Can – The Singles (2017)

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I dig this idea because I’ve tried to do it myself. See, for most people Can are about the wild experimentation and the sidelong grooves – “Halleluwah”, “Yoo Doo Right”, “Mother Sky”, Jaki playing like an octopus, Holger doing those two finger ascending lines, Damo shouting like a cornered squirrel, and so on. But I always felt that Can were an excellent singles band as well, by which I mean they wrote a lot of awesome tunes under five minutes. I didn’t know that Can issued actual singles, not outside of “Spoon” and “I Want More” that is. I mean, coming across an actual Can LP is rare, even now that they’ve all been reissued a dozen times, so the prospect of finding some 7-inch with a 3-minute edit of a 15-minute epic (which itself was taken from a 4-hour jam session) seems downright impossible. Regardless, they existed, and this comp is an attempt to showcase them in all their hastily-edited glory.

Strange concept, but Can are a fun band to anthologize so I don’t mind the attempt. They lasted roughly ten years (plus a one-off reunion), featured four very different lead singers, and often radically changed their approach from album to album. It is nearly impossible to do this on one CD, since so many of their key tracks tend to take up at least half an album side. The Singles is actually quite good for this oddly specific need, though its concept makes for some strange choices. The first Can single dates back to 1969, when the group was called “The Can”. On its cover is presumably a still from Mädchen mit Gewalt, the film it was recorded for. The A-side was “Soul Desert”, and it is almost certainly one of the worst recordings this band ever made. Perhaps the basic elements of Can are there, and the bare half-speed groove gives the song an atmosphere to match the title. But it’s almost painful to listen to – Malcolm Mooney’s pained vocals sound like he’s hawking up a lung, while the backing track feels scratchy and barren. All I can say is their recording methods changed a lot the following year. What a choice for a first single. On the flip side was “She Brings the Rain”, a jazzy tune with a fun little walking bass line, totally atypical of what Can normally sounds like – Mooney even sounds good on it! But they were hired guns back then, financing their recordings through soundtrack money, most of which wound up on an album/compilation simply called Soundtracks. The two tracks from the single are on it, as are five more recorded at a later date, with a new vocalist, an unhinged Japanese busker named Damo Suzuki.

One flaw of The Singles is it totally cuts short the Mooney era, which technically only lasted one album, though we’d later find out that they had recorded much more than that (between Delay 1968, Unlimited Edition, and The Lost Tapes, there’s like 2 more LPs of stuff out there). The comp jumps right to “Spoon”, which became the opening theme to Das Messer, and wound up a Top 10 hit as a result. The single sold 300,000 copies, which is a little hard to believe now. I mean, that is a ton of copies for a band this experimental to sell, though I guess the early 70’s were ripe for this sort of thing. Plus, Ege Bamyasi wouldn’t come out until a year later, so there was no other way to get it on record. On the flip side is “Shikako Maru Ten”, previously hard to find (you’d have to pick up the not-quite-official Radio Waves, or one of the 300,000 copies of the 7 inch). It is a good one, sort of an amalgam of different pieces of Ege Bamyasi. Following that is another rare track, “Turtles Have Short Legs”. This was sort of a one-off single that didn’t appear on any albums (again, Radio Waves had it) – it bounces around on this baroque piano figure which would’ve sounded totally out of place on any of their LPs, but it’s absolutely essential. It is the most fun thing they ever did, and I’m like 90% sure that Parappa the Rapper ripped the melody off (you’ll know when you hear it). Worth mentioning that the version here is different than the other one I’ve heard, with a rather, uh…creative approach to its editing. The flip there was a three-and-a-half minute edit of “Halleluwah”, starting somewhere in the middle of the track. I am not sure what the point of this was, other than maybe to convince people to go back and buy Tago Mago.

