Having never heard a Can album before, but being mightily impressed with the quantities of the band's music that wound around the soundtrack of Lynne Ramsay's fine film version of "Morvern Callar", this double vinyl compilation seemed like a fine place to begin. Spanning the productive period between 1969 and 1974, and originally released in 1978, Buzzcock Pete Shelley admits in his contemporaneous sleevenotes, "I would never have played guitar had it not been for the late Marc Bolan and Michael Karoli of Can". In fact, the band have gained something of a reputation as the thinking musician's musicians. Mark E Smith cemented his admiration for vocalist Damo Suzuki on The Fall's epic "I Am Damo Suzuki", Primal Scream have worked with drummer Jaki Liebezeit, much of the swagger behind Happy Mondays' "Madchester Rave On" EP can trace its lineage directly back to Can's "Halleluwah", and the music of Krautrock scholar Julian Cope is steeped in his obvious admiration of the band.
All of which sounds so much like my cup of char that a first, distracted listen to "Cannibalism 1" left me confused. Blunt, clipped rhythms, alien language vocals - it all seemed to fall far short of the music of my beloved Neu!, against which I had mentally benchmarked it. But perseverance pays dividends - as Shelley wrote, "Things at first hearing I've hated, but later I've had to admit that first-hearings are always misleading" - and gradually colour and melody began to emerge from the monochromatic murk. "She Brings The Rain" is Bryan Ferry in space, lounge lizard jazz from another planet. The nagging familiarity of "Mushroom" was only traced to its source when listening to The Flaming Lips' "Take Meta Mars" in the car last week: as Wayne Coyne admits, "We ended up just messing with this riff that we thought sounded like their tune. You see we didn't actually have a copy of the song and we only heard it just the once ". "Spray" is not dissimilar to the kind of floaty, ambient fusion Miles Davis was playing at the time, "Halleluwah" a hypnotising robot line dance. "You Doo Right" is a glorious 20 minute feel-good mental excursion, with lyrical sentiments that might seem strangely familiar to anyone with a copy of "Screamadelica".
So "Cannibalism 1" is good bait, a tantalising glimpse into their mad but strictly regimented soundworld, that will either have you crying for mercy or anxious to hear more. Apart from the grotesque cover art, it's about as good as it could possibly be expected to get.
CAN Ege Bamyasi (Mute/The Grey Area/Spoon)
With an average track length getting on for almost half that of its predecessor Tago Magos, Cans fourth album, originally released in 1972, cant help but appear a tighter, tauter work. Opener Pinch, in particular, demonstrates the proficiency of octopus-armed percussionist Jaki Liebezeit, his kit stretching right across the soundstage as the rest of the band flutter, weave and bob around the gaps.
The pastoral Sing Swan Song opens with the sound of a babbling brook, bagpipe guitars droning in the distance like a heat haze. One More Night is an alluring combination of mischievous, circling rhythms and Damo Suzukis mantric muttering. Laced with a hectoring unease that sets it usefully apart from the rest of the album, Vitamin C is about as anguished as Can get here. It sounds almost like an update of the kind of silent film piano soundtrack that inevitably accompanies footage of the locomotive thundering towards the track-tied distressed damsel. The ten minute Soup is the only selection that outstays its welcome, degenerating into a sulphurous cauldron of swirling electronics, random drum rolls and Suzukis lost-in-translation shouting. Im So Green immediately compensates: sly, slinky and almost danceable, its Leibezeits pattering percussion patterns that nail it to the mast of greatness. Finally, the previously issued Spoon, a popular hit in the bands native Germany following its use as the theme music to the TV series Das Messer, distils all the foregoing experimentation, mystery and good-natured confusion into a handily pocket-sized three minutes.
This remastered edition of Ege Bamyasi is the first Super Audio CD to inveigle its way into my collection. Using the same dual-layer technology used in DVDs, hybrid discs such as this can be played happily in normal CD players, yet will supposedly reveal extra sonic whizzbangery when placed in a SACD player. Whilst lamenting the fact that this current Can reissue programme seems to have neglected the analogue media enthusiast, any drive to improve the standard of digital reproduction in the home is fine by me. Even in a standard CD player Ege Bamyasi sounds audibly superior to the bands original CD issues. The booklet offers rare photos and insightful discussion of the music by David Stubbs, making phrases like flight from occidental hegemony and distant muezzin glimmers sound absolutely correct in context.
