Caught by the River

Ugh Just Drums

Cally Callomon | 31st January 2017

Cally Callomon pays tribute to Jaki Liebezeit, founding member of Can who died last week aged 78:

Moments in time: the day the music was born and died, both flanked by two large newspaper entries. One a full paged advert in the Melody Maker, a single photo of a tiny band playing in front of an enormous curtain with the headline “From Germany: The Mighty Can’ the other: today’s obituary for their drummer the ‘mighty’ Jaki Liebezeit.

“Ugh, that’s just all drumming” said my mate Mick Gillespie at school when I first put on Tago Mago, a pocket-sleeved double album by (the) Can in our sixth form common room. All my mates thought I’d got it wrong, nowhere was the flamboyant flute-iness of The Tull, absent were the flourishes of The Queen, there were no The Genesis-like stories or complexities of The Yes…. no, just ‘drumming’ and so came cat-calls of “get it off” and my bedroom became the only place I could secretly listen to Tago Mago. Over and over again. And then over again.

The ‘Just drumming’ was that of Jaki Liebezeit. My German cousin had sent me over music that really was an alternative to the insipid American soft-rock of Kansas and Reo Speedwagon, an antidote to withering British Prog and a tonic to the growing psychedelia to be found in late-blooming Motown and Jamaican Version. His contributions were all-German, mostly one-dimensional, trance-like repetitive teutonic beats and improvisation (oh the improvisation! hours of noodling and meandering, charges into the unknown, technique turned down to a minimum: the adventure controls set on 10).

Jaki was my touchstone. He made me sell my flute in 1975 and buy my first drum kit (a small Broadway set-up, the knock-down budget end of Premier). After I got over the flamboyance of showing-off (the domain of most inept drummers), I knuckled down into playing it straight and simple and often and over and over again. And, thanks to Jaki, with just one hand. Jaki’s career was a whole new kind of drum school. He even made the first Eurythmics album adventurous. Though a main-stay of Can – one of their five pillars of wisdom – he touched so many other ‘groups’ yet he was never typecast as Mr Metronomik. Late period Can (as I came to understand) embraced Sly Dunbar and Tony Allen where the off was as significant as the on-beat, where the gaps allowed your foot to fill in the space; allowed you to be in the music, the very essence of the dance.

Set aside Jaki’s early career as a jazz drummer, later as a much sought-after side-show, as a man who vitalised even the dullest of collaborations, and embrace the man as the founding father of trance, of the Belgian New Beat, of Derrick May, his beats lived on in Talk Talk, in Elbow, and in so many, perhaps all the dance genres he skipped so lightly over.

Whilst England floundered in pomp and circumstance, Germany invaded these shores with adventure, imagination and a panzer rhythm that had Jaki sitting on top of the tank, pounding as well as skipping, leaving out the best bits for our feet to fill, perhaps the most generous drummer we have ever heard.

My mate Mick was right, it was ‘ugh just drumming’: it was Ür-drumming.

Jaki Liebezeit, 26 May 1938 – 22 January 2017