A few weeks ago we lost legendary Krautrock bassist Holger Czukay. That’s the second member of Can we’ve lost this year. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit died last January. Guitarist Michael Karoli died in 2001 which leaves founder/keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and vocalist Damo Suzuki as the only surviving members of Can’s most fruitful period between 1970-1973. Before we talk about Can, and more specifically their best album, let’s talk Czukay.
Born in the Free City of Danzig (today Gdańsk, Poland) in 1938, Czukay’s early life was a struggle. With his family expelled from Danzig after WWII Czukay grew up with a limited education. Though he did find solace in radio after working in a radio repair-shop as a teen. Czukay studied music and worked as a music teacher in his early adult years. Though it wasn’t until the age of 29 that Czukay became a rock and roll fan after hearing The Beatles’ psychedelic classic “I Am the Walrus” in 1967. Building his newfound musical education on underground groups like The Mothers of Invention, Love, and The Velvet Underground, Czukay formed a band with keyboardist Irmin Schmidt. The rest is history.
As the bass player for a loose, experimental group, it was Czukay’s job to maintain order in Can’s lost trips into psychedelia. That’s not to say Czukay didn’t do his fair share of improvising. The guy knows how to lay down a funky one. You wouldn’t expect a skinny German guy to be so adept at laying down a groove but Czukay does so with ease. Combining a classic flavor with jazz and psychedelic rock, Czukay is one of the most intriguing bass players of an intriguing era. He will be missed.
Let’s talk about Tago Mago. Recorded in 1971 by Czukay at a castle near Cologne, the sessions for Tago Mago were extensive, to say the least. Not only did the band experiment endlessly on extended jams, Czukay recorded everything. He even took sessions from these jams and later mixed them into the middle of songs. The results were epic forays into psychedelia that show off the band’s versatility as musicians and their love of playing together.
“Paperhouse” opens the album in moody and mysterious fashion. Damo Suzuki’s vocals waver between a whisper and a howl before the dissonant “Mushroom” and jazzy “Oh Yeah”. The former of which sounds like it could have helped pave the way for bands like Radiohead.
The guts of the album are a series of album side-long jams. The funky “Hallelujah” wouldn’t be out of place in a Dario Argento Giallo movie and “Aumgn” is fucking weird. I mean, look at it, it’s called “Aumugn”. There are almost two minutes of what sounds like an old man moaning in the middle. Also, it’s rumored “Aumgn” is a word related to the Satanic magic of Aleister Crowley. Which is interesting considering the name of the album “Tago Mago” is based on the Isla de Tagomago in Spain, a locale said to play a part in Crowley’s legend.
Tago Mago isn’t for everyone. It’s weird, lengthy, and the musical equivalent of a PEZ dispenser full of LSD tablets. But for those who can find a way to tap in, it’s a helluva place to be and a unique piece of progressive 70s rock. RIP Holger and long live Can.
Favorite Tracks: “Bring Me Coffee or Tea,” “Oh Yeah,” “Paperhouse”