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HJ Irmler and Jaki Liebezeit (live at Café OTO)

16 June 2015

HJ Irmler and Jaki Liebezeit posterThere is a German proverb which reads, “Jede Leiter fängt mit der untersten Sprosse an und nach der obersten kommt nur noch freier Fall.” We might possibly translate this as, ‘Every ladder begins at the lowest rung, but after the highest the only way is down’. Tonight, the capacity audience packed into a summer-heated Cafe Oto are treated to evidence that miraculously both confirms, and at the same time, gloriously disproves this pithy aphorism of folk wisdom.

It’s like a sardine packers’ outing in here. The only time I’ve ever seen OTO this full before – and with such a palpable sense of fevered anticipation – is awaiting the entry of the Sun Ra Arkestra. And the reason for tonight’s sense of breathless anticipation is the imminent arrival of two men whose legendary status equals, and possibly even exceeds, that of Ra’s merry band of cosmic jokers. For tonight, amongst us walks Jaki Liebezeit of Can, a band now revered to such an extent that many consider their greatest work amongst the finest in the history of twentieth century music.

Here is the man whose dizzying, swirling percussive genius provided the forward propulsion for their achievements and helped to define a whole new lexicon for rock music. Alongside him is Hans Joachim Irmler of Faust, the band of whom Julian Cope once said “There is no band more mythical”. Perhaps only the early 1970s could have provided the right climatic conditions for Faust to have existed – like those that allow artist Berndaut Smilde to create his awe-inspiring indoor cloud formations. The madcap musical mayhem that Faust unleashed on the world could never have lasted, yet it existed for just long enough to hold open the door to a room of undreamed of musical possibilities. And whilst that door was briefly ajar, a whole generation of future musicians rushed in and took a good look around.

For the most part, when both bands were at the peak of their awesome creative powers in the mid-1970s, Anglophone audiences were, largely, indifferent to and uncomprehending of its radical difference from the blues-derived rock hegemony of the age. Such difference was predicated on more than mere stylistic nuance, though. It was expressive of a quest by a whole new generation of young German musicians to both escape Anglo-American colonisation of their minds, and to forge a new music that disavowed the horrors of the fascist era and celebrated the diversity of a new, long-haired, anti-authoritarian pax Germanica. And to its participants it obviously felt like a necessity at the time – as Liebezeit points out later in the evening, “There were no cotton fields in Germany. That meant we had to create something new, something different, something that was ours”.

Given the largely-rigged global economy of the music industry, such a movement might well have remained a thoroughly local affair, briefly flourishing and withering entirely within the borders of the Federal Republic of Germany, unheralded and unlamented any further afield. Yet, as has been well documented in recent years now that the children of the age are adults in the media elite with the reins of commissioning firmly in their hands, Britain in the 1970s was a changing place, a nation in transition.

Those that were young at the end of the decade had very different tastes to those that were young at its beginning. The ones that subsequently took up arms in the wars of punk and post-punk looked at the “new German music”(drawing to its end by that time) and were astonished by what they saw: breathtaking musical innovation, outward-looking perspectives that spoke of a new internationalism, near-democratic band structures in which there were “no leaders” and no pointless displays of virtuosity, and a rhythmic style so compelling that only the very best could be talked of as equalsi. A whole generation looked on open-mouthed and decided that it wanted a bit of that. Even David Bowie looked on and decided that he wanted a bit of that.

And thus, strangely, after the slow, uncelebrated climb from the lowest rung of the ladder, the music of ‘Krautrock’, far from free falling, remained suspended in mid-air, filling its wings with the power of adoration, before beginning a long majestic ascent up into the Heavens. Today, some four decades later, it remains a foundational ur-source, part of modern music at the level of its very DNA. Indeed, though it may irk the purists, much of today’s music bears the imprimatur of Ralf Hütter, not Blind Lemon Jefferson. Today’s driving electronics and bass frequency substructures have ‘Made in Germany’ written all over them, and their freshness and sense of restless musical investigation continue to inspire. Age cannot wither them, nor custom stale their infinite variety. Or, to paraphrase Thom Yorke of Radiohead (talking about the Helden that were NEU!), “[This] music is like a brand-new motorway, and you are the first person to drive along it.”

HJ Irmler and Jaki Liebezeit live at Café OTO

Liebezeit and Irmler enter and take their places, stage left and right respectively. If Lennon and McCartney themselves had entered the room, the reception could have been no more rapturous nor reverential. Irmler sits behind a berserk transistor organ that he built himself in the 1970s, its crazy spaghetti junction of leads, patches and wires spilling out of the back like the entrails of a wounded animal – if any modern health and safety inspectors were here, it would surely drive them blue with apoplexy. And what sounds it makes! From cosmic clusters and stellar sound-bombs to deep, bowel-trembling bursts of bass, Irmler spends the evening wrestling with it like a man fighting with an anaconda. If Dr Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown were to take up an instrument, it would look just like this.

Across from this screwball brilliance sits Liebezeit. The first thing to notice, even before the man himself is sitting behind it, is the simple, stripped-down structure of his kit: a snare, a floor tom, two rack toms and three small cymbals. This is hardly the stuff of rock drummer legend; it would scarcely fill up Neil Peart’s sock drawer. Later on in the evening, Liebezeit explains that around twenty years ago, as he sensed intuitively that his music, and his way of playing it, were changing, he took the decision to jettison any extraneous items that detracted from it and concentrate on playing in a style that was more electronic and more suited to modern music.

