That’s fanaticism for you: right now, listening to “Waiting for the Street Car” - the second track on the first volume of Can's “The Lost Tapes” - yours truly feels the urge to put together a chart of how much acid Damo Suzuki had before singing the song, how long the ferocious Japanese had gone without washing his hair, and what drove him to improvise that lyric. “Are you waiting for the streetcar? Are you waiting for the streetcar? Are you waiting for the streetcar? Are you whistling for the streetcar? Are you whistling for the streetcar?” infinite repeat.
In other words: when taking on anything by Can - even more so if it's a collection of previously unreleased tracks and diamonds in the rough, like this triple CD box set - being familiar with the mysteries of the band allows you to discover that they weren't mysterious at all. At least, not always. Once familiar with the exercises by Suzuki, Holger Czukay, Michael Karoli and company, the fan soon discovers that their way to break down the barriers of pop, rock and experimentalism came not only from their innovative spirit - and the much boasted about classical education of some of their members - but also from that festive, almost cosy atmosphere of their best years. Just the virtues “The Lost Tapes” can unveil to those who don’t realise that yet.
Because, granted: both Czukay and Schmidt were Stockhausen students, Jaki Liebezeit was one of the best jazz drummers in Europe and the late Karoli was a prodigy who could pull a James Brown riff out of his sleeve one moment and a Hendrix solo the next - and he didn't play the violin half bad, either. But the singers who joined the band over the years were all a bunch of freaks (in the best, 60s, sense of the word) and the tracks on “The Lost Tapes” surfaced when someone took down the cloths the band used to acoustically isolate their rehearsal studio. I mean, it's not a collection of outtakes, or experiments too wild to be released on vinyl; it's a succession of forgotten recordings of their drugs infused improvisations. Something Schmidt - who curated this release -doesn't only not deny, but even boasts about. Isn't that charming?
That charm, easier to appreciate than it seems, avoids an all too revering approach to these tracks; something many of us have been guilty of in the past. Hell, a song like “Your Friendly Neighbourhood Whore” presents, besides its title and the remarks in the lyrics (I would kill to know what inspired those), an almost cumbia-like rhythm that automatically makes you move your behind. Furthermore, “The Agreement” is just that: a brief conversation between the band members about how they're going to play a track, combined with the abyssal sound of a flushing toilet. Moreover, on the most primitive tracks, like “Midnight Sky”, we can hear Malcolm Mooney's voice in all its soul-punk-funk splendour, before the tiredness that pulled down his performance on the album “Monster Movie”.
The climax, both for the fan and for the un-warned listener, comes with the live version of “Spoon”: sixteen minutes, sixteen, during which Can's ability to decompose the constants of popular music, pick up the pieces afterwards and carefully put them back together, becomes more obvious than ever. In short, and without leaving the latter example, let's say that the track - rightfully acclaimed as the ancestor of synth-pop - is executed with due respect at first, then turned into a bombshell of electronic dance (we salute Irmin Schmidt, the human arpeggio), only to end up in a chaos that is very reminiscent of... The Ramones! I can't think of a better way to describe how big they really were.
But, beware: that ability to fascinate also has a dark, very scary side. While “The Lost Tapes” doesn't hold any piece of chaos comparable to those on the second part of “Tago Mago”, there are some corners on it where the much used term “ritual intensity” doesn't quite cut it. “When The Darkness Comes”, “Private Nocturnal” and “Blind Mirror Surf” make it clear that the places where Can plotted their conspiracies (a castle, an abandoned movie theatre) could transform into Eleusinian caves, or into the field where the witch from “Rashomon” dances.
There are more virtues to comment on in “The Lost Tapes” (the quality of the restored sound, for example), but there are also flaws in the material on this box set - when the solos prevailed over the work as a team and the fact that Can could be over-indulgent, offering pieces of minor importance. Their importance, nevertheless, can be measured by the band's best material, which influenced almost everybody (from This Heat to Liars, Sonic Youth, Stereolab, and Animal Collective). To give in to nostalgia and adoration is tempting in a case like this, but even listening to it with a sharp critical ear, this collection reinforces yours truly's belief in Can as one of the ideals of what a rock band should be. Pure diversion and pure compromise in equal measure, technical quality and mischievous spontaneity; their songs still have a lot to teach us.