Apart from being celebrated for spearheading the late ’60s/early ’70s outpouring of experimental, more or less rock-orientated music from Germany, usually bundled under the unflattering “krautrock” umbrella, Can were renowned for a work ethic that made most of their contemporaries seem positively lethargic. When they weren’t touring, they were were to be found jamming and recording in their Cologne HQ, forever in search of the perfect groove to build their next mind-expanding dispatch on. During this tireless operation, the band generated much more material than what could ever be released, both for practical reasons (space, demand) and stylistically/thematically speaking.
This is where The Lost Tapes comes in. These almost overwhelmingly diverse studio workouts, live cuts, film soundtrack contributions, works-in-progress (including ‘Dead Pigeon Suite’, an interesting 16-minute journey in sound that incorporates elements from Can classic ‘Vitamin C’) and oddities have one thing in common: despite the generally high standards, these are tracks that wouldn’t have fitted comfortably on any of Can’s impeccably assembled albums. What emerges is something of an alternative history of the band, adding to, expanding and – occasionally – distorting their trademark avant-space-funk sound, carefully restored and edited (a crucial stage in Can’s original working method) by keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and Jono Podmore.
Considering the era they operated in and the members’ expansive musical abilities (Schmidt and bassist Holger Czukay both studied under avant- garde composer Stockhausen; drummer Jaki Liebezeit’s background was in the highbrow domain of modern jazz), Can’s natural home could well have been amongst the self-indulgent showing-off and Hobbit-hued fantasy of prog rock. Yet The Lost Tapes strengthens the image of Can as anti-prog: always willing to go fully primitive when the track at hand so requires, occasionally gnarly enough to count amongst the ranks of early proto-punks. Superb tracks like the tense ‘Buble Rap’ – fuelled by snarling fuzz guitar from Michael Karoli – provide a startling reminder of Can’s ability to strip their potentially sprawling sound down to its simplest essentials. Here, as on many other top-drawer tracks, the five members forego their egos to form a well-oiled, throbbing organism entirely in the service of the band’s distinctly European brand of funk, their impressive scope as musicians evident in their ability to stretch a simple motif, as opposed to individual acrobatics.
This team effort produces some startling results. In most hands, the 10-minute, one-line, single-riff mantra ‘Waiting for a Street Car’ – one of a handful of very strong cuts from the band’s early years when American sculptor Michael Mooney manned the microphone, that are often overshadowed by the classic string of albums cut with Japanese street musician Damo Suzuki – would be the apex of tedium. In Can’s hands, it turns it into a fearsome beast of sustained momentum, with Mooney’s increasingly frenzied questioning (“Are YOU?” “ARE you?” “ARE YOU?”) adding a touch more urgency and menace than you’d normally associate with the band.
That’s just the tip of the towering iceberg of treasures on offer here – to do full justice to the wealth of goodies here, this review would have to go on for longer than the entire 3CD set. Granted, the package might not be the best place to start for Can novices, lacking as it does the unified sonic identity and clear sense of purpose of the band’s finest albums. But if you’re already familiar with, say, Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972) and the peerless side 1 of Future Days (1973), The Lost Tapes is absolutely essential listening.