Mourning The Passing Of The Great Percussive Engine Of Krautrock
Even as Sound Opinions was putting the finishing touches on this week’s genre dissection of Krautrock, the hugely influential and wildly adventurous blend of psychedelic rock and electronic experimentation that the German musicians of the late ’60s and early ’70s preferred to call “kosmische musik,” sad word came of the death of Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit on Sunday. He was 78 years old.
Though his name may not be as familiar as that of many other legendary drummers, Liebezeit stands among the best who’ve ever played rock ’n’ roll. Born in a small village near Dresden in 1938, he started out playing free jazz: He was part of Mandred Schoof’s quintet in the mid-’60s, and his biggest drumming hero was the African-American giant Art Blakey. His chops were second to none, and though his signature style with Can consisted of repetitive and hypnotic looping patterns, there always was a soulfulness in his playing that was much more man than machine (in stark contrast to his peers in Kraftwerk or Klaus Dinger in Neu!), and more Maureen Tucker than Ginger Baker or Keith Moon (though he easily could have out-soloed either of those more celebrated gents).
Not for nothing did Kanye West sample Liebezeit propelling Can’s “Sing Swan Song” for “Drunk and Hot Girls” on his third album Graduation.
The news of Liebezeit’s death, for which no cause has been announced, comes even as fans of Can were eagerly awaiting a reunion of the surviving members at London’s Barbican in April. Yet even if we’ll never have the chance to see him onstage again, his music lives on: The Can albums Monster Movie (1969), Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972), and Future Days (1973) are essential owning for all rock fans, and his playing outside the group can be heard far and wide, with collaborators ranging from Jah Wobble, to Brian Eno, to Depeche Mode.
In tribute to Liebezeit, and as an appetizer for this week’s Sound Opinions, here is my chapter on Can from my 2008 book Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades of Psychedelic Rock. Thanks for all of the great music, Jaki; yoo doo right indeed.
Then I Saw Mushroom Head
Any music without energy I throw to my tape machine’s starving eraser heads.
—Holger Czukay, The Can Book
When they came together in Cologne in 1968, the members of Can had little experience with rock ’n’ roll. Czukay played the French horn and studied composition under Stockhausen. His goal in forming a band was to merge free jazz, contemporary classical music, and “ethnic music”/worldbeat. His first recruit, Irmin Schmidt, studied classical piano and composition, and Jaki Liebezeit was an accomplished jazz drummer. Only Czukay’s student, guitarist Michael Karoli, was a full-blown rock fan. It was Karoli who suggested that the Beatles were more interesting than Stockhausen. “I Am the Walrus” indicated that he might be right, but the Velvets proved even more inspirational.
The musicians jammed in a castle called Schloss Norvenich, and improvisation was key from the beginning. “We began without any concept,” Schmidt said in Pascal Bussy and Andy Hall’s The Can Book. “Our only idea was to find a concept in making music all together spontaneously, in a collective way without any leader.” Can’s method of reworking songs at each performance came to be called “instant composition,” and the group’s fans frequently used the word “telepathic” to characterize the members’ playing. What set Can’s improvisations apart from free jazz, the space jams of the Grateful Dead, or the virtuosic meanderings of Cream was a devotion to rock simplicity. Czukay was the master of one- and two-note bass lines. Karoli played in what’s been described as a spidery, chip-chop style, and Schmidt attacked his keyboards with rapid-fire karate chops. “Inability is often the mother of restriction, and restriction is the great mother of inventive performance,” Czukay told Bussy and Hall. As for Liebezeit, even when he played in unusual time signatures, he had a way of locking into a powerful and hypnotic pulse. It was rumored that he learned several “forbidden rhythms” from a Cuban musician who practiced Santeria. Supposedly, the Cuban was executed onstage because he had dared to play the rhythms outside sacred ceremonies. “It is something that I heard, I did not witness the actual execution,” is all Liebezeit would say.
Two months after their initial jams, the members of Can were joined by vocalist Malcolm Mooney, an eccentric African-American sculptor from New York who was bumming around Europe. Mooney had never played music, but he was a jazz and blues fan who dreamed of being a singer. The Germans were drawn to his manic energy, and he was soon improvising rhythmic torrents of words over the band’s churning music. The rehearsal room at Schloss Norvenich was converted into a studio with the addition of a two-track recorder and some old U.S. Army mattresses, and there Can recorded its first album. Monster Movie was initially released in a batch of five hundred copies on a small Munich label, but United Artists signed the band and re-released the album in August 1969. The disc was credited to “the Can,” but the article was dropped a short time later. In the spirit of 1968, Schmidt told journalists that the letters stood for “Communism, Anarchism, and Nihilism,” and the original liner notes introduced the musicians as “talented young people who want to stay in line but can’t.”
As the title indicates, Monster Movie is a cinematic album whose ominous tones summon images of lurking predators. It opens with “Father Cannot Yell,” recorded in the second take of Mooney’s first session with the band. The keyboard, the bass, the frantic rhythm, and the insistent guitar combine to create a feeling of panic as Mooney free-associates in a desperate rap, but the album’s most impressive track takes up all of side two. “Yoo Doo Right” is some three minutes longer than the Velvets’ “Sister Ray,” which was clearly its inspiration. Recorded live during a concert at the castle, one of the band’s two amps blew up in the middle of the piece, but the group kept right on playing. Over a primal drum beat, Mooney rants about a love letter from a girlfriend in America. The tension builds throughout the song and it is never resolved, leaving the listener wondering exactly what action the letter prompted.
