Can: The Singles - Can (Mute/Spoon Records)
So, while a single a-side was supposed to get you up and interested, a B-side wasn’t. In fact, many bands - particularly mainstream bands - would plop dud choons on the B-side, convinced that no-one was listening.
Nope. The fans were listening. And boy, did some fans get annoyed with the shit they found there. Why would your favourite band slip you sludge on the B-side? You pay good money, you expect a decent track on the flip.
Smarter (and poorer) bands began to use the B-side to their advantage - slipping in a cracking live rendition of a familiar song, or a joke or experimental track. Hell, a record costs money to make, you don’t want to spend all that just to waste the space on the flip. Hence The Damned’s crackling rendition of “Help!”, the Beatles song performed with kettle drums at a million miles an hour. Brilliance.
Which is why many B-sides of singles contain unremarked gems - to the extent where a band is perfectly justified in issuing the singles - with the b-sides - as an LP. A few classic examples would be The Buzzcocks’ “Singles Going Steady” or The Stranglers’ “Here and There” 2 CD set (and I’m sure you can think of a few more) … and then there’s this extraordinary creation by Can (available as a triple LP or single CD, for a total of 23 tracks).
Why so extraordinary? There’s several reasons, but you know that old saw about ‘it’s not the original members touring’..? Cop this: “Whilst compiling the album, it was discovered that some of the original masters for the single versions and edits had been lost, so they have been recreated as close as possible.”
Given that Can were among the most dippy of the hippy-dippy ‘Krautrock’ groups, that kinda makes sense. ‘We lost the masters!’ isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds (given that Carlton Sandercock found a pile of raw Stooges recording in the dumpster outside Olympic Studios in London); and of course, ‘the fucking masters are turning to dust on a ribbon!’ is not uncommon either.
But mmmm. That’s a bit of a worry, isn’t it? Well, no. Ordinary human beings might forget what they did umpty years ago, but the LP’s credit to one Jonathan Monickendam, whose ‘collection of original seven-inches made this possible’ implies the band had a good listen to the stuff they couldn’t find the master for, and replicated it as well as they could.
And no, you can’t really tell what was recorded when, and they don’t tell you. So, unless you’re one of those ‘I must have the ORIGINAL!’ people who didn’t-get-it-at-the-time and didn’t-seek-it-out-later folk who all of a sudden ‘MUST HAVE THE ORIGINAL!’, then you won’t give a monkey’s stale bun.
I’m not sure what’s going on in Can’s corner; perhaps they’ve finally woken up and realised the huge interest in their work. Here is not the place for a potted history of Can: seek out Julian Cope’s “Krautrock Sampler”, or even the rather informative entry on Wikipedia.
If you’re a hard rock nutter then this may well not be for you. However, no less a rock writer than Ian Johnston had this to say of “The Lost Tapes”, issued in 2012, for Louder Than War:
Revealing formerly unheard pieces, their superlative quality film music and invigorating live performances, ‘The Lost Tapes’ is incandescent music produced by the classic Can line up of Holger Czukay on bass, Michael Karoli on guitars, Jaki Liebezeit on drums and Irmin Schmidt on keyboards, and on most tracks, vocals from Malcolm Mooney or Damo Suzuki. Brimming with unconventional music created with conventional instruments, ‘The Lost Tapes’ is nothing less than an alternative history of one of the greatest bands of the rock epoch. …
How anyone could continue to listen to most comparatively vacant contemporary bands after eavesdropping the contents of ‘The Lost Tapes’ defies belief. Though over four decades old, The Lost Tapes embodies Can’s inspirational desire to experiment, discover and make simple yet inventive rhythmic music. This magical, milestone box set is a real treat for Can aficionados and the uninitiated alike, if they are willing to take the plunge. Do not hesitate to purchase a copy, Can are still miles ahead.
