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A Look Back at Can's Thrilling 'Tago Mago'

In the latest excerpt from 33⅓ in-depth album reviews, Scottish novelist Alan Warner remembers kraut rock group Can's 1971 record and an era of young men obsessing over vinyl.

Alan Warner

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

33⅓ is a series of books dedicated to the most incredible musical albums ever made—one book per album, one author per book. Over recent months, we've been running excerpts from their in-depth essays. This week, Scottish novelist Alan Warner introduces German rock band Can's 1971 album Tago Mago. Here's chapter one:

I thought "Halleluwah" on Tago Mago was the funkiest and the most athletic thing I had ever heard. And I hated sports. You were excited before you even put on Side 2, Disc 1 of the vinyl record. Excited on account of noting that timing numeral: 18:32 on the inner cover of the gatefold sleeve. The thrill which came with this weird generosity of another Can song lasting nearly 19 minutes; a whole side of the record! To hell with "Bohemian Rhapsody," which you had once briefly believed was the longest song in the world.

The first seconds of "Halleluwah" are the bars of bass charted by snare drum shots. One of those great bass lines which, as Miles Davis once said, asks a question of itself and then answers itself:

Bah bum ba bum
Bah bah bum?

Damo Suzuki's orgiastic: "Mmoohh!" before the bass answers itself:

Bah bah be bah bum
bumbumboo

then the shuffling run and groove of that drum-lock pattern—we are off for nearly 20 minutes: " Can anybody see this snowman ...?" (can they?)

Even just a minute in, you sense something changes inside the music, an enriching of structure, a deepening of intensity, I might have thought of it back then; now I know it is just a tape edit at 1:03, from one stretch of recording tape to another. These magical thresholds of edits will later become clear to me.

Before two minutes, Damo Suzuki sings that celebrated "chorus" which possibly begins: " Searching for my..." something or other. (Attempting to quote vocalist Damo Suzuki's actual lyrics is—as we now know—a fraught or even nonsensical process. Even Damo admits some "words" are sounds or syllables called out in a sort of polyphonic reaction to the music, some are even nonsense phrases, mixing German, Japanese, and English—while some are actually heavily accented but relatively straightforward English from which many track titles are derived.)

The drums begin to run and to swerve all over the song. When I was younger I thought they were fantastic tricks of drummer Jaki Liebezeit but they are in fact further overdubs on top of the beat on this section of an edit. The drum sound is especially lovely: acoustically rich, vivid, and close to your ear, like Ginger Baker's drums on Cream's Wheels of Fire; the sticks and bass drum pedal hitting the skins sound as if they are in the room with you—not at all like the electronic drumming of 1980s pop music where the strange musical intent was to make a drum set sound not at all like a drum set—even though a drum set sounds so good. Eighties recording was an economic thing, of course; recording drum sets to sound good is time-consuming and thus expensive. Today hardly any new recordings I hear have a really good drum sound in rock music—and even in jazz only sometimes.

You know how "Halleuwah" goes. Through the basic groove, short wave radio abstractions weave between left and right speaker—a variety of Stockhausen bleeps, Ligeti and Webern squeaks, and post-serial blips—a distant guitar solos as if from the balcony of an alpine chalet far across a mountain valley. A chattering percussion overdub actually stops the song which momentarily fades out.

There is a 25-second cocktail jazz interlude: dreamy vocals, plucked or strummed guitar, and electric piano—perhaps even verging on being out of tune—all clearly pasted in to the overall recording tape; then the swinging bass and drums are back, keyboard sounds, percussion, tape distortions, bowed cellos, or violins complain. It is nearly eight minutes in and Damo—who we have forgotten about—suddenly reappears. " Oh!" he exclaims. A series of Irmin Schmidt's distinctive keyboard trills burble behind the singer's gamine obscurity, those classically trained fingers rattle the keys for impossible duration and consistency.

At nine-and-a-half minutes we get another chorus refrain where Damo yells the title, " Ha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la la-la-la-la-la-la la ooh-vah." This leads into a long and coherent guitar solo, in some ways the first consistent instrumental statement within the ensemble playing, all the more powerful for having been anticipated by abstract sounds for ten minutes. The guitar playing is pitched between jazz and rock, closer to jazz really—a warm valve-heated sound seeking out chordal harmonics and musical phrases which count and tell a thematic story within the framework of the song, rather than the burning rockish speed runs of, say, "Paperhouse."

There follows a keyboard excursion, the downbeat becoming far more pronounced, building to the climax where tension is released and the intensity drops. Just when you thought it was over, the band explode into another keyboard attack but this one is extremely intense, the bass a plodding anchor, the drums and cymbals begin to slash, sometimes desperately in the crazed, sudden momentum; the organ-like sound is run through different effects, it does not try to phrase or operate in relation to a song—"playing us a tune"—it is just a machine, ascending out of control, the sense of riding the back of a shining orca with leather reins attached to its teeth—the excursion cannot last and at 16-and-a-half minutes the music breaches a summit and resumes with Damo's harmonizing vocal until...

It is inevitable for writers writing about music that we must resort to image, simile, and metaphor. So you are going to get guitars playing on balconies across a mountain valley, and you are going to get keyboard solos compared to a killer whale rodeo. It is not something I am proud of, it is a tradition, a trope, a linguistic attempt to seize the myriad impressions and sensations which affecting music can throw at us. We resort to common poetry to describe the impossible, the same way scientists and physicists must when attempting to explain their most recondite flights. These images are variations of the pathetic fallacy but there is a tradition to it and sometimes the metaphors are apt. I like to avoid this plump fancifying but I cannot.