Even before the release of Monster Movie, Mooney’s position in the band was undermined by growing psychological problems. During one concert at the castle, he had an episode similar to one of Syd Barrett’s onstage freakouts when he fixated on audience members moving between Can’s show and an art exhibit upstairs. He screamed, “Upstairs, downstairs!” for two hours until he finally collapsed. “Malcolm lost his head, which happened sometimes,” Karoli explained in The Can Book. When a mystic friend told Mooney he was taking the wrong path in life, he began to grow paranoid. On the advice of a psychiatrist, he quit the band in late 1969 and went back to America.
Can spent some time recording soundtracks for art films and porno movies (music that was compiled on the album Soundtracks) before releasing its second proper effort in 1971. Tago Mago introduced a new vocalist, Damo Suzuki, a twenty-one-year-old Japanese singer whom Liebezeit and Czukay saw busking outside a cafe in Munich. “I saw Damo from far away, and he was screaming and sort of adoring the sun,” Czukay told Bussy and Hall. “I said to Jaki, ‘Here comes our vocalist!’ and Jaki said, ‘No, no, it can’t be true!’” Suzuki was invited to that night’s performance. He began screaming at the audience and cleared the room in record time, thereby assuring his position in the band.
The group called Tago Mago its “magic record.” Named after a site that figures in the legend of sorcerer Aleister Crowley, the standout tracks have an air of mystery and forbidden secrets. “Aumgn” features Schmidt chanting ritualistically over a creepy Eastern instrumental, and Suzuki’s ranting on the tom-heavy “Hallelujah” is even weirder than Mooney’s on “Yoo Doo Right.” The trance-inducing “Mushroom” is an obvious tribute to those of the psychedelic variety, and the memorable line, “When I saw mushroom head / I was born and I was dead” neatly encapsulate a psychedelic experience.
In late 1971, Can moved out of Schloss Norvenich and into an old cinema outside Cologne. The new studio was called Inner Space, and it became the band’s permanent home. The group was still recording with a simple two-track tape machine, but its live performances were becoming more elaborate. Concerts often featured a juggler and a fire eater as added attractions while the group played for up to four hours in front of as many as ten thousand German fans. Can’s third album, Ege Bamyasi, took its name and cover art from a can of vegetables found in a Turkish restaurant. The music offers more of the same dark grooves, but it doesn’t improve on the first two albums. Future Days is another story, expanding the band’s sound in an almost symphonic style. “Moonshake” is meant to evoke tugboats chugging down the Rhine, and the side-long “Bel Air” uses echoes and tape loops to create an impressionistic portrait of the wind-swept cliffs on the coast of Portuguese coast.
Suzuki left the group in September 1973 after marrying a German girl and becoming a Jehovah’s Witnesses. This time, Can abandoned the idea of an outside singer, and Karoli and Schmidt divided the vocals. Subsequent albums suffer from this decision, but they have their moments. “Dizzy Dizzy” from 1974’s Soon Over Babaluma incorporates a reggae beat, and “Chain Reaction” is flavored with African percussion. In 1975 Can signed with Virgin Records, and its albums for that label mix pieces from the “ethnological forgery” series with warped pop tunes such as “Hunters and Collectors” from 1975’s Landed and “I Want More” from 1976’s Flow Motion. In 1977 Czukay quit after first retiring to a behind-the-scenes role of mixing and “playing” shortwave radio and telephone. By that time the band included two veterans of Traffic, bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah. The early experimentation was replaced by rote European dance sounds, and the group offered up a lame disco version of the “Can-Can.” A short time later, the band wisely called it a day.
Can reunited once in 1986. Mooney, now a remedial reading teacher in New York, flew in to sing, but the resulting album, Rite Time, was anti-climactic. The musicians had grown too much during their solo projects, their egos had gotten too big to accept musical accidents, and the lure of fancy technology had become irresistible. It disbanded again and the members went their separate ways. Liebezeit is an in-demand session drummer; Schmidt composes music on his own, and Czukay sometimes tours as a techno DJ. Can’s original psychedelic spirit lived on longest in Karoli and Suzuki, who sometimes toured together, continuing to improvise most of what they played on the spot, until Karoli died from cancer in 2000. “He was special,” Suzuki said of Karoli when we spoke in 2001. “We were not really best of friends, but we played music much more together. He had really special taste, and he played music in a way you could not really compare to anybody else. He had a really good instinct with my voice, and we played so well together. I don’t really know anybody else like him.”
Can remains an inspiration to other musicians—in 1997, artists like the Orb, Sonic Youth, and Bruce Gilbert of Wire for an album called Sacrilege: The Remixes, and the New York garage band Mooney Suzuki took its name from Can’s two vocalists—and Suzuki in particular is a hero (the Fall wrote a song in homage entitled “I Am Damo Suzuki”), largely because of the completely free and daring way that he approaches making music. “Comfortable things are the enemy of creative things,” he told me. In 2002 he toured with the “intuitive music” band Cul de Sac, but refused to meet them before they got together for the first time on stage. “Damo has three rules: ‘No improvisation. No rehearsal. No prepared songs,’” guitarist Glenn Jones told said before the start of the tour. Added Suzuki: “We are just going to meet and make music, because that’s the way I like to do it. It’s much better for me, because you can enjoy the music of the moment. I think it’s the best way to make my feelings instinctive. For twenty years, I only make music this way.”
This, I noted, is what makes him a hero. “Not hero,” he said. “I’m much more a shaman or something like this.”