In a nutshell, what many of the initial ‘Krautrock’ bands (from about 1968 onwards) were about was the rediscovery of music and possibility within music - Germany’s musical origins weren’t blues-based, nor r’n’b, nor jazz, nor that glycerine pop of the 6ts. And, for some strange reason, fat men in leather shorts clutching tubas didn’t appeal, either. I’ve often wondered what the impact of The Monks’ live TV performance on Beat Club (16th July 1966, in case you were wondering) had on the nascent Krautrock scene.
Some bands you’ll dig if, for instance, you like Frank Zappa and Hendrix; if you’re not a Zappa head (as I most certainly am not) that doesn’t really matter. If you dig the Velvet Underground (especially the live material) there’s a good chance you’ll dig Can; ditto if you like the first two Kraftwerk or Neu! LPs. All those Grateful Dead LPs? God, I can’t stand them. Endless meandering tosh. Everyone stoned stupid and beyond. Put on the fuckn’ Dead and you can hear your brain oozing out your ears…
However, proof that songs can be taken to great lengths and still be inspiring was provided by Can as they toured the UK in the early 1970s; you’d think they wouldn’t fit in to the pub-rock and faux hippy climate … but thanks to John Peel, they did. And for people expecting stuff more or less like what was on the LPs… Can amazed and delighted by doing songs which went for well over an hour - and were still damned good (I do know, by the by, I’ve heard a couple of tapes).
It’s not really possible to list the bands who’ve been indirectly influenced by Can - it’s bloody long, and many wouldn’t realise the influence. But you can bet that bands like PiL, Boris, Gallon Drunk and Sonic Youth (for example) were solidly affected at the source. Take a look here:
Now, if you’ve heard a regular Can LP and don’t quite get it, perhaps the songs are a tad long (some people do have short attention spans) or a bit peculiar, then listen to this.
Here’s all Can’s singles, a-sides and b-sides, one after another. First, there are more than a few songs not on the main LPs; second, this is the first time the singles have been put together (there’s no “Can’s Greatest Top Tens” LP) and third… the breadth of their musical invention and ambition is quite extraordinary. Some of the tracks here are edited, shorter versions of songs which appear on the LPs. But not all, not by any means; so I guess you could say: this is the easiest way to get Can.
I’m tempted to go over this track by track, but I won’t - let’s just say that Michael Karoli’s creative, improvisational guitar provided influence and a trampoline for such a diverse range of guitarists connected to and beyond the new wave that we’re still hearing echoes today. Holger Czukay’s bass, that trademark rumbling strut which we still hear today - it’s a style, all but a way of life.
Then there’s Jaki Liebezeit’s drums, which - if you were to isolate them - remind me more of jazz than anything remotely rock’n’roll. The rhythm section together - well, that’s one powerful solid groovitan thang. Jaki and Holger have influenced more trance, dance, drum’n’bass stuff than the turntable bandits know.
And let’s not forget Irmin Schmidt’s keys - compare what he does with (say) what the Doors’ whatsisname was doing and really … one is pretty good and one is quite out there. Also, of course, was that loopy genius Holger - he’d record the band - even when they weren’t aware of it - take the tracks and layer them. So you didn’t just get the band in the moment - you got the consideration, the understanding and the slow-cooked richness of flavour as well.
I mean, there’s this weird crypto calypso thing in a few tracks. Mock calypso? Who can tell?
The songs themselves are quirky, enigmatic, human. Moving, enthusiastic, reflective, driving. So out of control, but so in-sync. To the uninitiated Can are a bit like a visit to a rock’n’roll parallel universe. If you heard this band on mainstream radio (as if) either today or back in 1971 (say) you’d either hate them or be so utterly flabbergasted as to scamper out the door to the nearest record shop.
Remember when you used to do that?
Trouble is, I still do (alright, not as often. But I do).
Oh, and here’s fun. Take any rockabilly nut, or a hip-hop obsessive, or a metalhead who takes the lyrics seriously, lock the sod in a room and play them Can: “The Singles”.