The making of Can's Tago Mago

CAN
(Image credit: Press)

Tago Mago was more than just songs. There are songs, but we were thinking differently. I personally was always thinking in terms of chamber symphonies. A little bit loud and noisy maybe, but the same thing. And not bound only to words. It’s a very original piece of work. You cannot repeat something like Tago Mago. It’s impossible.”

Holger Czukay, one-fifth of legendary German outfit Can, is speaking to Prog from the Inner Space studio in Weilerswist, near Cologne, where the band first set up camp nearly 40 years ago. It was there that they recorded the likes of Ege Bamyasi, Future Days and Soon Over Babaluma – experiments in sound lashed to deep grooves and mantric rhythms, albums that shaped a reputation as the 70s’ hippest practitioners of freeform rock. But the record that really started it all was 1971’s Tago Mago.

Julian Cope, himself no stranger to the further reaches of recorded music, has singled out Tago Mago for sounding “only like itself, like no one before or after”. While Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, who envisaged 1991 rave-up Screamadelica as the band’s own approximation of the epic majesty of Tago Mago, has called Can’s music “like nothing I’d ever heard before. Not American, not rock’n’roll, but mysterious and European, a true occult sound.” Thom Yorke has publicly cited Tago Mago as a major signpost for Kid A, though Radiohead’s entire career is littered with similar homages. As he put it so beautifully himself in a Melody Maker interview in 1995, while promoting The Bends: “We nicked Planet Telex from Tago Mago by Can. So fuck off, we are arty us.”

Can

(Image credit: United Artists)

Can had first come together in Cologne in 1968. Both Czukay and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt had studied composition under avant-garde pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Jaki Liebezeit was a jazzhead drummer who’d already played with Manfred Schoof and Chet Baker, while guitarist Michael Karoli was a formidably gifted ex-student of Czukay’s. 

An ornate 15th-century castle called Schloss Norvenich, rented out to them by a wealthy local art-dealer, served as both rehearsal space and studio for Can’s improvised jam sessions. The addition of black American vocalist Malcolm Mooney, all primal yelps and raw energy, gave them a focal point for 1969 debut LP Monster Movie. But by the end of the year Mooney’s increasingly fragile psychological state had made him a liability. During one particularly manic episode at a gig, he had a full meltdown, screaming: “Upstairs, downstairs!” for two hours before collapsing. He quit Can soon after.

Mooney can still be heard on 1970’s Soundtracks, a collection of themes Can
had devised for German arthouse films, though by then another equally singular talent had taken his place. Damo Suzuki was a 20-year-old Japanese singer who’d spent much of his time busking around Europe. Czukay and Liebezeit had first spotted him outside a bar in Munich.

“Jaki and I were sitting in a café and we saw Damo coming along down the street,” recalls Czukay. “He was somehow praying to the sun and making loud noises, singing or chanting. And I turned to Jaki and said: ‘This is our new singer.’ It was a kind of intuition, I couldn’t really say why I thought he would fit into the band. So I got up, went over and asked what he was doing that night. He said, ‘Nothing special.’ So I asked him, ‘Do you want to come and sing at our concert?’ I told him there’d be no rehearsal, we’d see him on stage and he could just go ahead. And it worked out in a totally unexpected way. On stage that night he started out very calm and peaceful, then suddenly – like a Samurai warrior – he became the exact opposite. We in the band were fine with that, but the audience were frightened by him. They escaped from the venue and there were only maybe 30 people left, who were mostly British and American. The actor David Niven was there and they asked him what he thought of all this. He said, ‘I didn’t know it was a concert. I didn’t know it was music!’” It was this line-up of Can that began work on Tago Mago at Schloss Norvenich in the early weeks of 1971.

Can

(Image credit: Retna)

Irmin Schmidt once likened Can in full flow to “a mighty, pulsing organism”. It was a radical set-up, each member bringing a fierce individualism and unique set of reference points to the band, yet all content to subsume their personalities into the greater whole. The music was everything. No political or social agenda, just the simple rapture of creative expression. "I think that Can was an example of communism in a really humorous sense,” chuckles Czukay. “The idea of coming out of Germany like Chairman Mao!”

Bassist Czukay brought a classical edge and keen ear for ethnic music to Can; Schmidt pooled together his love of The Doors and VU with New York avant-composers like Terry Riley; Karoli brought the taut grooves of James Brown and Sly Stone; Liebezeit distilled the busy rhythms of Africa and Latin America with the precision of jazz; while Suzuki’s odd consommé of Japanese, German and English vowels often made him appear to be singing in tongues.