At least fanciful metaphor-blown ways of writing about music and anthropomorphising sounds, avoids those deserts of dry academic terminology, and of having the deep self-importance to quote from Theodor Adorno when we are talking about rock 'n' roll, man! More woeful are note-by-note transcriptions of solos which fail to communicate the unique and impossible-to-transcribe tones, the subtle inflections which define the individuality of very good rock or jazz musicians. You can transcribe a Hendrix solo but it's not really a Hendrix solo. The recorded sound IS the transcription. Rock music is aural, not intellectual.

When I was 15 (unlike when I began to listen to Public Image Ltd's Metal Box and Joy Division at around the same time), I developed this slightly melancholy awareness of being a retrospective, second-hand listener to Tago Mago. I often thought to myself in those months of 1979/80: "Long-haired hippies in the '70s must have loved this," or I thought, "What did long-haired young people back in the early '70s make of this; it must have sounded really exciting to them back in those times?"

"Halleluwah" seemed like a natural stoner song. I imagined it was recognized as a sort of sign for those generic long-haired people to begin rolling their cigarettes of contraband, leaning back, and smoking—a reluctant or willing girlfriend nods her head. Her beads jangle—I saw this happening in '70s rooms with bright wallpaper and posters. Radical days and thoughts. I started to contemplate what this music would have DONE to them—the psychic disruption which "Aumgn" or "Peking O" might have imparted upon a marijuana-addled mind, or the blissful pleasure the top and end themes of "Paperhouse" may have disbursed to those post-flower power children.

For some reason I did not imagine these vinyl-induced cerebral revelations unfolding in the metropolis of London. Perhaps for my own reasons—the sense of my own appalling provincialism—they were happening in smaller towns in northern England, Hatfield and Coventry, Derby and Carlisle, between 1972 and 1976 – and surely also in unpronounceable towns and cities in Germany or France, the geography of which I was unsure—this place called "Europe." I knew every small town had its natural crop of home-grown freaks and it was to this imagined and scattered tribe that I bequeathed the exclusive previous use of "Tago Mago."

Then there were the legendary past concerts which Can must have played, like one in Berlin in 1974 when they played from 8 PM until 3 AM the following morning! All seemingly lost in time, like Roy Batty's tears in the rain. In some ways Tago Mago and other Can albums were merely teasers, relics which spoke of an awesome moment in history when this band had played live and which I had missed. I had missed it all. Despite the joy and celebration there was a sadness sealed deep within my listening.

"Halleluwah" seemed to tell a story to me about the 1970s, yet it also retained for me a contemporary statement of the musical athleticism Can were capable of. At the age of 14 or 15 when I first started to listen to Can, some form of athleticism was important: who is the loudest (in fact the Who were the loudest), who is the fastest, who is the best drummer in the world, who is the craziest singer? For me, musicians replaced the sportsmen and women and the soccer players who almost all my male contemporaries were aficionados of.

For me, Can were my immediate heroes. They allowed me to be different from my peers because I believed I had discovered them alone—which was largely true—and they gave me a sense of a teenage individuality and superiority. No matter what was said about AC/DC's Angus Young, I knew he couldn't touch Michael Karoli. Even though I listened to Deep Purple drum solos (that forgotten feature of rock—when will Radiohead play a drum solo?) up in the bedrooms of pals, Ian Paice was not as exotic as Jaki Liebezeit doing those impossible drum things on "Mushroom." Wrong in a way. Iain Paice was and is a technically brilliant drummer. Angus and Michael very, very different types of guitar players trying to do different things, but Michael would still have jammed with him.

Side 2, Disc 1. The sound of that outdated phrase I used back there is not just nostalgic, to me it belongs in another era. It is such a precise and almost militaristic cataloguing of data. The dematerialization of the music object—by which I mean the vanishing of mass vinyl, cassette, and now CD into an invisible download format and the iPod—means many things. What is being lost is that sense of the vinyl record as the object which enshrined and celebrated the recorded moment—and then of course we enshrine the actual vinyl which we have owned for 40 years, the covers now worn shiny by our once-youthful fingers. Music was so much closer to our physical hands then. You had to select the cover sleeve from your small collection of albums, slide out the inner sleeve, remove the vinyl record from the paper sleeve, place it on the turntable, lift the needle on the record player—ease it across to the glistening run-in of Side 1 or 2 or 3 or 4—or in the case of a seven-inch 45 rpm single, swing it further over onto the A-side or B-side. All these terms have largely melted into air with the advent of the download and iPod.

In some ways the download is a purer relationship with the actual music, but the ritualistic, particularly male fetishism my generation bestowed upon our vinyl and what these chunks of plastic have come to mean to us is, I am afraid, largely what this book will be about: that physical connection to the object as we bent reverently—or when drunk, not so reverently—over our "stereo" and then laid the stylus needle down on the vinyl.

Then the music began. Sometimes there was more than just myself in the bedroom; Bob might be there, or Kenny, or beautiful Teresa. Things moved so quickly then; you changed in a matter of months. By later 1980 we ourselves played in our wee local bands: The Psychedelic Pixies; The New Antiques; The Krasnij Ocjabre Collective (the what?). We might say to one another, "Hey. Shut up. Listen to what the drums do here," or "Check out the guitar," or "Listen to what the fucking drummer is doing here. He's brilliant." Or maybe, "WHAT is the drummer/bassist/guitarist doing here? I can't work it out."

And it was not just the music. The record sleeve in its 12-inch by 12-inch ergonomic perfection became a mode of communication in itself; its artwork and even its notes and credits concealed and revealed mysteries. Or in those days of limited information before the internet, the cover art concealed the facts and sent me astray.