The ‘other’ Van Morrison album you should own is not Moondance but Veedon Fleece. I say this not because Moondance is a weak album – it is in fact, hugely impressive – but rather because Veedon Fleece outshines it in every department, being the only other occasion in the entirety of Van’s recording career where he sailed close to the magisterial heights of Astral Weeks. Its continual exclusion from Classic Albums lists is akin to inaugurating a Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame and omitting to include Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker, and is at once a great injustice. Classic album it certainly is. So might there be a way to convince a mass of Moondancers to switch allegiance and become fully fledged Fleecers?

Inspired by a trip to the Emerald Isle he made in October 1973, Morrison composed this set of songs, where a Blakeian romanticism inhabits the spirits of ancient Irish Saints and mystics, traversing old streets and monastery ruins, everywhere leaving echoes of its ghostly presence. It is truly one of its kind. But it is more likely to hinder my case if I begin by drawing attention to two songs which, situated incongruously in this most organically Celtic of albums, are US-flavoured fugitives,  defectors from another time another place, that clearly do not belong here: ‘Bulbs’ and ‘Cul De Sac’. The former of the culprits, featuring John Tropea’s countrified guitar and a jarring accelerating tempo, is particularly disconsonant; the latter, a rigid, plodding rewrite of ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ adds little save a frown on this listener’s brow. Of themselves, they are not bad songs any more than Moondance is a weak album, but feel completely at odds with the remainder of the record.

So instead, let me wax lyrical over the remainder, all of which is worthy of the highest commendation. The beautifully judged opener ‘Fair Play’, features stately piano over a gilt-edged acoustic strum – this time by Ralph Walsh who plays sensitively throughout. And that voice! It is sometimes easy to forget that Van possesses one of music’s most towering voices – by turns lion’s growl, fragile falsetto or at times an almost gut-wrenching open-throated bellowing of blues’n’soul. Here, his performance is both restrained and gorgeously melodious: (“Tell me of Poe/Oscar Wilde and Thoreau/Let your midnight and your daytime/Turn into love of life/It’s a very fine line/But you’ve got the mind child/To carry on/When it’s just about to be/Carried on.”)

If Astral Weeks was the sound of ‘a man in pain’ (gratuitous link to Lester Bangs’ unsurpassed review – https://personal.cis.strath.ac.uk/murray.wood/astral.html.), then on Veedon Fleece we hear a new man, a man who is in love and in love with life (his new fiancée Carol Guida accompanied him on the Irish vacation where he wrote most of the songs). Van has always insisted that to write enduring music one has to feel happy, and there is a sense of that inner fulfilment permeating the record’s atmosphere.

‘Linden Arden Stole The Highlights’ is punctuated by a series of repetitive rising piano lines – no chorus – with strings bursting in at 1:42, lifting the music to new heights. Purportedly about an Irish ex-pat living in San Francisco – autobiographical? –  with an ominous closing line hinting at a darker underbelly, “now he’s lonely living with a gun“, the onomatopoeic piano tinkle imitating breaking glass is courtesy Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’, released the year before. If the guitar on ‘Who Was That Masked Man’ is intricate and understated, Van’s vulnerable delivery is a thing of beauty, so much so that one can forgive the more dubious choice of metaphor, “…or wish on a toilet roll” (whoever imagined they would hear that line in a song? A rival to Arthur Lee’s “Oh the snot has caked against my pants“).

Meanwhile, ‘Streets of Arklow’ introduces atmospheric flute – once again building on a repeated rhythm – this time slightly lengthier, with a dramatic orchestral sweep. Like many of the songs, it’s joyous stream of consciousness poetic impulse contains no chorus, no hook, but draws you in helplessly to its alluring depths. Morrison recalls reading books on Gestalt therapy at the time of the recording and there’s no mistaking the depth of emotion in the music. At the end of Side One, the epic ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push The River’ soars at the crest  of a group of songs sometimes considered a ‘suite’ (though not spliced together fragments as on Side Two of Abbey Road), but which are rather linked thematically through an evolutionary passage of music of such ravishingly mysterious beauty it sounds like it’s heading inexorably towards some divinely eschatological revelation – which could be the mythical Veedon Fleece of the album title… “We’re goin’ out in the country to get down to the real soul/I mean the real soul, people/…We’re gettin’ out to the west coast/Shining our light into the days of bloomin’ wonder/Goin’ as much with the river as not/…Blake and the Eternals oh standin’ with the Sisters of Mercy/Looking for the Veedon Fleece“.