CAN Future Days (Spoon)
Future Days, released in 1973, was the final Can album to feature the, er, distinctive talents of Japanese vocalist Damo Suzuki, a gentleman who surely influenced John Lydons technique and was name-checked in song by The Fall. Uncharacteristically restrained here, his vocals tickle and trickle where once they provoked and attacked.
The title track opens with a tidal pull of bubble and froth, proto-ambience that predates Enos pioneering work in this area. The sonic equivalent of lying within the catchment area of a lawn sprinkler on a hot summer day, this is fragmentary, fractal music that whirls and coalesces into a holographic whole. Spray is Cans version of fusion, maybe, but with the hard edges and grandstanding angles pared away, leaving something diaphanous, music concerned with textures rather than anything as concrete and restrictive as melody or rhythm. The single Moonshake is the bands attempt at a three minute pop sing, as utterly undisposable as the concept sounds, so good they named a band after it. Finally, Bel Air is a 20 minute mesh of pattering, ticking percussion on undulating waves of keyboards, birdsong, Frippish, spiral stairways of guitars and Suzukis distant cosmic cattle calling. It sounds as if its been mixed inside out compared to more conventional productions, all its internal mechanisms exposed.
This appositely titled album is one of those rare works that constructs its own utterly convincing universe, alien but deliciously inviting.
CAN Soon Over Babaluma (Spoon)
Cans first album following the departure of enigmatic Japanese vocaliser Damo Suzuki inched tentatively away from the pattering ambient washes of its marvellous predecessor, Future Days. On initial acquaintance theres little thats staggeringly different about the likes of Dizzy Dizzy, but on further spins it displays a kind of nervous, jagged insistence that predicts the throbbing veined neuroses of early Talking Heads.
With its tribal drums, gothic chants, jungle ambience and creeping paranoia, Come Sta, La Luna sounds tailormade to soundtrack a Werner Herzog film. Splash finds Can at their jazziest, Michael Karolis smoky-toned violin leading a pell-mell expedition through tangled territory. Again with the Talking Heads premonitions, Chain Reactions frantic polyrhythms anticipate the first side of Remain In Light: the percussion is mixed way up front, with some Eastern-influenced guitar wailing away in back. On several occasions the track sheds this exotic skin to briefly reveal a clumping inner core. It dovetails seamlessly into the closing Quantum Physics, which betrays alarming signs of slack and self-indulgence by Can standards, a formless rhythmic clatter that spends nine minutes not quite making something of itself.
Soon Over Babaluma doesnt have the focus and ambient allure of Future Days, and for all its charms it remains something of a letdown for listeners who might have hoped that Can would completely overhaul their soundworld twice in succession.
CAN Tago Mago (United Artists)
On their third album, Can played space rock with an almost jazzy lilt compared to the tightly-wound metronomic grooves laid down by the likes of Neu! at roughly the same time. Commentators often cite it as their best album; its certainly one of their most influential, as we shall see.
Simultaneously abrasive and fuzzy opener Paperhouse lent its name to a Scottish record label (its signings including The Pastels and Teenage Fanclub), and, perhaps less famously, a band and a film. Mushroom was plundered by The Flaming Lips on their song Take Meta Mars, and Halleluwah (on this issue mysteriously misspelt, or should that be mysteriously correctly spelt) was lifted lock, stock and title by the Happy Mondays, although they couldnt match the slithery 19-minute Krautfunk monster captured here. On Oh Yeah Damo sings his impenetrable (like an early Liz Fraser, perhaps) lyrics as if hes incanting wisdom from some kind of top 40 bubblegum tune, heightening the sense of sonic subversion.
The 17 minutes of Aumgn, however, fray the patience as no other Can song I can think of, like an itching inside my skull thats impossible to scratch. What it misses, for the most part, is Jaki Liebezeits octopus-armed rhythms to render its rattling and droning a more tolerable proposition. Its only when his tribal beats arrive too late in the day that it begins to take flight. Peking O eventually deranges itself into a samba of sorts, before a chattering, gabbling, speaking-in-tongues Damo Suzuki enters into battle against a fusillade of machine drumming. In this context Bring Me Coffee Or Tea, with its winding, gothic organ passages, provides sweet relief.
