CAN: DELAY 1968 (1968; 1981)
1) Butterfly; 2) Pnoom; 3) Nineteen Century Man; 4) Thief; 5) Man Named Joe; 6) Uphill; 7) Little Star Of Bethlehem.
It would have been more fun if they'd dared to release this under its original title — Prepared To Meet Thy Pnoom, but I guess they thought it might be bad luck to put it out under the same name under which it was originally rejected by every label they tried to peddle it to back in 1968. Curious, really: just two more years and they got no less than United Artists to distribute Monster Movie, a record that was no more accessible (and in terms of track length, even more extreme) than Delay 1968. By all means, though, this here is an essential album that honestly deserves to be proudly placed at the beginning of Can's official discography — a complete experience in its own rights, with a fully-formed sound by a band that already knows very well what it is doing and a frontman who never really knew what he was doing at any place or time.
The skeletal structure of these early tracks is not that much different from Monster Movie: for the most part, they are blues-rock and funky jams with plenty of droning, but not a huge lot of psychedelic effects or guitar tones — together with Mooney's rants and raves, this makes the whole thing very similar to what Captain Beefheart was doing at the time with the Mirror Man sessions across the Atlantic. There is, however, already an atmosphere of grim determination, a ferocity, passion, and precision to the playing that suggest meticulously orchestrated ritualistic frenzy rather than Beefheart's diligently rehearsed insanity.
The very first track, ʽButterflyʼ, is, in fact, more strung up and tense than anything on Monster Movie — an eight-minute jam on one chord that can nevertheless take your breath away as it ploughs on and on and on, while keyboards, lead guitars, and occasionally pirouetting bass lines slowly build up tension; all over this a clearly exalted Mooney, half-madman, half-little kid, vocally follows the proverbial "dying butterfly" who nevertheless "begins to fly" because what's a good Can track without a little koan to help pass the time? In any case, that good old Can magic is already here, right from the very start, even if technically, the individual members had not yet fully hit their respective strides.
They did have a knack for finding great grooves, though: I don't think there's really a single dud among these tracks. ʽNineteen Century Manʼ (sic!) is a nice early showcase for Karoli as a funk player, taking a good lesson from James Brown, but also effortlessly sliding from funk into a flurry of blues-rock slide guitar soloing. ʽMan Named Joeʼ is a fast-moving R&B groove that shows how much of an influence the African-American scene exercised over them at the time, and ʽUphillʼ already presages the likes of ʽMother Skyʼ, moving at a fast tempo and featuring the most sonically insane bits of soloing on the record.
The real two highlights, besides ʽButterflyʼ, though, are ʽThiefʼ, a bitter-melancholic elegy that brings some sentimentality and vulnerability to the sessions — so much of them, in fact, that even Thom Yorke would later go on to cover the track, although I think that he must have been more impressed by Mooney here, singing "oh Lord please won't you tell me why must I be the thief?.." in the most miserable (yet totally non-whiney) voice that a human being might be capable of. If you want to laugh Mooney off as a silly annoying lunatic, just listen to ʽThiefʼ and get ready to drown in the man's misery — I honestly want to give him a hug each time I hear that "far too late, far too late, far too late..." (and it's kind of amazing that as of 2016, the man is still alive, but I guess that the switch back to painting and sculpting eventually helped a lot).
Then there's ʽLittle Star Of Bethlehemʼ, which has little to do with Nativity, but a lot to do with the absurdist story of Froggie and Toadie... actually, it begins like an absurdist story, but then turns into vocal improvisation because, apparently, Mooney just didn't have enough original lyrics to last him through the entire jam. Where ʽButterflyʼ is aggressively intense and ʽThiefʼ wallows in misery, ʽLittle Starʼ is more like an ironic mockery of the blues jam paradigm, with Karoli engaging in small-scale guitar pyrotechnics (switching between jagged, broken-up Neil Young-like rhythm playing and psychedelic howling) and Mooney checking how many different variations on the same "verse" he can produce without completely repeating himself. There's something so delightfully silly, and yet at the same time disturbing about this experience that I'm kind of sad they decided to fade it out after seven minutes — I could have stood at least twice as much, because this thing deserves real EPIC treatment, like a ʽSister Rayʼ or something.
In the end, the whole thing is quite short, but holds together well, and when it was finally released from the vaults (two years after the complete demise of Can), it must have indeed played the part of the Great Lost Can Album for true believers, as well as somewhat reinforced Malcolm's role in the band's history — not to suggest that its release had anything to do with the somewhat later reunion attempt, but he did tend to get lost against the titanic reputation of the Suzuki-era albums, which is somewhat unjust. Like Suzuki, he largely played his own game and wrestled with his personal demons in the studio rather than paid much attention to the actual music, but that was the whole point of «vocal Can» — we play our stuff, you vocalize your stuff, we put 'em together and say that's how it was always meant to be. Thumbs up.