One of the best things about Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series is how much leeway the writers have. They’re free to use autobiography or fiction, or concentrate exclusively on the minutiae of rock lit—music analysis, interviews, an artist’s history, release dates, critical reception, press clippings—to tell the story of the album in question. Alan Warner definitely mixes his modes in his volume on Can’s Tago Mago (1971). We learn about the author’s developing musical interests and record-buying habits as a teenager isolated in small-town Scotland during the late ’70s. Stepping away from his personal history, he also gets down to the nitty gritty of the double album itself; for example, detailing the tape edits on “Halleluwah” (side two of Tago Mago) and interviewing several Can members about their time recording the album. The interviews are also tinged with autobiography, because as Warner explains, he has befriended and even collaborated with the band in the years since he dedicated his debut novel Morvern Callar to Can bassist Holger Czukay.
The autobiographical sections are fascinating and hilarious. I’m predisposed to being interested, though, as I’ve been an Alan Warner fan ever since my wife-to-be gave me The Sopranos to read right before we started going out. His descriptions of his interior life as an “aloof, pretentious, eccentric” boy fumbling his way towards musical sophistication are priceless. Curious to push through the heavy metal vernacular of his peers (“Each one of my friends was emotionally sympathetic and spiritually aligned to the activities of Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow,” he says) he buys dodgy post-breakup Sex Pistols albums and a Weather Report LP with a compelling and mysterious cover, and finds much of interest, especially in the latter. The search for anything by Can, inspired by John Lydon referencing Can and their drummer’s “double beats” in one of the weekly music papers, leads him to the big city, Glasgow, and the Virgin Megastore where he eventually acquires the holy grail—Tago Mago.
Any serious music fan can relate to the impressions that Warner describes on his journey to Can—the unforgettable impact of an album’s arrival, and the profound meaning that an inanimate object can instantly possess: “I remember the euphoria of being on the train home, splitting the cellophane wrapping all the way around, to peel it completely free and open up the concealed centrefold sleeve…” Passages like that make me I think, Okay, Warner, can we have 200 more pages of that, please? Tell us about all your records, man!
However, it’s a 33 1/3 book, and the format won't allow for 200 more pages, so Warner uses the second half of the book to discuss the history and philosophy of analogue tape editing, the evolution of the band, and the genesis of, and curiosities to be found within, the tracks on Tago Mago. He includes snippets of conversations with Michael Karoli, Irmin Schmidt, and Jaki Liebezeit, purveyor of the double beats. For some, having only half a book devoted in-depth to Tago Mago might not be enough. There is plenty more Can documentation they can seek out. I was left happy, and curious to hear more of the Can discography, as well as hear many of the members’ solo releases, which Warner often references. I was inspired to get out the album and listen along as he detailed each track. And by the end of the book I was an even bigger fan of both the author and his subject.