Jaki Liebezeit’s Eternal Rhythm

Can drummer and founding member Jaki Liebezeit shuffled off this mortal coil yesterday at the age of 78. As far as drummers go, I can’t think of anyone more influential on my own music-making. I’m not alone.

The Guardian:

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.

{In his final years} 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.

I’ve written here about my fascination with artists who are hugely influential while the general public are, for the most part, completely unaware. I seem to gravitate towards these solitary figures for my own inspiration and, from what I know about them, they are largely content and appreciative of their status.

The Quietus:

A rare innovator that saw the unlimited possibilities that rewarded a little altered thinking, Liebezeit – who first began his musical career as a trumpeter and later as Germany’s leading jazz drummer, playing with the likes of Chet Baker – helped pioneer the style of Motorik polyrhythms that came to define the genre. Where Can’s textures and compositional freedom blended Cage’s spontaneous music and Schoenberg’s dissonant explorations, Liebezeit’s craft – which he regularly said was influenced, above else, by machines – took repetition, accuracy and unusual rhythms to fashion stark, thrashing, hypnotic grooves that simultaneously married an open-ended jazz mindset with distinctly metronomic precision.

While Can’s Holger Czukay once said Liebezeit was “more inhuman than a drum machine” the drummer himself said it best when he told an interviewer back in 2014, “I can play a little bit like a machine but the difference between a machine and me is that I can listen, I can hear and I can react to the other musicians, which a machine cannot do.” By simultaneously marrying rhythmic precision with percussive vision, his ultra-disciplined, hypnotic approach has influenced generation after generation of musicians as mottled as various techno pioneers and punk bands, as well as the likes of Sonic Youth, Stereolab, The Fall, Beak> and countless others besides.

I’m pretty sure the very first drum sample I ever looped and used in a song (around 1990, pre-Q-BAM) was from Can’s “Mushroom”. “Mushroom” contains just one of Liebezeit’s many baffling (in a good way), kosmische-ly groovy rhythms, and that’s only the first time that I lovingly borrowed from him. The ‘he lives on’ cliché is undisputedly apt here as his beat is the heartbeat of many artists and producers, now and still to come.

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