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Can - The Lost Tapes

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Artist: Can

Album: The Lost Tapes

Label: Mute

Review date: Jun. 25, 2012

If you think of time as a spectrum, then the unbroken lifespan of an organism is always connected to the convulsion of its birth. Can convened in 1968, Year Zero of European revolution. To be a young West German in those days was to know that some very bad stuff had gone down around the time that you were born, that your parents didn’t want to talk about it, and that a guy who used to be in the Nazi party was the country’s chancellor. Times were tense, and some of the youth wanted to bring it all down. That flashpoint of cultural determination — when people took to the barricades with a fantasy that they could break what had been made, remake it new, and make it right — infused the music that Can made throughout their 11-year existence.

This does not mean that Can were just a bunch of rebellious punks; they had a lot of sophistication in their background, and it showed. But barricades, like foxholes, make strange friends. They were a really odd bunch, but their mismatched backgrounds and personalities enabled them to cross generational, national, stylistic, and class boundaries that probably seemed pretty impregnable until the moment they crossed them. Keyboardist Irmin Schmidt was trained to be an orchestral conductor; Jaki Liebezeit was a frustrated free jazz drummer who had turned his back on Schlippenbach and Brötzmann because he wanted to go back to playing beats; and bassist Holger Czukay was a guy whose tendency towards boredom had made him unsuitable for both work as an orchestral musician and as one of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s acolytes (although he’d learned a lot from his stabs to be both). Just before Can started, he was a music teacher at a private school, hoping to find a rich wife (hey, it worked for Stocky). They were all pushing 30, all a bit ornery, and all looking for something new to do at the precise moment when it seemed like anything new could be done. Only guitarist Michael Karoli, who was a former student of Czukay’s and a decade younger than the rest, had any previous experience playing rock ‘n’ roll. Not that they were even intending to play that stuff until an African-American painter named Malcolm Mooney looking for a cheap place to put up his easel walked into their studio. He stuck around, they made “Father Cannot Yell” in an afternoon, and they were off.

The so-called classical rock of contemporaries Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, which took its cues from Bach and Aaron Copland, was fundamentally conservative. Especially in hindsight, their ambitions — to make bigger records, longer songs, or tour with an orchestra — were the seeds of rot that has periodically afflicted rock ever since. Can, a band of genuinely “classically trained” musicians, put the conductor of the orchestra at the service of some guy who walked in off the street, and started a revolution that’s still rolling; how many records have you listened to in the past five years that merge rock and improv, appropriate a krautrock groove, or shamelessly make up faux ethnic-sounding shit? They were there first, showing us how to do it. So while it doesn’t all sound terribly radical — their music could be quite gorgeous — Can were always about moving forward, making something new.

Can didn’t want to sound like anyone else, unlike the legions of copycat beat combos no one remembers anymore and or the Schlager crooners like Roy Black that non-hippy Germans listened to back then, but they were happy to use anything from anywhere. They merged styles they couldn’t really play (there’s a passage on Tago Mago where they sound like cavemen crashing a Noh play) with masterfully rendered grooves cribbed from the Godfather himself. They were ferociously aggressive and utterly serene. And they weren’t about to be boxed into some confining art trap, anymore than any hitmaker game. Some of their tunes were hits in Germany, but they were way odder than anything that Roy Black or Silver Convention charted around the same time. At their best — on Soundtracks, Monster Movie, Tago Mago, Future Days, and Ege Bamyasi — Can opened music up to possibilities that everyone from Johnny Rotten to Garageband teens have used or will use to make something new and great.

Nothing from The Lost Tapes was on those records, although several tracks refer to them. Whenever anyone releases something over three decades after the fact, it’s fair to ask why it didn’t come out back in the day. In Can’s case, the explanation is that they were busy. While they had a policy of recording everything they did, everything that got snipped off of a finished track — one way to turn improvisations into songs is to cut without mercy, and that’s what they did — got dropped into a box and filed away with a level of archival laxitude that would give any librarian a stroke. The boxes were still there when Can sold their studio to a museum in 2007, and the tape boxes weren’t part of the deal. Instead they were digitized, culled by Irmin Schmidt and his son-in-law Jono Podmore (a.k.a. Kumo), and boiled down from 50 hours of tape to the three and a quarter hours of music compiled here. There’s a fair bit from the early days with Mooney, more featuring their second singer Damo Suzuki (whom they found busking on a street, invited to join them on stage that night, and kept around for 4 years), and hardly anything from the post-Damo era. This is all as it should be, since Can’s inspiration declined in the final years, when Czukay was sidelined in favor of a bassist hired from Traffic and spontaneity gave way to slickness.

Whether it manifested in walking onstage without a set list and with a singer you’ve just met, or jointly writing songs by just playing in the studio and seeing where it went, spontaneity was key to Can’s success. Genuine risk-taking carries with it the guarantee of failure, and Can had its share, even on the great records. The Lost Tapes is no different, but the sketchy stuff has a more viable place here than on any other record, because this set foregrounds the Can process more than most. The track selection includes studio experimentation and outright goofs — “The Agreement” is a snippet of chatter ended by a toilet flushing. The live tracks can be monstrously thrilling, such as a version of “Spoon” that starts out white-knuckle tense, then elevates like updrafts swirling around a single percolating prepared piano note for 15 minutes. Or they can be simply monstrous, like the intemperate freak-out “Abra Cada Braxas,” which shows how they used overt weirdness as a refuge when inspiration was in short supply. Other tracks show songs coming into being. “A Swan is Born” is an elongated take on “Sing Swan Song,” and “On the Way to Mother Sky” is exactly what it says it is. If you want to hear how Can did it, these tracks show you how their music evolved — with a lot of perseverance and worrying away at ideas until they fell into place. This persistence reaches its apotheosis early on, when Mooney endlessly repeats “Are you waiting for the streetcar?” for 10 minutes, giving the rest of the band a solid foundation from which it can burrow deeper into the groove.

The set has its share of surprises. “Millionspiel,” a pre-Mooney artifact, is a sort of garage-surf-Morricone-Stockhausen hybrid that sounds unlike anything else Can ever did, and on “The Loop” they sound like a skiffle band sending up the blues. It’s a bit befuddling, but besides showing where Can were coming from, it decisively undermines any great-man narrative that sets them up as flawless icons. Considering what happened in Germany when the nation gave in to that sort of shit, you can see why they might want to include a few humanizing flaws. And they’re just a few amongst a set with impressively high standards. The Lost Tapes doesn’t feel like a barrel bottom being scraped; it’s a scoop into a pond still teaming with life. Dip your hand in and see what wriggling thing you catch.

By Bill Meyer

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