In a way, you have to be able to play like a machine. But you can be better than a machine because of the human ear – you can hear what else is going on. ~ Jaki Liebezeit
Never one to be an early adopter, by the time I had a decent computer and dial-up connection Napster had already come and gone in a whirlwind of Metallica-driven litigation. Audiogalaxy: that was my Napster. That was where I learnt to download mp3s in the dead of night; where I first felt the illicit thrill of free music that had previously been kept hidden from me by poverty and obscurity and (possibly) the man. There was so much esoteric music out there I was desperate to hear which I never thought I would get within sniffing distance of: Stockhausen, Wildman Fischer, Harry Partch, Moondog, The Shaggs. Excitingly, Audiogalaxy’s peer-to-peer network had them all. The very first thing I downloaded, though, because I had been itching to hear them for years and years, was Can. Tons and tons of Can.
The first Can track I queued up took bloody ages, because it was their fifteen-minute beast ‘Mother Sky’. I can still vividly recall how it felt hearing it after that interminable wait. Even listening through my PC’s crappy little speakers, it was the most insanely epic thing I’d ever heard. Nothing I had listened to and loved before then – not The Velvet Underground, not The Stooges, not Captain Beefheart – had prepared me for this. In those fifteen minutes, almost every assumption I had previously held about rock music – about what it was and what it could be; about where the centre was and where the margins lay; about its past, its evolution and its future – was brought into sudden, giddy, liberating question. Here was a music that loudly announced I knew nothing.
Listening to Can for the first time was like getting mugged by aliens. On the one hand, it was rock – heavily-amplified music made with the usual ingredients of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and so on – on the other, it was a recipe without any trace of the usual blues and R&B derivations that more or less define the idiom in its Anglo-American context. The only obvious reference points lay outside the world of mainstream rock, in musique concrète, found sound, Stockhausen, Cage, minimalism, ambient, world music, and outré funk.
Here was a band (a German band, of all things) that had opened up their own dimension in musical spacetime, pioneering a non-hierarchical, free form, open-ended, form of rock modernism that eschewed recognisable tropes or clichés for trance-inducing explorations of the outer limits. They were, to all intents and purposes, a ‘jam band’, but you heard nothing dated about them; nothing that reminded you of Woodstock or stentorian prog thundering. Can may have looked hairy: they sounded anything but. So eerily modern-sounding is their music, in fact, so seemingly ahead of its time – so avant la lettre – if you’d told me they’d visited 1970s Cologne from the future, I’d probably have believed you. David Stubbs put it well when he writes in his Krautrock book of their sound being, “one of the great mysteries of modern musical alchemy.”
Few bands have had as profound an effect on me as Can. Can’s music was so powerful, so singular and so uncompromising, after hearing them almost every other rock band in the world sounded useless to me. (The impact on my brother was even more dramatic: he threw away loads of his CDs. When I asked him why, he said, by way explanation, “it’s a post-Can world”.) For musicians who improvised almost every note they played, I couldn’t (I still can’t) believe how driven and cohesive they sounded. For five very distinct musical personalities, Can mesh in a way that makes them seem psychically connected. There is Michael Karoli, with his long, screaming lines in place of standard fretboard dazzle; Irmin Schmidt, with his fractured, abstract keyboard playing and his injections of weird FX and blasts of earache-electronica; there are Can’s strange vocalists – the intensely-repetitive and heavily-rhythmic Malcolm Mooney, and the more fluid, ethereal and Dadaesque Damo Suzuki; and there is bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit – arguably the most vital rhythm section of the 70s. The fusion of these personalities provides the essential architecture in Can’s music.
Can have no soloists. They have no leader. (No “führer”, in Liebezeit’s words.) Rather than battling each other, the members melded their musical egos for the collective good. It feels wrong somehow to single out any one member for special praise. All the same, if there was one thing that impressed this listener above all else, it was Can’s utterly spellbinding stickman, who played the kind of complex, percussive, interlocking patterns I had only ever heard drum machines and sequencers pull off before. I’ve yet to hear another human being that can drum with the uncanny metronomic precision Jaki Liebezeit brought to his game. His is a cyclical, perpetual motion style that relies on its own sense of internal clockwork propulsion rather than standard notions of progress or hard-whacking power. He combines streamlined, epic repetition with fills so elaborate and intricate he sounds, at times, like he has as many arms as a Hindu God. (It was this funky, machine-like drumming that made them sound so shockingly futuristic to me, as if they belonged more to the bright digital future than the dusty analogue past.)
Liebezeit’s rhythms provided Can with their centre of gravity, around which they could weave their wildest improvisations. Without his input, it is easy to imagine them spiralling into meaningless chaos.
The origins of Jaki Leibezeit’s unique approach to rock drumming lay in his long history of stylistic outgrowth and rejection. Born in Dresden in 1938, Liebezeit first performed in the late 50s, playing rock ‘n’ roll covers for American GIs stationed in West Germany. By the early 60s he had taken up modem jazz, drumming in an Art Blakey influenced bop outfit. While on residency in Spain, the seeds of his eventual dissatisfaction with jazz were sown, when he heard the music emanating from the flamenco club upstairs. “I was impressed by the rhythm,” he told David Stubbs, “and I thought, ‘They play with much better rhythm than the jazz bands’”. He was also busy tuning in to North African radio, and buying LPs of Indian music – the beginnings of a lifelong study of non-Western rhythmic traditions.
By the time he returned to West Germany in the mid 60s, bop had given way to free jazz. Liebezeit adapted his sound, and played along, for a year or so, but the music struck him as a dead end: “I was bored. There was no development. What can happen? It was finished,” he told David Stubbs. The big problem with free jazz’s supposed freedoms was the fact that, “Repetition was not allowed.” For Liebezeit, “repetition was one of the basic elements in music”. He began thinking about a “music where you think rhythmically in cycles…with a cyclical rhythm you cannot change it, you have to obey the rhythmical movement.” These thoughts reached an epiphany one night when, after a jazz concert, a man in the audience leant into his face and sternly instructed him to “play monotonously!”
In Can, with their utter lack of preconceptions, Liebezeit found the perfect environment in which to combine what he had learned from non-Western music with his heterodox desire to drum repetitiously. In forging this path Liebezeit had, as David Stubbs points out, “seized on a paradox – that real liberty in music arose from the strict and rigid imposition of order…If Western avant-garde music had suffered from over-development, now it was necessary to go back and begin again, to make new time, create new intervals and changes.”
Across towering albums like Monster Movie (1969), Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972), Future Days (1973) and Soon Over Babaluma (1974), Liebezeit refined his technique, developing and expanding upon the sense of ‘endless groove’ and infinite possibility he brought to everything he touched.
It was with a great thump of sadness that I read of the death of Jaki Leibezeit, the drummer from Can, on the 23rd January this year, from pneumonia, at the age of 78. With his passing we lose a key architect of modern music, and one of the finest musicians of the postwar period, a man who changed his chosen instrument as radically and assuredly as Hendrix or Coltrane changed theirs. His beats remain one of the great original contributions to contemporary sound and rhythm.