If you’ve ever listened to a Can album — and if you haven’t, then for goodness’ sake, stop reading this and go and do so — you’ve probably marveled at the strange, ever-evolving rhythms that underpinned the psychedelic swirl of guitar, keyboard and bass, and the equally remarkable vocals of Damo Suzuki (and, previously, Malcolm Mooney). Those rhythms were the work of Jaki Liebezeit, who died of pneumonia over the weekend at the age of 78.
Drummers rarely get the attention they deserve, but Liebezeit’s work was so striking that even those who have no acquaintance with the technical aspects of drumming — I count myself among this number — couldn’t help but notice how unique his work was. Can’s music sounds like no-one else, and a large part of this is because it feels so free — listen to, say, Tago Mago and then to a conventional rock record, and you can’t help but notice how hidebound the latter sounds, the drums generally hammering away at an unchanging 4/4 pattern. Liebezeit’s work is especially notable for how he managed to be unerringly precise — apparently his bandmates dubbed him “half-man, half-machine” — and yet endlessly inventive, providing both a solid foundation and the basis for improvisation.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Liebezeit’s roots weren’t in rock ‘n’ roll at all; his earliest work was in the band of free jazz trumpet pioneer Manfred Schoof, and the freedom that genre emphasized remained an enduring influence on his playing. He joined Can as a founding member in 1968, and played on all their albums; indeed, it’s hard to imagine Can being Can without him. Once the band went their separate ways, he played with artists as diverse as Brian Eno. Jah Wobble and Depeche Mode. He remained active up until his death; indeed, he was planning to reunite with Mooney and Irwin Schmidt as “The Can Project” in April at the Barbican in London.
To commemorate his talents, here’s a video of Can and Liebezeit at their peak in 1970.