DI takes its role as edutainers seriously, and in that spirit we’re spotlighting great albums and choice cuts from 1970-1999 to edify our readers’ musical breadth of knowledge. Each week will focus on a single year and some of the sweetmeat it produced.
“Did anybody see this snowman stand there with the Lord?”
Recreational chemistry and music, particularly when combined, can change your life. This is especially true on those nights when one is really chasing after IT, prying open the locks and hinges within to let the windows and doors fly open so one might hear what the universe has to say, using every tool and strategy a fevered brain can devise to negate the white noise of straight existence and catch a whispered word from the cosmos.
On one such night my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, the gleaming, wonderfully shattering power and truth of the drug-music intersection came into crystalline focus. Gobbling little white pills and manically sharing records with a glorious degenerate audiophile acquaintance, he asked me with sudden seriousness, “You heard Tago Mago, man?” I told him I hadn’t and suddenly things got real. “Sit down,” he barked as he shoved me into a huge yellow smiley face beanbag chair and lit candles and Nag Champa. After he slipped the record onto the turntable he handed me the sleeve and beamed. “Music isn’t going to sound the same to you after this.”
With that he dropped the needle on “Halleluhwah,” an 18-minute mind-fuck of epic proportions, the unholy offspring of a perverted Meters groove, the Dead’s Aoxomoxoa, and all sorts of ghosts that live in the machines that make this world hum. I imagine my experience – just-shy-of-oppressively-loud volume, softened up by a slurry of speed and potent weed, low lights, enormous Klimt speakers staring me down as the lights of the equalizer rose and fell like the fountain show at the Bellagio – was about as perfect a set up for having one’s mind blown as could be devised. But I’m certain if I’d been stone cold sober and clear-eyed as a judge Can’s third album would have sent me for a loop all the same. The drugs and consciously tenderizing setting just helped tear down any resistance to what leapt from the stereo.
After “Halleluwah” finished my buddy lifted the needle and said, “Now, let’s start at the beginning.” His grin glowed in the dark as he settled us into Side A proper and plopped down next to me.
Take a light shining on the land,
Off the wall,
Up and down, free everything,
What you feel is all gone.
You can make everything
What you want with your head,
You’re OK and be aware
Everywhere with your mind.
There is the feeling of a Genesis of sorts to the German quintet’s ultimate album. Nothing that comes before it sounds remotely like it, or at least what ancestral echoes one detects might be mere figments of one’s own imagination and likely have no actual influence on Can’s befuddling creation. Often albums that are expressly strange and court oddity are mere curiosities and lack any musical depth. Not so with Tago Mago, where one continually senses the players thinking and feeling intensely every move, every note, every crazed-but-inspired edit, using all their skill and intuition to chart a new course. It’s as if a new language is being birthed right before one’s ears, an impression strikingly reinforced by singer Damo Suzuki’s charmingly warbled English, gibbering glossalalia, and hashed-out doo wop blurting.
Shaped from hours of jamming and experimenting by bassist/engineer/editor Holger Czukay at the band’s Inner Space Studio in 1971, Tago Mago stitches together many such moments of inspired invention with a production bravura worthy of The Beatles and Pink Floyd at their most brilliant, although Can keeps things decidedly more earthy and batshit loony even whilst making one’s head nod. The drumming of Jaki Leibezeit is the great, relentlessly steady muscle powering this body, a force Titanic in the muscled Greek sense with a touch of Hephaestus’ clockwork craftsmanship. Intercutting things and riding melodically atop this synergistic stew are keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and guitarist Michael Karoli – the latter a tie with Chicago’s late Terry Kath for the 70s most underrated guitar hero. What Can does as a group on Tago Mago is all encompassing, a creature all their own that reaches out with electric fingers and a wild, wagging tongue. It snatches us without permission and deposits us sullied and smiling back at home seven “songs” later.
To call Tago Mago “psychedelic,” “otherworldly” or any other trite music journalistic cliché is a major disservice to what Can conjured up. It is singularly shattering, as definitive and influential a statement as Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It really will change how one hears music forever after, and thus stands as one of the few essential listening experiences one must have if they’re determined to be a well-rounded musical connoisseur.