Can – The Singles

Condensing an undefinable musical project on to seven inch vinyl...

Think of Can, singularly the most undefinable musical force to emerge from a converted castle in Germany, and you think of the wonderful body of albums that they issued in the first few years of their career, starting with ‘Monster Movie’ in 1969 and continuing through the likes of ‘Tago Mago’, 'Ege Bamyasi’ and ‘Future Days’.

These were records that wilfully defied accurate placement into any particular category – were they druggy rock opuses in thrall to pre-Altamont/pre-Manson freedoms? Or expansive jazz improvisations informed by the Cage/Stockhausen school forced into some sort of ordered musical framework? Or curators of faux ethnological surveys? At times, Can felt like what could have happened if The Beatles had stayed locked into that intriguing ‘Sgt. Pepper’/‘White Album’ period instead of ruining it all with one last frustrating attempt at making conventional pop music.

In truth, they were of course all of these things and much, much more. What they weren't, at least not in the conventional sense of the word, was a singles band. Those lengthy jams that produced some of Can’s seminal works were the polar opposite of the tight three-minute pop song; and yet, having been signed early on to a major label and with the popular sales-supporting expectations of the time, Can did indeed find themselves issuing a bunch of singles.

This makes for a rather odd concept, all told. Given the lengthy jam sessions from which Can’s material was typically derived, even the spacious environs of the LP format’s fixed length felt like something of a constraint on Can’s long-form weltanschauung; so to hear tracks like ‘Dizzy Dizzy’ or ‘Halleluwah’ hacked down to mere Can-ettes for the humble 7” format feels a little like trying to make sense of a vast painted canvass simply by focusing on, say, the top left corner.

Once you get over that, with singles typically being the most accessible or marketable moments in a band’s trajectory, this collection represents a superb introduction to the Can catalogue for anyone lacking the willpower or patience to trawl their albums or the goldmine of material presented on 2012’s essential ‘The Can Tapes’; like Can in a shot glass or an espresso mug, if you will. Tracks like ‘Turtles Have Short Legs’ or the long-forgotten B-side ‘Shikako Maru Ten’ are standout moments of obscure genius among better known moments like the fine ‘Spoon’ or ‘Vitamin C’, making for a rewarding, convenient listen irrespective of the vintage of your Can knowledge.

Singles collections also allow a listener to follow the path, growth and progress of a band over many years in a highly summarised fashion. In Can’s case, like any number of significant bands who did most of their growth in the 1970s – Yes, Genesis, Roxy Music, Barclay James Harvest and so on – they found themselves approaching the 1980s looking a little self-conscious and slightly uneasy. The perfect ‘I Want More’ and its amorphous B-side (also here) felt less like the expansive, experimental Can of old and more like a band tapping into the same concise, clipped punk-funk that Talking Heads would bash out a few years later on songs like ‘I Zimbra’.

Nothing better speaks to the tricky place that Can found themselves in the final moments of the 1970s than the gleeful high-octane fuzzed-up novelty pop of the seemingly inevitable ‘Can Can’ – the title of their 1976 compilation ‘Opener’ was, up to that point, the closest they'd got to self-parody – that sits right at the end of this album. As an overt pop song from a band who always retained a healthy sense of humour it's a moment of sublime and almost renegade ridiculousness; it's just a long, long and occasionally uncomfortable distance from some of the work that emerged during their prime.


Words: Mat Smith

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