I find the whole album a bit grungy (in the pre-Seattle sense of the word) compared to the cleaner, proto-ambient washes of later albums such as Future Days, but as an essential step in their evolution Tago Mago undoubtedly has its place.
Theres the faintest whiff of illegitimacy about this vinyl reissue, which arrives sans barcode, with the original, rarely-seen cover art, some very early 70s United Artists labels and less than top-notch sonics. Of course, it couldve been sitting undisturbed in a warehouse for the last 35 years. One aspect of the packaging that I believe is missing from later issues is the Melody Maker article by one Duncan Fallowell reprinted on the back cover and its terse summation of the mindstate of yer average early 1970s rock fan: Fireball can wait a moment.
CAN Can Live: Music (Live 1971-1977) (Spoon/Mute)
A hefty chunk chipped off a much larger artefact, the cumbersome title of this double CD can be explained by the fact that it was originally released as part of the now-deleted multimedia book/video/music experience Can Box. These live recordings are non-professional by nature, but theyre as good as they need to be, especially as the selections include a handful of previously unreleased instant compositions (i.e. jams) spontaneously created on stage. The locations at which these outbursts were captured Keele! Croydon! Colchester! Hatfield! also reveals something about the vagaries of the bands mid-70s touring schedule.
The only slightly disappointing aspect to this compilation (which, incidentally, starts one year later than its titular timespan) is that much of it postdates the departure of the bands charismatic lead shouter Damo Suzuki, and consequently it documents a group graduating from yelping, damaged psychedelia to a less potent swirl of Remain In Light-style polyrhythms. Take Jynx, for example: its perfectly pleasant in fact, you can almost hear Halleluwah attempting to break out of its cocoon at times but it also means that you might as well be listening to a slightly hipper Weather Report, not an accusation easily levelled at any band with Suzuki in its ranks. Nevertheless, during its 16 minutes it builds into some distinctly Floydian interstellar overdriving, with what sounds like a flying saucer landing (a Flying Saucer Attack, perhaps?) and some celestial keyboards over a bassline thats the merest suggestion of Mother Sky. Dizzy Dizzy could almost be ska filtered through the awkwardness of early Talking Heads, and the percussive fusillade that opens Vernal Equinox sounds like something King Crimson would assault an audience with. The taped childrens choir and calliope scamper of keyboards lend Fizz an alien fragrance, even in this extraterrestrial company. You Doo Right somehow manages to be both tribal and sinuous, more an instrumental extemporisation on the studio original than a recreation of it, and Cascade Waltz is chiming and charming, a mosaic-like assembly of tiny dots of sound.
The exotically-titled 37-minute jazz odyssey Colchester Finale opens with what sounds like a drum kit falling heavily down a flight of stairs, the revving of some heavy, malevolent machinery and a derangement of the Coronation Street theme. Some sense of order is soon restored, the piece becoming a flexing, stalking thing, ever threatening to pounce. About 17 minutes in, Damos vocal flutterings tantalisingly suggest we might be heading towards Halleluwah, and five minutes later, amidst more whirligig carnival organ, we get there. It shudders to a close with a shrieking, caterwauling explosion; theres a moment of stunned silence before the applause kicks in. Spoon, their big hit (in Germany, at least) is immediately recognised by a Cologne crowd, although, stripped back to its chugging core riff and with its lyrics seemingly entirely replaced by Damos shamanic, stream-of-consciousness chanting, theres arguably a greater distance between the two Spoons than separates Halleluwah from Colchester Finale. It ends with the sound of the recording seemingly being sucked down a sonic plughole.
Can Live: Music (Live 1971-1977) is neither a definitive history of Cans music nor the ideal place for a newcomer to begin studying this fascinating, maddening band. But once youve acclimatised yourself to the best of their studio work (traditionalists would probably opt for Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi; I dont think they ever recorded anything finer than Future Days) this rough, ready album has much to offer.