It wasn’t difficult, even for someone like me, who grew up with heavy doses of 80’s post punk and new wave and later into acid house and 90’s electronica, to have a complete devotion for Can and in particular for the forward-thinking genius of Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Czukay.
Just only because Jaki Liebezeit featured in one of my favourite treasured records, Brian Eno’s ‘Before And After Science’, and of his long-standing collaboration with the former P.I.L. bassist Jah Wobble and with another 80’s hero of mine, David Sylvain, were enough to turn my attention to a genre that until then I wrongly considered too freakish and obsolete for my young taste.
Inspired by the teaching of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti and influenced by the American minimalistic school of Steve Reich,Terry Riley and La Monte Young as well as by the New York of Andy Warhol’s Factory and The Velvet Underground, Can were formed in Cologne in 1968 around the core of Irmin Schmidt, Holger Czukay and Michael Karoli with the brief, but crucial contribution by the black American painter and sculptor turned singer Malcolm Mooney.
Jaki Liebezeit, who spent his early formative years in Barcelona playing jazz with Chet Baker and the Manfred Schoof Quintet, as well as studying flamenco, Arabic and African music, disappointed by the lack of real harmonic rhythm in the free jazz, soon became the humble and quiet irreplaceable essential driving force of the quintet.
Outsiders of the rock scene and more linked with the German avant-garde circles, the band were able soon to set up a primitive recording studio, named Inner Space, in the dining room of Nörvenich castle; it was the Autumn of 1968 and that place will turn into their creative laboratory of the band’s own technique of improvisational songwriting, the ‘instant composition’ as Czukay defined it, the development of their free-form psychedelic experimentations and where would be delivered the most innovative and memorable records of the last three decades.
“We were trying to find our own way” Jaki said about that fertile period, “We thought like artists. Imagine a painter saying I can’t suddenly paint like Andy Warhol or like Jackson Pollock, so I have to find something else, something original. It takes a while, but it is possible to find”.
Irmin Schmidt also said “Jaki who created the rhythm. And once you have a rhythm, it became rock. Between Malcom and Jaki, who had already started to establish this hypnotic rhythm, all of a sudden Malcolm directed all this undecided energy in the group to this rhythm. He focused us all on Jaki’s rhythm. It was clear in this moment that this is where we had to go”.
The peak of Jaki’s art of drumming and Can’s unmatched masterpiece was ‘Tago Mago’ released in 1971, an highly influential double album, curiously just as Captain Beefheart’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’, the other ‘out of this world’ alien artefact from a couple of years before.
‘Tago Mago’ was a magical work since its foundations as Holger Czukay clearly explained in an interview “Before Jaki came to Can, he was trying to commit suicide…he went to Ibiza. And south of this island is a rock called Tago Mago. Mago means magic, and Tago was the name of a magic master who lived there. And Jaki was on that rock and tried to spring down because he thought his life didn’t make any sense. I think he is the one who said we should call it Tago Mago”.
‘Half man, half machine’, in this way he was called due to his skills and “metronome” math style of playing, he was “one of the few drummers to convincingly meld the funky and the cerebral”. Talking about his influences “Billy Cobham; he was a grand master. Art Blakey I love very much, but he died some years ago. There were a few rock drummers I liked, who have also died; John Bonham for instance, and not to forget Keith Moon”. Jaki also said about is drum machine-alike style “In Can I always tried to make my own loop and repeat that pattern with subtle variations”.
Liebezeit provided drums, in his patented “Motorik beat”, for multi-instrumentalist (primarily guitar and keyboards), Neu! co-founder and Harmonia member Michael Rother‘s late-1970s solo albums.
After Can split in the late 70s, he became a member of Phantom Band and has formed drum ensembles such as Drums Off Chaos and Club Off Chaos. Countless were his recordings with musicians, such as Jah Wobble and Philip Jeck, with whom he produced an album for Jah Wobble’s 30 Hertz Records.
He contributed drums and percussion to many albums as a guest throughout the years, such as the aforementioned seminal Brian Eno’s ‘Before And After Science’ album and Depeche Mode’s ‘Ultra’. In the last years he worked with fellow Cologne producer and musician Burnt Friedman on the ‘Secret Rhythms’ albums, with Kevin Coyne son’s Robert Coyne and with Schiller on the ‘Atemlos’ album
His ‘more inhuman than a drum machine’ hypnotic polyrhythms approach has influenced, generation after generation, a large variety of musicians from techno producers to punk bands, as well as the likes of Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth, Stereolab, The Fall, PiL, Loop, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Broadcast, Radiohead and Portishead just to name a few.
Although considered also an acronym for “Communism, Anarchism, Nihilism”, their concise, but amazing 3-letter name Can, according to their exegete Julian Cope, was chosen by Malcolm Mooney because in Turkish (pronunced ‘cian’) means both ‘life’ and ‘soul’, while ‘kan’ in Japanese means also ‘feeling’ and ‘emotion’ and, eventually, used as greet ‘love’. All terms that suite perfectly with the modern and immortal nature of the beating heart of Jaki’s drumming, his groove will keep on endlessy rolling in the blood of young beat-makers in many underground basements, garage or bedroom of the most faraway corners of the world.