The Journey of Tago Mago
by James Fleming
"It was just a colour out of space,"
- HP Lovecraft, The Colour Out Of Space.
It was 1971. Germany post-WWII was a smoking crater. Bombed-out literally, culturally and spiritually, the people were left identity-less. For over a decade, the nation was defined by Nazism, war, genocide and delusions of superiority. With the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, a national uniform was burned. The Swastika no longer adorned the streets, "blood and honour" was no longer the people's creed. And Adolf Hitler's murderous crusade was no longer their cause.
The dregs of the Nazi-dream still clung to the clifftop by their fingernails. All those lay-fascists didn't simply spontaneously combust. They resumed their posts as teachers, doctors and other pseudo-respectables. But the young generation, those born during and just after the war, saw the wrong in that evil cause but there was no righteous one to take its place. They were born into a colourless vacuum, a void. A space.
Can changed that.
In 1968, the core quartet of Holger Czukay, Irmin Schmidt, Michael Karoli and Jaki Liebezeit, along with singer Malcolm Mooney, formed Can. Intent on a change towards righteousness. To leave behind a permanently scarred past for the virgin territories of the instant.
They were the colour out of space. Can filled German youth's black and white nothing with shades and hues of possibilities. Kaleidoscopic and ever-shifting, those colours cascade out of the speakers. Flushing the listener with potentialities. Years before Joe Strummer said it, Can knew that the future was unwritten. And that they held the pen.
It was 1971, two years on from their debut album Monster Movie. That title alone conveyed the fantastic and colourful in two everyday words. Combining the timeless mythical with Tinseltown's modernity. Can surrounded themselves in the old stone walls of Schloss Nörvenich, a castle outside Cologne, to record and compose an LP that seems excitingly modern even today nigh-on 50 years hence. A hybrid of soul and technology, Tago Mago is a scientific record, but never cold, soulless or robotic. Where the burgeoning "progressive" rock bands in England and America didn't move an inch from their comfort zones, Can were true cultural, spiritual and musical progressives. Moving onwards to an advanced state.
Not a superiority state. And certainly not an Aryan state. Rather, a furthered state. Not of politics but of minds and souls. On Tago Mago, Can put the world's horizons on the rack. And stretched them on infinitely.
Holger Czukay, Can bassist and Tago Mago producer, described his ambition for the album as "...an attempt in achieving a mystery musical world of light to darkness and return." Philosophy, jazz and even Christian and Hindu prayer would all facilitate that odyssey. Their new vocalist, Kenji "Damo" Suzuki of no fixed tongue, was found by Czukay and drummer Liebezeit busking/praying outside a café in Munich. And his disconnected vocals - sung, garbled, howled - would add a freedom to Tago Mago. A liberated tongue of flame in a pan-global language that sounds as if he's channeling an ancient, forgotten spirit.
His vocals are more an accompaniment to the band rather than vice versa, or an extra textural layer. They are buried, still breathing, beneath Can's strata of virtuosity. The journey through the land of Tago Mago begins with the track Paperhouse and Suzuki's words: "Take a light shining on the land off the wall." As if he wants us to pluck the sun from its torch bracket to light our way.
A way-light is required to cross this murky terrain, where everything is implied rather than concrete. Suzuki's lyrics are cosmic freeform; not even the language is definite. But improvised or not, their presence is felt. Ghostly and spectral.
Improvisation is a vital component in the Tago Mago sound. It is the fire that heats the cauldron. Suzuki often improvised his vocals, and that spontaneity gives his performances that all-natural dimension of invocation. "Halleluwah," the 18+ minutes track that is the whole of side two, is of course an alternate spelling of the Christian exclamation to include that infamous piece of rock n' roll hardware - the wah-wah pedal. This titular melding of technology with spiritualism mirrors the combination of Suzuki's ad-libbed vocalising with Czukay's and Liebezeit's grooving repetition. Liebezeit's drumming was equal parts John Bonham and Elvin Jones. The groove is unshakeable and spacious. But the variations, the tom-tom and cymbal overlays, are indebted to Jones' mastery.
