Originally part 11 of my behomoth Krautrock series.
- CAN – ‘Tago Mago’ 1971
Drifting just 900 meters off the northwest coast of Ibiza is the unassuming island of Tagomago, a privately owned reclusive retreat rich in both an abundance of flora and fauna; its impressive otherworldly terrain plays host to a vast menagerie of bird life.
This seemingly tranquil oasis in the Mediterranean lends its name favorably to CAN’s third album, adding an evocative sense of mystery and conjuring up a suitable myriad of images, which Jaki Liebezeit for one found inspiring enough to enthuse about to his band mates after he holidayed nearby. It was a particular rock formation on the islands coast that he found striking, one that must have had a pretty invigorating effect as he gushed about it on returning to band HQ.
Tagomago Island has somehow become synonymous with the murky cape adorned occultist and magi Aleister Crowley, whose supernatural rites of passage seemed to always involve plenty of ‘sodomy and gonorrhea’ in equal measures. For some reason his name is linked to the island, though from all my extensive research I’ve yet to find any connection, which is bizarre as most features and entries on the internet for this album share the same unexplained mention.
There maybe something in the fact that CAN have been quoted as taking an interest in the esoteric, during this recording: Czukay intended this work to be darker as he explained thus –
‘..an attempt in achieving a mystery musical world of light to darkness and return’
Also the trouser filling scary antics of the LP’s ‘Aumgn’ track is in part a reference to the sacred word used by Crowley in his Creed of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica text, though it is in fact originally an augmented form of the Hindu Sanskrit mantra Aum, better know as Om. This is used at the start and end of prayers as a sacred exclamation, much like the westernised Amen.
Don’t worry though as Can are not quite in the same league as Sabbath, and they don’t ever actually refer to Crowley in name. In truth they seem more interested in the sort of ESP and ectoplasm charades found in a Victorian parlor then joining the hoofed one in a game of silly beggars and privileged idiotic occult dabbling – the kind practised in the, now harmlessly twee, ‘The Devil Rides Out’.
The music itself, recorded in the autumn of 1970 and early 1971, is more jazz based with touches of their avante-garde beginnings under Stockhausen.
They manage to infuse both African poly-rhythm and proto-funk break beats to make an almost brand new sound: literally a fore-bearer to dance music and hip-hop, a decade at least before anyone else had cottoned on.
They had almost shaken free of the shackles of The Velvet Underground, Love, The Doors and The Mothers Of Invention to invent something startlingly brand new, setting a exploratory new agenda for the next five years.
Recording for Tago Mago took place at their Schloss Norvenich Castle studio – known as the Innerspace Studio – a crumbling decadent ruin that was rented out to CAN in exchange for performing the occasional concert.
For the first time Czukay would engineer and direct the now more formal recording sessions, whilst also taping all the improvised jamming that took place in between waiting on whatever technical problems erased.
Originally the idea was to release a slimmed down single edition of the album, which would not include the more free-form experimentation of tracks ‘Aumgn’ and ‘Peking O’, but Irmin Schmidt’s wife Hildegaard persuaded them to include these compositions and release a double album version instead.
Hildergaard would herself now mange the bands affairs and take over from their previous manger Abi Ofarim after a major fallen out that would eventually lead to problems with their next album Ege Bamyasi.
The new appointment almost changed the bands fortune overnight; their usual one off underpaid gigs became a thing of the past as Hildergaard put them out on the road to tour the UK. She also cut a deal for the guys to compose a theme tune to a newly commissioned thriller for German TV, which proved to be very lucrative.
The show, a joint Anglo-German venture, was based on the English playwright Francis Durbridges fictional crime novelist turned detective Paul Temple: presumably the names Simon and Templer had already been taken.
This detective shtick was an unquantifiable success in Germany and reached every TV set in the country.
As a result the theme tune ‘Spoon’, which would reach number one in the charts and go onto sell 50,000 copies, was included on the Ege Bamyasi album.
Tago Mago emphasized the touch of mystery with its artwork, supplied by German graphics artist U Eichberger who would go onto provide covers for Soon Over Babaluma and the Amon Duul II compilation Lemingmania.
His outsider art like image shares the same mind as Wols, whilst certain elements of controlled measures point to the abstract figurative reliefs of R B Kitaj.
A head and shoulders printed sideways on figure motif is sliced open and a psychedelic rendering of a brain laid open, one small speech bubble emits from the gaping mouth, inside is the same rendered brain pattern, which looks like a jazzy version of noodles.
