Graded on a Curve:
Can, The Lost Tapes

The group known as Can is one of absolutely indispensible names to emerge from the well-celebrated Krautrock style, but for quite a while the specifics of their rep were solidly ensconced and pretty much unchanging. Well, no more. The Lost Tapes, now available in a limited edition 5LP box, presents a superb mess of top-flight material that was rediscovered only recently, and it reemphasizes the utter brilliance of a band whose sound was uniquely cut out for the 21st century.

Once upon a time there was a definite aura of the exotic about Can. This statement may not seem particularly insightful given the frequency of exaltation awarded to any number of cult units that existed in the era before the proliferation of largely digital-driven niche-music distribution (deep breath), but Can’s exoticism was indeed a reality.

While the situation was likely different in larger cities, it was a sad fact that in less populated areas the recordings of this cornerstone Krautrock entity were notoriously hard to find, an elusiveness that was especially bothersome given the large amount of intriguing information available on the band.

A group hard to hear but very easy to read about, and it was in the literature; reviews and articles dispatched in musty old rock mags, passionate assessments, and notable namedrops delivered in small-press fanzines, the far more detached but still fascinating entries located in encyclopedias dedicated to the documentation of rock music’s short but fruitful lifespan, that Can’s magnetic reputation really began to take shape. A band influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Miles Davis, and The Velvet Underground that somehow managed to include an African-American vocalist in Malcolm Mooney, his early departure then filled with a singer of Japanese descent, the one Mark E. Smith sang so impressively about on The Fall’s “I Am Damo Suzuki.”

And the very fact that Can was a prime instigator of Krautrock gave them a very special allure, for the groups associated with that movement, with the general exception of Kraftwerk and the later, lesser Tangerine Dream material, were all pretty scarce in less metropolitan US record store bins in the days prior to the compact disc reissue boom.

Circa the mid-‘90s, it wasn’t a bit unusual to stumble onto a cheap second-hand CD of Brainticket’s Cottonwoodhill. But just a few years’ earlier, legendary outfits such as Faust, Amon Düül II, Ash Ra Temple, and Neu! were like enticing but maddeningly elusive travel destinations, their reputations beckoning from assorted print resources like the enticing descriptions in those old green Michelin Guides. Krautrock artifacts were obscure and almost always out of print, and those with the good sense to buy them in the first place generally had no interest in selling or trading them off.

Figure in Can’s influence on post-punk and it was inevitable that once the barrier of availability was broken the music would be devoured by a considerable number of fresh, eager ears like the contents of a ludicrously deluxe six-course banquet. The dishes: 1969’s Monster Movie, ‘70’s Soundtracks, ‘71’s Tago Mago, ‘72’s Ege Bamyasi, ‘73’s Future Days, and ‘74’s Soon over Babaluma. The response: sweet freaking release.

If the sense of the exotic inevitably decreased somewhat, it was replaced with pure wonder, for Can’s first five records are all masterpieces, a string of brilliant artistic statements undiminished by the often cruel hands of time, forming into an achievement of enduring impact; I’ve no idea what Radiohead would sound like if Can never existed, but it would most assuredly be quite different. And what’s remarkable is how the six LPs listed above hit shelves at a clip of one per year. There were no prolonged bouts of studio obsessing and no record label over-calculation regarding when was the right time to issue the albums. The answer was simple; once finished, get them out as soon as possible and move on to the next one.

Outside of the sheer high quality of their music, this relatively brief creative burst is maybe the most impressive aspect of their original reign. And if Can was a cult band, their work with Mooney and Suzuki shapes up as one of the most impressive discographies in rock music history. Toss in Delay 1968 (actually their first album, deemed too far out for release at the time) and the swell comp Unlimited Edition and they become possibly the best group to straddle the line between outward bound late-‘60s psychedelic experimentalism and the sound that started happening after punk went boom.