The closing trio of songs represents a high watermark in Van’s career. The masterful ‘Come Here My Love’ is one of Van’s most enduring love songs. The antithesis of the rent-a-party floor filler that is ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, it is a song where he sounds entranced by spouse, nature, poetry and life itself. “Come here my love/And I will lift my spirits high for you/Id like to fly away and spend a day or two/Just contemplating the fields and leaves and talking about nothing/Just layin down in shades of effervescent, effervescent odors/And shades of time and tide/And flowing through/Become enraptured by the sights and sounds in intrigue of natures beauty/Come along with me/And take it all in/Come here my love“. It was covered by This Mortal Coil in 1986, but their version stripped it of its transcendent beauty (very unlike them) with Van’s very much the superior take.

Van’s capacity to make the simplest arrangement and verse sound utterly profound is illustrated most clearly on ‘Comfort You’ – any analysis of the song’s structure and content would be notable only for its brevity. By contrast the song seethes into one’s consciousness to be recalled time and time again. Contrast too, the way the spirit moves in the closer ‘Country Fair’, liberated from the technical virtuosity of ‘Cul De Sac’ where the highly accomplished playing is cold and static. Here the sparse sound creates spaces for free form flute, double bass (the songs work better without bass guitar) and washed out ghostly choir, recalling the voices in Tim Buckley’s ‘Morning Glory’. It could fit comfortably on to Astral Weeks and I can pay it no higher compliment.

Listening to the album on CD could be a potentially dissatisfying experience, there being no pause between the album’s centrepiece, the nine minute ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Pull The River’ (how about that for a dressed-up poetic title for a song where someone is receiving a pretty harsh dressing down?) which closes Side One, and ‘Bulbs’ which on vinyl would open Side Two. At least, lifting the needle could afford the listener a momentary pause and an opportunity to avoid such an abrupt rupture in the album’s flow. But get your mitts on whichever format is accessible to you and hear the blues howler, the jazzman, the mystic folksinger, the poet and Celtic Soul Brother make one of the best albums ever recorded. By anyone. (JJ)