This cover with its afro outlined figure reminds me of a number of funk and soul records of the period and wouldn’t look out of place on a Sly album.
Inside the gate-fold sleeve you will find 24 photos of the group either side of the track list, these have been take whilst the band where on tour and feature some beguiling poses, though the boredom of waiting around for sound checks is evidently plastered all over their faces.
This double album of epic proportions would become the poster boy for all those groups who felt a bit edgy and believed they shared some common thread with CAN.
I’m quite bored with reading about Johnny Greenwood, Damon Albern and Bobby Gillespie all name checking Tago Mago, there sentiments always ring just a bit hollow.
It’s as if somehow the inventiveness and genius will rub off onto them, if only, we may get some actually great records instead of the usual fluff.
I would love to hear something as fresh and imaginative as say ‘Halleluwah’, not a copy but the 2010 version.
Somehow I imagine that I’ll be waiting quite a while.
United Artists 1971
Double Album Gatefold
Recorded at Schloss Norvenich Castle autumn 1970 – 1971.
1. Paperhouse (7:29)
2. Mushroom (4:08)
3. Oh Yeah (7:22)
1. Halleluwah (18:32)
1. Aumgn (17:22)
1. Peking O (11:35)
2. Bring Me Coffee Or Tea (6:47)
Holgar Czukay – Bass, Editing and Engineer
Michael Karoli – Guitar and Violin
Jaki Liebezeit – Drums, Double Bass and Piano
Irmin Schmidt – Organ, Electric Piano and Vocals on
Kenji Damo Suzuki – Vocals
Irmin Schmidt’s feet must be firmly tethered to the ground, because his flying saucer take-off oscillating synth introduction should see him heading towards the skylight: the floating serenity of those initial stirrings evoke an unworldly presence.
Our Japanese alchemical singer appears from the mists as though he were a specter. His delicate vocals merely caught drifting away on the wind enforce the serene opening song ‘Paperhouse’.
Jaki Liebezeit keeps a dignified double bass drum rhythm steady; those acrobatic like feet bouncing off the pedals to create a solid tension as Michael Karoli draws out a some pronounced and bending riffs, like light hitting a prism. He delivers ‘Crosstown Traffic’ via the back roads of the rhythms found in Ghana during 1973.
Soon the serenity disappears and an impromptu jam kick starts a frenzied West African jaunty jazz funk groove, with Jaki almost kicking those busy double kick drums through the studio wall and into the car park.
Damo begins a second round of vocals, this time bellowing out almost unaudible lyrics, though we can hear the tracks title in there somewhere.
A sea of sounds build towards a crescendo with Karoli letting rip and blowing his stack amongst a torrent of competing blow outs before ‘Mushroom’ cuts in and changes the mood.
Almost a continuation, ‘Mushroom’ oozes sophisticated jazz and funk pretensions with its calculated coolness and slightly moodier atmosphere.
During the spacious and laid back nuances Damo speaks of despair, at first keeping perfect control of his sentiments until a sudden rattling toms roll inspires a belt of primal screaming, we are jolted from the lazy feel of the groove into a now unsettling encounter with the dark side.
Karoli lays on a calm and collected serious of notes and the odd extra lead in doodling, whilst Holgar Czukay tip toes around the main melody in bass carefully placing his minimal counter notes so as not to overcrowd the song.
An effortless cacophony of drums now ratchets up proceedings, an added slight touch of reverb places it in a metal container, which along with the rest of the band ends up exploding in a heavy phased effect mushroom cloud finale.
Emerging from the nuclear fall out like an apparition is the first whispery beginnings of ‘Oh Yeah’, a creepy backward taped incantation from Damo evokes an image of a medicine man or a shaman, ala the imagination of Carlos Castaneda, reciting a sacred text from some dusty parchment.
The backing sounds like it was sent from thirty years into the future from some sort of time traveling troubadour, hip-hop break beats and electro drums sit tightly compacted alongside more of those swirling keyboards, even Eno was left standing dumbfounded next to these seers.
Damo’s lyrics now spill out as though he was possessed; he now spews words out in Japanese, English and what sounds like Esperanto before disappearing into the ether.
This is CAN jamming in a foggy cemetery on a cold November night, their own companions for this performance the gravediggers.
Side two is wholeheartedly given over to the psychedelic celebratory epic ‘Halleluwah’, an 18 minute soulful break beat jam that stands tall like a bedraggled kaftan coated Colossus of Rhodes.
Starting with Jaki kicking his repetitive drum breaks off in an achingly cool display of control, Damo lets loose with a torrid of imaginative prose, rambling along to the sweetly phased effect grooves laid down by the drumming alchemist.