Another huge facet of their success was the haymaker blow they struck to rock music’s US/UK hegemony, the very thing that made them so difficult to hear in the first place. Reading about and salivating over Krautrock was one thing, but actually getting to soak up the goods made it abundantly clear that Germans could do it just as well, and Can proved they could do it better than almost anybody. But any hoopla over Germanic pride needs to be tempered with the band’s unforced multiculturalism, which when considered in tandem with their interest in what came to be known as World Music really drives home just how ahead of the game these guys actually were.

So the appearance of The Lost Tapes, released earlier this year as a 3CD set and now available in a 5LP edition, is like manna dropped from musical heaven. A big part of the reason is the chance to hear more material with Mooney. And “Waiting for the Streetcar” is simply a revelation, a ten minute excursion that finds the vocalist essentially ranting the same phrase over and over until it’s simply transformed into just another aspect of the song’s framework and unrelenting momentum. As such it sounds not like a product of 1968 but instead like a treasured artifact of post-punk DIY style from around 1982 or thereabouts. Again, they were totally ahead of the game.

To elaborate, as The Fall outlined on the B-side of their first EP a whole decade later, it’s about repetition, repetition, repetition. While Can were certainly psychedelic, they also brandished a love of cyclical motifs that’s sorta kept them from being wholeheartedly championed by many full-blown psyche fans as a pinnacle of the style, a circumstance that also extends to Krautrock bands in general. While Can eventually morphed into a more traditionally-minded expression of prog-psyche sensibilities (particularly post-Suzuki), in the early days the songs reliably contained sonic elements that kept the music fairly well grounded along with also providing attractive forward motion, even when they were chalking up double digit durations.

And while the early piece “Millionenspiel” is relatively concise, it still serves as a blueprint for much of the motorik activity that came later. That it includes some sweet sax playing from Gerd Dudek (noted for his work with Manfred Schoof, Globe Unity Orchestra, Krautrockers Guru Guru, etc) is a nicely unexpected development, and it’s an association that helps to underscore the intentions of Can’s endeavor.

If Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt ditched studying with Stockhausen in large part because they felt that expressing themselves through only one inarguably high-minded avant-garde mode was too limiting, then their blend of rock, jazz, traditional ethnic music, R&B, and yes the everlovin’ avant-garde was no less serious due to its contemporaneousness and frequent spurts of accessibility.

And The Lost Tapes is frankly just an embarrassment of those varied riches; the rough and tumble oddball R&B of “Midnight Sky” is prescient of James Chance and the Contortions, the abstractness of “Blind Mirror Surf” begins in an edgy Nonesuch Explorer Series style (Flautist David Johnson’s playing is somewhat reminiscent of the Japanese Noh flute) and slowly ends up in a zone of prickly sound collage (lots of broken glass) that would’ve fit right into the ‘80s u-ground experimental tape-scene, “Obscura Primavera” is a short and luminous showcase for Michael Karoli’s guitar, extremely pretty and untied to the decade of its origin, sounding like it could’ve been recorded yesterday, and an extended live reading of “Spoon” illuminates just how strong a performance unit Can could be, with Suzuki his loose, distinctive self and the band members, drummer Jaki Liebeziet in particular, all in fine form.

Yes, some of the cuts of later vintage aren’t as crucial as the late ‘60s material, which is mind-bendingly magnificent from top to bottom. But the non-strict chronology of The Lost Tapes allows for some real insight into Can’s gradual movement toward conventionality without any deep drops in value; this isn’t a case of the fifth LP being of far lesser interest than the first. Indeed, this vinyl edition ends with the wickedly gnarly groove of “Bubble Rap,” one of the best cuts on the entire set.

The story behind the rediscovery of these songs, specifically how they were found in Can’s studio when it was being moved to a German rock museum, is surely a curious one, but rest assured they are in no way mere outtakes for uncritical converts. To the contrary, they cohere into a grand introduction to a most spectacular and thoroughly modern band, so anyone new to their charms will find the ride provided here a very satisfactory introduction.

Can’s music took a long time to achieve maximum notoriety and availability, but The Lost Tapes is the stuff that nobody got to hear. It’s truly prime material that coalesces into a fresh revelation on an already pantheonic group, and making room on the shelf for its rewards is basically a cinch.


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