Sandinista! is a profoundly flawed record, one which, even if its 36-song, two-hour plus content were trimmed by a fifth, would still be carrying considerable excess baggage.
So what’s it doing in The New Perfect Collection? For all its flaws, which will also be explored here, the open-minded, restlessly curious spirit in which it was made, an unexpectedly high strike rate against the odds, and its persistence in standing up to 35 years of out-of-hand dismissal secure it a place in this pantheon of the passed-over.
Few bands have polarised opinion as sharply as the Clash. On one side, they were subjected to rigorous expectations from those who wished nothing more from them than a fistful of rewrites of White Riot each year and a few handily digested slogans (something they were exceptionally adept at; in their first year alone, they came up with at least a dozen). These were, of course, disregarded with wilful brio, while those detractors, who by now saw them as little different to those they were thought to have come to obliterate, hunkered down for the new decade with the entrenched likes of the Cockney Rejects and the Anti-Nowhere League.
On the other, they’re right up there with the Stones, the Velvets and Bowie in having been subjected to screeds of unctuous, over-reverential hagiography. While their detractors will trot out the same, admittedly valid, charges time and time again to condemn them (they signed for CBS and called themselves socialists! They sang I’m So Bored With The USA and then spent half the year over there! Daddy was a diplomat, not a bankrobber!) their champions often show little more imagination (they Famously refused to play Top Of The Pops! London Calling was Famously voted album of the ’80s by Rolling Stone  – even though it came out in the ’70s , y’daft Yanks!). Then there’s the ongoing reductive radio campaign to condense their entire career to three or four songs – I Fought The Law, London Calling, Should I Stay Or Should I Go and, at a push, Rock The Casbah. But what everybody seems to agree on is that Sandinista! is nobody’s idea of a masterpiece and there are those who wish that, like the even-more, and this time justly, reviled Cut The Crap, it would just go away lest it tarnish the legacy.
For a start, a triple album? Just after London Calling  Smash Hits printed a picture of the band which, if memory serves, had them  dressed up as morris dancers and the caption declared that their next album would be a triple enitled Yeovil Calling..What?! Hang on, it was just a joke! But a year later, there it was, housed like its predecessor (and, not coincidentally, labelmate Bruce Springsteen’s just released double The River) in a single sleeve to keep costs down and once again for a capped price – £6 this time rather than £5 but when you’re getting an extra disc…
And then there was what was on those three discs (or reels, if you got the boxed cassette version). The aforementioned conservative (upper and lower case, occasionally both) naysayers were joined by those who heard only a directionless mess, chief among them the NME’s Nick Kent, who labelled the genre jumble “a ridiculously self-indulgent communique.” In more recent years, as the – for grievous want of a better term – world music market has grown, and some of its most earnest advocates have become more precious, Sandinista! has increasingly stood accused of dilettantism or, even worse, cultural colonialism, however benign, as the Clash dip their toes in the sounds of Brooklyn, Havana and Kingston, sing of ghettoes and dictatorships then scurry back to the shadow of the Westway with more cash than the authentic practitioners of all this music could ever dream of.
Again, some valid points. Except – firstly , of course, they’d been exploring other styles for years, ever since their interpretation (they couldn’t have faithfully reproduced it even if they wanted to at this stage) of Junior Murvin’s Police And Thieves on their first album. Also, why not try on other clobber? Why should expanding their sound be limited to a couple of other pre-approved sources? It’s not as if they cast the net absurdly wide and attempted  to take on opera or North African folk; theirs was the same approach that Primal Scream took a decade later on Screamadelica and the Beatles a decade earlier on the White Album but, while those albums were tuned into, and responding to, specific times, moods, spirits and cultures, Sandinista! (which was released days after John Lennon’s murder) fitted nowhere at all  despite being by a band who still commanded more attention than almost any other.
Most importantly, it’s a record made by music fans. The Clash were a punk band but, individually, they were not punks. What they did in 1976-7 was unlike anything that had been done before but the myth that it all descended fully formed from the sky and landed in Oxford Street has long since been quashed. They were people with pasts, hinterlands – Joe Strummer’s prior existence as Woody Mellor the squat-dweller is now well-known; far less remarked upon is Topper Headon’s contribution – superficially, he was often seen as a standard punk dustbin clatterer, like Rat Scabies without the  corny stick-juggling, and, well, he wasn’t even with them from the start, but he actually had roots in jazz and was accomplished on several instruments. Not something you shouted about down the Roxy but by the time of Sandinista! the Clash were answerable to no one and there was no punk worthy of the name left to answer to anyway, so Topper was in a position to nudge them in all manner of new directions.
I have a strong aversion to genre identification games but if you must, there are about 14 on Sandinista! and, at its best, it’s an exemplary kaleidoscope of educated pastiche. Far-sighted, even, on the two rap workouts, The Magnificent Seven and Lightning Strikes, which are relatively conventional band performances, rather than deploying scratch or beatbox, and this, paradoxically, means they’ve aged better than some of the more authentic early rap, which at the time was the sound of the future but now faces the, fairly unjust, fate of being considered as quaint as nursery rhymes.
At the opposite pole, The Sound Of The Sinners is a complete one-off in the Clash’s repertoire, such a perfect exercise in gospel that they didn’t need to repeat it. Its evangelical fervour is undercut more than slightly by the voice of a tweedy, Derek Nimmo-esque vicar (rumoured to be actor Tim Curry, though I prefer to think it was recorded straight from a televised Sunday service) bidding “cheerio” to a departing congregation, presumably to contrast the ardent, celebratory nature of gospel with the staid, Conservative-Party-at-prayer perception of churches they might find closer to home.
Rockabilly gets a runout on The Leader, a masterly, 100-second distillation of the Profumo affair which, again, shows that this type of music was closer to Strummer’s heart than punk ever was and that, on form, he was a lyricist with few equals (“Vodka fumes and the feel of a vulture”); also on Midnight Log, a macabre, blues harp-scarred tale of being in the pay of the devil who, we’re told, “ain’t been seen for years/’Cept every 20 minutes, he zooms between my ears.” I always hear the feedback buzz at the end as the latest of those unwelcome visits.

