Six Degrees of Can’s Tago Mago

Michaelangelo Matos

By Michaelangelo Matos

on 11.21.11 in Six Degrees

Tago Mago (40th Anniversary Edition)


It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Tago Mago


Most monuments take on the polish of nobility over time, but Can's 1971 album, Tago Mago, was always a craggy behemoth. Part of that is its relative obscurity for so long - a lot of Krautrock was only a rumor in the U.S. when it was actually happening in Germany, and there was a sense that Can's unabashedly European sensibility differed too much from the blues-based U.S./U.K. model to really count. Punk helped a lot, and so, later, did late-'90s CD reissues. By the time Tago Mago turned 40, its place on the expanded-edition gravy train was obvious enough.

There's a desert-like ambience throughout Tago Mago that slots it mentally with the same era's post-Easy Rider "looking for America/the world" road-movie spurt. "Paperhouse," the opener, seems heat-tired at first, but two minutes in, the rhythm jacks up and Michael Karoli begins chopping away at his guitar in quick bursts; the song manages to both tauten and loosen up at once. It has the expansiveness of psychedelic music and the brute economy of punk, and it slides perfectly into the hazed-out pop of "Mushroom": echoing drums, Damo Suzuki murmuring about having "saw mushroom head," Karoli's controlled guitar wailing.

Suzuki's free-associated, language-leaping yammering defines this period of Can as much as Jaki Liebezeit's unwavering pulse or bassist-producer Holger Czukay's clanking, funky low-end. Czukay would tape long jam sessions based on very simple riffs and splice them into epic-length tracks that seem to breathe in real time. The rhythm section's groovescapes allow Karoli, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, and Suzuki to vamp and solo (as good a term for what Damo did as "sing") invitingly on "Halleluwah." Both "Aumgn" and "Peking O" go even further out, incorporating abstract noises, Suzuki at his least tethered, and tape splices that nod directly at the time Czukay spent studying under Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The 40th-anniversary edition of Tago Mago comes with a trio of live recordings from 1972, including a half-hour tromp through "Spoon," released the same year on Ege Bamyasi, Suzuki's final album with the band; a slower, more menacing rendition of "Mushroom"; and a "Halleluwah" that's half as long as the album's, and twice as settled in, with Liebezeit and Karoli both playing heavier. The audio has some mud on it, but the performances abet the original album nicely.

The Teacher

"It was around 1958 when he visited the conservatory in Duisburg where I attended to take some composition lessons," Can's conceptualist, producer, and bass player Holger Czukay wrote in memory of Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1997. "Stockhausen was giving a public lecture about what was new going on on the musical battlefield. For the first time I heard electronic music from a tape. To me, it sounded like flushing toilets in outer space and the whole audience was laughing." Czukay spent the mid '60s studying under Stockhausen in Cologne, and would take many of the ideas from those workshops into the studio and on the stage with Can. Kontakte, Stockhausen's groundbreaking electronic piece from 1958-60 - interpreted here by pianist Fredrik Ulln and percussionist Jonny Axelsson - foresaw Czukay's use of electronics and shortwave radio in Can's later performances.

The Inspiration

The Velvet Underground & Nico 45th Anniversary

The Velvet Underground

It's been a long time since the Velvet Underground seemed as nerve-wracking or outre as it did in its time, but that's no complaint - a brief, near-perfect studio catalog is always a wonderful thing to come home to. Undoubtedly, having a German singer on its first album assisted in finding a receptive audience in Can's part of the world, but the Velvets' nervous rhythm and unashamed highbrow stance resonated much more: a claim can be made for "I'm Waiting for the Man" as the godfather of motorik. As for Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison's elegantly scrawling guitars, Michael Karoli was certainly paying attention.

The Groove

Foundations Of Funk

James Brown

James Brown's creative license with rhythm liberated everyone, including the Germans. Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit was equally invested in keeping a single beat going with endless surprises along the way, and while he didn't inspire the same kind of moves a Clyde Stubblefield or Jabo Starks might, generating motion wasn't a problem. Foundations of Funk, collecting two-and-a-half hours' worth of 1964-69 Brown basics, couldn't be more aptly titled. Among its action-packed subplots are the rise of Maceo Parker, the evolution of bassist Bernard Odum, and the ongoing cutting contest between Brown's percussionists and the fabric of human time.

The Jam-and-Edit Methodologist

Get Up With It

Miles Davis

Jazz is typically judged on performance, not construction: Its discographers insist upon the primacy of the recording date, as opposed to the release date, and production trickery is still widely frowned at. But Teo Macero's legendary editing together of Miles Davis's sprawling electric bands' discursive bouts of let's-try-this remade jazz as the ultimate head-trip sonically as well as intellectually; Holger Czukay's production work for Can borrowed heavily from it. Get Up with It was issued in 1974 but mostly features music recorded over the previous five years. Yet its sprawl (longer than two hours) and wide tonal and emotional range made it feel all of a piece. And Can never did anything that bristled and haunted simultaneously the way the 32-minute Duke Ellington post-mortem "He Loved Him Madly" does. Who has?

The Disciple

It's The New Thing! The Step Forward Years

The Fall

It's unfair to call any one particular act a Can disciple, because there have been so many of them: The band earns 12 separate citations in the British edition of Simon Reynolds's post-punk history, Rip It Up and Start Again - a lot for a band not profiled in it. But none have been as outspoken about their affection for the group at its Tago Mago peak as Mark E. Smith of the Fall, whose 1985 album This Nation's Saving Grace features a number called "I Am Damo Suzuki." Well before then, though, Smith took one of the German band's maxims to heart: "Repetition in the music and we're never gonna lose it," he droned, over and over, for five minutes on his band's very first B-side. "Repetition" (1978) is collected here along with 19 sinewy other tracks (some singles, most not) from the Fall's early years, and on them you can hear the band aim for the same kind of parched but rude abstraction as Suzuki and friends reached at the other end of the '70s, especially on "Crap Rap 2/Like to Know," "Industrial Estate," and "Fiery Jack."