Can: Many Happy Returns To 'Tago Mago'

Tuesday, 16 February 2016 Written by Graeme Marsh

Lists of classic albums invariably tend to throw up the same titles time and again. You’ve got your nailed on certainties in the Beatles’ various releases, the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’, Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ and Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’, all of which also contain songs considered classics in their own right.

Can’s double album ‘Tago Mago’, released in February 1971, is often cited as one of the most influential records of all time but bucks the trend considerably, with its own individual tracks generally overlooked in favour of the whole. Why is that? What exactly makes ‘Tago Mago’ special to so many people if it isn’t the songs themselves?

Newcomers to Can are generally underwhelmed by what they hear at first, but countless musicians namecheck the German band as being a key influence in their own careers, with ‘Tago Mago’ at the forefront.

Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie is a well-documented fan, and when speaking about his own band’s classic effort ‘Screamadelica’ with Pitchfork, he said: “When we released it, I honestly thought it was a really cool underground rock record like Can’s ‘Tago Mago’. I’m not saying we’re as good as Can, but I finally felt Primal Scream had made a great record.” So it’s cool, there’s no doubt about that.

Gillespie also contributed to the remastered version’s liner notes, adding: “The music was like nothing I’d ever heard before, not American, not rock and roll but mysterious and European.” Julian Cope echoed these thoughts too, writing in his book Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide To The Great Kosmische Musik – 1968 Onwards that ‘Tago Mago’ “sounds only like itself, like no-one before or after”.

While this may be a little bit of an exaggeration, it’s clear to anyone who listens to the album, and is able to adequately imagine how it would have been perceived at the time, that it was a groundbreaking collection.

Perhaps the most obvious example of its innovation is seen in drummer Jaki Liebezeit’s occasionally manic but often monotonous style, which is credited with helping to shape the Krautrock movement that emerged through Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk, among others. In July 1977, the Sex Pistols’ frontman, John Lydon, was interviewed by DJ Tommy Vance on Capital Radio for a show called ‘The Punk And His Music'. He too heaped praise on ‘Tago Mago’, an affection for which he shared with Sid Vicious, singling out Liebezeit.

“They’ve got the most amazing drummer I’ve ever heard, it’s like he keeps the beat, plays two at once,” he said. “It’s good!” Lydon then chose to play the epic Halleluhwah on air. That song would go on to inspire Primal Scream, again, with a drum sample being used on Kowalski, but Happy Mondays’ Hallelujah is another obvious descendant.

Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, though, had a slightly different perspective on Can’s percussive wiles. Talking with Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker prior to the release of his band’s final album,‘Laughing Stock’, in 1991, he said: “The one kind of starting point we had this time was just this thing of everyone working in their own little time zone. Really, it’s just going back to one of a couple of things – either the jazz ethic or y’know, an album like ‘Tago Mago’ by Can where the drummer locked in and off he went and people reacted at certain points along the way. It’s arranged spontaneity.”

Hollis may have been talking about his own album but it’s also a perfect appraisal of ‘Tago Mago’. Or at least the first disc. The second is a different beast entirely, and this is where some eyebrows will be raised when ‘Tago Mago’ is held up as a classic. Here things get almost overwhelmingly experimental.

Another monster of a track, Aumgn, takes up the entire first side of the second disc, but its 17 and a half minutes will either have you nodding in nerd-like avant-garde appreciation or leave you thinking: “What the fuck is this shit?”

It’s a mishmash of improvised sounds, random wailings from vocalist Damo Suzuki and plain weirdness, with an almost complete lack of cohesion. It’s not quite Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ but it borders on the unlistenable, sounding like incidental music from a sci-fi adventure.

This sense of breaking down barriers and expectations is what drives the entire second side, and it undoubtedly succeeds in doing so. Records like this help artists realise that they are not limited, with the emphasis firmly switching to ‘art’. Reed’s old accomplice David Bowie, among others, would capitalise on the new freedom that ‘Tago Mago’ helped create with the taxing second side of his ‘Heroes’ album from 1977.

Suzuki’s vocals provided another unique element to ‘Tago Mago’, his first with the band after being discovered busking. Largely unintelligible, his freeform delivery opened doors for others. The Fall have released 31 studio albums to date and while Mark E. Smith’s vocal style is completely different from Suzuki’s, he pays homage on ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ through the song I Am Damo Suzuki. The track also borrowed from another ‘Tago Mago’ cut, Oh Yeah. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and the Mars Volta’s Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, meanwhile, are also notable advocates of Suzuki’s work, with Rodríguez-López collaborating with him for the ‘Please Heat This Eventually’ EP.

‘Tago Mago’ is a unique album and an experimental sore thumb among the classics. The first disc includes some addictive songs, with the metronomic genius of Halleluhwah easily the pick of the bunch, but the second is only for the brave. To call it a classic in the same breath as ‘Revolver’ or ‘Nevermind’ is misleading. ‘Tago Mago’ deserves its place because of the influence it had on others, the roadblocks it removed and the artists that further developed its various elements. Without it, there may not have been a ‘Heroes’, a ‘Screamadelica’, a ‘Laughing Stock’. For that reason, ‘Tago Mago’ deserves huge credit. Many happy returns.

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