"Halleluwah" is meditative. Monks reaching for Nirvana use repetition as the foundation for their transcendental ladders, just as Can used their rhythm section as the earth for Suzuki and guitarist Karoli's wanderings. Their teamwork, reacting to each other's phrasing and delivery, is harmonious not in a musical sense. But in a cooperative, human manner. That is the harmony of Can. When Schmidt's keyboards begin their ascent at the climax of Halleluwah, the other players do not obstruct but boost them up. Giving up their own egos in pursuit of nirvana's oblivion.
Czukay's cut-up production, splicing separate takes and tapes together, evokes comparisons to Teo Macero's similar approach on Miles Davis' equally transcendental Bitches Brew. The mind can conceive and design, it takes hands and tools to create. Can's hive-mind birthed these sounds. And Czukay's hands expertly wielded Schloss Nörvenich's studio to piece them together. The technological future should not simply make things easier. It should make things possible.
On "Halleluwah," Can are giving praise to the infinite number of possibilities available to them. They would refer to Tago Mago as their "magic record." The magic lies not in the supernatural or the unexplainable. Instead, it flows through the grooves like human blood: everyday but utterly magical.
Records like Tago Mago, Bitches Brew and Trout Mask Replica are testaments to the achievements of humankind where creativity, events and even the merest molecules aligned to create marvels. Its audio architecture to rival any cathedral.
At an entire record-side in length, "Halleluwah" dominates both the album and the memory. It stretches on nearly a minute longer then the also monolithic "Aumgn," the portal of just two seconds between the two closing with the first swirls of the synthesiser's vortex. Cutting us off from the light as we're pulled into the dark.
We have come a long way from our starting point at "Paperhouse," the opening track. Even further still from the arresting sleeve art that lured us away from the record store's security. It was there that the journey truly began. But Tago Mago's universe didn't truly envelope us until we stepped inside the Paperhouse.
Synthesisers usher us in the cottage door where we're greeted by a skeleton's waltz, like something out of a Grimm's Fairytale. The Paperhouse's walls are thin and angular and its furnishings are askew, at sharp angles to the house's already bizarre geometry. The odd time signature throws us off-balance and we realise something is wrong. That even in this weird house, something is off-kilter.
Then the pulse quickens and the beat grows frantic and jazzy like the clenching of a fist or the hardening of resolve. The journey has begun- it has an impetus now. For no better reason than the pursuit of knowledge, the far side of the LP must be reached.
As that realisation dawns, the beat slows down to its original waltzing pace. The guitars stop their trebly skittering, the bass settles down to its steady walk. And that ominous whispering, unintelligible, gives way to a soothing coherence. It will be a long journey across the grooves, through "...light to darkness and return." But upon returning across the Paperhouse's safe threshold, the end of the tunnel-vision will be far behind, as will be the safety net of unquestioning single-mindedness.
The tempo picks up again steely and determined as we let ourselves out. Seeming joyous now in its lively rhythm. Its 3/4 beat more solid, more sure. "Paperhouse" opens the wrought-gates to Tago Mago. It is the space-warp that has snared the curious and scared away the cautious. In 1971, its opening rush of synthesisers must have seemed more alien than even Middle-Earth. To listeners more acclimatised to the American-dominated realm of rock and roll, this record is a culture-shock to their deep-rooted European stereotypes.
Where stately elegance is expected, liberated sophistication is given. This is not the bourgeoisie-bought classicism of Mozart and Beethoven. Can were long-haired disciples of Stockhausen and Hendrix's experimentations. The pre-Can establishment was Hitler's Reich, where the only experiments were in obtaining omnipotence or Mengele's atrocities. The whole point of Can and Tago Mago was to try. For if one doesn't, one cannot succeed.
