Graded on a Curve:
Can,
Delay 1968

I love microwaveable serving pouch. I love box of mac and cheese. But most of all I love Can. Formed in Cologne in 1968, Can—which was one of the first Krautrock bands and in my opinion the best—integrated psychedelic, experimental, and avant-garde influences into its great and hypnotically raucous music. Can’s methods were radical—you’ve got to love a band that spent 6 hours without a break spontaneously improvising “Yoo Doo Right” in the studio, only to pare it down to 20 minutes for release on vinyl. Hell, I don’t think even the Grateful ever played for six hours straight. Can dubbed such spontaneous jams “instant compositions,” and I beg to differ. Six hours is not instant. Soup is instant. Six hours is almost a goddamn workday. Hell, if it took six hours to heat soup, I’d starve to death.

Most people consider Can’s golden years to be those when the great Damo Suzuki—whom the band discovered busking outside a Munich café and was playing with them live that same night—was the vocalist. It was during these years that Can released such legendary LPs as 1971’s Tago Mago, 1972’s Ege Bamyasi, and 1973’s Future Days. I love that trio dearly, but have always had a soft spot in my heart for Delay 1968, which was supposed to be the band’s debut album and would have been the band’s debut album had they been able to find a single record label willing to so much as touch it, even while wearing biohazard gloves. (It wasn’t released until 1981, by Spoon Records.) Often labeled a compilation album, or an album of outtakes, Can bassist and recording engineer Holger Czukay has gone on record as saying Delay 1968 was intended to be Can’s first LP and bore the title Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM.

My reasons for loving Delay 1968 have much to do with the band’s first vocalist, the American sculptor Malcolm Mooney. Mooney’s hoarse vocals, mad rants, and odd utterances added an element of derangement to Can’s often repetitious and strange songs, which are less propulsive and Autobahn-friendly, and often bring to mind German Captain Beefheart. And Mooney wasn’t just faking those lunatic vocals—following the release of Can’s proper debut, 1969’s Monster Movie, he returned to the United States, after receiving a strong recommendation to do so by his psychiatrist. Evidently he wouldn’t stop shouting, “Upstairs, downstairs,” which I imagine must have gotten on his fellow band mates’ nerves. In any event he left, and didn’t rejoin Can until 1989, when he returned to assume vocal duties for the band’s Rite Time LP.

Can was busy making music at a time of violent protest in West Germany, and Can sympathized with such radicals as the Baader-Meinhof Gang to the extent that its name is a backronym for “communism, anarchism, nihilism.” That said, Can’s members balked at actual violence, as did their fellow Krautockers in Amon Düül II, who actually lived in the same commune as some of the members (or future members) of Baader-Meinhof. Too bad. A violent anti-fascist music group would have been cool. But ultimately it was for the best, because instead of recording lots of great music the members of Can would likely have ended up as cellmates with Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof at Stammheim Prison north of Stuttgart.

Anyway I’ve gone astray, as is my wont, so let me return to the subject at hand by saying that at the time of Delay 1968 Can’s members included Mooney on vocals, Czukay on bass, Michael Karoli on guitar, Irmin Schmidt on keyboards, and Jaki Liebezeit on drums and percussion. The band had impressive avant-garde bona fides; both Czukay and Schmidt studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen, while Karoli was an expert on gypsy music and Liebezeit had strong roots in jazz. All of this went into the pot, while all of the pot went into the musicians, and the result was a band that could (and often did) radically change their sound from LP to LP. Small wonder they’re touted as major contributors to avant-garde, experimental, underground, new wave, electronic, and world music; they refused to limit themselves to a single genre or sound, and covered more bases than Babe Ruth.

That said, Delay 1968—and this is another reason I love it so–sounds like rock’n’roll to me. Just like the kind Bob Seger and Huey Lewis and the News make. Okay, so Delay 1968 doesn’t sound remotely like either of those bands, but the fact remains that Delay 1968 was far more of a straight-up rock album—albeit a strange one—than most of the band’s later, more ambient and experimental LPs. Take “Nineteenth Century Man” for starters. Karoli’s guitar is pure garage, rough but melodic, and he heaps lots of ruff riffs and fiery flourishes atop Schmidt’s hypnotic keyboard drone. As for the rhythm section it’s great, as are Mooney’s vocals, which bring to mind James Brown more than anyone else. He relies heavily on repetition (cue Fall song), repeating “inner space” over and over before taking the song out by repeating, “Alright alright alright alright alright alright” like 63 times. “Pnoom,” on the other hand, doesn’t sound like anything remotely resembling rock’n’roll. What it sounds like, all 27 seconds of it, is a brief foray into free jazz featuring a saxophone and drums, and ends with what sounds like somebody throwing said saxophone against the wall.

