REVIEW: CAN – Tago Mago 40th Anniversary Edition
I am sick as two dogs, in the throes of a feverish flu that fills my nights with hallucinations and my days with spinning vertigo. The drugs don’t work; they only make me more disoriented and weirded-out. My head feels the size of the Sahara. Nothing seems to help – I can’t concentrate on anything before the spin comes back.
I know! I will check out the new 40th Anniversary Edition of CAN’s wonderful 1971 LP Tago Mago. I may as well go somewhere where – at least until the pseudoephedrine overdose wears off – I can speak the language. Come on! Grab a flying lizard-shemonkey and let’s go!
Tago Mago, like Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, is an album every false hipster can’t live without (even though they just haven’t quite made it through all four sides as yet). Critically acclaimed on its release in 1971, it opened a lot up for CAN, leading to British tours and a sphere of influence on bands right up to today – Portishead, Public Image Ltd, Sonic Youth and Radiohead to name a smattering. Krautrock khronicler and acidhead rock-star flake Julian Cope says in his definitive Krautrocksampler that Tago Mago “sounds only like itself, like no-one before or after”. It certainly doesn’t sound like any of CAN’s German contemporaries – neither the antiseptic humour of Kraftwerk nor the motorik minimal rock of Neu! It borrows a drug-mazed adventurousness from fellow Krautrockers Amon Düül II (yes, that is with two ümlauts) but goes beyond, taking the listener to the outer edges of 20th Century music (forget “rock” – this LP departs from rock 1:52 into the first track “Paperhouse”).
The free-thinking sonic bravery of Tago Mago can trace its lifeblood to the influence of its founder, Stockhausen student Irmin Schmidt (keyboards), its use of a freespirited street singer, Kenji “Damo” Suzuki and also the “chance” techniques used in its production (such as bass player Holger Czukay secretly recording the band jamming while technical problems were being sorted, then cutting up these jams on the mixing desk). But with an album this complete and conceptually strong through all four sides (of the vinyl – two sides contain only one piece each and the last only two) the only way to explain it is “magic” (pass the pills, flying lizard-shemonkey!).
There is much that is magic about Tago Mago – its name derives from the Isla de Tagomago, an island that features in the story of Aleister Crowley, early 20th Century occultist and freethinker. The LP was recorded in the German castle, Schloss Nörvenich where the band was living, rent-free for a year. Bassist Czukay claims the album was “an attempt in achieving a mystery musical world from light to darkness and return” and CAN have referred to Tago Mago as their “magic record”.
From Suzuki’s calmly delirious repetitions on “Mushroom” to his manic nonsense chatterings on the 12 minute “Peking O” there is a feeling of exhortation and exultation – that by going into total animal release, beyond all musical and societal conventions, can any sort of freedom be realised. Not the “freedom” to smoke a bong in the street but a higher freedom: the release from human cares and desires. Sufis, Buddhists and John Coltrane all went for the same thing – and because Tago Mago works, it is a truly liberating listen. Those pseuds really should ‘endure’ the almost completely non-musical “Aumgn” which takes up all of (vinyl) Side 3 – it could be the best 17:34 they ever spent.
The 40th Anniversary Edition, as well as containing all the treasures of the original, comes with a 50 minute live performance of three songs from 1972 – “Halleluhwah”, “Spoon” and “Mushroom” – which show the mesmerizing dervish energy the members of CAN could generate live. Drummer Jaki Leibziet really flies out of the mix on these performances. These live cuts, together with the seven studio tracks are quite the package.
The only drag is the cover art – they have dropped the original whimsically psych spaghetti illustration (by U. Eichberger, like a day-glo Dubuffet) in favour of the “original UK artwork”, a muddy shot of Liebzeit and Suzuki’s backs. Maybe if I drop some more pills I will dig it – but I doubt it.
But you won’t need any pills for the thrills of Tago Mago. It will lift you up to a space and a place you haven’t been before, flying lizard-shemonkeys or not.