Can - The Singles
Formed in Cologne, in the swell and fervour of the European student riots of 1968, Can were fashioned for spontaneous group action. Bassist and founding member Holger Czukay later said they became a rock band "by coincidence. None of us were rock-oriented. But the only way to become an entire group with a new sound was to reduce ourselves.” They entered the sphere all but tabula rasa, a group of mottled musicians rapt by the notion of marching to the beat of their own drum. A diorama of rulebook-rescinding sound, The Singles portrays the full, heady transmogrification of Can from catalysts of the late 60s to nigh-on self-parodists of the late 80s.
Opening on two singles from their 1969 compilation Soundtracks, the sheer incongruity of ‘Soul Desert’ next to ‘She Brings The Rain’ instantly reveals the multiplicity of the band right from the start. 'Soul Desert'’s plodding groove marries with original vocalist Malcolm Mooney’s whacked-out gabble, while the disposable lounge act shtick of 'She Brings The Rain' reveals the unsteady first steps of their first incarnation. But by single number three – the positively jubilant surprise hit ‘Spoon’ – Mooney had fled, Japanese busker Damo Suzuki was in and Can, Krautrock’s first true torchbearers, were reconfiguring psychedelia as an improvisational art-form that melded jazz, minimalism and polyrhythms by way of almost telepathic spontaneity.
While the holy triumvirate of Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days naturally do the Suzuki-era considerable more justice than any singles collection could ever hope to, revisiting the timeless mastery of ‘Vitamin C’ and a truncated version of ‘Halleluwah’ within the context of these cuts being released as (presumably) their most accessible material is an opportunity to embrace the perfect gall of Can in their prime. And with Liebezeit unswervingly proving the healthily beating heart of the multi-headed beast, one thing becomes luminous mid-listen: from inane Teutonic toy piano throwdown ‘Turtles Have Short Legs’ and the motorik-propelled mastery of ‘Moonshake’ to ‘I’m So Green’, a strutting peak from Ege Bamyasi, the sprawling ingenuity of the band circa 1971-73 is equal to the pure audacity and exuberance that was transmitted in the process.
Despite 'Dizzy Dizzy' and 'Splash' from 1974's solid Soon Over Babaluma retaining the band’s exploratory, at times borderline transcendent mesh of polyrhythms and textural virtuosity, and 'Vernal Equinox' faring as both a real masterstroke and one of the most accomplished singles Can released, the post-Suzuki era is very much a case of filtered pastiche. Whether you look to a fully hammed-up retelling of the quintessential soul-crushing knees-up descant ‘Can Can’ or ‘Hoolah Hoolah’ – an almost farcically moot single taken from the band’s 1989 reunion album Rite Time featuring Malcolm Mooney – the wonderfully droll sense of humour that Can once wielded to their benefit would, whether they intended it or not, eventually overshadow them. This period is only a small flicker of the much bigger conflagration, but it serves as a useful reminder that clinging on with the aim to either resuscitate or reimagine the past isn’t always advised.
Ultimately, though, as a collection that welcomes the near misses and the questionable latter-era caricaturing, The Singles is real and admirable testament to the full Can story. Embracing the birth, extraordinary paroxysm and petering out of one of the brightest lights in all of contemporary music, the limited letdowns are almost a cause for celebration. Having refused to kowtow to convention, the curve and tail of their trip via Mooney, Suzuki and beyond is, it would seem, best embraced as a totality. That may be the only way to fully grasp how they unilaterally transformed the landscape of rock music forevermore.
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