As always, there’s plenty of reggae but in some unfamiliar guises. Junco Partner, a song shrouded in mystery at the time (to the point of Unknown receiving the songwriting credit) but which turned out to be an early ’50s blues tune; the 12-bar melody always suggested as much but its peripatetic violin was rarely heard in either reggae or blues.
It’s there again in The Equaliser, a dub-heavy, anti-slavery (with or without wages) diatribe which is followed by The Call-Up, uptempo and skanking but deeply melancholy as it contemplates the then very likely prospect of a return to the conscription which had killed so many throughout the 20th century (to remove all ambiguity, NO DRAFT was emblazoned on the label when it appeared as a single), while even deeper reggae is explored on If Music Could Talk and its dub version, Living In Fame, with a toast by the late Mikey Dread, who sternly counsels the young pretenders to live up to their names (“If you say you are Selecter, you’ll have to have a good selection”). Bizarrely, he was at it again years later, when he was by chance captured in a fly-on-the-wall airport documentary lambasting his chosen airline (“Life is not easy with easyJet!!”) . The same tune is re-reprised on the closing Shepherd’s Delight, a poignant finale that turns sinister the second the music stops, to be replaced by what’s always sounded to me like a rocket launch (red sky…). It’s like a bite from a seal. Perversely, they also cover an Eddie Grant song, Police On My Back, and turn it into the most traditionally Clash-sounding thing on the whole album.
Of course, not everything works. About a side’s worth is wholly negligible but one of these songs has to be mentioned as, without recourse to the music, it’s actually the most significant song on the album. Washington Bullets is a Latin/salsa flavoured tune, a style of music I can never help feeling sounds corny, but lyrically, it recounts the 1979 overthrow of the oppressive Somoza regime in Nicaragua by the Sandinista (hence the title) rebels. Unlike the Special AKA’s later Nelson Mandela, it didn’t directly lead to anything but in recounting this episode and other examples of corruption and injustice (notably the odious Pinochet regime in Chile) they raised awareness in many, myself included. And there was plenty to come – Ronald Reagan was preparing to enter the White House and his administration would later pass the proceeds of arms sales to Iran on to the Contra rebels opposing the Sandinista government. I guess the music of Washington Buĺlets is appropriate to the countries it tells of but the arribas and ululations tip it into parody and undermine the power of describing “the cries of the tortured men.”
Ultimately, all the debate, posturing and pontificating you hear about music is irrelevant. All that really matters is what the artists intended when making the music and your own perceptions whenever you hear it. Sandinista! always vividly reminds me of finding my feet at secondary school, so while it evokes Ladbroke Grove, Manhattan and Santiago, it evokes even more double Latin and discovering my ineptitude at throwing the discus. Pre-internet, I didn’t even hear anyone else’s view on many of these tracks for years, such was the sheer volume of material and the bewilderment around much of it, so I was free to form my own images – Sandinista! may be popularly seen as the second biggest runt in the Clash litter but I love it for all these reasons and more (PG).


The Art of Beefheart

I imagine my affinity for Beefheart followed a trajectory familiar to many. It began with a bizarrely alluring earful on John Peel; leading next to the perusal of a few rock encyclopaedias and the NME and Sounds Greatest Albums lists of the time (1985); followed subsequently by the purchase of Trout Mask Replica; then swiftly by the indignant return of said item to the record store. Even as I handed my tenner over to the hippy at the HMV till, his derisive expression let me know in no uncertain terms that he fully expected me back within 24 hours. He was of course correct. My virgin ears felt like they had been defiled and my brain pillaged by this artless racket, created by people who clearly had not taken the trouble to learn how to play their instruments. I was inclined to steer clear of Beefheart for some considerable time afterwards, but as I became ever more conscious of Trout Mask’s conspicuously lofty critical approval rating, my frustration began to grow. Was I missing something? Perhaps I was the victim of some cruel hoax? I resolved to find another way to appreciate the Captain’s art, if indeed this really was ‘art’ at all?