"God loves a trier, but he hates a chancer," as the Irish saying goes. The difference between a trier and a chancer is ambition. Can had ambitions, lofty and proud- to further themselves and raise the bar. By meticulously mixing chemicals over the bunsen burner of spontaneous creativity, Can achieved a blissful state of organised chaos. The peak that nirvana-coveting Buddhist votaries have been trying to ascend for centuries.
"I was born and I was dead," Suzuki intones on "Mushroom," "Paperhouse"'s successor track. In Buddhism, nirvana is defined as liberation from karma's cycle of death and rebirth. A transcendent state free of the human condition. In Hinduism, it's called ‘moksha.' "I was born and I was dead" is a mantra repeated over an ever-stretching rhythm, as if Can are reaching for that final goal. For that removal from the karmic loop, Suzuki speaks of in the lyric.
Even the title – "Mushroom" - comes laden with connotations- not just of reckless psychedelic hedonism, but of ancient tribal rites. Attempts to become closer to the Gods not on a power level, but to be on the same plane of understanding and awareness.
Karoli's chiming guitar leaves lightyears between the notes, then abruptly morphs into far-out piercings of sound. Shards that cut to the core of the mind, emphasising Suzuki's sacrificial yowls of "I'm gonna give my despair!" It's a jab to the third-eye, the pupil dilates at the sudden flood of white light, then widens again, and sees through clearer lenses.
The bassline is subtle, accentuating solely the downbeat in a thoroughly funk fashion before it grows to incorporate offbeats, carrying what little melody there is on the back of its understated string-bends. Czukay proves himself to be a low-frequency master as well as a sound-desk adept. John Lydon/Rotten, a huge Tago Mago fan, described himself as "a noise structuralist." But Czukay's Burroughs-ian production, weaving together the threads of sound into a coherent tapestry, evinces his right to that title. A crown and sceptre of remarkable smithing.
At its end, the immediate shift from loud to quiet - fortepiano - lulls the voyager into a sense of pseudo-security. Tago Mago's violent tempests have been calmed. Soothed down to rest on drifting clouds.
Then It explodes. Literally.
There's a gradual fade-in after the explosion, Tago Mago findings its feet after the quake. "Oh Yeah"'s groove settles in as if it had always been, like the beating of a panicked heart. An unidentified genius told Jaki Liebezeit to abandon his previous complex style and "play monotonous." Speedy but regular, Oh Yeah's seven and a half minutes milk the resulting hypnotic beat for every drop of worth. Much as "Halleluwah" does, albeit in an extremely lengthened form.
Schmidt's droning synth-harmonics and Suzuki's distraught garbling - a combination of backwards-run vocals, a conventionally directioned verse, and Japanese - contribute a sense of post-eruption confusion. The guitar solos run in all directions, from barbed pentatonic licks to linear double-stops to volume fluctuations, like an hysterical crowd. Tago Mago is densely populated by the flora and fauna of musical ideas. Every ounce of creativity is extracted from the instruments. And every possibility is pulled from Michael Karoli's Stratocaster during his solos.
As a gateway, "Paperhouse" is a more intriguing opening track. As a definitive Can manifesto, "Halleluwah" encapsulates best what the group had to say. But "Halleluwah" is a banquet, "Oh Yeah" is a taste. Where most bands would regard seven minutes as ambitious, if not impossible, placed on the near shore of "Halleluwah"'s ocean, "Oh Yeah" seems almost reasonable.
In comparatively bite-sized form, it displays all the trademarks of Can: groove, virtuosity, crypticism, atmosphere. The curious would come at Can's call. But if the cautious heard "Oh Yeah" first, they may have been converted.
"Oh Yeah" fades out as it wades into "Halleluwah"'s waters. Its solid treadmill-beat giving way to the vast sea's choppy intro. The distant dark clouds of "Aumgn" loom ahead, amorphous shadows on the horizon. Rising out of the depths towards the heavens.
