April 6, 2017

tago mago

Drew Millard is a drunken hot ghost.

Gun to my head, if you ask me to name the greatest band of all time, I’ll say Can, and if you don’t like it you can pull the trigger. While it might be true that The Velvet Underground & Nico serves as the genesis of all things punk and indie rock, Can took the fuck-it-all spirit of Lou, John, and them and welded it to German industrialism as well as a post-everything discursive freakiness to forge a template for indie and experimental music that every band since has tried and failed to replicate even if they didn’t realize it.

Can started out as a crew of classically trained musicians interested in American soul, jazz, and psych music armed with some wildly groovy ideas about how to make the funkiest, jazziest, and most psychedelic music possible. Namely, that in a world of unpredictability, the most unpredictable thing you could do was play the exact same riff for hours on end. And if you find yourself with the best young jazz drummer on the European mainland in Jaki Liebezeit, you should make him play the same thing for hours on end too. Oh, and you should round out your metronomic psych-jazz-funk by recruiting an American sculptor/draft-dodger as funky as James Brown to scat all over your shit—and when that dude decides being in your band is bad for his mental health, you should probably replace him with a guy you found on the street who sings in a made-up language.

To add a dash of order to the chaos, bassist Holger Czukay––who I interviewed a few years back for a never-released video piece and is extremely German—borrowed a page from Miles Davis’s playbook and edited the group’s often hours-long improvisatory jams into more conventional song structures. Rather than turning his band’s meandering noodling into pop music, however, Czukay often managed to make Can’s music even stranger, imposing an internal logic that allowed songs to veer from order to cacophony, sensuality to pugilism, hope to dread, rarely if ever taking a detour from the realm of pure genius.

Can was by no means a singles group—it takes careful listening of each of their records, especially their early run of Monster Movie, Soundtracks, Tago Mago, Future Days, and Soon Over Babaluma, to really appreciate their greatness—but if you’ve ever thought about getting into them their upcoming singles collection is as good a survey of why Can is the greatest band of all time as one can offer. It’s got highlights from the band’s first, completely unimpeachable albums, as well as selections from their off-kilter later years when they flirted with glam, disco, and fusion that recontextualize what was seen by many as a spectacularly failed left turn as a natural evolution of a band as restless and virtuosic as this one.

Notably, the singles collection includes no material from Monster Movie, the group’s first official album featuring work from vocalist Malcolm Mooney, who suffered a nervous breakdown while reciting lines from a letter from his ex during the six-hour jam session that yielded “Yoo Doo Right,” as well as anything from Prepare to Meet Thy PNOOM, their first actual album which also featured Mooney. In fact, from the looks of it the only Mooney-featured tracks are “Soul Desert” and “She Brings the Rain” from Soundtracks, recorded during Can’s transition from Mooney on vocals to Damo Suzuki, the aforementioned dude on street who more often than not sang in a made-up language. But it DOES include “I Want More” and its B-Side “…And More,” a pair of singles which predicted punk dudes going techno years before punk dudes going techno was the norm, as well as “Don’t Say No,” a relic from a Can 2.0 which formed when the group cliqued up with a couple members of Traffic. Meanwhile, I can confidently say that “Cascade Waltz,” which originally appeared on Can’s 1976 record Flow Motion along with “I Want More,” is the best German reggae song about astronauts ever recorded.

Still, all this yakkin’ can barely scratch the surface of Can’s influence, which I will try and fail to encapsulate now. Most notably, Kanye’s “Drunk and Hot Girls” occupies the liminal space between rewrite and straight cover of Can’s “Sing Swan Song,” and I’m 99 percent sure those weird reverberating bell sounds on Dr. Dre’s beat for “Nas Is Coming” come from “Sing Swan Song,” too. Meanwhile, if you loop the first two seconds of “Vitamin C” you’ve got the backbone for Peter, Bjorn, and John’s “Young Folks,” which—plot twist!—Kanye also rapped over on his Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape. And, like, the band Spoon is literally named for the Can song “Spoon.” (And, shameless plug: I write a column over at Noisey called Future Days, which derives its title from Can’s album of the same name.) I could go on for days, but I’ve got to go to bed soon.

If you need proof of Can’s everlasting greatness look no further than “Turtles Have Short Legs,” the band’s 1971 one-off that was recently reissued to drum up excitement for the new singles collection. It would sound so ahead of its time its parents haven’t met yet regardless of what decade Can put it out in—just like pretty much everything else Can ever released.