Every Record I Own - Day 176: Can Tago Mago
Tago Mago is a record so massive in the scope of its influence that it’s intimidating to even attempt scratching the surface of its cultural impact. It’s a record that continues to elude mainstream audiences, even if its contents shaped everything from Sex Pistols to Radiohead. If you’re curious about the history or the story behind this album, there are books devoted to Can, at least one book devoted to Tago Mago, and a whole slew of tomes on krautrock that cover what is arguably the biggest album in the genre. So I’ll forgo the history and backstory of the album and I’ll talk about my personal relationship with the album instead.
I first bought Tago Mago on CD sometime in my mid-twenties. I knew very little about Can at the time, but they were a name mentioned with reverence whenever people were discussing esoteric rock music, and so my interest was piqued. I’d heard a few Can songs here and there, even tried dipping my toes in the disco/reggae vibes of their later Flowmotion album, but Tago Mago was the first full immersion in the mysterious German band. I recall going on European tours in the mid-’00s and listening to the album on headphones when jetlag wouldn’t let me sleep. There is something disorienting and fever-dreamish about the album that’s perfectly suited for insomnia. In particular, I was drawn to the infectious drum patterns and unnerving guitar leads on “Mushroom” and the sparse Kid A-esque gloom of “Oh Yeah”.
But to be honest, I would often lose interest in the free-form drones and studio experiments once “Aumgn” came on. And this is one of those instances when the format of the music is really important. On CD or mp3, Tago Mago is an album that descends into negative space and odd clatter in it’s second half. Can’s management had to fight for the budget to make Tago Mago a double album, with the idea being that the first record would be the more straightforward rock album while the second record would capture the band at their wildest and most adventurous. Taken as a four-sided album, the deconstructed compositions of “Aumgn” and “Peking O” seem less like tacked-on filler and more like the earliest incarnation of the kind of experimental collages and production soundscapes of contemporary composers like Tim Hecker or Ben Frost. It feels less like a record that lost its way and more like a yin and yang of order and chaos.
Tago Mago remains Can’s biggest seller and one of the cornerstones of krautrock, but it’s also a difficult record to absorb in its entirety. Of course, that difficulty is part of the intrigue and the lasting influence of the album, but it can also be a hurdle to new fans. My suggestion? Don’t fuck with a digital stream or a CD. Get the 2xLP and experience it in the manner it was originally intended.