Tago Mago at 40

I won’t forget the first time I heard Can’s seminal krautrock record, Tago Mago. Although history isn’t on my side—I wasn’t in a dingy basement in Berlin, or a warehouse party in New York, or a grotty den in Camden—the setting was so fitting it bears recollection. In the winter of 2008 I travelled across Rajasthan; my soundtrack was a combination of familiar favourites and things I was too young (or not-alive) to have appreciated when they first came out. Jouncing around in the back of an SUV as we journeyed through the desert-and-fortress vista, the album that did the most justice to the surroundings was Tago Mago, whose 40th anniversary is now being celebrated with a commemorative re-release.

Tago Mago is an album of split personalities. The first such division that strikes you is the alternately blissed-out and then frenetic freeform scat of the band’s vocalist Damo Suzuki. He sings and screams in the loosest approximation of English, and sounds perpetually terrified of mankind’s impending doom. The next thing you notice is how keenly the album is halved. The first half is lithely propelled along by Jaki Liebezeit’s instantly recognisable drumming, with subtly tricky polyrhythms coalescing into fragments of funk. Alongside Liebezeit’s continual presence is a palette of strangled electric guitar and limber bass-lines, which continue to crop up through decades of punk, post-punk and disco.

The second half is a freer affair which owes more to improvised jazz and the contemporary experiments in musique concrète. After the relentless eighteen-minutes-plus of “Halleluhwah”, this spacious second half takes you to the other side of the universe, or to another part of your consciousness. Menacing drones and industrial noise collide with Suzuki’s deranged wailing; now and again in drift primitive electronic rhythms. It’s the birth of ambient music, and it makes you realise how derivative all that followed inevitably was.

Of course, I came to love the album having already been a recipient of krautrock’s largesse, in that it had influenced plenty of albums I already knew. Far from diluting the experience, the benefit of hindsight made me appreciate more profoundly the sheer volume of different movements, aesthetics and genres that splintered out from this very special album. And I’m sure that when we consider the music that may emerge in the next forty years, a fair share of it will still be traceable to these seven sprawling, entangled pieces of music.


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