Can was the logical, if not entirely probable, culmination of rock music’s coming of age in the late 1960s. The intellectual ambition that the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Velvet Underground injected into pop music in the late years of the decade found its ideal expression in the forward-thinking West German group, which then laid the foundations for two or three generations of all kinds of progressive and experimental music. In fact, Can was inspired specifically by keyboardist/composer Irmin Schmidt’s 1968 visit to New York, where he became acquainted with minimalist composer Terry Riley, Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, and the Velvet Underground.
Can became, in turn, one of the most influential bands of the early ’70s, even though it remained a marginal commercial act during its entire existence. The band’s impact on punk, postpunk, and ’90s alt-rock can’t be overstated; Can’s pioneering use of improvisation, sampling, found sound, and tape manipulation, as well as its incorporation of world music, set new standards for what was acceptable by rock bands. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, just a few years after Can’s creative peak, the group’s direct and indirect influence could be heard in music by Public Image Ltd, Talking Heads, the Fall, Mission of Burma, Joy Division, and Brian Eno. By the 1990s, Sonic Youth and Pavement delivered Can’s influence to the alternative nation.
For all its importance, though, Can is still not fully appreciated. The band released 11 albums between 1969 and 1979, but casual fans focus on its most popular music—Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, Future Days, and Soon Over Babaluma, all released between 1971 and 1974—to the general exclusion of everything that came before and after. Most Can fans are casual fans, but the small minority who are fully dedicated to the band tend to be hardcore. Anybody who has more than the four early-’70s Can albums is likely to have all of them, plus a boatload of compilations, bootlegs, and live collections.
The new archival release The Lost Tapes (Mute), released in June, should serve both groups. The three-disc set, compiled by Schmidt, includes previously unreleased material recorded between 1969 and 1978. It’s a fine introduction to Can’s gradual development, from eggheaded garage band to prog-reggae experimentalists and, finally, a proto-ambient ensemble. The set is arranged by general (but not exact) chronology. Original singer Malcolm Mooney appears throughout, but is showcased especially on the first disc: His incantatory vocals on the Stooges-like heavy drone of “Waiting for the Streetcar” and the avant-funk of “Deadly Doris” and “Midnight Sky” should be a vital introduction for listeners who are only familiar with Mooney’s successor, Damo Suzuki.
For more serious fans—well, The Lost Tapes is the first new music from Can in 30 years. That alone is cause for some celebration. That some of it rivals material from the band’s official catalog is even better. That it’s more than three hours long and blurs the line between new music and outtakes—that makes it a little laborious.
Considering the band’s collage-style recording sessions—long free-form jams edited down to album tracks—these new pieces are sort of like demos or outtakes, but not really. The second and third discs offer quite a bit of material that will sound familiar. Ideas that would officially turn up on Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi are presented here in embryonic form, and there are three fairly lengthy live versions of “Spoon,” “Mushroom,” and “One More Night” (here titled “One More Saturday Night”).
And, frankly, there’s some boring stuff. Mooney’s spoken-word performance on “True Story” might as well have stayed buried, and the long, noisy 1975 jam “Networks of Foam” shows off the band’s refined chops but doesn’t stand on its own or offer any meaningful insight into the band.
But there are legitimate surprises, too: the gentle, sunny guitar pop of “Oscura Primavera,” from 1968; the electro-disco of “Barnacles,” from 1977 (the latest recording in the set); and “Millionenspiel,” a bracing, propulsive piece of collage rock from 1969 that kicks off the very first disc. And “Your Friendly Neighbourhood Whore,” from 1969, one of the first appearances of Suzuki, sounds fully formed, and makes you wonder how it got left off an official album.
So The Lost Tapes is a valuable addition to the Can catalog, if not an essential one. For a three-hour set of archival music, there’s not much padding, and the revelations are pleasant but minor. It’s a considered collection, assembled with care, and more than worth the price if you’re remotely interested. More than anything, the new set reinforces just how groundbreaking Can was, and that nobody else has really ever quite caught up to them.