Art. Don Van Vliet always had a fascination with art, demonstrated most visibly in his own primitively  idiosyncratic paintings, but extending also to his music, the prime expressions of which are the two albums he made for the Straight label in 1969 and 1970, Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby. Every Beefheart aficionado has their favourite album and I am no different. In fact, not selecting Trout Mask Replica for TNPC feels in some ways tantamount to a betrayal, but it is a record which has been extensively discussed, written about and salivated over elsewhere, and whilst undoubtedly amongst my own Top 3 Albums of All-Time, I fear there is nothing much else to add to what is a well-worn story. Those who find ‘TMR’ too arduous a listen [I had to strengthen my constitution with the solid meat of the early Fall albums before I persevered and eventually succumbed] tend to plump instead for the crisper cleaner Clear Spot, the warmer more colourful Shiny Beast or more commonly, as in the estimation of the authors of The Perfect Collection, the classic 1967 debut, Safe As Milk, which memorably showcased Ry Cooder’s stunning slide guitar work. While these albums served as friendly pathways to a reappraisal of TMR, my way in to Beefheart actually came with the purchase of Lick My Decals Off Baby. Those who treasure TMR may feel that it’s slick sibling sequel gives it a run for its money as The Magic Band’s greatest moment, despite it having lived forever in the shadow of its illustrious predecessor.

Indeed, there are some who swear that Decals actually eclipses ‘TMR’ as Beefheart’s finest hour, but be as well comparing Ulysses to Finnegan’s Wake. Nevertheless, those will point to the following: Decals – unlike TMR, which bore the imprint of Zappa – was produced by Don himself and is therefore incontestably his own creation; secondly, where TMR is a sprawling mess, Decals by comparison is both streamlined (all killer, no filler) and strangely symmetrical (both sides have overtly lascivious openers, anarchic hornfests to end, and in the centre, two baroque math-folk instrumentals, Bill Harkelrod – aka Zoot Horn Rollo – conjuring that almost medieval lute-ish sound from his guitar); thirdly there is a greater refinement of song composition and structure – where TMR sounds like a bizarre experiment, the playing on Decals sounds more controlled, sophisticated even (visually implicit in the contrasting choice of band costumes for the album sleeves); fourthly, the polished marimba of Art Tripp brings another dimension to the sound, working a similar effect to Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone on Eric Dolphy’s classic Out To Lunch. These for some give Decals the edge.

However, the rubbery booglarized guitar sound, which contrasts sharply with the scratch and bite of the guitars on TMR polarises opinion. Additionally, the explicitly carnal lyrical onslaught may not be to everyone’s taste: at times Don sounds almost predatory like a rhinoceros on heat (“Rather than I wanna hold your hand/I wanna swallow you whole/’n’ I wanna lick you everywhere it’s pink/’n’ everywhere you think/Whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle ‘n’ the kitchen sink…”), albeit a rhino with a darkly mischievous sense of humour (check out the even more hilarious ‘I Want To Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe ‘Til I Have To Go’) and a wild poetic gift…

Yes, the poetry. The lyrics are not all as bawdy but are staggeringly brilliant, full of free association surrealistic impulse (“Glasses look out on the pale hell bent /Moon milk run / O’ lady go home / Lord they done cookin’ done / Black lady, Black leather lady / Done had a white, white, white poor son”) and humane ecological concern (“If the dinosaur cries with blood in his eyes/’n’ eats our babies for our lies/Belches fire in our skies/Maybe I’ll die but he’ll be rumblin’ through/Your petrified forest.”)

If the words are wonderful, then the music is a match for them. The album’s most famous song – covered by The Buzzcocks/Magazine – is ‘I Love You, You Big Dummy’ (‘nobody has love/love has nobody/I love ya y’ big dummy/quit askin’ why!’), a rhythmically straightforward thrash enlivened by Don’s wild harp (it sounds like he’s blown it to pieces), which could be a demented cast-off from Strictly Personal and anticipates the unabashed blues growl of his next studio album The Spotlight Kid, while ‘Woe is Uh Me Bop’ – which ‘crinkles along mechanically like walking Tinkertoys’ (copyright Lester Bangs – I can’t beat that folks) is a virtual blueprint for the triple salvo of Tom Waits Franks Wild Years period, the most obvious comparison being ‘Clap Hands’ from Rain Dogs. The marimba here adds little strokes of light which de-intensify the urgency of the rhythm. Conversely, on ‘The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or The Big Dig)’ the sudden change of tempo, with the marimba and guitar scattering in opposite directions, unseats a vibrant footstomper, yet showcases the band at their most viscerally spontaneous and intuitive. Again there is a delightful play on words (“It sure looks funny for a new dinosaur/To be in an old Dinosaur’s shoes/Dinah Shore’s shoes/Dinosaur shoes”). There are other delights and surprises along the way, not least the interval in the closing ‘Flash Gordon’s Ape’ (great title) where the orgiastic cacophony is halted for a marimba solo.

