Sunday, November 2, 2014

Alan Warner: Tago Mago (33 1/3)


(Die deutsche Version dieser Besprechung finden Sie hier bei Manafonistas!)

Of course, all Can fans know the dog barking on the track "Aumgn". And now we finally get to know who its creator was: a schnauzer named Assi who belonged to Irmin Schmidt.

Most of the news we get from this book is similar thrilling.

Since its start, the book series 33 1/3  picks up mainly rock classics and commercially successful albums. More difficult stuff wasn't ignored, but it was the exception. Since the series went from Continuum Books to Bloomsbury, this tendency seems to grow, as a look at the forthcoming publications shows.

Up to now there has been no book about any albums from German bands. Volume 101 is the first one: Alan Warner's book on Can's double album Tago Mago from 1971. That's not a bad choice. Tago Mago survived all turbulencies of the decades, is musically nearly intangible, and - others than most products carrying this attribute - it can be called "legendary" for sure.

What is left to be written about a work that now, at the age of 43, is probably more popular than at the time when it was new? Alan Warner, to foreclose it, did not find a convincing answer. Of course, this question goes for several other albums of the series, and usually the authors go one of the following two ways: Either, the album is analysed musically and/or in view of its reception history. Sometimes this works fine (as in case of Geeta Dayal's book on Brian Eno's Another Green World), but it also happens (as in Dan Breithaupt's book on Steely Dan's Aja) that this concept turns out to be rather complicated and theory-loaded. Or, the second possibility: The album is seen as a sort of leitmotif through the author's own (more or less interesting) life. Alan Warner's book falls clearly into the second category.

Whoever hopes to see new information on the history of making or the reception history of Tago Mago won't get very happy with this book. Through the first hundred pages, Tago Mago is not much more than a frame, over long passages it's mainly about Warner's youth.

Alan Warner was born in 1964, grew up somewhere in the Scottish backwater and was 7 when Tago Mago was released. Soon it becomes clear that he discovered Can not before the 1980s when the band had disbanded already, and his access to them were the Sex Pistols - John Lydon had said something about Can's drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Punk and New Wave bands, a couple of jazz musicians and life in a smalltown make the context of Warner's search for Can, and he comes back to this background all over again. There are some nice anecdotes about this time - like, to name one, he visits with his mother a local very white-bread record shop to complain about a damaged copy of Ian Dury's LP New Boots And Panties!!, and when the shop assistant plays the record, Dury a cappella roars the first line: "Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks ..." through the whole shop.

Tago Mago was not even the first Can album he got into touch with. Before that he had discovered their 1979 self-titled album (the one with the spanner cover) at a Virgin Megastore in Glasgow, but this album is very different from the earlier Can stuff. Along with that he had all this myths and fairytales about German rock musicians and their hippie-esque way of life in his head - all the stuff that had been planted there by the British music press. Among other things he had heard that the Can members lived in a castle, and he tries to envision how it might look there, whether the musicians grow their own vegetables, and he speculates about Malcolm Mooney's washing habits.

And when one thinks on page 97 that now finally Warner will talk about Tago Mago, one has to learn that first the conditions of Schloss Nörvenich (the "castle" near Cologne where the band had their studio for four years) are characterized, followed by several pages of thoughts about theory, reality and mysteries of tape editing. This is not even uninteresting, but it has much more to do with Teo Macero and several Miles Davis albums than with Can.

It's not before page 108 that finally really Tago Mago is in the center of view. But there's no real news coming up. The author conducted interviews with Irmin Schmidt and Jaki Liebezeit, but the yield is meager (except maybe the Assi thing). That the band never lived at Schloss Nörvenich, that Tago Mago is a result of excellent tape editing, that none of the tracks was recorded in one go, and that it's to thank Irmin Schmidt's wife Hildegard (Can's manager) that Tago Mago became a double album - all this is long known. Warner's perception and way of presenting his results is mainly descriptive; neither there are musical analyses, nor will you find a paragraph about the musician's then conditions of work and living. 

It looks as if really anything about this album has been said already, but not by everybody. With this book there is one more voice in the choir, but that's it. And that's a bit too thin for a complete book. But at least it is well written, so for a nice read at the beach or during a train ride it's fine, particularly as it is small enough to fit into every pocket. And when the result is that one listens again to the album, then it has done its job.

Alan Warner: Tago Mago.
Bloomsbury Academic 2015.
142 pages.
ISBN 978-1-62892-108-3.

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