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It's All About 'Mother Sky'
on 11 January 2006
Can’s claim to immortality rests largely on the hat-trick of stunning albums they released between 1971 and 1973 – Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days – but there are other good things to be found in their back catalogue if one takes the time to look. Their debut album, Monster Movie, was released in 1969 and featured their original American vocalist, Malcolm Mooney. It has moments of genius – not least the barmy rereading of ‘Mary, Mary So Contrary’ – but its brilliance is patchy in comparison to the creative peak they hit in the early ’70s.
To be fair, much the same can be said of Soundtracks, the album created after Monster Movie, and consisting of tracks composed for various (largely forgotten) films which only keyboardist Irmin Schmidt had seen at the time (the modus operandi was that he gave the other band members roughly drawn storyboards of the films, and then left it to their compositional and improvisatory skills). This somewhat hare-brained approach to musical creativity is typical of much Krautrock, and the upshot is obviously that all the musical ideas are filtered through Schmidt’s impression of the films. This, the fact that soundtrack albums are often disjointed affairs anyway, and the fact that the album was made during the period where Mooney left the band and Damo Suzuki joined, all make Soundtracks something of a mish-mash.
The core of this album lies in just two songs: ‘“Don’t turn the Light on,” leave me alone’ and ‘Mother Sky’. Mooney’s last two contributions to Can – ‘Soul Desert’ and ‘She Brings The Rain’ – are both pretty decent numbers, mining the same vein as Monster Movie’s ‘Yoo Doo Right’ and drawing on Can’s jazz background respectively, but they lack the magic that the group really found with Suzuki. This is exemplified in the relatively understated ‘“Don’t turn the Light on…”’, where Suzuki’s soon-to-be-familiar mangled syntax and cryptic lyrics combine to add a further air of mystery to Can’s already enigmatic music. The track seems to throb with suspense, riding on Holgar Czukay’s darkly expressive bass line, without ever exploding in the way it seems to be threatening to. As an example of sustained tension, it’s hard to top, and it also underlines the difference between Can with Damo Suzuki, and Can without: the music the band created with him onboard has a distinctive, tough, elasticity; something that was far less obvious in their work with Mooney.
The album’s centrepiece, of course, is the much lauded ‘Mother Sky’. For once, the praise is justified, and here there’s certainly no sustained tension, this is a full-blown post-psychedelic freak out. The song just erupts into life and doesn’t let up for the entirety of its near fifteen minute duration. Although the song operates in a recognisably Can-like way – i.e. it locks into a groove and maintains it throughout – it seems to be even more unrestrained than Can’s other, similar, work. The guitars here seem more strident, the rhythms even more frantic, giving the song greater ferocity than even this mighty band usually managed. The playing is typically excellent, but the shrieking guitar, pummelling rhythm and frenetic pace make this song a very different beast to the laid back, slowly unfurling funkiness of ‘Halleluhwah’. Obviously, the track’s sheer length, and its mildly unhinged feel – again aided by Suzuki’s lyrics and vocals – make it a direct predecessor of the likes of ‘Pinch’, ‘Halleluhwah’ and ‘Paperhouse’, but it seems less obviously forward-looking than much of the work from their early ‘70s heyday, instead echoing the likes of Iron Butterfly or late ‘60s Pink Floyd at times, albeit given a very Can makeover. To this day, the band’s typically focused performance still makes the music utterly compelling in a way that the likes of Pink Floyd’s never was. Much of Can’s genius lays in their playing, and the sheer attack here is what drives the music along, largely diverting the attention away from these influences. If that sounds like a quibble, it really isn’t, because although this track might seem a little less visionary than the music that would follow on Tago Mago, it clearly signposts where the band were heading once Suzuki joined, and because it’s performed by a band as unconventional as Can it seems fresher and much less clichéd than a lot of other music of the time.
Great as ‘Mother Sky’ and ‘“Don’t turn the Light on…”’ undoubtedly are, the album’s real weakness is that it is a collection of disparate songs and ideas, rather than a unified whole created organically in the way that the best Can albums were – for instance, ‘Aumgm’ or ‘Peking O’ from Tago Mago might not make for easy listening, but they feel as though they need to be there; this album would lose little if the likes of ‘Tango Whiskyman’ or ‘Deadlock’ were excised. As a result, it gives the impression of being a stopgap – which is essentially what it was – rather than a ‘proper’ album. Of course, listening to Can marking time is far more interesting than listening to most bands striving for perfection, but as a whole album it’s hard to describe this as essential listening. It’s not the best place to start discovering Can and will largely – and probably rightly – be bought by people simply for the two best tracks here, and fortunately for those buyers ‘Mother Sky’ alone is worth the price of admission.