Can's Jaki Liebezeit: the man who marched to the beat of his own drum

The late drummer of krautrock band Can influenced the likes of Roxy Music and Talking Heads by restructuring rock’s basic rhythm and drumming like a machine

Along with Klaus Dinger, a founder member of Neu! and inaugurator of the “motorik” beat, Can’s Jaki Liebezeit was responsible for restructuring rock’s basic rhythm, influencing countless bands including early Roxy Music, Talking Heads and Joy Division. He devised a more continuous, open-ended alternative to the Anglo-American blues-based, verse-and-chorus model. In the late 60s and early 70s, while a new generation of heavy rock and prog instrumentalists were showing off their virtuouso prowess, Liebezeit and fellow Can members – including keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and bassist Holger Czukay – devised a way of playing and jamming that was about creating space, rather than soloing pointlessly. Theirs was a style, developed on albums such as Tago Mago, Future Days and Ege Bamyasi, that achieved its ends through loops and repetition, creating a cumulative intensity. When they played, with Liebezeit’s percussion in full flow, circling like rotor blades, they achieved a kind of lift-off.

Liebezeit’s drumming was key to this. He had the extraordinary ability and focus to play in a style that seemed metronomic, but was the product of enormous discipline and keen theory as to the role of percussion, steeped in ethnological research, which began when he acquired an album of Indian music in 1961. He went on to study North African, Turkish and Iranian music, fascinated by its rhythmical patterns.

Liebezeit started off, however, playing rock’n’roll music, albeit reluctantly. Born in 1938 in a small village near Dresden, he and his family moved about a lot, experiencing a feeling of rootlessness that, coincidentally, was characteristic of his playing style. Eventually settling in the city of Kassel, he played in rock’n’roll bands because that was the style demanded by the American troops stationed there when they wanted to let their hair down. Many of the musicians who became part of the krautrock generation earned their spurs this way – aping Anglo-American beat music for the entertainment of occupying postwar forces, conscious eventually of the need to forge an all-new musical identity, German in origin.

Liebezeit then turned his hand to jazz, idolising drummer and bandleader Art Blakey and joining the Manfred Schoof Quintet in Cologne. He then spent some time touring in Spain where he heard a flamenco band play and felt stirrings of disaffection with what he considered to be the needless over-elaboration of modern, free jazz. He felt that what was considered “free” in fact represented a terminus in musical development. He spoke of the epiphany he experienced after a jazz gig when a stranger approached him and issued a solemn injunction: “You must play monotonously!”

This, Liebezeit decided to do. He would achieve a true freedom by playing in an ultra-repetitive, almost machine-like fashion. For this minimal, back-to-basic approach would proceed the maximal expanse and colouring of Can’s music. They created a brilliantly functional, organic whole – although things were not always harmonious in the studio. Beneath Liebezeit’s gentle, quiet, wry demeanour thudded a fierce aesthetic sense. I recall the first time I interviewed Can, in 1989 when they had got back together to release the album Rite Time. In his soft, reflective way, Liebezeit reminisced about how he had once chased Holger Czukay around the studio with an axe following an argument about his bass playing. Czukay, sitting next to him, chuckled at the memory.

Can made a fleeting appearance in the UK pop firmament in 1976 with I Want More, introduced on Top of the Pops by Noel Edmonds who punned feebly about their reaching the “top tin”. They cut a strange spectacle, these slightly ageing foreign would-be popsters, Liebezeit modestly holding down the drum seat in a Hawaiian shirt. However, I Want More’s rigidly, uncannily regular rhythms were a precursor to a later generation of electropop.

Following Can’s demise, Liebezeit collaborated over the years with a variety of musicians, including Jah Wobble, Brian Eno and Depeche Mode as well as fellow Can members. He worked in a small studio in an arts complex on the edge of Cologne, where he kept a dazzling collection of percussion instruments from around the world. By rights there ought to have been a statue of him in the market square and a day of national mourning declared for him in Germany, so colossal has been his influence, but he went about his home city entirely unrecognised.

The last time I saw him was at Cafe Oto in London, following a 2015 gig with Faust organist Hans-Joachim Irmler. As the venue emptied he stood alone, packing up his equipment unassisted. It made my blood boil to think of higher profile rock players with a tiny fraction of his talent who were nonetheless able to leave such tasks to roadie minions. I don’t suppose this bothered him at all. He loved to drum and he drummed to the end. And he was one of the greatest drummers who ever lived.

  • David Stubbs is the author of Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany


David Stubbs

The GuardianTramp

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