Bubbling atmospheric soundscapes thick enough to taste circle the track like a prowling dark force of the supernatural.
Time delay wah wah effective guitar loops cry out like a wounded siren, Karoli leaning forward his hair hanging down across his fretboard knocks out blues tinged leads, whilst adding a touch of the abstruse improvised experimentation we can’t get enough of.
A brief respite allows an eerie piano break and allows us a pause as Damo croons not words but just vowels.
An avalanche of addictive drums and percussion career down the north face, screeching violins are stretched until they beg for help and Czukay finely balances the octaves, his rapid changes almost lift you from your seat.
Soon a rabid display is unleashed and a cosmic hole is punched through the fabric of time, the Moonchild of Crowley’s imaginative mind crawls into the new opening and instantly starts to dance as the funk flows.
The Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Horrors, Happy Mondays and School Of Seven Bells all seamlessly encapsulated in this 18 unadulterated minutes of pleasure.
Moving on to the second half of this epic tome of celestial music we come to side three’s chilling hymn to the occult.
If there are any connotations to Crowley on Tago Mago then this is the track that steers closet to those disturbing allusions.
The atmospherics come close to Amon Duul II Dance Of The Lemmings, cranked up a further ten notches that oversteps any definitions of boundaries, making Terry Riley sound almost sober.
‘Augmen’ begins with a brooding speed shifting delay, which slowly reaches the pain threshold.
Strange far eastern bazaars and the bustling side streets of Salonica atmospherics that would later be used to good effect on ‘Gomorrha’, later packaged on the Unlimited Edition album.
Now disturbing yogi like chanting and screeches from the corners of ghostly rooms, chairs and improvised props are dragged back and forth and recorded for prosperity.
The title of this abstract jam acts as a special amen or Om exclamation as sacred postulations run ragged, CAN sit cross-legged at the top of the tower of Babel. This is their ‘Revolution No.9’, all be it more whacked out and frightening, Lennon and the boys could only push that envelope so far.
Just as this avant garde opus calms down a V2 rocket whistles overhead bringing ominous heavy bass rumbles that make Sun O))))) sound like mere laymen in the doom stakes.
Petrified screams emit pleading tones and beg to be finished off as this deeply unsettling piece of chaotic dystopia reaches its bitter end.
CAN manage to scare us witless.
Continuing onto side four is the follow up to ‘Augmen’, the abstract and mysterious opium inspired ‘Peking O’.
The opening trebly shimmering assault of cymbals and the vocal wails of Damo sound all disconcerting as Schmidt unearths a lamented sorrowful church organ service, acting as some kind of religious revelation.
Karoli scraps rusty nails across his strings and sticks a screwdriver into his vast array of pedals, the electric like shock etched onto the tape reel.
Out of nowhere arrives a Casio styled bossa nova pre-set ditty accompanied by some strange Mandarin sounding plucked instruments, an almost jaunty moment of humour breaks through until the guys realise their mistake and direct events back to the more arcane.
A battle breaks out between the Cabaret Voltaire and Fluxus movements in a game of dare, each egging on his opposite to make ever more daring noises. All hell could be let loose but then a sort of groove gets going as more heavily effected layers of sounds are added into the vast melting pot before we glimpse the finishing post and all calm is restored.
‘Bring Me Coffee Or Tea’ has a more serene title, this could be the albums come down, and God knows we need it.
This final curtain call starts with more of those choral church organs of antiquity as Czukay delicately conjures up more of those octave-spanning rundowns.
Damo swoons over the top in the style that will be know as his ‘Vitamin C’ mode, he is accompanied by emotive tinged melodies that sound like a canter through a Medieval tapestry rich landscape.
Jaki now lets off a cannonade of breaks as he bounces on the kick drum, pumping that pedal like it’s a foot pump for a bouncy castle.
Soon our esoterically sonic explorers reach a climatic ending; Karoli shoots from the hip with the last exhausted semitones announcing the finale display of this celebratory exequies rites of passage.
And like that it all ends.
If Karoli owned the last two albums then this one is Jaki Liebezeits, who takes the medal of honour for services to drumming.
That built in machine like metronome never dropping a single beat and an marathon runner fitness level display of stamina lend me to conclude the man is in fact a demi-god or at least in the house band for the Gods of Olympus, sitting in as Orpheus charms the birds from the trees with his weeping lyre. Jaki rattles off some magical beats and rolls that soon vanquish all memories of those Greek tragedies that the audience have had to put up with for the last four thousand years.