“Can World”: An Exclusive Excerpt from Alan Warner’s 33 1/3 Book on ‘Tago Mago’

The recording of Can’s 1971 album Tago Mago is the stuff of music industry legend — it was made in Schloss Nörvenich, a rural castle in which the band set up camp and created their own little world (rent-free, mind you — if anyone would like to donate a German castle to Flavorwire, please email me forthwith.) Anyway, the band stayed in the castle for three years, jamming to their heart’s content and creating one of the most remarkable records of the 1970s. In this exclusive excerpt from Bloomsbury’s upcoming Tago Mago 33 1/3 book, author Alan Warner — yes, the same Alan Warner who wrote the marvelous Morvern Callar — imagines what life might have been like in Can’s castle.

Can World

The German castle … (yes, I had started reading the Kafka novel by then, which must have influenced how I saw a village below an elevated castle). They play music every day – even on Sundays; and they don’t give a damn about the noise, ’cause they live in a castle with no neighbours and they don’t have to go to any bloody school – and neither will I for much longer. They must talk in German language but perhaps the Japanese guy speaks in English too, ’cause he seems to sing quite a lot in sort-of English words, though there appear to be other lingos mixed in – Japanese and all sorts?

Within the thick walls their long hair falls down the instruments which they lean over and across. I wasn’t that romantic, I didn’t see it as a fairy-towered castle high above the Rapunzel lettuce, positioned on a gorge of vertical cliffs, dropping to the banks of the Rhine. Or was it the Ruhr? It would be a smaller castle – the way there were larger and smaller chateaus in France.

These Can guys – they sleep in different rooms throughout the castle. They never have to make their beds and maybe they have girlfriends staying there sometimes – girls who walk in bare feet through the castle corridors and up the spiral staircases, laughing – maybe their legs are even as great as Teresa’s? Maybe one member of Can owns the castle? Or his father? Didn’t the Red Baron own a castle? At night, in winter, they gather in front of a huge fire – like the one in that scary film Citizen Kane. They discuss that day’s music and tomorrow’s and the tour coming up. They drink wine but I bet they do it straight from the bottle. No glasses. And to be frank, the Irish Canadian Klondiker before he was replaced by the Japanese guy, I can’t say he used the bath much – and if he did he didn’t clean it after him. Maybe that’s why he’s gone?
Each morning in the studio they randomly gather, often summoned by whichever musician has been the first to have reached that long room which they use as the studio; sometimes it is Jaki drumming and they follow his double beats down corridors to outside the grand door. One of them nods to Jaki who doesn’t alter the beat, the new arrival rubs his eyes, he yawns then – say it’s Irmin – he climbs in behind his keyboard, he switches it on and joins in. Sometimes it’s the guitarist tuning up which awakens them all.

I had no clear image of what a recording studio was actually like, though I did see a desk studded with the potentialities of innumerable switches and knobs. I mainly saw the white empty room of the castle which I had witnessed on the Can Soundtracks album and I also imagined the wires from amplifiers lying in curves and looped meanders across the stone floor, like that one I has seen stretching from the microphone towards Holger in the photo.

I saw oriental carpets and mats on the floor and as night fell, they would light the room with candles – the way hippies were always messing about with candles. I wondered if that would influence a long bit of music? It took twenty minutes for a room to get dark – as long as ‘Yoo Doo Right’ or ‘Halleluwah’ – could you hear the light change the music as dusk drew on to night?

In the summer evenings they all ate soup and vegetables which they grew in the castle gardens, much as my own mother and father grew in our garden, but Can would have supplements of marijuana along with their fresh vegetables and fruit; I knew what folk were like back in those days. Then every so often they would go out on tour.

Tours were conducted through the clean, streamlined, modern halls of 70s Germany. Versions of ‘Halleluwah’, ‘Paperhouse’, ‘Mushroom’, and ‘Oh Yeah’ would be played, but I knew already that they would be richer variations than the album tracks – even more wonderful – Jaki’s beats would extend for longer and more ecstatically, there would be no time limit looming at the end of a chunk of vinyl – no, they could keep advancing towards infinity.

My initial seeds of illusion were cultivated in years to follow when more and more details about Can began to appear in the media and you could read of legendary five- and six-hour concerts – like The Grateful Dead, but much more dynamic and aggressive.

