RIP Jaki Liebezeit, Can Drummer

A celebration of the influential Can drummer by David Stubbs

Among the many posthumous bequests of the German experimental music scene best known as Krautrock was its impact on rhythm. Neu!’s Klaus Dinger conceived the motorik Dingerbeat, identified by Brian Eno as one of the most important beats of the 1970s. By the time of 1977’s Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk had reduced their sound to a fast-shifting, mechanical clatter with surprisingly funky properties which would form the underpinning for both synth pop and hip-hop. Around the same time, Giorgio Moroder, another German, was conceiving the sequencer patterns that drove Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and would set the template for disco.

However, the most discreet and far-reaching reconfiguration of the rock beat came from Can’s Jaki Liebezeit. Up until his death, Liebezeit was still active, puttering back and forth to a studio in Cologne. His work space was filled, utensil-like, with an array of multi-ethnic percussion instruments, as well as a customized drum kit without cymbals on which he still performed and recorded with artists like Burnt Friedman or the four man collective Cyclopean, which also included ex-Can member Irmin Schmidt. He always operated quietly, with a minimum of fuss – it is possible to imagine that he never took a drum solo in his life. Yet it is his very restraint that made him among the most significant figures in 20th century rock, one who opened up its landscape to horizons still now undiscovered.

It is his very restraint that made him among the most significant figures in 20th century rock.

Jaki Liebezeit was born in 1937, in a small village near Dresden. With the outbreak of war, he moved about from place to place, eventually settling in Kassel, in Lower Saxony. He was of a generation old enough to have been affected by the trauma of World War II and the Nazification of his country but it is a subject on which he generally kept his thoughts to himself. It’s clear, however, that along with fellow Can members Schmidt and Holger Czukay (as well as the rest of the Krautrock generation) he felt a connection between the aftermath and ruin of the war and the need to innovate, to reconstruct music as a means of restoring to Germany its artistic soul and sense of self-worth. Liebezeit disliked rock & roll as a teenager – he found its rhythms trite and, in any case, there were plenty of would-be rock & roll drummers. However, Kassel being in the American-occupied zone, he took his first jobs as a fledgling sticksman playing at concerts for US soldiers, and, consequently, was exposed to the overbearing influence of American tastes on West German culture.

Can - Father Cannot Yell

Next, Liebezeit turned to jazz, meeting bandleader Manfred Schoof in Cologne, and for a while enjoyed playing in the style of Art Blakey. Then, during a lengthy jobbing spell with a group in Barcelona, he began to tune into North African radio stations and experienced alternative approaches to rhythm. In 1961, long in advance of the Western preoccupation for World Music, he bought an LP of Indian music and from there began to study mazier, less thudding, options for percussion.

When he returned to Germany, he found the jazz scene taken over by the inventions of Ornette Coleman. However, for Liebezeit, “free” jazz was not so free, but represented an end point in the development of the genre. For Liebezeit, “free” became, paradoxically, something from which he felt the need to escape.

Liebezeit decided it was more important to think in cycles than in bars, contrary to the dictates of the occidental avant-garde. Minimalism, discipline, fluidity, repetition, a “monotony” of sorts – these would become his watchwords as he sat down for the first jamming sessions at Schloss Norvenich with his fellow Can members, all of them in their own way seeking to cast off the restraints of their own academic, classical backgrounds as well as the banal, preset dominance of Anglo-American rock. It was time to begin again.

Can - Paperhouse

Can were well-named – cylindrical, enablers of content. Rather than pointlessly embark on ostentatious, virtuoso solos, of which they were all more than capable, they provided a setting in which sound ideas, an overall, organic energy, could flow freely. Liebezeit’s unconventional approach to drumming was crucial to this. He didn’t merely hold down the back seat, in the old rock parlance. He was an equal contributor in the collective, in which, according to Krautrock ideals, there were “No Führers!”, his percussion floating in the mix alongside guitar, keyboards, bass, vocals.

Being sensitive and alert to the overall need. It’s not just a great philosophy for playing, but also for living.

Liebezeit worked in tandem with bassist Holger Czukay, who was hardly a Stanley Clarke of the fretboard. Liebezeit, however, in his minimalist zeal, urged him to play even less, once threatening him with an axe for failing to do so. For all his ultra-disciplinarianism, however, Liebezeit’s was a discipline without dogma. His playing was truly “free” in that it unmoored Can. His refusal to observe the predictable, tethered, earthbound, restrictive regularity of blues-rock accounts for the levitation the group achieved – that dervish-like sense of “take-off” on “Father Cannot Yell” on Monster Movie, or midway through Tago Mago’s “Paperhouse,” as his drumkit seems to transmogrify into a set of rotorblades. Liebezeit’s playing on the title track of Future Days, his refusal to put his foot through the pedal but simply maintain a cyclical pattern contributes to its sheer weightlessness, its freedom from gravitational pull.

21st century music, in the freedoms and fresh highways and ambient airspace and post-rock options it has at its disposal, has much to thank Liebezeit for – he is worth dozens of higher profile, glorified rock drumming legends, but his self-sacrifice means he is rather less feted. In Cologne, he commuted quietly to work. It’s tempting to say that they should build a statue for him. However, Liebezeit was all about sublimating the ego in rock – converting all that selfish energy into the larger, collective effort, being sensitive and alert to the overall need. It’s not just a great philosophy for playing, but also for living.

Editor’s note: This celebration was originally written as part of our book, For The Record, in 2013. We have updated it for publication here.

By David Stubbs on January 22, 2017

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