No-one else in rock music has innovated on the same scale as Don Van Vliet. Oh, The Beatles and The Velvets  could stake a claim, and were undoubtedly even more influential. But with his music, Beefheart invented an entirely new art form. I can’t pretend to be an art connoisseur, and  I’ve never really understood the Jackson Pollock analogy – I’ve always imagined each splash and stroke of his work to be something of an accident. Nor – though I appreciate the visual image it conjures – can I fully agree with Andy Partridge’s contention that Beefheart’s music “sounds like a piece of the Somme, lifted up and put in an art gallery.” Another fairly unsatisfactory comparison would be that of a collection of jigsaw pieces fitted randomly together, as this presupposes a final abstract image without a recognisable pattern or design. Instead, when considering a Beefheart composition from this period, I prefer to visualise four or five light aircraft taking off together which also land simultaneously: but while airborne, the planes might fly at different altitudes; some are faster than others, each creating its own unique flight path, until at certain points, as if jerked by some centrifugal force, their zig-zag wanderings cease and they line up with Red Arrows precision. Again, they may fly off suddenly in wildly different directions before this telepathic convergence repeats itself. From one journey the planes may return to the ground at awkward angles, from the next they arrive in neat lines. This sound has been imitated by many performers of good will – aesthetes, punks and outsiders, but each has been too indebted for true greatness. Beefheart’s innovations are unique in rock history and alongside its big brother TMR, Lick My Decals Off Baby deserves to take its place as a uniquely esteemed example of American art primitivism.

[If there has been noticeable mainstream infiltration by some of today’s more left field artists, it is worth remembering that ‘Decals’ stayed eleven weeks on the UK album chart, peaking at no.20. Sitting imperiously at the summit was Andy Williams’ Greatest Hits] (JJ)