Another impression I took from Tago Mago was that this music – like ‘Yoo Doo Right’ – was essentially a real time, live recording of what was happening in that castle. To me Tago Mago sounded most of the time like a live album, although I could hear a few effects had been added – like the backward tapes pulling against the momentum of ‘Oh Yeah’. It still seemed to me then that the Can process was largely engaged in getting microphones positioned, switching on the tape machine and playing live.

I could surmise editing had taken place with ‘Aumgn’ and ‘Peking O’, as both of those pieces clearly transition from one world of sound to another and it struck me as quite likely some trimming of the recorded material must have taken place. But of course the album is far more complex and convoluted than that. Often, I imaginatively relived the creation of the album as I played the music again and again – the band members getting in position, the recording being switched on and off, perhaps more than one take of each composition. I actually thought that the interlude in ‘Halleluwah’ had been placed there so they didn’t have to play the eighteen minutes straight through. Time for a fag or a toilet break.

What a life, when you could play music like this. They only left the castle when they needed to and they would make money from selling their records. Okay – they weren’t as famous as Deep Purple, but maybe in Europe where people were sophisticated, they sold lots more records than a plodge place like where I lived. All the best composers came from Europe – Beethoven and Mozart and all that, so maybe Can had been more appreciated there?

What I felt and what came from listening to Tago Mago non-stop was how lucky Can were to have such happy potential and confidence at their disposal. Here were musicians who it seemed could do anything they wished to on a technical level, yet could display humour in their music as well as grace, beauty and fear. They were able to do this and they were going to enjoy it and take full advantage of the musical treasures which they had enabled to unfold outwards from themselves, switching on the Record button. How could they cease? What a magic time it must have been for them. How could I marshal a huge chunk of this good fortune and creative harvest into my own future life? Form a band? A great band in a castle making records. That would be a life!

I knew from the music press how a song was written: chords, verse, chorus, something called the middle eight which I believed referred to the eight bars in the structure. I was to come to appreciate the subtle act of great song-writing – stunning statements made in a few minutes, like ‘White Rabbit’ by The Great Society and Jefferson Airplane, that old ballad ‘John Riley’, ‘A Very Good Year’, written by Ervin Drake for The Kingston Trio, ‘The Drifter’s Escape’ by Bob Dylan, the always- sinister and misogynistic ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ by poor Tim Hardin (who once jammed with Can onstage in London in 1975), ‘Nature Boy’ by Eden Ahbez, ‘And I Love Her’ by The Beatles, or ‘Citadel’ by The Rolling Stones. All these songs are simply astonishing things – each one is a philosophy in terms of both composition and execution.

But Can are almost nothing to do with song-writing – certainly in the early years. ‘She Brings the Rain’ and ‘Thief’ are great songs, but they were not written in any conventional way with obvious intentions. Can were not sitting down with guitars to write love songs or to express their feelings about specific issues. You only needed to listen to Tago Mago to intuit that. They were just playing music. I didn’t know then what you would call that kind of music-making: to just start playing and not to have sat down and planned things out, but I could tell it was a type of musical endeavour which excited me – it was happening a lot on Tago Mago and with the music of Public Image Ltd, where the bass player laid down his bars and the others followed, and in the sort of jazz music on Mr Gone by Weather Report. These people were not writing songs for Top of the Pops like even Ian Dury was – The Can were playing music.

There was a feeling of ranging search and of galvanic occurrence in what Can did. In fact I was pretty sure that’s what jazz was – making it up as you went along, but you are such a bloody good musician you can do that, you don’t make mistakes and in fact you play tunes within the tunes – much as Cream did too. Cream had good songs, like ‘Sweet Wine’, but in concert they were such inspired players and doubtless a bit high (though I did not know how that felt) they just burned, wandered into sonic territories. It would be real freedom, that. Imagine getting up on a stage and just doing that – what a disarming and honest and vulnerable, yet great thing to do for all of us who could not.
You could tell from Tago Mago that Can worked this way, they played and played, recording down all the things which happened right there in the old German castle – like ‘Halleluwah’; they did all that and they plonked it on a record like these jazz cats.