R-1805697-1387920548-9105.jpegEither way, I always thought “Vitamin C” was sort of an attempt to condense the “Halleluwah” groove into something more concise and accessible, and it’s a massive success. I mean, forget the song (as good as it is), just listen to that rhythm, absolute proof that Jaki Liebezeit was a God amongst men, may his soul rest in peace. On the flip was “I’m So Green” – this one actually sounds like Can trying to write a single, with a cute little melody and catchy vocal part. Taken together this is probably the best single they ever did. Of course if you’re a fan you’ve heard both these songs a hundred times already. The edits aren’t even any different – the lead in to “Soup” is still there. “I’m So Green” wound up getting its own single release shortly after, backed with a slightly edited version of “Mushroom” from Tago Mago.

From there the band shifted into a more cosmic and relaxed direction, resulting in the utterly classic Future Days. Regardless of whether or not you think the album is transcendent or merely very good, it’s hard to deny that the first side ends with one of the most perfect songs ever made, “Moonshake”. Take everything that made “I’m So Green” so great and add a little spice to it, plus one of the most amusing and idiosyncratic bridges ever recorded. As much as I love their catalogue, man do I wish they’d recorded more songs like this. On the flip is an edit of “Future Days”. Again, kind of pointless – it launches into the vocal melody after only 15 seconds, totally nerfing the way the original builds from scratch. I guess it could have worked if they had re-recorded it.

Damo Suzuki wound up leaving in 1974, replaced on the mic by guitar player Michael Karoli. His voice isn’t bad, but it feels a bit like a placeholder. As a result the band’s vocal presence started to come a bit more low-key and rhythmic, though it doesn’t change much on this comp, as the band’s more gaga moments don’t feature here. “Dizzy Dizzy” adds violin and hinges on a sultry Latin groove, showing off the band’s more worldly ambitions for the first time. I think they recorded plenty of quality material after Future Days (the next album, Soon Over Babaluma, is very much recommended), but they do start to lose the plot a bit. Not that they’d lost their talent, but rather they needed a new place to take their sound. The flip side “Splash” expounds on this a bit, a frantic jazzy groove that features quite a bit of violin soloing. Not something you’d hear on a Can album prior to ’74. It is fine but it doesn’t exactly capture the same magic.

After that the band started to zip around all over the place. Babaluma is arguably their last classic album, but they were still plenty interesting afterwards. “Hunters and Collectors” is an odd choice for a single (the first two tracks from Landed seem like more obvious candidates to me) but it does allow them to back it with “Vernal Equinox”, which vamps on the same chords. So that’s kind of neat. More changes to their sound – Karoli’s voice is now front and center, and there are a host of female backing vocalists. I think the tune (and Landed as a whole) could’ve been improved with better production, though it does give it a nice trippy vibe. “Equinox” is much more interesting, a total jam which features some excellent shredding from Karoli, maybe the best he’s sounded since “Mother Sky”. The single edit even has some thought put into it, opening with the electronic percussion/keyboard freakout (another new thing), then seguing into the jam section. Still an odd edit, but it fits with the A-side, so there.

The band’s next move was to sell out – or at least attempt to, a move that actually kinda R-5125521-1385199083-6390.jpegworked, as “I Want More” hit the Top 40 and managed to break the band outside of Germany. For the record I think this single is great and probably one of the best things the band ever did, though in the eyes of a lot of Can purists this was sacrilege. It’s nothing like the band’s classic material, nor is it really all that much like the rest of Flow Motion – “I Want More” is straight-up disco, shimmering funk guitars and all. The ghostly vocals are kind of an odd touch, but you work with what you got. On the back side was “…And More”, sort of a limp reprise (that for whatever reason got a spot on the LP). Lame, but what else were they gonna pair with this thing?

Actually, the band’s foray into disco did not quite end there – they did an instrumental cover of “Silent Night” in that style, something that before this compilation I had only heard about. Not that I was trying to seek it out or anything. At this point Can was starting to sound like a parody, though not quite of themselves (as a lot of bands wound up becoming). On the back was “Cascade Waltz”, one of the better tracks from Flow Motion, a rather strange little reggae tune in 3/4. As odd as it was to hear them tackle all these outsider genres (at least, for a Krautrock band), you have to admit they brought their own unique touch to everything they did.