42. MONSTER MOVIE – CAN (1969)


“Birth of a new line,” assert the sleevenotes of Monster Movie. Ay – you could say that. There had been little, if anything, like this before and it’s a record which simply could not have been made at the start of the decade it appeared in, or even three years earlier. Astonishment at how far ahead of its time it is increases, not recedes, with time and it still sounds utterly fresh.
Only a few others – Beatles, Velvets, Hendrix, Floyd, Beefheart – rival Can for sheer originality but they dragged things even further forward and outward than any of them. They never made any secret of their early debt to the Velvets, in particular, but just as Shakespeare influenced Joyce, another completely new language was created,  complete with (very) tenses and (extremely) irregular verbs.
The band’s German majority had disparate backgrounds in rock, jazz and avant-garde classical, the last element in particular setting them apart from the British-American axis which had hitherto dominated popular music. Even so, equally distinctive was the contribution of American singer Malcolm Mooney, whose schooling was in art and who found himself in Europe to keep away from the very real prospect of the draft.
If Mooney was battllng an all too present threat, so were his colleagues, although theirs was one shaped by the immediate past. The generation gap in the UK was at least partly a product of perceived ingratitude of youth towards the parents and grandparents who had fought and won for their freedom; Germany had lost, had to deal with a horrifying legacy and, despite a vast economic regeneration and a genuine will to atone, many of those who were children in the war or were born afterwards were unconvinced. Whatever they did or thought at the time, or afterwards, West Germany was still being run by a generation directly involved in the war and many of the youth wanted only a clean break. This, and a more prosaic distaste for the prevalent schlager music (crudely, caricatured Eurovision knees-ups blended with old-style north European oompah) gave much of the impetus to the extraordinary torrent of innovation from Germany from 1968 onwards.
Can weren’t as politically radical as Amon Duul II, as consistently on the edge as Faust (though they were easily a match at their most extreme) or as sonically advanced as Kraftwerk ( but, at first, neither were Kraftwerk). What gave them the edge was a staggering versatility and a mastery of the most elusive alchemy – the ability to be experimental, groundbreaking and accessible at the same time. All of which made them an irresistible, unfathomable force of nature.
I first heard Can in 1980, as the summer of Closer, Crocodiles and Seventeen Seconds gave way to the autumn of More Specials and Remain In Light. Their name was being bandied around as post-punk precursors but I had little idea what to expect from Cannibalism, the compilation borrowed from Bishopbriggs Library which housed three of Monster Movie’s four tracks.
They shared an opening track, Father Cannot Yell, a title which to my 11-year-old mind seemed the result of a combination of prog pomposity and English as a second language (not quite grasping yet that the singer at this stage was a native English speaker). My initial response was irritation – what’s with the two-minute repetition of “uh-uh-uh-uh?” Is this him driving home the point that father indeed cannot yell? Or is he just vocalising worldlessly? The irritation soon turned to mesmerism and I came to realise the wisdom of Pete Shelley’s sleevenotes, in which he admitted to hating some Can songs at first but was forced to concede first hearings can be misleading. Now, I’m hard put to think of a mightier, more compelling or simply greater opening track – Wire’s Reuters and Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song are up there – which wrong-foots you immediately on its era, with Irmin Schmidt producing a crazed Morse code from some form of keyboard, which or may not be a primitive synth, while drummmer Jaki Liebezeit and bassist Holger Czukay dominate the song, demolishing any preconceptions you might have of what a rhythm section is and setting up a wind–tunnel barrage punctuated sparingly but scorchingly by the late Michael Karoli’s guitar tirades (solos really doesn’t cover it). Julian Cope described his first band, the appropriately Germanically-named Softgraundt, as “pure Can, all bass and drums” – presumably, Father Cannot Yell was the touchstone, as it was for. to name just a handful of others, Joy Division, Public Image Ltd, Siouxsie and the Banshees The Fall, Wire and Pere Ubu.
Mary, Mary So Contrary is the one Monster Movie song not to appear on Cannibalism and so I first heard it years after the rest. The lyric is, largely, made up of the near-eponymous nursery rhyme, a sign that even ultra-modern Can weren’t completely immune to the otherwise ubiquitous hippy whimsy. In keeping with the lyrical theme, it’s partly medieval-sounding, albeit in a manner similar to Venus In Furs, and also points a way forward, sharing some ground with Deadlock, which would be recorded a year later with Mooney’s replacement, Damo Suzuki. It’s also Mooney’s most restrained performance on the album, although these things are relative, just as Al Pacino is more restrained in Serpico than in Scarface.
One word has always encapsulated Outside My Door for me – exhilirating. It has a fuller band sound than anywhere else on the album, with unexpected colour from a harmonica and, in the coda, what is either a hammering piano or a tolling bell. Liebezeit’s scatergun drumming parallels Keith  Moon at his most freeform and opens the door to Buzzcocks’ John Maher, while Karoli’s suitably buzzsaw solo is an object lesson for the same band’s Shelley and Diggle. Mooney, meanwhile, invites James Brown and Otis Redding along and succeeds in drowning them out.
The former side two is occupied in its entirety by the 20-minute Yoo Doo Right, for many the crowning glory not just of Monster Movie but of Can’s entire repertoire. It is, of course, fantastic but – here comes the heresy – it does go on just a little.When we taped it (it never did kill music) from Cannibalism, the album shared a C90 with side two of Talking Heads ’77, meaning that Yoo Doo Right ended after nine minutes (at “Gotcha, gotcha, doo wa”) and I’ve always felt that most of the highlights come before this cut-off point: the first shift of the bass from riff to melody at 0:25 (Czukay once likened his instrument’s role to the king in chess – moving little but changing everything when doing so); the single-note organ figure at 1:56; the most metalically chiming guitar you’ll ever hear at 4:16; a single, possibly accidental, cymbal crash at 6:27; a guitar turning into a raygun at 6:44 and the final collapse at 8:05, leaving nothing but Mooney exhaustedly contemplating “a drumbeat 21 hours a day” and every second of those hours being ticked off. But there still remains plenty of tension and drama in the second half, with Mooney’s very real isolation unresolved – at the end, as at the beginning, “I’m in love with my girl, she’s away/Man, you gotta move on.”
Can would take on many more influences – funk, Eastern European folk, traditional African music – and would shed many more skins to become ever more magical. If ever there’s been music that takes you places, that music belongs to Can – they stand up to repeated listens more than just about any other band and the disparate strands of their sound prompted me to seek out as much about the world as I ever learned in geography.Monster Movie was one of their first steps, and some dismiss it in favour of the admittedly brilliant Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi, but it captures them at their most viscerally thrilling (PG).