Ah, the tyranny of the boxset. Initially coveted objects, multiple disc sets offering unreleased material and rarities often end up as the focus for apathy and guilt, even for an artist’s most ardent fans. Clearly aware of this dilemma, Mute have been shouting about Can’s Lost Tapes ahead of its release, oddly boasting about “brand new tracks” (the recordings come from between 1968 and 1977) which are defiantly “not outtakes”. Of course, in reality, pretty much everything here is an outtake, but in this case that’s not a pejorative. Many of Can’s released recordings are ‘outtakes’ anyway, edits from endless jams/spontaneous compositions. The editing and sequencing of their material was always focussed on creating perfect studio albums, and their recognised canon, spanning 1968-74, bears this out. However, being workaholics whose tapes were always rolling, Can obviously amassed an enormous amount of extra material, some of which was obviously worth saving, but just didn’t fit at the time.
The Lost Tapes is an attempt to make the best of these offcuts fit, to splice them retrospectively but seamlessly into the Can story. And for the most part, it works, the 30 tracks here – selected from over 50 hours of music – offer an alternative history that’s often every bit as enthralling as the classic albums. Keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and curatorial collaborators wife Hildegard, son-in-law Jono Podmore and Mute boss Daniel Miller have sensibly opted to cover roughly the same period too, with very little material recorded after the departure of second vocalist Damo Suzuki and plenty of songs recorded with his predecessor, Malcolm Mooney.
As with their transitional Soundtracks album, the presence of tracks recorded with both (non-) singers makes explicit the huge changes the band underwent and how incredibly significant the vocalists were to the band’s style and development. The juxtaposition between the two eras is made even more stark on The Lost Tapes. The special relationship between Mooney and drummer Jaki Leibezeit has rarely been heard in as sharp focus as on CD1′s ‘Waiting for The Streetcar’ and ‘Deadly Doris’, two live compositions recorded during a happening at the band’s first home Schloss Nörvenich. Here the pair tap into a mantra groove that’s not so much a dialogue between players as the sound of two different voices ranting simultaneously using all the same inflections and cadence. And it seems clear now that the primal urgency and almost oppressive tension the duo could invoke would have led the band down a dead end street, with everyone a slave to Jaki and Malcolm’s monstrous perpetual motion machine. (Having said that there are some lovely Mooney/Schmidt moments, especially the spooky/hilarious improv poem ‘True Story’.)
In-between Mooney’s rhythmic battery and Damo’s slightly more flighty excursions, the set highlights some prime examples of Can’s exploratory instrumental sound pieces. ‘Graublau’ one of the band’s many soundtrack works seems to start from the same place as the Mooney rock jams but foregrounds short wave radio – tuning, mechanical noise, drones and talking – as its main ‘voice’. ‘Blind Mirror Surf’ goes much further out, consisting of little more than creaks, wheezes, crashes, with Michael Karoli – paradoxically both the youngest and ‘straightest’ member – apparently leaning all over his guitar.
It’s the material representing the Damo years that bear closest resemblance to the known canon, with numerous tracks related directly to well-known songs. ‘A Swan Is Born’ and ‘On The Way To Mother Sky’ are as their titles suggest, embryonic versions of ‘Sing Swan Song’ and ‘Mother Sky respectively. There are also live versions of ‘Spoon’, ‘Mushroom’ and ‘One More Saturday Night’ which while not strictly essential are great performances and far superior to the noodlings of the Can Box set’s live Music CD. Strangely though, it’s Jono Podmore’s edits of the group’s film scores that prove most revelatory. ‘Dead Pigeon Suite’ takes off from the woodwind coda of Ege Bamyasi‘s ‘Vitamin C’ and trips between some of the group’s most atmospheric, pastoral moments and Leibezeit’s and Czukay’s funkiest interplay, while ‘Messers, Scissors, Fork and Light’ is an eight-minute collage of ‘Spoon’-related snippets. It’s in these latterly assembled suites that riff on familiar themes that we really hear how together Can were when at their most focussed. Their unique and sinuous melding of backgrounds and genres, honed through endless hours of playing, couldn’t fail to produce more magic than they had time or opportunity to release during their lifetime as a band. Their leftovers beat your career.