In 1977 the band had morphed into something else entirely, sidelining Holger Czukay and adding two members of Traffic, bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah, both of whom contributed on vocals. I’ve heard this incarnation referred to as “Cantana” and to be honest there’s basically nothing here for fans of the classic era. The one obvious tie-back is “Don’t Say No”, their first single, which borrows the riff from “Moonshake” and turns it into a percussion-heavy rump shaker. It’s a cheap shot but it works, sorta. The flip is called “Return”, actually just an excerpt from the 15-minute “Animal Waves”, though I think the mix is a bit different here. For the record I find the resulting album Saw Delight to be sort of a guilty pleasure, which might have fared better with some people had they just changed the band name. The group’s next album Out of Reach was a total dud though – poorly mixed and light on songwriting, it’s the sort of album that comes about when the band members aren’t really getting on and don’t care about the final product. No singles this time, though to be fair there just isn’t one on the album, even by Can’s loose standards. They lasted one more album and it’s surprisingly decent, an attempt of sorts to reboot the band, as evidenced by the fact that they named it after themselves (it would later be titled Inner Space, a moniker the band used in the 60’s). Good songs, crisp production, tight playing, and the group actually figured out how to integrate the two Traffic members properly into their sound without letting them completely take over. Unfortunately it was a flop, and the band broke up soon after. There was a single this time, a cover of “Can Can” which I think was a bit too tongue-in-cheek for the people who were still buying Can records at this point. I always suspected the fans took the band more seriously than the band members themselves. It’s good dopey fun, kind of a hilarious way to go out when you think about it. The actual single release contained the reprise “Can Be”, which on the LP makes the joke even funnier (“they’re really gonna do this??”). Here it’s just cut for time, I suspect. Whatever…it’s not like anyone bought the single anyway. Despite some newfound focus there the band was pretty much cooked.

There is still one more piece to the Can story, the band’s brief reformation in 1986, with original vocalist Malcolm Mooney no less. As the story goes, Mooney found an unused plane ticket in his couch, contacted his old bandmates and asked if they wanted to get together. That sounds made up, but how else can you explain such a bizarre reunion? The resulting album Rite Time is such an odd duck; it’s not necessarily that the old magic isn’t there, but rather that they don’t even try, creating an album full of smooth, heavily reverbed digital funk grooves that resembles exactly nothing in the band’s back catalogue. I guess that’s what you expect from a band like Can, but still. It is so droll at times that it actually can be quite fascinating, almost in an outsider art sort of way. Recorded in ’86 but not released until three years later, one has to wonder how much of an album they really thought they had on their hands here; the only thing I can really think to compare it to is Neu! 86. “Hoolah Hoolah” was the single, and like everything on the last third of this compilation it’s goofy as hell. The version here may be an outside remix (it certainly ain’t like the album version), and it’s all the better for it, featuring some pretty amusing editing effects that actually bring it together in a way. I mean what can you do with a song about pants really.

And that was the end of it; not with a bang nor a whimper, but rather an odd little chuckle. This is what I like about The Singles – in 75 minutes you basically get the whole story of the band, almost like a documentary. I’ve heard all the Can albums many times over and don’t exactly have a whole lot of time for them now – there’s always too much to listen to, too much to discover. The Singles doesn’t do them justice, of course, especially in the wake of the deaths of both Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, both of whom have a body of work that’s worth hearing in full. But I’m glad it’s around, because it reconciles their entire career in a way that feels more satisfying than “they were really good, then they were not as good”. The reason why Can were so great is because they moved in whatever direction they pleased and were willing to throw their fans for a total loop. Reducing the band’s career to a series of 7 inches is sort of an insult to what these guys were able to achieve, but in a way it feels appropriate. And if you’re lucky enough to have never heard them before, well, here’s your chance.

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