we’re dubbing ‘The Best of Rest’, those albums that although not quite classics are far too good to be left unheard.
Can are undoubtedly one of experimental rock’s most respected groups and, with the availability of their entire discography on streaming services and in print on CD and Vinyl, there really is no excuse not to know their music.
Without further ado, then, here is our beginner’s guide to Can.
‘Tago Mago’ (1971)
Although ‘Tago Mago’ was Can’s third record, it was their first one to feature what’s now known as the quintessential Can sound. The band’s profound sonic exploration was tempered with flawlessly precise, relentless drum work and frenetic howls from Damo Suzuki; a sound half way between that of an exorcism and a particularly groovy orgy. ‘Halleluhwah’s mega-funk groove is incredible; above all else, the rhythm is sacred here and although the band take great joy in becoming ever-more freaked-out during the 18 minute run-time, that relentless rhythm is always at the song’s heart. A double LP set, ‘Tago Mago’s second portion made the first look traditional by comparison – the similarly lengthy ‘Amung’ threw any rock leanings out of the window entirely, instead immersing the listener in a sonic quagmire of disconcerting noise; an echo drenched hellscape for the avant-garde age.
Take a listen to: ‘Paperhouse’, ‘Mushroom’, ‘Oh Yeah’, ‘Halleluhwah’
‘Ege Bamyasi’ (1972)
Delivered a year after ‘Tago Mago’, ‘Ege Bamyasi’ reeled in the band’s more experimental tendencies, instead focusing in on tight song structuring and something getting dangerously close to immediate hooks. Indeed, album closer ‘Spoon’ was a big hit for the band – shifting over a quarter of a million as a single – whilst ‘Vitamin C’ has gone on to become perhaps the band’s best known song. The result was an album that had all the originality and vitality of its predecessor but in a much neater package, both songs and album now considrerably shorter than the often unruly ‘Tago Mago’. The band had yet to leave full-on nonsense freak-outs entirely behind, however – as the gleeful gibberish of ‘Soup’ showed. Although ‘Ege Bamyasi’ was no great stylistic leap from ‘Tago Mago’ it was still a marked evolution, and one that had significant pay-off.
Take a listen to: ‘Sing Swan Song’, ‘One More Saturday Night’, ‘Vitamin C’, ‘I’m So Green’
‘Future Days’ (1973)
Whereas ‘Ege Bamyasi’ had been an evolution of its predecessor, ‘Future Days’ was a whole new chapter in the band’s story. This time, the emphasis was shifted away from rhythm towards shimmering texture and aquatic ambience. ‘Future Days’ was proto-ambient before such a term existed – deeply atmospheric vocals drifted in and out of focus, guitars moaned and shivered with barely contained soul, and bass plotted a more meandering course than before. It was a significant change of direction for Can, certainly, but one that never lost sight of what made the band so vital. Perhaps their finest record, at four songs and forty minutes long, it was surprisingly pithy by their standards. With not a minute of its run-time squandered, it stands as their most affecting and submersive album. Truly a record to become lost in.
Take a listen to: ‘Future Days’, ‘Bel Air’
Monster Movie (1969)
Their 1969 debut, ‘Monster Movie’ was, in reality, the group’s second album; recorded after a canned session from the year beforehand. Helmed by vocalist Malcolm Mooney, the Can of the late ’60s was a different beast from the one they would become. Lacking the tribal, repetitive avant-funk of later works, the band instead traded in a compulsive, rugged brand of experimental rock indebted more to the American trailblazers that had cropped up over the previous few years than to the distinctly Teutonic exploration of later work. ‘Monster Movie’ may show a different side to Can, but its not to the album’s detriment. The twenty minute ‘Yoo Doo Right’ was a profoundly intuitive piece culled from some six hours of jamming; it saw the band firing on all cylinders, feeding off each other’s creative energy and creating a hugely compulsive track in the process. Side one offered shorter, though not insubstantial, delights: the primal howl of ‘Father Cannot Yell’ saw guitarist Michael Karoli takes the reigns with a blistering, volcanic lead guitar part. ‘Outside My Door’, meanwhile, was garage rock as siphoned through the filter of existentialism and Beat poetry – simultaneously scholarly and utterly unreserved in its gleeful, strutting energy.
Take a listen to: ‘Father Cannot Yell’, ‘Yoo Doo Right’
Unlimited Edition (1976)
Although a collection of odds and sods from the previous 8 years, 1976’s ‘Unlimited Edition’ was an album of surprising cohesion and importance. Comprised of previously unreleased pieces from throughout the band’s existence up until then, it was an album that offered a thorough and effective overview of their continuing modus operandi. Taking in both the rock-based yearning of the group’s Malcolm Mooney-fronted days and the more free-form searching of their time with Damo Suzuki, it survived both as a primer for the group’s wider output and a fascinating insight into their working process for long-term fans. Instrumental work was plentiful, too; the proto-ambience of ‘Gomorroha’ was essential and inventive whilst the various E.F.S. (Ethnic Forgery Series) tracks on the album saw the band give their approximation of various indigenous music from around the world. The results are fascinating and make for one of the quirkiest and most characterful entries in the Can discography. Whilst not everything here fully earns listener attention (the 17 minute ‘Cutaway’ is rather unspectacular) it’s a mostly compelling collection of pieces and a definite example of how to go about crafting a rarities compilation.
