One more album from 1972, and while it has a lot in common with the others, it’s not something I was familiar with at the time, or for many years afterward. I definitely wasn’t listening to experimental Krautrock along with my regular infusions of prog, and the only connection I had with any of this in the 1970s was that I knew the name Holger Czukay.
At some point in about 1976, I started buying the weekly music papers. My paper of choice, and I’ve confessed to this before, was Sounds. I am convinced that Sounds shaped my view of music in a not-entirely healthy way for far too many years; I know for certain that this list of 60 albums would be quite different had I been reading the NME or Melody Maker every week, and I doubt it would exist at all had I been reading Record Mirror, although my only interaction with RM at all was to occasionally look at it for chart details, I’m not really basing that on anything.
Each week, I’d read Sounds from cover to cover, starting with the news section which I only later came to realise were simply pasted in paragraphs from record label press releases, all the way through to the mysterious classified adverts at the back (ads for loon pants ran for many years after they fell out of fashion; I often wondered who was buying this stuff, although the regular ‘comedy’ t-shirts always cheered me up, whether or not I thought the Pope smoked dope).
Reading Sounds was an education - either I was learning about new and upcoming releases by bands I liked already, or being pointed in the direction of other things I might like, or I was reading about whole areas of music which I knew nothing about and making mental notes. My mental notes, however, often went nowhere – unless something appeared on John Peel’s radio show, it was unlikely I’d ever hear any of it – for all that I loved almost everything about 1978, as we’ll see, it’s almost inconceivable to me now that I couldn’t just press a button somewhere and listen to the latest thing to see if I would actually like it.
On top of that, I wasn’t exactly rich. I came late to the world of work, not so much as a paper round in the years when I’d have enjoyed having some disposable income, so if I wanted to hear music, I’d have to save up for it.
So the only way to hear music by the regularly-mentioned Holger Czukay and his band of German musicians would be if someone had a copy I could borrow (as far as I know, no-one did), or if there was a copy available to borrow from the library. I’ll be coming back to the library, but it’s safe to say they didn’t have any Can albums in stock.
Or maybe they were so popular that they were always out on loan; I know which theory I subscribe to.
Eventually, however, I came back to the 1970s and started to poke around in the areas I’d neglected. Fate, or the Scottish education system in the 1970s, dictated that the Modern Language I would be first exposed to would be German. I’d go on to take French further (and learn a decent amount of Italian later), but my first exposure to another language was to Hans und Lieselotte and their dog Lumpi. This, naturally, led to an affinity with Kraftwerk and their ubiquitous single Autobahn – I actually had my way in to all this German music, but didn’t pursue it. I was, however, hypnotised by Autobahn, and that probably coloured my view of German music; it all likely sounded like that. I had no idea what ‘Motorik’ meant, but I’d read about it, and eventually I read enough to understand that there were all sorts of other things out there I should hear.
And then, one day, there was the internet, and shortly after that became a daily part of my life, it was possible to listen to pretty much anything you wanted – you think the internet is a Wild West of unfettered access to copyrighted music now? You should have seen the late 1990s.
At some point, I clicked on a link which took me to that weird-looking record I remembered from my ‘browsing in record shops’ days, and discovered that my Prog-period self would have just loved this, and that my current self still does.
The first thing to point out, naturally, is the cover image. It’s distinctive and doesn’t seek to explain itself – it’s in Turkish, for a start (Turkish is another language I poked at for a bit, but that’s a story for much later) and it’s a can of okra. That’s it. What does it have to do with the music? Who knows? It was 1972; things didn’t have to make sense.
Every time I put this on, it startles. Even knowing that Pinch is so drum-heavy, I’m not prepared for how the relentless rhythm overpowers everything, nor am I ever quite ready for Damo Suzukis’ not-quite intelligible lyrics delivered in a spaced-out drawl over (or, more accurately, under) a scattered bassline which is pointing roughly in the direction of the drums rather then doing the traditional rhythm-section thing. 15-year-old me would have loved this, but I doubt whether he’d have understood it. 58-year-old me doesn’t understand it either, but it’s compelling.
By the time Sing Swan Song drifts into the light from behind the waterfall (echoes of Close to the Edge, of course), it’s clear that Suzuki is actually singing in English, which, on first listen, was a little disappointing – only after absorbing it for a while and doing some more reading did I properly understand that this was the least German of the German bands; Can happened to be based in Germany, but they were World Music long before that was a label.
The sound remains restless and hard to define throughout – One More Night is the sound of a Saturday night, bass and drums oozing through the walls or up through the floorboards as the band layer the sound with those fluid, seventies guitar and keyboard lines which are at once familiar and oddly alien.
The second side kicks things up a gear by stripping them back – Vitamin C is a spare, rhythmic skeleton of a hit single – if you’re looking for a way in to this album, perhaps this is it – it’s a more recognisable song with verses and a memorable chorus that what we’ve heard so far, and it’s likely to be the melody stuck in your head several days later.
Soup reminds me of late sixties psychedelia at first, but keeps veering off in random directions and speeding up or slowing down as the mood takes the band; by the end, having survived the complete breakdown of the sound into great slabs of almost indigestible noise, we appear to be somewhere in North Africa, hearing those distinctive sounds as Suzuki rambles off into his own made-up language, and the drums search in vain for some structure.
I’m so Green feels like a return to the world of normality after the apocalyptic ending of Soup, only out of context can you really appreciate how strange it actually is. Once it shuffles off stage, Spoon wraps things up – famously (for some definition of famous, of course), its success as a single after being used in a German TV show earned the band enough money to make the album. I can hear that soundtrack vibe in there somewhere, but I also hear the sounds which tie this to the synthesizers of Kraftwerk, and – with hindsight, of course – the soundscape which inspired so much of what came after this.
I didn’t hear this in 1972 (it would likely have terrified me), nor did I hear it at the time when I was trying to understand the likes of Public Image; if I had, a lot of things would have made a lot more sense.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
The only one I know is Tago Mago, which is the same but completely different. One day, I’ll get round to hearing the rest, but I feel like I’ve hardly peeled back the lid on Ege Bamyası, so there’s plenty of time yet.
Compilations to consider?
I’ve listened to Anthology all the way through, and I have a lot of mental notes of things to follow up (where the hell does She Brings the Rain fit in to everything, for example?) – I’d suggest that’s a good place to start.
There is one – released originally as part of a box set, I don’t know how easily available it is, and I’ve never listened to it, so let me know what you think!
Anything else? I have put All Gates Open: The Story of Can on my wishlist; I’ll let you know if I ever get round to reading it. I should also point you at Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler, although, again, it’s one of those books on my ‘I do mean to get round to it one day’ pile.
Oh, and Can appeared on Top of the Pops once, which is - odd.