Can… oh where do I begin? I intended to write about The Lost Tapes, my latest acquisition of Can recordings. But, chances are, if you are reading this you already know about ‘The Lost Tapes’. And if you don’t… then you probably need to start elsewhere in the Can discography for your first taste (hint: try ‘Soundtracks’, ‘Ege Bamyasi’, ‘Tago Mago’ & ‘Future Days’ in that order).

Can are a band (a ‘band’ in an unconventional sense) that were unique. ‘The Lost Tapes’ is much better than a 3 CD (or 5 LP!) collection of out-takes and lost live recordings has any right to sound.

I first heard Can over 35 years ago when I was a teenager. I still play their albums today. The 1970-74 albums (above) still thrill as if I was hearing them for the first time. So hearing ‘The Lost Tapes’ has been strange. I can’t describe what’s on there in ways that would make any sense unless you were a Can fanatic. In which case, you wouldn’t need me to describe anything.

So, rather than trying to describe Can’s ‘The Lost Tapes’ at all, here’s a story about how I, as a 16-year-old fan, travelled halfway around the world and tried to find Can in Cologne/ Koln in 1976.

Searching for Can in Koln (1976)

When I first heard German band Can I would have been about 14 years old and living in Invercargill, at the arse-end of New Zealand. Hearing ‘Ege Bamyasi’ after an early teenage infatuation with The Beatles, then Uriah Heep (I know…) my life changed. I have heard a lot of strange and wonderful music in the nearly 40 years since I heard the other-worldly sounds of that particular Can album emanating from our small Garrard portable record-player on the bedroom floor at 268 Tweed Street, Invercagill, but I can’t think of any that transport me quite as much still today. Maybe Robert Wyatt’s ‘Rock Bottom’ album is up there from that same era as another durable contender.

I like to kid myself that hearing Can inoculated me with a taste for strange music. I can’t claim it inoculated me against taste for crap and ordinary music, as I have lapsed periodically into music and genre’s I’d rather not be reminded about over the years. However, throughout all that, the music of Can has been there, like an itch under the skin that needs to be scratched.

In 1976 I headed back to the country of my birth, Scotland, to finish High School. My parents feared that the decision I had announced – to leave school mid-way through the 6th form to work in a furniture factory and flat with a speed-taking, drug-dealing motorcycle-gang-member friend of my older brother George – was not a great idea. They were probably right.

They concocted an arrangement with an aunt and uncle in Scotland whereby I could stay with them if I finished my secondary education there. My parents were shrewd. The lure of travelling to Scotland naturally out-weighed the attraction of a motorcycle-gang associate furniture-polisher’s life in Invercargill.

I got to leave school anyway and work hard to save my airfare. My parents were shrewd and had no spare money, so were no fools either. I worked illegally as an underage nightshift worker at a tannery near Invercargill.. My co-worker was a recidivist drunk driver who would warm up for his nightshift with a night of drinking and driving around Invercargill with his mates in his crash-damaged primer-grey MkIII Ford Zephyr, before collecting me at midnight.

Hard physical tannery work was a reality check, particularly when my co-worker often slept off his drinking while leaving me to do most of the work. That was at least better than when he was awake, as he would often turn the tannery hose on me for entertainment. But I liked the bits where I got to drive forklifts and operate dangerous machinery – all without any training or safety policies – and it was the perfect environment for reading Kerouac novels in the staff room on meal breaks.

Three months later, aged 16, I made the first plane trip of my life, from Invercargill to Edinburgh via Los Angeles and London.

The author in 1977. That's a Punk Rock ice-block.

The author in 1977. That’s a Punk Rock ice-block.

During the first school holidays, in October 1976, I had the chance to stay with another aunt and uncle on an airforce base in West Germany, RAF Laarbruch. I leaped at the chance to do this because, according to the map, Laarbruch was fairly close to the city of Cologne (or Koln) where Can were from. They were already past their best by 1976 and the extraordinary Damo Suzuki, who captivated me when I first heard Ege Bamyasi, had left the band. But I wasn’t to know any of that for a few more years, such was the slow pace of music release and discovery in the 1970s.

I travelled by bus from Edinburgh to Brussels via a basement flat in Kensington, London (friends of my aunt and uncle) and an overnight Ferry crossing. It’s hard to imagine doing this today without mobile phones, internet, credit cards or EFTPOS. Plus, I had no understanding of any European language. I had a map of Europe I would point at when buying train tickets if my attempts to pronounce the name of my destination failed. Even Lonely Planet Guides had yet to be invented.

We sometimes imagine the world was a much more innocent place for travelling before 9/11 and security fixations today. But, looking back, Germany was affected by local terrorism from the Baader-Meinhof group in the 1970s. And there was a cold war with the Soviet Union. That was the reason my uncle was stationed at RAF Laarbruch. His base was the frontline of the NATO defence against Soviet nuclear missile attacks. The base had its own field of bloodhound surface-to-air missiles and nuclear bomb-proof concrete shelters for the jets.

During my week at Laarbruch I took a day trip by myself to Cologne by train. I found my way to the middle of the city and the large gothic cathedral that miraculously survived the carpet-bombing of the city during the Second World War.

Near the cathedral, in a drab modernist concrete shopping complex next to a street vendor selling roast chestnuts, was a small record shop, run by the same kind of moustachioed long-haired hippies who ran Virgin Records in Edinburgh. And who ran Wray Wilson Music in Esk Street, Invercargill for that matter.

I asked the staff if they had any records by Can. I had to write it down. They looked confused and shook their heads. “Nein”. Eventually I found a copy of ‘Monster Movie’ in the bins. I still have it, along with a copy of the Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band LP ‘Safe as Milk’ bought in the same store. But they had nothing more recent from Can. I tried to ask them where I could find Can in Cologne but the language barrier was too much. My pronunciation of Schloss Norvenich in a New Zealand accent was nothing to be proud of.
A Monster Movie LP by The Can
This is probably the same experience generations of music travellers have had in Dunedin, asking for records by The Clean, only to be met by a blank stare. Mind you, if they were to visit today and go to Too Tone Records on North Road, North East Valley, where they are just as likely to meet a member of The Clean browsing the racks or delivering another box of the Oddities double LP to Tony.

I spent the rest of my time in Cologne wandering around the city looking for signposts that might direct me to Schloss Norvenich. Surely any city with a world-famous band like Can would signpost their castle studio? It was a fairly flat city and I couldn’t see any castles. I didn’t find out until later that Schloss Norvenich was not in Cologne at all and that they moved out of that studio when they established Inner Space in a former cinema in Weilersweist, near Cologne in 1971. I was running this whole pilgrimage on one partly-memorised article in an NME read a couple of years before.

I asked a group of schoolboys a few years younger than me if they knew where Schloss Norvenich was. “Do you know where Can are?” Laughter. “Where do I find Schloss Norvenich?” More laughter and finger pointing. Surely local kids would be into music and know about a world-famous band like Can? They continued to laugh and point at me and talked with each other in what sounded to me like mocking tones for a while then carried on their way, still pointing at me and laughing.

Disheartened, I headed back to the train station. I left Cologne without meeting Can or finding their recording studio. But I can say I bought my copy of ‘Monster Movie’ in Cologne. I have no idea what I would have done or said if I had found Can. I’m not sure I really expected to find them. But when you come from a small place like Invercargill you do get the strange idea that the world is small enough that everyone knows someone who knows someone. It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time to go to Cologne and ask “where can I find Can?” and expect someone might actually tell me.