Graded on a Curve:
Can,
Monster Movie

Can was the best of the bands to emerge from Germany’s Krautrock scene in the late sixties and early seventies. And the band had plenty of competition; Faust, Neu!, Amon Düül II, Popol Vuh, Cluster (and yes, Kraftwerk) were all traveling Deutschland’s musical Autobahn at approximately the same time, but Can’s music was pioneering in so many ways it will still be influencing new artists well into the 29th Century.

Formed in Cologne in 1968, the quintet is best known for its 1971 LP Tago Mago, which the UK-based webzine Drowned in Sound has called “arguably the most influential rock album ever recorded.” Call bullshit or not, the statement gives you a rough idea of the profound sway the LP has had on fellow musicians. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith (not one for accolades) even wrote an homage to Can’s lead singer entitled “I Am Damo Suzuki.” And Tago Mago’s 1972 follow-up, Ege Bamyası is considered a masterpiece as well.

So why am I writing about Can’s 1970 debut, Monster Movie? The simple answer is I’ve never been fond of white lab coats. Tago Mago features two long experimental tracks (“Aumgn” takes up one of its four sides); Ege Bamyası includes the ten-plus minute “Soup.” Tracks like these have always stopped me dead in my tracks—it’s a royal bummer to have to interrupt my listening pleasure to pick up the old stylus and put it down on the next song.

Monster Movie differs from Tago Mago and Ege Bamyası in two additional respects. First, Damo Suzuki had yet to come on board, and vocal duties were handled by American singer Malcolm Mooney. A big deal to Suzuki fans—and who isn’t a Suzuki fan?—but Mooney’s every bit as unique and unconventional a vocalist. Second, the Can of Monster Movie had yet to fully incorporate the jazz and electronic effects that would characterize its subsequent work. Monster Movie is very much a high-octane psychedelic rock LP, with “Mary, Mary So Contrary” being the only track that would sound right at home on Tago Mago.

Opener “Father Cannot Yell” could be an early Velvet Underground song. Jaki Liebezeit’s primitive drum thump is pure Mo Tucker; the immortal Holger Czukay’s bass line is reminiscent of the one on the Velvet’s “European Son; and Michael Karoli’s guitar feedback is straight out of “I Heard Her Call My Name.”

“Outside My Door”is hard rock with harmonica tossed in, perhaps because Mooney’s singing about trains and you can’t have a train song without some lonesome hobo playing harmonica. Mooney sings himself hoarse, the band roughs you up, and if you don’t get out of the way this one will run right over you. “Mary, Mary So Contrary” steals from the lyrics of the children’s song and sounds a mournful note thanks to Karoli’s John Cale-esque violin. Again Mooney sings his vocal cords raw, and his repetition of the word “Mary” becomes a sort of mantra.

“You Doo Right” is twenty-plus minutes of tribalism, with Liebezeit banging the drum and Mooney giving him a nod mid-song (“drum beating 24 hours a day”). There’s some slowdown but no stopping, things quiet down here and there, some electronics and melodic passages find their way in, but for the most part “You Doo Right” is a primal, elemental work–I like the part where the band bangs away at a riff so simple even your biggest musical dolt could master it in two minutes flat.

I also enjoy the way Mooney begs, cajoles, goes into trance states and finally gives up on the human language altogether. I can think of very, very few songs topping the 20-minute mark I’d listen to without the enforced use of thorazine and four-point restraints, but I enjoyed this one from the start and it’s actually growing on me.

Monster Movie has very little in common with such Can albums as Tago Mago, Ege Bamyası, and 1973’s Future Days, but it’s essential listening for anyone seeking insight to Can’s evolution as a band. I’m dead sure there are Can fans out there who write Monster Movie off as an anomalous blip on the radar screen, but so far as I’m concerned it’s one monster movie you’ll want to lay down the price of admission for.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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