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).