Can: The Lost Tapes

Distilled from the vast archive accrued through the band’s ‘record-and-be-damned’ policy, this three-CD set offers a wealth of songs showcasing just what made them so special.

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When it comes to satisfying the apparently insatiable demand for archive releases, not every musician is filled with joy at the prospect of their formative sketches or carefree jams escaping from carefully guarded vaults and making it out into the cold light of day. ‘I mean, why would anybody want to listen to this stuff? You know it was originally unreleased for a reason right?’ is a not uncommon reaction of your local neighbourhood rock star when informed that a box of ditties, doodles, and detritus is being lovingly polished for mass consumption.

Indifference aside, there can often be a good reason for such reticence. What the eager fan perceives as a thrilling alternative mix, will, for the musician concerned, merely be a reproachful reminder of a fluffed intro they never quite nailed, or maybe a particularly irksome session that they’ve spent the last 30 years trying to blot from their mind.

While the fan gleefully seizes upon the box of goodies as providing new perspectives on the creative forces working within the group, those on the inside of such machinations are beset by wince-inducing flashbacks of internecine, blood-on-the-carpet band politics. Bad enough, they say, to have to relive all the pain and aggro. Worse still to deal face-to-face with the old so-and-so’s to agree a tracklisting.

This scenario really is common, but isn’t that applicable to Can. Recording everything as it was happening in their studio space quickly became an essential part of what made them tick. In these liner notes, keyboard player Irmin Schmidt recounts that there could be occasional internal tensions about this famously omnivorous approach.

With drummer Jaki Liebezeit pressing for more liberal use of the ‘Erase’ button, bassist Holger Czukay – with laudable prescience – would reply: “This will be your pension. You will thank me for this one day!” With hundreds of hours of music accrued and a logging system that was, at best, chaotic, the daunting task of distilling such a treasure trove down to three CDs has fallen to Schmidt’s son-in-law, producer Jono Podmore, who deserves credit for his tenacity and astute editorial instincts.

While the prospect of any ‘new’ material is enough to have Can devotees champing at the bit, the inclusion of seven pieces featuring original vocalist Malcolm Mooney make this set a must-have feast. The singer’s brief tenure in the band between 1968 and ’69 has gained a near-mythic status, which pieces like Waiting For The Streetcar will only serve to enhance.

Revelling in a brutal repetition, Mooney’s hoarse urgency is akin to pouring gasoline on a fire that’s already fuelled by guitarist Michael Karoli’s fuzz-filtered snarls. Here his phrasing occasionally anticipates the sustain-driven intensity that would soon become associated with Robert Fripp. Unlike Fripp however, Karoli’s playing contains a decidedly bluesy dimension, albeit one that’s weirdly occluded, distorted and fragmentary in nature. Crossed with something terse and mysterious, it’s this through-a-glass-darkly quality, exemplified on marathon live cuts such as Spoon or the sprawling Networks Of Foam, that lend Can an ineffable, otherworldly aura.

Yet for all their connection to the rarefied avant garde sphere, Can’s broad adherence to a near-constant rhythmic pulse provides them with a firm toe-hold in the world of rock. Back in the day, that was all the permission punters needed to shake their long hair in unison, unworried about whether what was happening on top and across the grooves was either atonal or experimental. On Mushroom Czukay and Liebezeit roll in as two halves of a deceptive Trojan horse, from which Schmidt’s eerie atmospherics spring and billow, suffused with a glowering, threatening undercurrent.

Whereas Can albums were the result of scrupulous editing, The Lost Tapes is of a looser consistency, not all of which succeeds. As well as hurtling towards an exhilarating free-form freeway, Can were no strangers to scurrying off down a dead-end. Yet with most improvised music, there’s a vicarious thrill from knowing that the very act of taking flight might also lead to a giddy fall.

Time and again throughout these three CDs we hear a band constantly pushing towards the limit. While this is hardly news to fans, the emergence of such a wealth of high-quality material is a cause for celebration. Halleluhwah!

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.