As I’m sure you all know, “Tago Mago” is a damn strange album. Strange in context (both then and now), strange in concept and also strange looking.
Originally intended to have been a single album, new manager Hildegard negotiated with the record label to expand this into a double album, with the second record containing what was considered more experimental material.
Here is where the oddity of “’Tago Mago” really begins. Had the album remained a single album, it would have been the most accessible Can album. I could understand that version of “Tago Mago” becoming classic rock royalty but not the album we know and love.
Album opener “Paperhouse” sails pretty close to contemporary psychedelic rock song to begin with. Certainly Damo is in fine melodic fettle, showing a tantalising “what if?” in his craftsmanship. It is only at the two minute mark when suddenly Can really start to be Can and erupt into that furious, sexy, tribal beatdown.
Track two “Mushroom” is one of those songs that probably does not seem anything like as radical today as it did in 1971 because it has been so endlessly ripped off by indie rock bands ever since. The stripping down of the rock song to a vivid vocal, slow bass and fast drum with occasion accompaniments of spectral, chimming guitars was a radical move in 1971 when Western rock was trying to layer everything up as high as possible.
However the most important part of “Mushroom” today is just how enjoyable it is. Jaki’s ever-reliably inventive drumming demands you tap your toe and Damo sounds like the humble, wise vocal shaman that Jim Morrison failed to be.
Side one ends with a sudden rockfall explosion and then Can’s rhythm section charging off into the dawn with Damo’s ghostly backtracked vocals chasing them. We will skip the obligatory mentions of how much influence all this had over various genres of dance music and instead just say, again, what joy this is to listen to. Played through a good hi-fi or pair of headphones, it is still guaranteed to blow your mind every single time. Even poopy mp3 rips and glitchy youtube uploads still have a little power to them, though only a shadow of their former glory.
All of side two is taken over with “Halleluwah”, the most intoxicating blend of psychedelic rock and machine funk ever. Not that they are using machines, it is just that here at their peak, the rhythm section of Jaki and Holger is so precise, so open that it sounds like the work of machines. It’s simply a symphony of rhythm where the beat overwhelms the listener and provides a sturdy landscape for the others to improvise over.
So, there you have what was to be the original third Can album, which contains some of the very best work by Can at their peak. There is nothing strange about that being accepted into the canon of classic rock. If you search the web for “Can Tago Mago”, you will find reviews raving about the album from every conceivable source. The nostalgia reviewers with their classic rock fixation have accepted it into their ranks. The reviewers of modern rock music too have embraced it as their own and rank it on their endless lists.
Which is peculiar, because “Tago Mago” came out as a double LP and there is the small matter of the second LP, which does things very differently. Teasingly, “Aumgn” begins with the same sound as “Paperhouse” but then trips off in a sea of reverb and sound. All the structures of melody and rhythm are cast aside. Damo screams and gibbers. Jaki goes all free jazz on us. Dogs bark. Studio equipment whooshes and whooors. It’s nearly eighteen minutes of free chaos and takes over all of side C, like the evil twin of “Halleluwah”.
To me, it sounds like a high-fidelity recording of really free rock music. Many bands today get as wild and experimental but only with access to basic recording facilities. Can had as advanced a studio set up as you could wish for….and they decided to abandon all the rules.
However, what do our woolly-jumper wearing hippy nostalgists make of it? What about the indie-kids checking out their hero’s heros? Surely it must piss them off? Looking at reviews of the 40th anniversary edition on indie websites that allow user comments shows some of them clearly do not get the wild stuff.
Side D offers them no olive branch, instead “Peking O” serves up atonal keyboards, stuttering drum machines, more goblin jabber from Damo, guitar abuse and piercing noises. There are hints of melody and song structure but they quickly dissolve into the sonic soup.
Perhaps the ending, a brief and beautifully hallucinogenic version of “Bring Me Coffee and Tea” (a different, more spooky version than the one that featured in the Can Free Concert film) assuages those outraged by the rampant experimentalism of the previous tracks.
You will notice throughout this review, I have been talking in terms of side A and side C. I am keen to avoid being seen as a vinyl fascist. If you look at the photos, you will see that I own the album both on vinyl and the hybrid SACD remaster. I don’t own SACD gear, so the album just plays as a regular CD on my kit. The remastering for CD is fantastic, far better than the original CD release (which should be consigned to the history’s trash can).
Yet, it is hard to think of Tago Mago as anything other than a double album. The tracklisting is informed by the medium. I listen to the remastered cd just as much as my lp but even with the cd you can feel the structure of the lp. There is a nice convenience to the Cd and if you enjoy bonuses, the 40th anniversary edition includes a bonus CD with a complete concert (which a friend insists is at the wrong speed…..its certainly a different speed to the bootleg of the concert).
Whatever format you do plump for, I really have to stress what a high fidelity recording this is. Can were not just masterful and innovative musicians but were also master engineers. If you have only heard it on mp3 or the 90s cd version…then you haven’t heard it. “Tago Mago” is not just a classic album but a fantastic recording that will thrill your speakers.
This is now the third time I have reviewed it but I would gladly do it thirty times if it encouraged more people to hear it.