Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Can
Prehistoric Future


Released 1984 on Tago Mago
Reviewed by achuma, 15/01/2006ce


This posthumous release, sub-titled ‘June 1968 The Very First Session’, didn’t catch my attention for years because I assumed it was a bootleg of ‘Delay 1968’ or something like that which I’d already bought. Then a friend lent me her copy of the original cassette release and I realised that I had the totally wrong idea. This is not at all like the music on ‘Delay 1968’, and of course pre-dates it, being the first recorded jam session of Can, made at Schloss Nörvenich as a mono recording. It was only in 1984 that Holger Czukay edited the tape and released it for the first time. It’s also now available on LP, but I’m not sure if there’s been a CD reissue yet.
The band at this stage (June ’68) consisted of Holger Czukay (bass, tapes), Michael Karoli (guitar), Jaki Liebezeit (drums, percussion, flute), Irmin Schmidt (piano, organ) and David Johnson (flute, tapes), with Manni Löhe as a guest on vocals, flute and percussion. Who knows if they had played a note together before this recording – it does sound as though perhaps it was the first time they’d all played together, and some of the musicians sound as if they’ve only been playing their instruments for a few days (or hours!). Basically the whole thing consists of edited portions of a big improvised free-form jam session, and while the quality of much of the music is debatable, it is certainly pretty out-there for ‘68, going where few bands would dare to tread (ie. outside the dotted lines of convention) with abandon more for the sake of trying and seeking than for succeeding at first try. For this, it’s an interesting recording despite its shortcomings, and one that enthusiastic Can fans should hear at least once.

Side one (there’s no song titles given, just side one and side two) [15:15] starts with rambling percussion, almost electronic-sounding sliding notes, vocal improvising, sloppy guitar scrawling, tape sounds in the background and barely-audible keyboards in the background, and bass fiddling around trying to find a groove. After a couple of minutes bass and percussion lock into a pummelling drive but then it all falls apart just as quickly as it began, and soon everyone’s just meandering in the primal soup, before a keyboard chord cuts it out. A seeming edit, some manipulated tape voices and vocals, then the band just blams into a chugging groove, bass digging in on one note while drums kick it along aggressively but controlled, with occasional cymbal bashes sounding like sheet metal, flute floating around, guitars still scrawling on the walls but a little more focussed now. Shortly after the momentum and cohesion falls off a bit, but it still plods along somehow, holding together in a very untogether way before building it up again and burning away at a mid-paced controlled mayhem, before again falling apart except for those one-note bass stabbings, and soon even that fades away. Not that the music is over though, by a long shot, as the band continues flailing around in the dark, falling down and lying dazed and dizzy on the floor watching the stars spinning behind closed eyes. Things space out significantly here, with weird taped voices lending a choral element and there being no rhythm whatsoever, until the cosmic gazing is shattered as the band suddenly shake off the dust and lift themselves into a brief flourish of rhythmic abandon only to crash and burn seconds later, back on the floor with the stars again. After a bit more searching for the lost chord (any chord’ll do, I’m sure we left it lying around here somewhere...), and then suddenly Holger launches into a hamfisted walking bass-line, giving some semi-normal form to an otherwise shambolic but interesting and weird improvisation. The guys jam along for a while, trying to be a blues band or something close, with those sliding notes chipping in again, this time sounding more recognisably like slide whistles, adding an air of the unusual. Not that it’s needed, as these guys are clearly unusual, proving it by entering a chaotic noise climax that subsides to more weird manipulated tape chants and then fades for the end of the side.
Next up, side two [13:40] continues with a shuddering, fast-strummed bass and strange, otherworldly sounds groaning and oozing around the ears, but the bass quickly fades, to re-enter on an ominous one-note bass riff. As the moody mood settles in, so do the drums, and out of nowhere we have the first clear and cohesive indication of Can music to come, as the groove rises and rises in intensity and that one note is changed and shifts up, up, up, settling on a higher plateau as Karoli’s guitar contributes something more shit-together than before, and flute skates nosedives around and over the top like an observing bird. The whole thing keeps moving for a few minutes before the drums start to break up the rhythm with some chaos, only to kick back into time as the bass drops down low again and the whole shebang is careening along the tracks like and out-of-control train hijacked by mutant barbarians on PCP, only to derail when the tracks run out. The bass plucks some alien order out of the wreckage, or tries to, before giving up and letting the drums have a go at the wheel. Which they do with big, style-less tom-tom bashes, while flutes play warped children’s rhymes and guitar grinds along haplessly in the background, out of its skull and clueless but still showing up for work. It’s like we’re at a demented circus parade with ‘special children’ bashing away talentlessly on instruments while stomping around the arena dressed in donkey suits. (Sorry if that sounds unkind or un-PC, but it’s the only description that popped into my head, and it’s apt whether you like it or not!) This carries on for quite a while, with the drums eventually taking over from everything except that same insistent boom, boom, boom-boom-boom on the tom – not that the others stop playing, just that Jaki plays over the top of everything here, as if he’s trying to kill a giant cockroach he’s found writhing on his living room floor, by pounding it out of existence with his drumsticks. Then, just as you’re thinking “surely they won’t keep this racket up much longer”, it fades out and is indeed over.


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