"He who sings, prays twice,"
"Aumgn" is loose territory. Synthesisers bubble like geysers, open guitar strings hum menacingly. Even the bass is liquid, rolling mercurial across the vinyl's terrain.
Karoli's thorny pizzicato violin nicks and scratches at the brain. He takes to the bow with rapid-fire tremolo tremblings that chill even bone marrow. There is no beat, only percussion. Eerie in its randomness. But somewhere between Liebezeit's frightening double bass and the nonsensical high-frequencies is a human voice, chanting the only coherence in this landscape: "Ommmm..."
"Aumgn" is a prayer. It's an even more phonetical spelling of the Tibetan Buddhist and Hindu mantra "om." Not a word but a sacred syllable, its three sounds each represent a part of Brahman: creation, preservation, and destruction.
Disc two of the original double album is infamously "difficult." Here, Tago Mago's terrain becomes almost untraversable. Not because of rocky slopes or overgrown forests, but the thick swamps and treacherous quicksands that suck the feet into the muck. Trapping the unwary on the cusp of enlightenment.
"Creation, preservation, and destruction." These are the three levels of "Aumgn." The land reveals itself in the first few minutes, coming together in that haze of sounds. Then Irmin Schmidt's incantation, a western voice singing an eastern prayer, cuts through the murk. A last futile grasp at sanity-preservation before desperation sets in.
And the chant becomes a scream. Still repeating that peaceful sound but offsetting it with the fear in Schmidt's voice. The screaming intensifies, its pitch heightens and its volume increases to the engine-whine of jammed gears and tribal drums thunder ever louder as a mechanical screech climbs to the heavens.
The screaming stops. The world rises with the synth's screech as the quicksand closes in. And as sight fades away, the synthesiser begins its descent. "Aumgn" trickles away with the drums' rallentando and the plummeting synth. Not even a crash to show that it had ever been.
"...Light to darkness and return." "Aumgn" is the darkness. Nirvana and moksha are freedom from the human condition's earthly impulses. But they are also consciousness of all things. Understanding and awareness of the good, bad and all combinations thereof. To better understand the evil of this world is the quest. So then its march can be halted. No piece of music can fully explain it, but it can reveal its presence where it if often unseen. Or worse, neglected.
Tago Mago is transcendental not because of the absence of evil. Rather, its acknowledgement of darkness places it and Can in a league of human understanding beyond average comprehension of homo sapiens.
This self-awareness, along with the creativity and ambition, is what sets Tago Mago and Can above the average rock album/band. This fourth dimension beyond "sex and drugs and rock and roll," is refreshingly alien to popular music. Yet uncomfortably familiar to the human condition.
"Aumgn" is a prayer to evil. Not of evil, and not for evil. It is a request to get the information straight from the source and an attempt to decipher the cryptic answer given. For to break free of the karmic cycle, it must first be understood.
"Peking O" is the sound of that dawning realisation; that self-awareness is the first step to higher awareness. The juxtaposition of a bright-toned organ with its melancholy chords in the intro is the sound of the two forces clashing. Suzuki's vocals make their return, mirroring the push and pull between the opponents with inscrutable, confused gibberish.
As the Ace Tone drum machine starts up its incessant rhythm, sounding primitively 8-bit, Schmidt's electric piano breaks loose in Sun Ra-esque free jazz runs. Suzuki's jabbering picks up pace, torn between the two poles. The experiment can go either way and Can don't know which corner to turn. But Suzuki eggs them on: "Let us go, lets us go, let us go, let us go..."
The Ace Tone disappears to whence it came. And with it goes any semblance of order "Peking O" once had. All that's left is a stuttering high-pitched note, Schmidt's keyboard explorations, and Suzuki. Barely recognisable as a human voice, he screams as the rack's pull tightens when the synthetic drums make a staccato return alongside their acoustic counterparts. Liebezeit crashes his kit, the synthesiser pulses, and the vocals are buried beneath the layers of sound.
