Tago Mago, by Can

The island of Tago Mago is located one mile off the north western tip of Ibiza. It is a tiny private piece of land, totaling 148 acres with a lighthouse and idyllic views of the Mediterranean. There is also a gorgeous luxury villa on the island with five bedrooms, pool, fitness room, Jacuzzi and a yacht. All of this is yours for a week at a starting rate of 90,000 EUR. The yacht is extra. If I had that kind of extra money, it would be a no brainer. I would save 89,970 EUR and spend the rest buying an LP named the same as the island by a group called Can. It was released in 1971 and is a classic today as it was back then. It will last you a lifetime of listening pleasure, quite a bargain compared to one week of decadent vacation. This is the story behind the making of that album.

If you happen to visit the rock’n’popmuseum in Gronau, Germany, make sure to venture into its basement, where you will find CAN-Studio, a replica of Can’s studio that was built inside a cinema in Cologne. In that studio the band recorded 8 albums between 1971 and 1978. But there is much more to the story of Can’s studio. Drive 200km south to Schloss Nörvenich, a castle with a history dating back to the 15th century. For many years the castle belonged to rich families and aristocrats. Before World War II it was placed in the hands of private owners until it was leased to art collector Christoph Vohwinkel. Can’s keyboardist Irmin Schmidt picks up the story: “Before Can I was a conductor and composer, and performing quite a bit in different galleries and museums. As well as playing at various art events, I was also writing about art. In fact, I had more friends who were painters and sculptors than I did musician friends. When we started with Can, I asked everyone in the art scene, ‘Do you know a place where we can rehearse and play?’ And this collector, Christoph Vohwinkel, said, ‘Yeah, I have this castle and you can have a room in there.’ After gallery events he would invite all the collectors and artists back, where we would play live. These were our first ever concerts.”

Schloss Nörvenich

Constantly short on income in its early life, the group could not hope for a better arrangement. Very few bands at the time had their own recording studio, and Can made the best of it, recording long jams with sessions lasting 16 hours. With egg cartons and old mattresses they created their own studio within one of the castle’s rooms, calling it Inner Space. Limited budget afforded the band no more than two 2-track tape recorders, with which they recorded their first albums, up to and including Tago Mago. The jams were later edited by bass player Holger Czukay to create the tracks that ended up on the album. This was a similar technique to the one used across the Atlantic by producer Teo Macero with the music Miles Davis recorded when he went electric in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Guitar player Michael Karoli sees this use of rudimentary recording equipment as an advantage: “The limitation is the most creative thing; Holger would probably have done less well with better equipment at that early time. That’s why there are still people who think that the 2-track work of Can is better than the 16-track; it was through limitation that the strong atmosphere came.”

Can at Schloss Nörvenich

Tago Mago is a great album for many reasons, one of them the focus on rhythm that seemingly does not change for the length of the tracks, putting you in a mantra-like zone. Combined with moody organ accompaniment, atmospheric guitar, sound effects and words that no one understands (years before Cocteau Twins made it their hallmark), this is music to get lost in. Keyboard player Irwin Schmidt talked about the focus on rhythms: “If you study music from all over the world, it seems that in lands surrounded by water the music is influenced more by water and air while the more you go into a continent, the more you get into a land mass, the melody of the music becomes less important in comparison with the rhythmic heaviness. It seems water has something to do with melody, while countries like Germany produce music more of earth and fire.”

Irmin Schmidt

Tago Mago opens with the track Paperhouse, starting with a laid-back groove and quickly changing pace to a guitar jam set to a tribal rhythm. One of the first things you notice is that you can’t figure out the lyrics, for two reasons: it is unclear what the singer is actually saying, plus he is pretty low in the mix compared to the instruments. Guitarist Karoli said this about recent recruit to the band singer Damo Suzuki: “I was captured when I realized he was a loud whisperer. He yelled only occasionally. Usually he simply whispered loudly. I thought that was ideal. Naturally, the sound of the band altered, from a group that had a screaming singer to one that had whispering singer.”

Each of Can’s members has an interesting personal background story of the period before joining the band, but Damo Suzuki’s is truly unique. Leaving his native Japan in 1968 at the age of 18, he landed in Europe and started country-hopping, eking out a living by basking on street corners. He travelled through Sweden, Denmark, France, England, Ireland and finally found himself in Munich, Germany. By chance he secured a steady job for a few months as an actor in the German stage production of the musical Hair, in part due to his beautiful long hair, what else.

