CAN: MONSTER MOVIE (1969)
1) Father Cannot Yell; 2) Mary, Mary So Contrary; 3) Outside My Door; 4) Yoo Doo Right.
Technically, the first album recorded by Can was called Prepared To Meet Thy Pnoom, and was supposed to be released in 1968, but no label would accept it at the time, and ultimately, it was only issued in 1981 under the appropriate title of Delay 1968. Ironically, it was far more accessible than their next album, for which they did manage to find a label one year later — apparently, the degree of record label boldness rocketed sky high after the release of stuff like Trout Mask Replica, so that for a while some people could adopt an anything-goes mentality.
Yet despite all the weirdness, I do have to say that of all the bizarre Krautrock ensembles that Germany gave us Can have always been the most conservatively and traditionally oriented. Behind all their experimentation and craziness and psychedelia really rests a competent blues-rock band whose major passion was simply to jam, jam, jam all day and all of the night. The four-man war machine of Michael Karoli on guitar, Holger Czukay on bass, Irmin Schmidt on keyboards, and Jaki «Human Metronome» Liebezeit on drums must and will appeal not only to (and maybe even not as much to) those who look to Krautrockers for blowing our minds and expanding our horizons, but simply to those who respect and enjoy strong, sharp, cohesive playing — the same audiences who are willing to sit through lengthy sonic journeys by Cream or the Dead.
Case in point: ʻYou Doo Rightʼ, stretched over the entire second side of the album, is really but a 20-minute excerpt out of a jam that is said to have gone on for about six hours, and resulted in men outlasting machines as the band had to cut it short because the amps started to smoke. And the way it is handled here, I'm pretty sure they were only getting warmed up by the end of the sixth hour: Can's fanatical devotion to their craft meant that, when they were on, time ceased to exist. And this is why good Can jams (and most of their jams were good) are so easy to tolerate. It is easy to get bored by a lengthy piece of jamming when you sense that the players are simply going on because they're following a trend (such as «your song does not matter at all if it is anything shorter than 20 minutes»). Can, however, were not following trends: upon locking themselves into the groove, they simply lived that groove.
I mean, listen to Jaki Liebezeit pounding out those complex polyrhythms on ʻYou Doo Rightʼ without ever faltering — you'd think drumming, to him, was like air: stop drumming, and you stop breathing. Twenty minutes into the track, the entire band is going every bit as strong as they were at the beginning... and, as it turns out, these twenty minutes by themselves were only the beginning. The jam's somewhat lazy pacing and the diminished role of both guitar and keyboards might turn people off, but it is all about the rhythm section: it is the African drums and the droning bass that make it into what it is — a tribal ritual that needs to go on at 100% efficiency all the time, lest contact is lost with the respective deities. I actually think the jam does not hit its peak until somewhere around the 12th minute, when Jaki and Holger settle upon a mutual lock that seems inescapable, so they have no choice but to go on forever and let those amps take all the punishment they can stand.
That said, if your organism is too weak to take in even 20 minutes of that jam (and I can get that: mine was fairly weak, too, when I first submitted myself to the experience), the shorter tracks on the first side might be a better initial proposition. ʻFather Cannot Yellʼ is faster, has a far more prominent guitar and keyboard part, and occasionally threatens to burn up the entire world with those feedback blasts from all the melodic instruments. ʻMary, Mary So Contraryʼ is built upon a dirge-like drone where Schmidt's and Karoli's shrill, high-pitched, wobbly tones knock your brains out as efficiently as any imaginable chemical substance, and at no expense to physiological health. And the shortest track, ʻOutside My Doorʼ, is a four-minute garage-blues-rock romp that would not have been out of place on Nuggets — short, adolescent-style aggressive, rhythmically simplistic and full of kick-ass guitar solos that go for devastating emotional brutality right away, without taking much time to build up.
You might notice that so far, I have not said one word about the fifth member of the band: the African-American vocalist Malcolm Mooney — first of the two «accidental» vocalists that the Germans would recruit during their glory years. Although he did have some experience, singing in a vocal band while in high school, at the time he befriended Can he made a living as a sculptor in New York, so basically he was the first one to prove Can's strange point that «anybody can be a singer in a band like ours». Neither what he sings nor whether he can sing at all makes much difference — Can do not really need singers, they just use them up as sonic material to make the tunes a little more accessible and a little more crazy at the same time. Most of the time, Mooney screams his way through the music, or, as it is in the case of ʻYoo Doo Rightʼ, scrapes his way through it, making himself sound like a homeless person on the brink of insanity. The creepy thing is that working in the band actually drove him to insanity; soon after the release of Monster Movie, he took his doctor's advice and fled to America to avoid going completely crazy — and you would, too, if you had to provide improvisational vocals for six-hour long jam sessions.
That said, in the context of Can songs being «tribal rituals», Mooney's vocalizations, as would Suzuki's a year later, make perfect sense — this is a «speaking-in-tongues» component, stretches of shamanistic delirium that show us how effectively the man is possessed. If anything, his vocals on ʻYoo Doo Rightʼ are too normal for the band — much of the time, you can actually make out what he is singing (which is not right at all), and some of the singing even follows a clear melodic pattern, which is even less right, implying rationality and a search for structural elegance. So you might say that Mooney was an essentially normal character whose work in Can drove him to madness, whereas Suzuki would be an essentially mad character whose work in Can drove him to become a Jehovah's Witness — and so the stakes go up.
Clearly, Monster Movie is not the best Can album. At this stage, they are still putting their shit together, and the band's love for jam magic is not yet tempered with the ability to add vision, scope, and massive tape splicing to the proceedings. But on the other hand, this here is as «raw» as it gets, and the band's four-piece gears are in complete working order. They have not yet been graced with the presence of a perfect vocalist, and the grooves are more enjoyable than memorable, but one thing's for certain: no other band in 1969 sounded that tight over the course of an interminable live improvisation — something to remember for all those critics who like to point out the (hard-to-deny) influence of the Velvet Underground, but forget that the adorable Moe Tucker would stand no chance in a drum battle versus Herr Liebezeit, and more or less the same goes for all the other instrumentalists. Of course, this does not make them a better band (and we will not get into any apples vs. oranges types of discussion here), but it does make them one of the greatest, if not the greatest band at the time who could combine experimental/psychedelic inclinations with phenomenal instrumental technique, all the while resting comfortly in an easy-to-understand zone of the blues idiom. Thumbs up for sure.