Can – Tago Mago (1971)

Tago Mago Can

“You must play monotonous” – unattributed

Sometimes the most bizarre of circumstances lead to inspiration. For Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, it was an encounter with a random fan, high on LSD stating some pretty abstract advice with utter conviction and confidence: “You must play monotonous“. To Liebezeit, those words were the bizarre concoction of an acid-laden mind. A drug-induced fabrication. But he couldn’t get the words out of his head. Why monotonous? How does one play monotonous?

With the encounter still fresh in his mind, Liebezeit began shifting his style significantly. He began tinkering with new approaches, hoping one would fit the mold of “monotony” while still sounding fresh and exciting. Once a member of the groundbreaking Manfred Schoof Quintet, Liebezeit became more interested in the budding experimental electronic scene, drawing inspiration from the sounds of of Mort Garson, Silver Apples and similar electronic pioneers. His drumming shifted away from the swing of jazz or the slamming bombast of rock, instead moving towards a pulse – a steady, hypnotic sound. Something steady. Something monotonous.

It’s this hypnotic, droning drumming that defines Can’s music, particularly on Tago Mago. On “Paperhouse”, Liebezeit adds a pulsating rhythmic base. The track chugs along and whirls, reeling uncomfortably. It’s a trance, a hypnosis – a meditation. It’s woozy and hallucinatory but, underneath all the psychedelia, there’s a certain mechanical feel to the track. The drumming almost has the almost automated sound of drum machine – but not quite. Libezeit keeps the track from slipping into rehashed ideas or unremarkable repetition, sneaking in minute shifts and changes to remind listeners that he’s the one controlling the track. Not a machine, not a composer. There’s an all important human element thrown in the mix and Libezeit ensures the repetition never gets too dull.

Around halfway through “Paperhouse”, he slides the track into a jazzy 3/4, snapping on the hi-hat and adding some swing. He remains in that groove but only for a moment, veering right back into a jammy style. He gradually increases the intensity of the track, moving from a soft patter into bombastic slamming, pounding rock rhythms. His ability to shift styles isn’t incredibly unique in itself. But his ability to do it so smoothly and gradually without drawing attention to himself is phenomenal.

The magic of Can is so much more than Liebezeit, though. Michael Karoli adds to the hypnosis, soaking the guitar in phasers, distortion and pedal effects. The guitar hits in waves, gradually increasing the psychedelia. The resulting sound is nothing like Can’s psychedelic contemporaries. Jefferson Airplane seemed to rely on laser-sharp precision and fiery guitar licks  that complimented their fervent political material. The Grateful Dead relied mostly on jazzy improv, a bouncy rhythm section and a hint of country. Can instead found a middle ground of sorts, circling tracks evocatively with repetitive, slow-burning riffs. Damo Suzuki only adds to the madness, improvising lyrics in idiosyncratic fashion. His style could be described as either “nonsensical” or “abstract”, depending on your take. Regardless, he’s a long stretch from the shrill belts of Grace Slick or the earthy, soothing tone of Jerry Garcia.

On “Mushroom,” for example, Suzuki repeats the same four or five lines for the whole track, creating a hymn of sorts. It seems to be a bit of a mantra for the band itself, a statement about their music. It’s not logical, it doesn’t carry a narrative, it doesn’t even seem to serve any real purpose. There’s an underlying absurdity to it, something erratic and improvisational. But the members of Can don’t seem to care about entertainment value – only how avant-garde and original their music is.

This avant-garde, hypnagogic atmosphere reaches its peak with the 18-minute “Halleluwah,” one of Can’s finest moments as a group. Guitars reach their most impressive balance of concise riffs and jammy interplay. A synth pulsates dramatically in the background, adding a fascinating backdrop on which to improvise. Liebezeit absolutely dominates the track, slamming in a bombastic polyrhythm. He eats up so much room on the track that it’s almost hard to notice how little the rest of the band is actually doing. Most of the track is driven by a group jam mentality rather than individual soloing but each member still manages to have his time to shine. There aren’t obvious virtuosic performances but each member adds little touches that contribute to an incredible atmosphere.

By the time Tago Mago passes its halfway mark, though, Can’s avant-garde approach gets the best of them. Songs deteriorate into psychotic freakouts, string-driven horror scores and moments of clashing dissonance. There’s certainly some fascinating moments packed away on the later half, but they’re typically much more intriguing from a historical perspective than from a musical one The side-long “Aumgn” is dreary and menacing, relying on jarring strings, droning bass and clashing piano riffs. The band even adds in some firecrackers and a barking dog. It’s more an exercise in experimentation than anything. The original sonic combinations of “Aumgun” lead to some fascinating moments but overall, it’s a cluttered and aggravating experience. “Peking O” sees the band push even further, devolving into screaming vocals, wandering instrumentation and a purely chaotic atmosphere. Nothing about the track is enjoyable and I suppose that’s part of the point: breaking conventions and pushing boundaries. But it goes to show that experimentation can be as obnoxious as it is innovative or original.

Thanks to a dominating performance by Jaki Liebezeit, Tago Mago is an album that manages to fuse monotonous, hypnotic rhythms with a huge variety of styles. Elements of rock, jazz and electronic music intersect in an engaging, impressive and incredibly unique web of psychedelia. The combination of all these elements make Tago Mago feel like it was made in a dream. At moments in fact, it seems as though Tago Mago draws too much from the surreal. It ventures so deeply into exploratory realms that it loses its grounding in reality, its connection to the outside world. But it’s these experiments, this disconnectedness that makes Tago Mago so engaging and historically important. It’s an album which is so alien and detached that it’s almost unlike anything ever recorded before. As a result, Tago Mago is one of the most fascinating albums I’ve run across.

Author: Charlie

Charlie Wooley is an aspiring journalist and founder of The Tenth Man Blog. An avid sports fan and music nerd, he’s written for publications such as Pop Gates, Every Deja Vu and Tremr. A local San Diegan, you can catch him eating fish tacos or cruising through Balboa.

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