As suddenly as this sonic cave-in began, it stops. All of the wisdom from across Tago Mago falls into place. And the return journey to the light begins. Where "Aumgn" is menacing, "Peking O" is confusing. Unpleasant, but revelatory. Progression and growth are no mean feats. They take work, study, and learning. "Peking O" is a lesson to learn, not an exam to pass. When the blinding lights of confusion die away the road reveals itself. Easy to follow. But hard to walk.
These surroundings are more familiar: The odd angles, askew furniture, organised chaos. Changed though, the Paperhouse is seen through the third eye now, rather than the uncomprehending pair of before. "Bring Me Coffee or Tea," Tago Mago's coda, is the start and end point of Can's "magic record." Though not a reprise of "Paperhouse," it is a definite return to the musical ideas explored pre-"Aumgn."
Czukay's double-stopped bass and the chiming cymbals of Jaki Liebezeit set "Bring Me Coffee or Tea" gliding on the airwaves. Karoli's usual scathing leads are substituted for tasteful licks that float above the harmonic bedrock provided by Schmidt's organ. Suzuki's vocalising is more restrained, never approaching the wild-man frenzies of earlier tracks. And "Bring Me Coffee or Tea" only begins to reach berserker-pace at its tail end, just before it crashes to a halt with a traditionally rock n' roll bang. A move so crudely American that it is the last thing expected. Certainly, it's a surprising farewell to Tago Mago.
Can achieved their ambition. They journeyed to all points between light and darkness and returned. Not unscathed, but wiser than at their departure. Pre-1971, this was totally uncharted territory. Even today, depending on who's doing the travelling, Tago Mago has treasures it has yet to yield.
Secret perspectives yet to be discovered. The land's angles may be odd, but they are interesting. To approach them from a new, individual viewpoint would uncover fresh facets of the human condition. Facets that could be as surprising as "Bring Me Coffee or Tea"'s finale.
True progression is learning; taking the best of what came before, discarding the rest and building upon the solid foundations. Can kept the rhythmic core of their sound as the base for their musical skyscrapers. Disc one – "Paperhouse," "Mushroom," "Oh Yeah," "Halleluwah" - built the floors one by one. And by the time the needle settled on disc 2 - "Aumgn," "Peking O," "Bring Me Coffee or Tea" - Can had reached the heavens.
Creativity, ambition, and self-awareness. Those were the motivations behind Tago Mago. Technology and music were the tools. And progression was the goal. To move on from an ugly past to the future's greener pastures. Without militarism or threats, Can stretched out the boundaries of humankind. It will take an even greater odyssey to move past them now. But "...tomorrow's outta sight," as Kristofferson put it. So it's impossible to know when those boundaries will be crossed here, in this moment.
Can means "able." Able-bodied, able-minded, and able-spirited. Able to move beyond all self-imposed borders of fear and doubt. Tago Mago is a transcendental LP, It's destination was above and beyond. And there it sits. Above and beyond but not out of reach.
Can were but five young men from Germany who tried. Tago Mago was their effort and it succeeded in all of its daunting ambitions. But if Czukay, Schmidt, Karoli, Liebezeit and Suzuki hadn't dared to step inside the Paperhouse, musical evolution would have been stunted, thus halting creative evolution.
Countless artists have cited Tago Mago's influence, proof of its success. It is through inspiration that true progression is achieved. And subsequent generations bore the torch well. Though in the 21st century, the torch's light doesn't cast away all the shadows of superficiality, there are some who still hold it high. So the light has not been quenched, only dimmed.
Can could. Can were able. Five young men designed and hand-crafted their own monument. As will the 21st century. What remains to be seen is that monument's worth. Can and Tago Mago's is indisputable.
Also see this article on Can and an interview with Holger Czuaky and Czukay's own history of Can
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