Tago Mago was rammed-to-ramparts with hypnotic rhythms, abstract jams, zero-gravity space-rock and pulsing prog. If there was a sixth band member, it was the castle itself. “That had a big effect on the sound of Can,” explains Czukay. “The entrance hall of the castle was a great reverberation room, so we brought speakers outside and mic’ed them up. The second thing was that we didn’t have a real mixer, so we picked up the sound through the loudspeakers and into a tape recorder.” And there were just three microphones between them. “That meant that we had to learn the skill of setting up the microphones, which is a typical German tradition. In England and America the tradition is to have the orchestra, instruments and all the musicians mic’ed up. Not in Germany, though. If you had an orchestra here, you had to look for the point where one microphone has a perfect sound for the whole body. So actually the main sound was created by the room.”

The litmus test of the Can sound was its ability to merge organically with its surroundings. The nature of the recording process meant that stray noises from outside were often assimilated into the music. The rule was simple: if these sounds disturbed the feel of the music, then the band had failed. If they appeared natural, then they’d succeeded. Nothing illustrates this self-imposed constraint more than the 17-and-a-half-minute Aumgn. At various junctures you can hear a screaming child, a barking dog and Schmidt smashing the shit out of a wooden chair with a pair of mallets while in the midst of an acid trip. None of these things alter the strange equilibrium one jolt. The boy, incidentally, was living upstairs at the time and came down to check out the commotion.

And the hound? “It was Irmin’s dog,” recalls Czukay, who also suggests that Aumgn’s otherworldiness was partly down to a collision of sine-wave generators and high-frequency tape. “I think it was getting too loud for him, so he started barking. Or maybe he wanted to participate! At that time everything seemed to become music, even when Irmin was hitting and destroying chairs and pianos. You have to understand this is the nature of music. Rock musicians would usually record something, then start fixing parts of it to make it more commercial, excluding things that I wouldn’t exclude. But we didn’t want to change it to try to be successful. Success is nice, but it’s not the most important thing.”

There were even nosies on Tago Mago that the band couldn’t account for. “It could be very vexing,” says Czukay. “Sometimes there’d be a little murmur on the tape, like someone shouting very silently. We picked up some strange sounds that came from somewhere outside. It was an influence that didn’t come from us.” One of the more oblique tunes was Peking O, 11-plus minutes of merry-go-round keyboards, semi-operatic bleatings, buzzing industrial noise, snaking piano and what sounds like a comb running through elastic. All alongside Suzuki’s anguished shrieks and disembowelment of conventional language.

Can

(Image credit: Press)

But Tago Mago isn’t merely all weirdness for the sheer bloody hell of it. One of its most arresting songs is Mushroom, which boasts a great clanging groove and some devilish guitar from Karoli. Can could play, all right. As borne out further by the longest track, the 18-minute Halleluhwah. A titanic funkathon in inner space, Karoli and Liebezeit lock down the churning rhythm, Schmidt adds dissonant drones of keyboard, Suzuki gets to righteously freak out and Czukay threads in a series of smart tape loops. The whole thing leaves you breathless.

“Jaki was a great musician, very precise,” offers Czukay. “I think drum machines were invented because of Jaki, to make music more human [laughs]. And Michael Karoli brought a funky groove to Can; he was the only one who could do that. He did it so convincingly that it became a power in itself. A lot of Halleluhwah was made of basic recordings and we added different characters to it.”

Indeed, Czukay’s inclusion of ‘secret’ collage recordings provided one of the most distinctive elements of Tago Mago. “When we’d recorded the tracks and everyone had stopped for tea or whatever, I began recording conversations or when someone was just playing at the table without any intention. This playing without intention became Sides Three and Four, made up of things recorded in between the studio tracks. Later, when everyone else had gone, I took my tape recorder home and edited those first generation tapes. Then I would take them in the next day and say: ‘That’s it. That’s the song.’”

Tago Mago was initially intended as a single album. It was only at the insistence of Schmidt’s wife Hildegard, who had all but taken over as the band’s manager, that it became a double. Amazingly, both Aumgn and Peking O weren’t even slated to be included on the original tracklist. But not everyone welcomed the more freakoid elements of Tago Mago. Least of all their own record label. “The first reaction from the record company in Germany, United Artists, was that they wanted us to rewrite it immediately,” says Czukay, with a palpable air of incredulity. “They didn’t want us! At first we were astonished that Tago Mago had been rejected, but we continued anyway.”

The album nevertheless burrowed its way into the hearts and minds of the more discerning end of the record-buying public, particularly abroad. Can played their
debut UK gig at London’s University College in April 1972. Czukay still titters at the memory of the “extreme reaction to our concert. I’m absolutely sure there was a kind of magic happening.”

Forty years on, Tago Mago still sounds unshackled by space or time. And it’s a masterpiece that Czukay is rightly proud of: “It’s a big part of my history. It was taking analogue technique but making it all sound like it could have been made today. The kick definitely came from the sound we created. Everything belongs together. With Tago Mago we were trying to make something substantial. You could say it’s a piece of history that was looking forward.” 

This article previously appeared in issue 21 of Prog Magazine.

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.