Tago Mago: Can’s Explosive, Thunderous, Pulsating Masterpiece

Tago Mago - Can
Tago Mago!

Tago Mago is a post-punk album before punk even existed. Can was 100 years ahead of the rest in the early ’70s – a band of genuine musicians and geniuses, its music is still way ahead of modern bands, too. Now that’s a “back in my day” rant to start things off, but I’m 32 and this thing is simply bizarre, wondrous, aggressive, pulsating, weird, and always very bloody captivating.

Released in 1971, it was the first Can album to feature new singer Damo Suzuki. He brought a fresh dynamic to the band and his three album stint with them was the best work Can produced. The explosive Tago Mago, which appears to showcase an abstract nuclear explosion on its front cover, is also the heaviest work Can created, highlighting the monstrous grooves it was famous for, along with the freeform, lengthy, instant compositions which made them stand out from everyone else.

Tago Mago

The German band was determined to throw off the negative connotations of Germans post-World War II – the album front cover could be an expression of this, featuring a brain amidst an explosion. Can functioned in an odd way, reeling off endless hours of “instant compositions” (i.e. rehearsing) and from this would emerge song structures. These would all be recorded, poured over, and from this the best sections would be restructured into songs – you could argue the front cover represents this explosion of creativity, as it were.

There are seven songs on the album which, for the day, meant it was a double LP of vinyl. Just to be clear, the classic line-up for the band at this point was as follows: Holger Czukay, Michael Karoli, Jaki Liebezeit, Irmin Schmidt, and Damo Suzuki. The latter was by far the youngest, being over a decade the junior of the rest of them (plus, you know, he’s Japanese compared to his German peers). He’s 67 now and still touring, in case you wondered!

Paperhouse, mushroom, Oh yeah, Halleluhwah

The highlight for the album is the first four tracks, which run for over 30 minutes. Being a highly innovative band, the subsequent songs are a bit hit and miss: Aumgn and Peking O are worth a one off listen but meander too much, although the closer Bring Me Coffee or Tea offers a melodic time of it.

It’s all about those incredible first four songs, though. Every member of Can was essential, but it’s guitarist Michael Karoli and drummer Jaki Liebezeit who drive this album. As brilliant as Karoli was, Liebezeit (who developed a practical theory for his drumming style – this is being produced in a book right now, following his death in early 2017: Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer) is the main man. His drumming is phenomenal.

His metronomic style (which he dubbed E-T as a homage of sorts to Morse code dots) is most evident on Oh Yeah above (apologies for the poor quality – not many clips exist on YouTube). Whilst Suzuki’s ranting, wailing, wily, and poetic singing style comes across as prophetic, Liebezeit’s drumming is at the forefront. This is most notable on the 18 minute long, legendary Halleluhwah which sees him thumping out a repetitive groove – as the song is so long it eventually becomes quite hypnotic.

Album opener Paperhouse and next in line Mushroom offer more traditional song structures – Paperhouse is one of the band’s most thrilling songs, in fact. It has a downbeat beginning, but once Karoli’s searing guitar solo kicks in it steps up a gear and, once again, Liebezeit’s thunderous drum work carries it along at one hell of a rate before it all erupts into a dramatic crescendo. Bloody hell, it is something to behold.

If you’re fond of your alternative music, then, this is a classic album which should be hunted down and added to your collection for the first four tracks alone. They’re on iTunes, of course, so maybe add them in along with the chillout session of Future Days – we’ll be covering 1972’s equally brilliant, jazzy Ege Bamyasi soon too, to round up this Can session we’ve been having of late. Enjoy!

10 comments

  1. I hadn’t heard of them – definitely different and sounding a lot like Frank Zappa and the Mothers from the late 1960s. It was a curious time musically – Zappa once remarked in an interview that record companies didn’t quite know what the new generation wanted, so they contracted all kinds of artists, allowing a creativity to flourish that hadn’t existed before and which, I suspect, didn’t exist afterwards, because of that intersection with the corporate music-making world. It’s maybe coming back now that Soundcloud and other services have democratised music production.

    • Each album was extremely different, the next two were Ege Bamyasi (I’ve no idea what that means) and Future Days. Then Damo Suzuki left and they were never quite as brilliant again – most bands seem to have a brief shelf life when they’re at their peak, for some reason.

      Well, the Beatles aside. Everyone but the Beatles, even after they split. Those weirdoes just kept making amazing songs. Apart from the Mull of Kintyre, which grates a bit.

      • The Beatles were simply awesome, and the way they defined music for the rest of the century never has been fully explored. I mean (among many other things), they basically invented prog rock by adding Mellotron to Sgt Pepper, along with a lot of other innovation such as adding the RH part of Bach’s Two Part Invention in F Major, on a horn, at the close-out of “All You Need Is Love”. Though I never quite understood what McCartney was doing with ‘Mull of Kintyre’. Of course, now it’s going through my head anyway…

        • I think it’s the bagpipes – they kick in and if you’ve been in a pub all night, and if you’re Scottish, it must get very emotive and charged bellowing along. It’s better than the Frog Song, anyway.

  2. Tago Mago by Can was my introduction to krautrock, and it is indeed an incredible album. From there, I discovered other great bands from the scene such as Faust, Cluster, and Ash Ra Tempel.

  3. That was excellent! i loved the music…. and somewhere along the line I have heard it.
    Whatever, I’ve heard it again now, and thank you! Your music reviews are wonderful. Your book reviews are fab as well!

    • Ta very much. “Ta” means “thanks” in Northern English FYI. Anyway, it’s not their most melodic album (Future Days is their best, in my opinion) but the first four tracks on Tago Mago are effin’ amazeballs.

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