By The Landlord
“This music allowed your thoughts to flow. It allowed beauty to get there. It was pastoral psychedelicism.” – Iggy Pop
When David Bowie moved to Berlin in 1976, he instinctively knew this was a special place to be. He always had a knack for finding the most stimulating musical environments. But when the Thin White Duke arrived, seeking to escape the glare of LA and his prolific cocaine habit, but gain ones with his great pal Iggy Pop and find new inspiration for what became the Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger, something special had already been happening across Germany since 1968.
There hadn’t been so much a ‘scene’, but a disparate group of individuals seeking a way to create music that didn’t follow the rules or styles of British or American rock’n’roll, nor the easy listening pop genre called “schlager". Above all they wanted to culturally rebuild a country that was still under the shadow of the second world war and with an old establishment still associated with a dubious past. There came an economic upturn, but with that an anger against the old guard, anti-Nazi riots in Munich, alongside others Paris and elsewhere, and of course the US civil rights movement. There was also the nihilistic activities of the Baader-Meinhof gang. And during that time, the musicians of West Germany, not to mention East Germany, felt as if they were living a place needing to be reborn. It was ‘Stunde Null’, or zero hour, and from that something new was stirring.
This was also the era in which great German film-makers were finding their feet. Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and most famously of all, Werner Herzog, whose films including music by Florian Fricke and his band Popol Vuh in which electronic music began to take shape
But what was this music that was known in the early 70s by the British press, in Melody Maker and in jokey fashion by John Peel, later known as “krautrock”? This week, to coincide with the release, for the first time, of Can’s compilation album, The Singles, it seems like as good a time as any share, discuss and compile suggestions of what this music is, and if it feels relevant, other material where there is clear evidence of krautrock’s huge influence.
What qualities does krautrock have, this “kosmische rock”, ”Teutonic rock" or "Götterdämmer rock”? The name might have come from a track from Amon Düül's Psychedelic Underground – Mama Düül und Ihre Sauerkrautband Spielt Auf ('Mama Düül and her Sauerkrautband Strike Up), with a somewhat derogatory English term, though affectionately coined by Peel. So is it all about the joy of repetition? A mixture of jazz, prog, indie, early punk, minimalism and electronica? And what is motorik?
A couple of years before Bowie’s move, Brian Eno had also gained a great curiosity in German music, and went to visit three musicians in the rural village of Forst in Lower Saxony. Cluster’s Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Möbius had moved away from the Berlin to Forst in 1971. They had both been an integral part of a thriving creativity in Berlin since 1968, and formed the famous Zodiak Free Arts Lab marked by experimentalism with tone generators, alongside bands such as Ton Steine Scherben and were also inspired by John Cage experimenting in the city at a concert with multiple tape recorders.
But later, in 1973, they joined up with Neu!’s guitarist Michael Rother to form Harmonia. They released two albums, Harmonia in 1974 and Deluxe in 1975 on the Brain label. When Eno visited them, by all accounts they had a very pleasant time, mainly talking about this music and playing ping-pong. Eno also brought a couple of blank reel-to-reel tapes and recorded some of their work before collaborating with them much later. But this experience undoubtedly fed into his work, and ultimately into the sponge-like mind of Bowie. And later on Rother highlighted Neu!’s tracks Hero and After Eight from the album Neu! 75, as ones Eno particularly liked.
Krautrock seems to have had, very approximately, three overlapping phases during 10-year period starting in 1968. Munich’s Amon Düül commune was a focus point, with something similar to a hippy-style gathering, of acid-drenched apocalyptic music, not unlike early Pink Floyd, though far more out there even than them, headed by John Weinziel and marked out the screaming vocals of Renate Knaup.
