ALBUM REVIEW: Can Soundtracks the Apocalypse on ‘Live 1970’

Legendary live set from the experimental pioneers does not disappoint.

A bomb detonates. As the initial explosion fades away, the hiss of radiation settles over the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is left behind. A pulsing bass line rises out of the murk, matched in pace by a cyclical drum pattern.  It is eerie, hypnotic and edgy.  It is “Oh Yeah” from Can’s 1971 album Tago Mago. And it is the second track on this excellent new live LP, simply titled Live 1970.

Thing is with Can, they they never played it the same way twice. So while bits of the studio version are present, it’s got bits of other Can tracks in there as well. Damo Suzuki, their (at the time) brand new vocalist, is utterly unhinged, jabbering and squeaking like, well, like nothing at all. That’s what made him one of the bravest lead singers of all time. The other is his predecessor Malcolm Mooney, who would think nothing of chanting “Are you waiting for the streetcar?” over and over again for 14 minutes at a time, bewildering and delighting audiences in equal measure. If you haven’t heard The Lost Tapes, then give it a try. But I digress.

“Oh Yeah” is the sound of the apocalypse, and it was also the Can song that first hooked me 25 years ago. Back then, the only things that could be reasonably found were early CD pressings, which were pretty murky affairs. This was right when the albums were lovingly restored and repressed on Super Audio CDs back in 2005. These releases brought the fine detail out and changed the experience. Original Can LPs are as rare as rocking horse shit, as the band’s reputation has grown in the last decade or so.  And with the exception of The Lost Tapes, they have never exploited the off-cuts and alternative versions that exist in the vaults. Like The Beatles before them, Can were restless experimenters who refused to cash in on the public demand for demos and rehearsals.

This mythic recording is the earliest full live set by the band (according to the sleeve) and features 18 and a half minutes of “Oh Yeah.” Rather than the brooding nuclear winter of the Tago Mago version, this is a giddy run. The track follows on from “Sense All Of Mine,” which largely revolves around Jaki LIebezeit playing a relentless drum motif and Damo shrieking over the top. It sounds terrible. It’s not. 

With most bands, the idea of the musicians extemporizing around sketches is off-putting at best. With Can, it’s the very essence of it. Unlike, say, Cream, Can are not showing off. They aren’t soloing relentlessly. This isn’t a jam.  Instead, all five band members of Can lock into a groove and follow it to its natural conclusion. It’s unforced. The recent release of Cream’s goodbye tour is the sound of three musicians playing brilliantly, but not with each other. You never get that impression with Can. Holger is quite happy to play the same two notes on the bass for 20 minutes in relentless repetition.

Can often gets lumped in with the prog-rock greats. But while the work of Yes and ELP were meticulously planned out and carefully crafted, Can were relentlessly exploring. Mistakes, false starts and dead ends were part of that. This music is much more akin to The Doors or The Velvet Underground than Camel. Musicians circle round each other, allow each other space, step back if they’ve nothing to offer.

Eight tracks across four sides of vinyl may seem like short change. Set grows organically with tracks often stretching beyond 10 minutes. Mainly they are drawing from stuff from the then-recent Soundtracks compilation, and the forthcoming Tago Mago. The brilliance of it is that these aren’t retreads of familiar material. These pieces start in a place of some familiarity but very quickly walk off the beaten track and set up camp in the wilderness somewhere. Therein lies the charm. 

The players are having a whale of a time. While in the studio, they can seem a bit serious, a bit po-faced. Here there is humour, rage and weirdness in abundance. What’s clear is that none of these pieces are overdone. The older material, “Deadlock” and “Don’t Turn The Light On, Leave Me Alone,” feels as fresh and easy as the stuff that would form their next album: “Oh Yeah,” “Paperhouse,” “Bring Me Coffee Or Tea.”  They’re not bored of the material because they never play it the same way twice. 

This live set is enlightening. Like when The Beatles at the BBC came out. A rough and ready take on stuff we were familiar with. You get the same with The Fall’s Peel Sessions, or Bowie at the Beeb. Perhaps what I’m most reminded of is Joy Division live at Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979.  A reminder that the Joy Division were a rock band, earthy and rough around the edges. The same is true here. Can were a rock band. For all the experimenting and austerity of their studio work, this live set thunders along. It grooves. It’s got sharp edges. It doesn’t noodle on like a Grateful Dead set. Every moment is tight, dynamic and never dull. 

My version is on nice silver vinyl and is numbered by hand. A simple gatefold, with an NME article from 1972 in the middle. The inner sleeves are paper, one white and one black.  There’s a few pictures. That’s the lot.  I’d rather have this than the Goodbye Cream box though. So much less stressful. And the perfect soundtrack to the impending apocalypse.

Score: 🥫🥫🥫🥫 / 5

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