When I received a turntable as a Christmas gift a couple of months ago, my brother sarcastically remarked that the poor thing would only ever be used to play Rush’s Hemispheres and Can’s Tago-Mago. “Ah, if only,” I said. I didn’t own Tago-Mago, and vintage pressings of the album usually sell somewhere in the neighborhood of $100. And yet here we are.
Evidently Spoon Records did a repressing of a bunch of Can albums in 2014. I’ve been wary of new vinyl pressings of classic albums, though; I received a new copy of Led Zeppelin IV alongside my turntable, and it’s garbage. Sounds like it was mastered from MP3s or something. Just terrible. However, I read rave reviews of the new Can reissues on Discogs, and ended up with a $20 Best Buy credit after my copy of Fire Emblem Fates ended up not shipping on time, so I said “What the hey?” For five dollars out of pocket after tax, the worst that could happen would be for me to end up with a slightly crummy version of Tago-Mago. I spent about $40 on the CD back in the early ’90s — that’s not in adjusted dollars but rather in Clinton-era bucks, and it was a dear and difficult purchase that I vacillated over for months! — this was before e-commerce existed, when Can CDs only appeared in the States as imports. Five bucks seems like nothing.
(Incidentally, when e-commerce did become a thing, my first-ever online purchase, circa 1996, was to spend $100 to acquire the remainder of the previously-impossible-to-find Can library at miraculously cheap prices from some CD shop that doesn’t even exist anymore.)
Wonder of wonders, the Discog reviews were correct. This is an excellent rendition of a classic album. And just look at that record jacket. At LP size, it’s really easy to appreciate the fact that this is pretty much the ’70s-est looking cover you could possibly imagine.
The music is super ’70s, too, but it’s also incredibly forward-thinking and way ahead of its time. The highlight of the album for me is “Halleluwah,” a spacey jam built around drum loops (in 1971!) that stretches for more than 17 incredibly groovy minutes. I remember letting some friends listen to it circa 1993 and they demanded to know who this amazing new band was. Sure, a trained ear can tell that the production values place it squarely in the early ’70 — both the CD and LP versions sound like some of the louder guitar bits are clipping past the studio’s tolerances and coming off a bit staticky as a result — but “Halleluwah”‘s steady pace and the band’s collective commitment to rhythm sound like nothing else I’ve ever heard from that era. There’s a quiet break midway through the song in which the drum loops fade, but even then the beat is maintained by piano and guitar, and once the drum come crashing back in the whole thing turns into an incredible jam where different instruments begin to take the lead and do something besides keep time.
“Halleluwah” fills the entirety of the second side of the album’s first record, and the trio of tracks on the A side are just as good. They all segue into one another, and while each has its own distinct feel and tone, they all feel related. The strong emphasis on a crisp, driving drum line and the use of electric guitar as more of an accent than the leading voice really stand out here. It’s fantastic stuff, and I could listen to it any time.
Not so much for the second record, though. The C side consists of a single track as well, but it’s a bizarre sonic experiment that takes about 10 minutes to finally take shape. The first track on side D is even harder to listen to — it sounds like the band making random noises in the studio (including lead singer Damo Suzuki screaming) with no sense of timing or melody or purpose. I guess it’s artsy or something, all very avant-garde, but it’s not something I can just put on and enjoy. I’d say it sounds like the sort of thing you’d have to be high to enjoy, but I suspect listening to “Peking O” while high would create intense sensations of paranoia or inspire some sort of freak-out meltdown. So I dunno.
I guess the easiest way to describe Tago-Mago would be to say, “It what you’d get if Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma had been good.” It’s a shame I don’t like the trippier material here, because the final track on side D, “Bring Me Coffee or Tea,” is a gentle, calming song, and I really like it… but the idea of going through the process of putting on a record and trying to drop the needle just so in between tracks without my finger slipping means I will probably never listen to the song on vinyl. CDs do have their advantages!
Even if I can’t imagine ever listening to the second record, the first two sides of Tago-Mago would easily have been worth full price. That I acquired it for five bucks… well! Victory indeed. Next, I think I need to pick up Landed. I’ve had a hankering to listen to “Hunters and Collectors” ever since playing Far Cry: Primal.