Take a listen to: ‘Gomorroah’, ‘I’m Too Leise’, ‘The Empress And The Unkrane King’, ‘Mother Upduff’
BEST OF THE REST
Delay 1968 (1981)
Although not released until the early ’80s, ‘Delay 1968’ was technically the group’s debut; no points for guessing when the album was recorded. Though far less known then, the band’s official debut is arguably the better album, displaying all the qualities that made ‘Monster Movie’ so great whilst having a character all of its own. Album opener ‘Dying Butterfly’ was Malcolm Mooney at his best; uninhibited, flowing and inspired. ‘Thief’ is stunning: dark and swellingly moving, it’s simultaneously abrasive and emotional, displaying a raw heart only infrequently explored throughout the band’s output. Closer ‘Little Star Of Bethlehem’ trades in charming nonsense but it’s the tasty groove and sighing backing vocals that add an extra layer to the song.
At times, the band opts to take their early American influences and make a wonderful mess of them. ‘Nintheenth Century Man’ and ‘Man Named Joe’ are simultenously the best and worst garage rock songs ever; clattering, dissonant, slapdash – they’re joyous, ridiculous and show the band giving a nod to some of their early influences whilst simultaneously mocking them for everything they are. It’s crazy stuff, but it’s very compelling. Quite why this album originally never saw the light of day remains a mystery – ‘Delay 1968’ is a diamond-in-the-rough well worth polishing.
Take a listen to: ‘Butterfly’, ‘Thief’, ‘Little Star Of Bethlehem’
Technically the group’s second album, ‘Soundtracks’ was in reality a stop-gap of sorts, a collection of previously recorded compositions – mostly for German art-house films – that the group stitched together as an album at the request of their label, who hoped to tide over those fans hungry for more after ‘Monster Movie’. While that may not sound all too promising, the album’s slapdash construction belies a set of surprising cohesion and power. Although not quite a match of the albums directly before and after it, ‘Soundtracks’ nonetheless has much to offer. Featuring contributions from both Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki it’s a symbolic transition between two distinct eras for the band. The feverish space-age jamming of ‘Mother Sky’ was the song that unequivocally proved Suzuki’s worth as Can’s new vocalist and remains one of the band’s most essential moments, whilst with the melancholic majesty of ‘Deadlock’, guitarist Michael Karoli predicted buzzing intensity of drone-rock some twenty years before it took off. Mooney’s contribution is generally more low-key than previous efforts, but no less gripping. The eerie reverie of ‘Soul Desert’ embodies everything that made his delivery so engaging; unique, uninhibited – and buzzing with a prickly, free-form ambition, it was driving stuff. The smoky, late-night pondering of ‘She Brings The Rain’ weaves vivid beat-poetry through the understated gossamer of quietly unhinged crooning music – Sinatra if he’d taken magic mushrooms, if you will.
Take a listen to: ‘Mother Sky’, ‘Tango Whiskeyman’, ‘Soul Desert’
The Lost Tapes (2012)
Something of a younger sibling to ‘Unlimited Edition’, ‘The Lost Tapes’ was the first meaningful Can release in decades; a triple CD (and quintuple LP) set, the album shed further light on the band’s original decade-long existence, with previously unreleased tracks from throughout that time. ‘The Lost Tapes’ was an unwieldy collection but a veritable goldmine for the dedicated fan; unsurprisingly it was the band’s first five years that proved to be the most fascinating – their post Suzuki work was hit and miss, though occasionally brilliant – with newly unearthed material from both vocalists standing tall alongside the band’s better known material. A 17 minute version of early hit ‘Spoon’ was an instant standout, showing the band at their free-form best, with a particularly psychotic live cut of ‘Mushroom’ also rewarding those who make it far enough into the set to hear it. Mooney is well represented, too – ‘Waiting For The Streetcar’ is genuinely the match of anything on ‘Monster Movie’ and ‘Delay 1968’, whilst the pummelling drive of ‘Deadly Doris’ and ‘Midnight Sky’ point once again to the band’s early influence of American avant-garage. ‘The Lost Tapes’ is a hefty compendium of Can, and not an advised entry point, but definitely worth exploring for those with a taste for the group’s unique approach.
Take a listen to: ‘Waiting For The Streetcar’, ‘Spoon’, ‘Desert’, ‘Mushroom, ‘Midnight Sky’