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Definitive Albums: Can 'Tago Mago' (1971)

'Tago Mago': The (Double) LP as Exploratory Sound Vehicle

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Can 'Tago Mago'

Can 'Tago Mago'

United Artists


Though the krautrock movement was, in many ways, a mirage of perception —English audiences lumping together all of the experimental bands coming out of early-'70s West Germany— there are similarities that unite its proponents together. Chief of these being the unmistakable sense of the exploratory. For krautrockers, this routinely meant pushing the pop-music form into compositional extremes. Meaning, basically: really long songs.

On their swaggering debut album, 1969's Monster Movie, Cologne outfit Can showed they were unafraid at going way beyond rock'n'roll's three-minute, verse/chorus beginnings, closing the set with a crazy, enlivened, riled-up jam called "Yoo Doo Right." That just happened to last for over 20 minutes, and take up the entirety of the LP's Side B.

Can were coming at the artifice of the rock'n'roll band with a refreshing lack of reverence. They were students of free-jazz and modern composition, artists interested in the experimental and avant-garde. The band would play long, exploratory jams lasting for hours, trying to find a communal headspace in their sustained mantras. On record, bassist Holger Czukay —who would, in later years, be revered as a studio pioneer— would take to the audio recordings of these jam-sessions, cutting and splicing the tapes into new sonic forms.

And it was on 1971's Tago Mago that Can really found themselves. The band's second LP was a double LP; with its first platter consisting of psychedelic, funky, tripped-out rocksongs, and its second plunging into eerie, experimental exercises at the very fringe of magnetic tape.

The Future of Rock

Can's essential duality —a hedonistic live band of sweaty, hairy, mustachioed dudes being, at the same time, a crew of existentialist studio eggheads— was their defining quality, and what has gone on to be their ultimate legacy. Listening back to Tago Mago, then, one gets to hear a radical, groundbreaking, utterly avant-garde album that doubles as a toe-tapping, bong-rattling, rock'n'roll good time.

Its defining cut is "Halleluwah," a song that completely embodies this duality. It's 18-minutes long, it's meandering and exploratory, it's an exercise in tapping into the cosmic reaches of rock'n'roll that features all kinds of outlandish studio trickery by Czukay and some genuinely strange sonic flourishes. But, by lord, is it totally funky! For its first four minutes, the cut has more in common with blaxploitation soundtracks (funk bass, wah guitar, tom rolls) than it does, say, the avant-gardism of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Can's chief influence.

This gives rise to an unintentional, hindsight-aided perception of Tago Mago constantly sugaring the pill. When, in their era, Can were out to be provocateurs, sonic sorcerers pushing rock into strange new straits, stretching familiar forms into elongated shapes. "Aumgn" shows the band at their more utterly unafraid: its 17 minutes an eerie, freeform, floating, shape-shifting haze of tape-loops, echo effects, ethnomusical drone, and sinister incantations that does almost entirely away with rhythm.

On "Aumgn," Can were simply coming clean. Sure, they were a rockband fond of psychedelic jams, but, at heart, they were ruthlessly out to tear down and take apart rock's clichés. Having grown up in partitioned post-war Germany, the members of Can had absolutely no sentimentality to them. Let the past be forgotten; Tago Mago was music peering into the future.

Record Label: United Artists
Release Date: December 10, 1971

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