“Man Named Joe” is a snazzy number that is rendered truly odd by Mooney’s eerie falsetto vocals, which are underpinned by some great drumming, keyboards that sound like horns when they aren’t in full drone or producing squiggles of noise, and some understated guitar. But it’s Mooney’s twisted vocals that steal the show, because they’re so… wrong, especially towards the song’s end, when he mumbles, makes weird noises, and repeats, “The horn goes on” for reasons comprehensible only to artistic madmen like Alfred Jarry and Antonin Artaud. Meanwhile, the upbeat and droning “Uphill” is brilliant and opens with some chugging guitar and brushwork, and grows louder as Mooney repeats variations on, “Changing uphill going slowly” as Karoli plays lots of wonderfully freaky fuzz guitar, Czukay throbs away on bass, and Liebezeit keeps things in lockstep with his crisp drum work. You can definitely hear The Fall in this music, to say nothing of PiL, and it’s no wonder Mark E. Smith ended up writing a song called “I Am Damo Suzuki.” Although if you ask me, he should have also written a song called “I Am Malcolm Mooney.”

“Butterfly” is great too; an eight-minute plus wonder of a tune, it features Karoli playing raucous guitar over Schmidt’s keyboard drone. But its high point is Mooney, who repeats “dying butterfly” like 8,000 times. For a while Karoli’s guitar falls away and Mooney sings gibberish while Liebezeit and Czukay keep things cranking, then everybody drops out except for the rhythm section while Mooney repeats “You can see her” and “Yes you see her” before huffing and puffing as the band slowly comes back in. “Butter butter butter butter” he repeats as Liebezeit plays tattoos on his drums and Czukay plays a primal bass note over and over until, bam, that’s it, song over, and why do I have the feeling when I’m listening to Mooney that I’m actually listening to a reading of Jarry’s play Pere Ubu?

“Little Star of Bethlehem”—which should not be confused with the Christmas carol of the same name—opens with some really cool guitar and heavy percussion. Then, while Mooney talks nonsense about Froggy and Toady carrying off tangerine seeds, Karoli does some great riffing and the rhythm section keeps things staggering along at an off-kilter gait. Some great washes of keyboard come and go as Mooney, who sounds like he’s ad libbing and probably has been the whole album, sings about how “up on the moon you really don’t need to hang your coat up because it’s going to go down” and at one point sings, “Don’t know the words.” It’s a Johnny Rotten move decades before Johnny Rotten was invented, and while it was David Byrne who said, “Stop making sense,” Mooney had him beat by decades.

I’ve saved Delay 1968’s high point, “The Thief,” for last. Why? I dunno. What I do know is that this song is a masterpiece, what with its haunting melody, gigantic bass, and beautiful keyboard riff. And nowhere does Mooney shine so brightly. In a plaintive rasp he sings about being the impenitent thief Dumachus who was crucified alongside Christ. “Why must I be the thief?” he repeats, and his vocals are desolate, desperate even, as Jesus repeats, “it’s far too late” for his salvation. By the song’s midpoint Mooney’s voice is totally raw, and he’s screaming that Jesus (I think I’m getting this right, I washed out of theological school after repeatedly calling for the canonization of Marty Balin) may run and Jesus may hide but there’s no disguising his “pride,” which Mooney repeats over and over. As a song it’s brilliant, and as for Mooney’s performance, it’s one in a million.

As I said, Mooney left Europe in 1970, but his musical career was not over. In addition to returning to Can to record Rite Time, he recorded three LPs between 1998 and 2011 with San Francisco band Tenth Planet, which are every bit as experimental as Can. Check out the propulsive “Father Cannot Yell” or the fractured jazz of “Right Behind Time” for a taste. Or the space age weirdness of “I Dream of You.” As for Can, they recorded albums that I like far less than Delay 1968, but—call me crazy if you want—none that I like more. I guess it’s because I’m no avant-gardist. Some of Can’s work reminds me suspiciously of the Grateful Dead in space jam mode, while Delay 1968 and Monster Movie come as close as Can ever did to just rocking out. But only a lunatic would take my word for it; I heartily recommend that you check out Delay 1968 and give it a listen. Believe me, it’s the heartiest rock I’ve ever tasted that came out of a Can.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • Martijn

    A

  • Michael Little

    Thank you Martijn! I’m going to frame that “A” on my wall above my writing desk!

  • Greg C

    Listened to this yesterday while on a long drive, and it blew me away. I had only listened to it a couple of times before, and didn’t think I liked it. Well, now I do. So I’m up early this morning searching the internet for commentary on this album, and yours is the best. But there are at least a couple of other good ones out there too. The last two songs, “Uphill” and “Little Star Of Bethlehem,” are my favorites right now. I don’t know how Jaki could play drum parts that were so repetitive yet so intriguing. He would do it later on songs like “Mother Sky” and “Halleluhwah.” And many more. The other members of Can said that Jaki played drums “like a machine.” I don’t think they meant it as either a compliment or a put-down. It was just a statement of fact. And that’s the thing about Jaki’s drumming: it just IS.

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