Sometime in 1970 after original singer Malcolm Mooney left the band, Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit were sitting in a Munich café when they noticed an exotic looking Japanese street performer doing his thing with free-form songs. Czukay immediately said “This will be our new singer” and proceeded to introduce himself and make an offer to the wild singer, inviting him to join the band on their sold out show that night. Irmin Schmidt on what happened later that night: “We weren’t really making music at first, we were sitting down on stage and having coffee and cake. But then suddenly Damo started singing very aggressively and this was affecting the audience, and they all got up and escaped. At the start there were 1,200 people there and, because of the way he was acting, by the end there were only thirty people left but one of them was David Niven. Afterwards, I said to him, ‘Mr Niven, what do you think about this music?’ And he said, ‘Dear boy, I didn’t know it was music but it was fascinating.’”

Damo Suzuki

The second track, called Mushroom, starts with vocal and drums drenched in echo effect, sort of a very early experiment in dub. It takes a good amount of musical imagination, but the phrasing of the vocal line sang by Damo Suzuki is influenced by a track from 1927 by jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke called In A Mist. Back in 1966, when Holger Czukay was a music teacher in the town of St Gallen, Switzerland, he met Michael Karoli and the two used to jam on this old tune.

Over the years In A Mist became a jazz and pop standard, but no piece of music as far removed stylistically from it as Mushroom can be cited as being influenced by it.

The next track, Oh Yeh, features the hypnotic drum groove of Jaki Liebezeit backing up undecipherable words sang by Damo Suzuki. No wonder, for this is the technique used to create that track, explained by Michael Karoli: “In ‘Oh Yeh’ we had made a rhythm tape, so we played the tape backwards and played on it, and Damo sang, and then we turned it back around, so the whole dub is going backwards. I think that was Jaki’s idea. We did not make rock music in that sense. We rather made new music in the techniques of modern composers.”

Karoli adds more information about the equipment he used on this track: “That was the distortion pedals, exactly the same ones I’m using now. There’s a very old Schaller Wah-Wah, and a Big Muff distortion box. I’ve never used any special amplification, I think it is very important for a musician of quality to be able to play on whatever equipment is at hand. If you play with your ears any instrument will do.”

This track demonstrates just how influential Can was on other bands, some of them with members who were just little kids at the time Tago Mago was released. You could have fooled me if you inserted the part starting at 30 seconds into this track in a playlist of Radiohead’s album Kid A, released almost 30 years later.

Next comes the side-long epic Halleluwah, a fantastic jam that demonstrates one of the biggest influences on the band at the time. As various band members commented over the years, they were very much tuned into the groove of American black music and Funk. Schmidt: “I loved The Doors and liked the Velvets, but we listened to more Sly Stone than anything.” Czukay: “My bass playing was influenced by Bootsy Collins, but I couldn’t play that way.”

Again, the driving force behind this 18-minute masterpiece is the drumming of Jaki Liebezeit. Perhaps the best appreciation of his musicianship comes from bandmate Michael Karoli: “Before, I hadn’t really understood him. During the recording of Halleluwah, I suddenly understood Jaki’s greatness, the direct effect that he has on the associative centers of the brain. All you hear is a drum kit. But celestial choirs line up behind it. That happened to me during the editing work on the rhythm tapes.”

When I listen to the music of Can, what draws me in first is the drum beat, that insistent groove that at first sounds monotonic, but upon careful listening is ever changing. Jaki Liebezeit, whom the band members fondly called ‘half-man, half machine’, said this about his experience of playing with the group: “We had experiences in playing, so that sometimes you could not explain why things happen – you think it’s magic. I think it comes from group playing: you get a result one person can never get. There are moments in it, they are so wonderful, you cannot understand it, so you think it’s kind of magic.”

Jaki Liebezeit

I forgot to mention that Tago Mago is a double album, so there is much more music to follow. The next track is Aumgn, another side-long epic. You are now stepping into the extreme corners of experimental music, so take caution. This is not the material for the musical faint of hearts, over 17 minutes of sound effects, scary vocal chants (a rare Irmin Schmidt vocal performance), and any sound mangling device that was available to the band in 1971. The track is likely one of the reasons why Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, another band that stretched the boundaries of music, called Tago Mago ‘an extremely important album’. The quote came when he was asked about what he calls music. Other artists Hollis mentioned were Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Maurice Ravel and John Cage. Good company.