Having started as a jazz drummer, and with a deep and abiding passion for the genre, he nevertheless felt that the modern drumkit, designed as it was with jazz in mind, was no longer suitable for him. He thus systematically began to subtract items, taking away first the kick drum (“For most of human history drummers have always played the beat with the hand”) and then the hi-hat (“The hi-hat was invented as a Charleston machine. I do not play the Charleston often”). Samuel Beckett once said that “[James Joyce] was a synthesiser, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyser, trying to leave out as much as I can.” After almost sixty years, Liebezeit has now, too, become analyser, and in his quest for modernity and purity, he has decided that he needs less, not more.

And as this Titan sits down and delicately raises his sticks, to my utter astonishment, the first thing he plays is that beat – the one that everyone plays when they play the drums for the first time: dun, dun, tisch, dun, dun, tisch, dun dun, tisch. It’s like seeing Daniel Barenboim enter the concert hall, sit down behind his sleek black piano, take a deep breath, riding the intense solemnity of the moment, and then belt out a version of “Chopsticks”. I actually begin to laugh. There could be no more profound deconstruction of his own legend that to begin, not with some kind of motorik classic, but with the beat used by every sixteen year old at his – or her – first band practice.

It is a truly sublime moment. And yet, of course, it is deceptive. Whilst Irmler swoops, soars, bleeps and howls, Liebezeit begins each piece with such a simple beat that almost anyone in the audience could manage to hold down. Yet, within minutes he has built layers of poly-rhythm with a conjuror’s effortless legerdemain, taking us from Drum 101 to master class before anyone can even appreciate what’s going on. The tapping of fingertips on tabletops, though, shows that the limbs have responded long before the conscious minds.

That is the beauty of the drum, it is the primal instrument. On the African plains, hundreds of thousands of years ago there was the drum, and as a species we remain hard-wired to response to its call. Until tonight, for some twenty five years, since a night at Band on the Wall in Manchester, I had always believed that Joey Baron was the greatest drummer that I had ever seen perform live (with the estimable Glen Valez possibly just a step behind him). Yet tonight Liebezeit, I think, tops that. The focussed, elegant, simplicity with which he now plays is breath-taking, like watching a surgeon at work. There is no flash, no dazzle, just a feeling that you are hearing a musical equivalent of Beckett’s Rockaby, only what is truly essential. It takes a life-time of playing to do it this simply.

Irmler and Liebezeit weave in and out of each other’s slipstreams, and when they collide, the result is absolutely magnificent, part kosmische, part man-machine electronica, part ethnographic documentary. Beautiful. For the briefest of moments, Liebezeit slips in a Can rhythm and I can’t disguise that my pulse races.

When they finally draw the performance to a close, they look almost disbelieving at the wall of audience noise and adulation that greets them. Yeah, this was a tough audience; they were always going to have to work hard to win us over… But perhaps neither man has ever quite forgotten the disapprobation that greeted them during their first visits to these shores, and nearing 80 (80!) it is joyous to see the pleasure on Liebezeit’s face. They reappear for one encore, which only drives the assembled faithful even wilder in their devotion.

HJ Irmler and Jaki Liebezeit live at Café OTO (Picture: Tony Collins)After a short break, the performance area is cleared, and they reappear in the company of David Stubbs – hilariously introduced as David Grubbs – who proceeds to interview them around their lives and work. As much as I liked Stubbs’ recent tome on the history of Krautrock, and I did, he is in truth a poor interviewer. Making all too little allowance for the fact that these are more, ahem, senior gentleman, after a gruelling set, under hot lights in an already fearsomely under-ventilated room, and in all probability no longer speaking English every day, his questions are too often merely long, rambling statements, whose overly-complex vocabulary (“semiotic cleansing”) and obscure references (Leeds Lending Library) do not best serve the immediate task of animating the conversation and injecting plenty of pep into it.

Much better are the questions from the audience, short and to the point, and these elicit some truly fascinating insights from the two protagonists: Liebezeit expands on his time playing with Chet Baker in Barcelona in the early 1960s, Irmler explains the technicalities behind Faust’s legendary ‘Black Boxes’ ii, both men talk about Germany at the time when their respective bands were at their zenith.

My favourite solid gold nugget from the conversation comes when Liebezeit reveals the origins of the name Can. To decide on the final name of the band, each member sitting around the table agreed to write down their preferred option on a piece of paper and place it in a can in the middle. The name on the first piece of paper to be withdrawn would thereafter be the definitive moniker. Whispering together and mischievously deciding to rig the vote, Liebezeit and singer Malcolm Mooney looked at the ballot box itself and both wrote down ‘Can’ on their papers. Call it luck, call it statistical likelihood, the name that emerged first was ‘Can’. As bold, as irreverent, and ultimately as goddamn right as their music itself.

Laying to rest all dissection of the pejorative overtones of the word ‘Krautrock’, Liebezeit makes, undoubtedly, the joke of the evening? “Krautrock? It hardly matters now. These days it’s all about the Kraut-sourcing.” Damn, he’s good.

Tonight is a celebration of these men and their music. Tonight is a celebration of music in general. On the walk home (God bless Café OTO), one line in particular sticks in my mind, “You cannot live in the past. If you do that, you may as well give up. As an artist, you must keep looking for new ways forward.” There are no laurels being rested upon here, and the evening was all the more special for it.

-Words: David Solomons-
-Pictures: David Solomons and Tony Collins-

i Brian Eno famously said that “There were three great beats in the 1970s: Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, James Brown’s funk and Klaus Dinger’s NEU! beat.”

ii Built by Irmler and engineer Kurt Graupner, each Black Box featured tone generators and ring modulators, into which each member of the band would plug and control with foot switches. When linked in series, this enabled each Faust member to effect the raw sounds of the others’ instruments in real time and create lush bursts of effect.

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