And then came bands revolved around “motorik” a distinctive, simple, four-beats-to-the-bar pattern that became a hallmark for the krautrock style. Can first formed in 1968 in Cologne, where Holger Czukay was a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the avant-garde classical composer. Czukay was also seeking something very different. He played bass, joining with Irmin Schmidt (keyboards), Michael Karoli (guitar), and Jaki Liebezeit on drums. The latter, who was Germany’s leading jazz drummer, had a lightbulb moment when he encountered a man on an acid trip who told him: “You have to play monotonous.” It seemed to fit in with his aim: “We did not try to play rock’n’roll. It was not the thing we were born with. We had to find our own way.” Gradually a new music was born. Avoiding the temptation to do complicated stop-start songs, like so many prog-rockers in the UK and elsewhere, a particular style of continuous, almost meditative music emerged. In 1970 they discovered the eccentric Japanese self-confessed “nomad” Damo Suzuki who spontaneously sang at a gig for them, crying out “Hey You!” in a moment that Czukay described as like a volcano exploding.
Another way of looking at a characteristic krautrock style came from Neu!’s Michael Rother who formed the band with Klaus Dinger. He describes the music has like a flowing river, finding such inspiration from the waterways of Hamburg, Munich, Dusseldorf, Pakistan, and even the River Bollin in Wilmslow, Cheshire – all places he has lived. As he describes the music, like the water, “It just goes on and on. It’s like time, the passage of time.” Perhaps this is why krautrock can be so meditative, and as Iggy Pop says, it allows thoughts to flow.
But another big strand of krautrock is of course its electronic element. Tangerine Dream and Cluster were pioneers in Berlin, but of course the most famous are Dusseldorf’s Kraftwerk. Neu!’s founding members were early members of the band, employed by founders and classical music students Ralph Hütter and Florian Schneider as “Muskikarbeiter” - music workers. But early Kraftwerk is very different to the one we know today. Here is their first TV appearance in 1970:
But Kraftwerk were very different in their experimentalism from the more apparently hippy non-conformists who spend most of their time living in squats on a shoestring. They were wealthy, with tailored suits and expensive shoes. And working from the famous Kling Klang studio, they had cleverly and humorously evolved, you might say, into other beings:
Kraftwerk however were also about rebuilding their culture and Germany, but in a different celebration of technology, with a romantic view of autobahns, factories, computers and theirr many sounds turned into musical art. As Hütter put it: “The human body has a small electric current - you can see that on an ECG. there is no separation between humans and technology, for us they belong together as a unity.”
This might reach some way towards celebrating and defining what krautrock is, but your song suggestions will go so much further. And there are many great points of reference to help, including of course Julian Cope’s book Krautrocksampler, and this rather enjoyable documentary which might be worth a watch:
Another joining point, or indeed plank, between the many different bands of this loosely defined genre is the producer and engineer Conny Plank who is associated with many of the above acts, and a huge number of British bands. Is krautrock just a handful of bands? Not necessarily. In the meantime some of the other artists worth investigating may include Aera, Agitation Free, Annexus Quam, Achim Reichel & Machines, Armaggedon, Ash Ra Tempel, Birth Control, Brainstorm, Brainticket, Brave New World, Cornucopia, The Cosmic Jokers, Dom, Edgar Froese, Eiliff, Electric Sandwich, Eloy, Embryo, Emtidi, Faust, Frumpy, GÄA, German Oak, Gila, Gomorrha, Grobschnitt, Guru Guru, Hölderlin, Ihre Kinder, Ikarus, Jane, Klaus Schulze, Kollektiv, Kraan, Lucifer's Friend, Mammut, Metropolis, Morpheus, Mythos, Necronomicon, Nektar, Nosferatu, Novalis, Orange Peel, Out of Focus, Parzival, Passport, Popol Vuh, early Scorpions (honestly), Triumvirat, Twenty Sixty Six & Then, Xhol Caravan, and Yatha Sidhra. Phew. That’s some trip …
Helping guide you on this terrific Teutonic journey, we welcome back our regular Song Bar visitor and our intelligently agile regular, the fabulous flatfrog. Put your krautrock and related songs into comments below for the deadline called at 11pm UK on Monday evening, in time for playlists published next Wednesday. Jetzt sind wir alle Musikarbeiter!
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