You can probably guess by now that quite a good amount of editing went into the making of this track, collecting bits and pieces of tape from unrelated recordings and sequencing them together. Czukay had the oversight to obsessively record everything the band played, even if the sounds generated were a result of tuning the instruments or random practice to pass the time between jams. Schmidt: “We had a totally different concept anyway and we accepted, through ideas that I always had, maybe influenced by Cage, that any environmental sound can enter into the music and be turned into music.”

The meticulous job of editing the pieces of tape to form coherent tracks for the album fell mostly on Czukay’s shoulders, and what a magnificent tapestry of musical masterpieces he weaved with the tools he had, years before digital editing was available. Schmidt commented on Czukay’s editing skills: “Holger was really a master in finding the millisecond where to put the razor blade. The decision of the architecture of that — where to cut, which pieces to cut together to make the montage.”

Holger Czukay

The album closes with the track Bring Me Coffee or Tea, with Damo Suzuki singing words known only to him. He commented about that aspect of his singing: “I was not born to write lyrics. My art is nothing to do with technique or text. It is complete energy. So, I began to sing kind of scat in my days as a street musician. I do my own words when instantly composing. What I do is just imagine, if you see paintings by Joan Miro (my favorite) or some other sort of abstract you don’t have to know how he painted or what the meaning is. If you see it you can feel it.”

The track features nice contributions by Michael Karoli on guitars. His work throughout the album is tasteful without drawing much attention. There are not many guitar solos on this album, even on tracks that last almost 20 minutes. Never a flashy player, Karoli is a master of nuance and texture.

Irmin Schmidt commented on the band members’ avoidance of virtuosic playing on their instruments: “We don’t think in terms of technical ability. The need to reach a certain technical standard is unnecessary. If somebody needs to express himself he doesn’t need to study eight years to learn how to play quickly. To me, somebody who is the fastest on the guitar may well prove to be the most alienated to the guitar of all. His guitar doesn’t have to do with his life. His aim is just to be a fast guitarist.”

Michael Karoli

When the recording of the album was done, the band realized they have enough material for two LPs. However they did not consider what ended up on the second LP to be part of the album, fearing it was too experimental for the average record buyer. It was Irmin Schmidt’s wife Wildegard, at the time taking managerial duties over the band’s affairs, who thought otherwise: “We had three pieces on one side and Halleluwah nearly filling the second side. We didn’t consider the rest to be part of the record. It was actually Hildegard who listened to it and said this has to be a double record, this is really representing this group.” Quite the foresight for a manager to consider adding a piece like Aumgn to an album for artistic reasons, making it harder to sell due to the format. But good taste she had, as well as business know-how. Irmin Schmidt continues: “She went to United Artists and Liberty and said ‘You don’t get the first if you don’t take the second!’”

Can, 1971: Holger Czukay, Michael Karoli, Damo Suzuki, Irmidt Schmidt and Jaki Leibzeit

The album cover art was created by German graphics designer Ulrich Eichberger, who also created art for albums by Ennio Morricone, Jean-Luc Ponty, and a few years later for Can’s fifth album Soon Over Babaluma. This is an excellent psychedelic art to accompany Can’s music, with a head, brain and a speech bubble that has the same graphic as the inside of a brain. I take it as a visual illustration of Damo Suzuki’s stream of conscience singing. If you open the gatefold of the original LP, you get a mirror image of that head in a different color.

Tago Mago gatefold

When you open the inner gatefold sleeve, you find 24 small photos of the band members taken while on tour. The track listing is spread across the four sides of the album, only seven tracks in all.

Tago Mago inner gatefold

Lots of praise has been given to Tago Mago over the years. Artists from many sides of the music spectrum cited it as an important influence on their music. Here is how some members of Can described the album and their music.

Michael Karoli: “I’ve never liked to be forced to describe the kind of music I create. Is it rock’n’roll? I suppose that depends on how you define that term. If you consider Captain Beefheart to be rock’n’roll, or Miles Davis, okay, I play rock’n’roll.”

Irmin Schmidt: “Tago Mago was our best-selling record, the most astonishing, mysterious record.”

And perhaps best of all, Holger Czukay: “It was an attempt in achieving a mystery musical world from light to darkness and return.”

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this one about Holger Czukay:

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