When I was a teenager I used to listen to the Saturday Rock Show on BBC Radio 1, presented by Alan “Fluff” Freeman, every weekend. I sat in front of my tape recorder – the play, record and pause pressed down, with a finger ready to release the pause button at a moment’s notice – for the full three-hour show. It was the only time I have ever listened to Radio 1, because it wasn’t the usual wimpy pop – IT ROCKED – not arf! But enough of that. The reason I mention it is because of the unparalleled range of rock music that Fluff used to play. The Friday Rock Show (presented by Tommy Vance) tended to be predominately Heavy Metal and never really captured my imagination. Fluff would play a wide range of old and new music – it was here where I first heard Yes, Gong, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Gentle Giant, Camel, the Strawbs and King Crimson, among dozens of other half, or completely forgotten bands. I was always drawn to the older, more progressive music, probably because it sounded so utterly different from the new. Where new music shouts to be heard, old music sits and waits for its listeners, for rediscovery. Finding lost music is like being a cultural archeologist, unearthing strange aural artifacts – it gives you a sense of having found something that few other people listen to or even know about.
I used to record tracks by any band which had an odd or interesting name, and the fact that Can were among what was termed Kraut Rock, meant I just had to press record. Mary, Mary So Contrary was what oozed from the speakers and I was hooked. Not hooked in a way that makes you want to buy all their music (in the way Led Zeppelin did), but simply by the song itself. It was so hypnotic, soporific – I could not imagine that anyone could create anything so entrancing again, not even the band that wrote it. It was probably well over a decade later that I actually got round to buying the album, almost reluctantly, fearing that my illusion of Can’s greatness would amount to that one track and the rest of the album would be a horrible let down. Thankfully it was not.
The album, Monster Movie (1969), was the second album recorded by Can but the first to be released – their first recorded album (Prepared to Meet Thy Pnoom) was not deemed commercial enough for release, but later surfaced in 1981 on the Delay 68 album. Fluff mentioned that the album was actually called Monster Movie Made In A Castle With Better Equipment – a fact which greatly added to its mystery. I later found out that the ‘Made In A Castle With Better Equipment’ part of it was actually a subtitle on the central label on some of the early pressings of the LP.
Monster Movie opens with Father Cannot Yell, a shimmering synth sound, uptempo drums and Velvet Underground-like guitar, before Malcolm Mooney’s vocals smear nonsense over the instruments as they rise and fall in prominence. The beat driving it all along like a steam train not quite under control.
The next track is the polar opposite that is Mary, Mary So Contrary. Reminiscent of psychedelia with its use of nursery rhyme lyrics, yet more avant garde in its delivery, drenched in fuzz guitar lines snaking through a languorous rhythm section. The words – insistent, repetitive and dream like.
Outside My Door is the closest thing to a straight rock track, but deftly avoids becoming obvious because of the crazed vocals. Can’s vocalist, Malcolm Mooney, was an American sculptor who went to Germany and became the lead vocalist of the group he named The Can, later shortened to just Can. Some reports say he had a breakdown after recording the album, others simply that in 1970 he was advised by his psychiatrist to leave the band for the sake of his mental health and he returned to the US. The vocals on Outside My Door seem to possess something of his state of mind in their precarious delivery.
The final 20 minute long Yoo Doo Right is a mesmerizing, sprawling, tribal improvisation, edited down from a six-hour jam session to fit on to one side of an LP. In many respects not a lot happens in those twenty minutes – the rhythm barely changes, words and notes are repeated almost endlessly. Yet in all its minimalist sound shifting there is a vibrancy, a primal attraction that draws you in and keeps your attention, speaking to the essential earthiness of the human condition. It fades out at the end, but you could imagine the music still being played somewhere – that jam session didn’t end at six hours, it plays on deep in our psyche.
In the same way that I didn’t move on from Mary, Mary for a long time, I’m having the same trouble with the band itself. I cannot get beyond Monster Movie. I’ve been sporadically drawn to Tago Mago or Ege Bamyasi, but I can’t even bring myself to seek out Delay 68. There are a number of bands or artists which have had the same effect (Kate Bush and The Kick Inside is one that comes to mind) – where an album seems to so perfectly encapsulate their sound, style, aura (call it what you will) that anything else is a dilution, a pale imitation of that one particular body of work you first discovered. If you unearth, dust off, excavate a version of perfection, why search further…?