Monster Movie / Soundtracks
A / B
hat can you say about Can? About The Can? Because, make no mistake, they are the definite article. Their name is an acronym of Communism, Anarchism, Nihilism. Or it’s the German word for “love”. Or an African word for “life”. Or something you keep beer in. On the cover of Ege Bamyasi it’s a tin of okra. Who knows? Can. The Can. Can formed because of an argument between a music teacher and his student. The student said The Beatles were more radical than Stockhausen, the teacher laughed, they formed a band. They recruited the greatest drummer in the world (Jazz-trained—instilled with the motto “never repeat, never repeat” from the day he picked up sticks. And when given the freedom to play how he wanted? Decided to repeat forever.) and a giant black American singer, a sculptor evading the draft by travelling Europe. They recorded in a castle, strange nursery-rhyme inverting songs about getting high with Mary, about your father being unborn, weird, European psychedelic junctions. 20-minute jams about nothing in particular but keyed in to the rhythm of the universe. Oh yes. The singer couldn’t take the stress, or something, and left. The rest of Can spotted a Japanese man shouting at people in the street, and asked him to join their band. He did, and proceeded to sing in a made-up language for the next five years. (Later he would find religion, and become a Jehovah’s Witness, which is the mentalist inversion of Americans or Europeans “getting” Buddhism or Taoism.)
Everyone has stolen from Can. Talk Talk (the looped piano riff from “Life’s What You Make It”, everything they did from Spirit Of Eden on), Happy Mondays (“Hallelujah” is “Halleluwah” from Tago Mago performed by a load of Mancunian drug addicts with no sense of musical history), Primal Scream (everything, everything), The Fall (“I Am Damo Suzuki” to name but one of hundreds), The Stone Roses (“Fools Gold” is Ege Bamyasi’s “I’m So Green” run through acid house and The Byrds), Stereolab (everything, everything), My Bloody Valentine (texture over form), The Verve (10-minute spacerock grooves), any band that ever started playing around with electronics or weird jams, anyone who ever played at spacerock or being experimental (hello, Radiohead), anyone who ever went for texture and rhythm and sound over song, anyone who ever got a singer to sing in a made-up language (hello, Sigur Ros). Before every album Blur have released, Damon Albarn has either claimed that it was influenced by Pavement or by Can. The only two occasions when he wasn’t lying were Blur (Pavement!) and 13 (Can!). The Mooney Suzuki stole their name from Can’s two singers (Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki). LCD Soundsystem’s most important namedrop in “Losing My Edge” isn’t about being the first person to play Daft Punk “to the rock kids”; it’s about having been at the first Can shows in 1968, “in Cologne”. Which is, of course, a lie, because James Murphy was a baby if he was even born. Eno, Mogwai, Cabaret Voltaire, Tortoise, AR Kane… You could keep naming bands forever.
Monster Movie was their debut album, the one from the castle with the fairy tales and the American singer. It’s the most recognisably “rock” record they ever made, guitars playing near-recognisable motifs and riffs, Mooney’s lyrics not only in English but also finding refrains amidst the tectonic grooves that Schmidt, Karoli, Leibezeit and Czukay would build around him. “Father Cannot Yell” is an Oedipal car crash which starts like “Baba O’Reilly” but resolutely does NOT end like it, a kind of Velvet Underground chug-and-glide taken into orbit by a singer who can actually sing and a band who are actually avant-garde. “Outside My Door” is The Doors if they were into European colonial voodoo instead of Native American mysticism, four minutes of banging and something that sounds like a harmonica but apparently isn’t, squalling freeform rock guitar and Mooney starting with something resembling regressive psychotherapeutic sense before devolving into deranged primal screaming.
“Mary, Mary So Contrary” is the subverted nursery rhyme, slowly rising from infantile calmness and a scratchy guitar riff into something hallucinogenically revelatory, Mooney intoning the phrase “smoked a haiku cigarette / Turned around and then she left” (or something similar) at the key point before hollering her name over and over again, a mother, a lover, a woman, and then giving up and letting Karoli and Schmidt take over. It’s awesome.
And then there is “Yoo Doo Right”, a 20-minute monster, edited down from a 12-hour jam of terrifying proportions and beating its way through 8 minutes of white-hot guitar and keys that pulls your chest apart, drums clattering in circles and squares and obese rhomboid patterns about your head, before falling to the silent click of drumsticks and a boiled-to-nothing whisper and then lurching back to unending life, strafing and spinning and rending all in its path. I played it at a party once. A couple of people understood. Everyone else left. You might recognise the lyrics—Bobby Gillespie liked them.
Thanks to Irmin Schmidt, Can recorded a great deal of music for films which enabled them to stay financially afloat; procrastinating in realising their second album, much of it was collected on the inspiringly-titled Soundtracks, including Malcolm Mooney’s last recordings with the band (he left after suffering a mental breakdown onstage), and Damo Suzuki’s first. It’s a strange beast of a record, and often overlooked in Can’s oeuvre, heading down so many paths as to appear directionless, but contains some absolutely sublime moments. The elongated guitar shapes of “Deadlock”, the subdued, beatific and refracted lounge muzak of “She Brings The Rain” (Richard Ashcroft liked these lyrics), and the awesome, repetitive-beat, 15-minute lunar-eclipse of “Mother Sky”, which basically invents any band that’s ever tried to jam in cooler-than-thou concentric circles.
The original CD versions of Monster Movie and Soundtracks from 1989, like almost all early CDs, was thin and indistinct sounding. Sure, you could tell the music was amazing and extraordinary, because really great music shows its quality even over a shitty transistor radio with a fucked cone (“River Deep Mountain High”!), but there was always a sense that it could become exponentially better if only it had that extra depth and clarity, if only the drums had that little bit more thwack, the bass a touch more weight, the bizarre slips of electronic noise or synthesiser a little more definition. But technology’s come a long way in the last 15 years, and the remastering jobs on classic Miles Davis albums recorded in the 50s, 60s and 70s (and a whole host of other great records from decades past by myriad artists) shows that a good pair of ears and a mixing desk and whatever-the-hell-else filters and compressors and other assorted little electronic boxes with magical sonic powers can work absolute wonders. Which is to say that Monster Movie was always a bloody fantastic record (and Soundtracks a very good one), but now, remastered and re-released by the lovely people at Mute and Spoon, it is an absolutely fucking monumental one. It has voodoo qualities. Listen.