Can: Bel Air
o some of you tasty little morsels will remember a mini-British Invasion circa 1996 to 1999 or so, when bands like Blur, Pulp, Supergrass, and especially Oasis were crossing the pond big-style, nabbing corporate sponsorship, and taking over MTV's alterna-vision megalith "120 Minutes." Some of us radio-nerds and culture-vultures took it even further, using those newfangled Internets the Pentagon made for us to conjure up the NME from thousands of miles away—ah, McLuhan's global village, as he sort of didn't envision it, really—and read about all these obscure punk bands like The Orb and Primal Scream. Probably a complete coincidence, but this was the also roughly the same time when your hack here started having his first real, long-term experiences with certain activities that are considered illegal throughout most of the developed world—practicing law without a license, mainly, with occasional animal sacrifice. So I had "Little Fluffy Clouds" for when the clients were coming in droves seeking my counsel, and I had the Scream's 1997 breakdown-on-plastic Vanishing Point, and especially the single "Kowalski," for the times when the Attorney General was breathing down my neck. Er, so to speak.
What does this have to do with Can? Well, simultaneously a friend of mine, who had also done a little unlicensed law, alerted me to the similarities between the ferocious mobius-strip drum loop on "Kowalski" and Jaki Liebezeit's trap-hypnosis on "Halleluwah." So I immediately went and purchased Tago Mago, the album on which "Halleluwah" appears, and my newly-reformed teenage hip-hopper was reduced to panicked womb-craving by Jaki's drumming. 19 minutes without a stop? That's not a sample? Christ.
Of course, now that I'm older and considerably more attractive, I tend to think of the alternating unadorned rhythm-machining and scraping-metal ballads on Tago Mago as just a bit of juvenilia (mine, not Can's), and this is where Future Days comes in. Apparently, their efforts previous to this made them a bit of scratch, they went on a summer holiday, and came back in 1973 all mushy and idyllic, with rucksacks full of tropicalia and sun-worship, and beards full of endangered, beautifully-plumed birds. It remains Can's most accessible work for a first-timer, and my favorite, for its all-purpose utility and generally happy disposition. The first half could come off all surface-beauty if it wasn't for "Bel Air," which I've always imagined was side B of the original vinyl issue, though I've never been nerdy enough to find out.
"Bel Air" is essentially broken into two parts, with the first being given over as an extension of the twilight shore soundtrack we've been studying our law books to for about a half-hour, all gentle Michael Karoli strum, Holger Czukay's four-note bass line, Irmin Schmidt's wistful synth washes, (of course) Jaki's cymbal-heavy drumming, and lead-legal practitioner Damo Suzuki's blissed-out incantations of "spinning 'round and 'round"—Future Days is quite possibly the apotheosis of Can's Damo Era, if only by dint of the music so closely matching the breezy psycho-shamanism of their lead singer/muse. About nine minutes in, everything falls to silence, nothing but the birds to keep us company, and all the elements slip back into place, only just slightly harder, just enough to approximate the menacing/comforting aura of a particularly good sunset. Jaki starts hitting the traps a little harder, bringing his foot down on the kick with just a little more oomph and a little more often. Czukay and Damo stick to their guns, keeping to a steady pulse and a blissful croon, respectively, but it's Karoli and Schmidt who meet in the middle, tuning into each other's frequencies perfectly, and slowly, over the next eight minutes or so, send "Bel Air" into orbit. As the pair lock into a star-bound drone, you can practically feel those last pink and red rays breaking through some low-on-the-horizon clouds.
It's been something of a struggle for me to figure out why this never became catnip for the hippies who followed the empty proficiency of the Grateful Dead or Phish across oceans in their vans. I had always had a block about music from the late-'60's and early-'70's, because I'd always figured that it must have been more fun for them to geek out over a nimbly-placed middle-eighth (whatever that is) than simply appreciate a truly sunny, utopian music like this. But then there it was, resurrected for my angry young self as an angry new song, pointing back to the sunny old days, and asking me, "Are you sure about that?" And for a second, every time I flip to "Bel Air," I think to myself, You know what, they were almost on to something. They were so close.