It is a generally accepted article of rock ‘n’ roll faith that The Velvet Underground were, both musically and in terms of attitude, the single most influential group in history. The shades, the heroin chic, the walls of feedback married to pure pop melody, the S&M cliches. Their first album may have done comparatively tiny numbers when it came out in ’67, but it was not for nothing that Brian Eno famously suggested that of the few people that did actually hear it, most of them went off to form bands.
Personally I’m not sure I completely buy the mythology, but it’s impossible to deny that at the very least the Velvets were pretty fucking cool – and if you did try to deny it you’d rightly end up with the spirit of everyone from post-Man Who Sold the World Bowie to The Jesus and Mary Chain queuing up to call you an idiot. There is another ahead-of-their-time outfit though that I would argue were at least as important as Lou and his crew, but unlike the Velvets get nowhere near the love they deserve even to this day – German art rock legends Can, who are often just as difficult and spawned just as many imitators. As luck would have it they just so happen to have provided the opportunity for a bit of publicity via the recent release of The Lost Tapes – three hours of studio and live recordings, collated following the selling of the Can studio to the (and you’ll like this) German Rock ‘n’ Pop Museum.
As suggested, the Velvets created a template for exploring the nihilism that had been bubbling under the surface in rock and roll from the beginning – synthesising, to use a rather obvious drug metaphor, the equivalent in sound of morphine emptying into a hungry vein. All fine and dandy, of course. But to my mind Can’s project was potentially even more profound in that it opened up a space for bands to enjoy the melodic and rhythmical freedom that had always been part of pop music’s promise, but up until that point had only been explored either in silos (free jazz, Zappa, the freakier end of folk, the VU) or in ways that were often just plain, well, embarrassing (early King Crimson).
As is generally the way, the influence of older bands now regarded as cool beyond reproach often becomes apparent, historically speaking, at the point when the work of said bands is excavated by post punk. I can only imagine that sales of White Light/White Heat shot up (no pun intended) the week Psychocandy came out, and in the same way if there had been no Can, somebody would have to have come up with the idea of bringing together avant-garde jazz, funk, prog, ambient, world music, psychedelia, noise, experimental composition and Dadaist poetry on their own. No Can in other words, no PiL, no Mondays, no Gang of Four, no Pop Group, no Roses, no New Order, no Post Rock… I could go on.
The band’s future influence is apparent from the beginning of The Lost Tapes, the first three tracks of which, as well as being pretty solid in their own right, offer a decent primer for newcomers to the group. Moving as Millionenspiel, Waiting for the Streetcar, and Evening All Day do between ambient, balls-out rock (vocalist Malcolm Mooney free-associating, not unlike a madman, over the top) and avant-garde soundscapes, the experienced Can listener is put in mind of various -admittedly more fully-formed – moments on any of their first six, all great, albums. Elsewhere, there are exerts from imaginary film soundtracks, as well as evidence of just how influenced they were by James Brown – such as the glorious Midnight Sky, which effortlessly out Jack Whites Jack White over 40 years before Blunderbuss was even a twinkle in the engineer’s eye.
Of particular interest are the moments in the collection that not only remind you of more ‘complete’ songs, but literally are early versions of things that would turn up later on. Whether or not you want to call them outtakes (the press release would really rather you didn’t), A Swan is Born is clearly an early version of the majestic, creepy Sing Swan Song, while elements of Dead Pigeon Suite would eventually morph into Ege Bamyasi’s Vitamin C. The band were known for improvising endlessly and then editing into a finished product, and these tracks and others are not a million miles away from hearing the exploratory work released on the expanded versions of several of Miles Davies’ electric period albums a few years ago. A bit of a revelation, in other words.
Another parallel linking Can to the Velvet Underground is the diversity of their members’ respective backgrounds. The two main creative forces in the original line up of the Velvets couldn’t really have had a more different musical schooling, with Lou Reed learning his song-writing chops working at pop factory Pickwick Records, while John Cale collaborated with minimalist composer La Monte Young. Likewise, Can contained a rock guitarist, a jazz drummer, a music teacher bassist, a composer of modern classical music on keyboards – all profoundly influenced by the Velvets, naturally – and at various points, a moonlighting sculptor and Japanese busker on vocals.
Unlike The Velvet Underground however, the core Can line-up never really changed – auxiliary members came and went and founder members we’re sometimes pushed to the periphery, but fundamentally things remained the same until the end. This meant that, during their classic period at least, they were able to develop a profound musical and conceptual understanding as they went along. Very few bands – only The Band and Led Zeppelin spring immediately to mind – worked as well as a bunch of musicians as Can did. And likewise, very few bands – perhaps no other if we’re talking rhythm sections – could play like they could. Naturally, the very best tracks on the The Lost Tapes reflect this – such as disc one’s sixteen-minute long blowout Graublau which demonstrates just what can be done with a few improvised riffs, an inhuman drummer, plenty of studio time and a bit of willpower. Barnacles meanwhile shows them transforming for one night only into the best ‘70s porn studio house band ever, with Holger Czukay’s bass providing a funky-yet-uptight counterpoint to Michael Karoli’s feedback-soaked chicken-scratch guitar, as Irmin Schmidt stabs away at his keyboard like some kind of German Booker T. Jones.
The Lost Tapes won’t necessarily be for everyone in the same way that a lot of German experimental pop art from the ’60s and ’70s isn’t necessarily for everyone. Many of the tracks are inordinately lengthy, some of them are by any definition quite difficult, while a smattering of the material – such as Deadly Doris and Your Friendly Neighbourhood Whore – is indulgent in a bad way. But, for those who have dipped their toe in the Krautrock water with Kraftwerk and want to go a bit deeper, the new collection could prove to be the beginning of a great adventure. Can fans meanwhile, are going to be more than happy with this three-hour motoric grooveathon/history lesson.