Friday, 27 June 2014

A STARTER'S GUIDE TO KRAUTROCK


”"We were trying to put aside everything we had heard in rock 'n' roll, the three-chord pattern, the lyrics. We had the urge of saying something completely different."

To those who think Krautrock was made up of Kraftwerk plus a few answers to pub quiz questions, read on and grow wise...

When asked how the Sixties came to be such a vibrant era for music, many of it's practitioners have commented they simply had no choice. The times dictated it, press-ganged them into becoming sonic and social revolutions - ceaselessly racing to keep up with events and with one another. Bliss it must have been to to be alive in that very dawn. But listening to some of the music now on your home CD player – that's not too bad either.

But out of everything that was happening in those heady days, which scene was fairest of them all? London was, cliché though it might be, truly swinging. New York was as cutting-edge as a scalpel blade. Los Angeles was... actually, its pretty hard to sum up what was going down in Los Angeles. San Francisco was throwing music so deeply into the counter-cultural firmament it was getting hard to tell one from the other. And Detroit... Detroit was on fire. (Not a metaphor.)

Given all that, to then claim that one music scene was more important than all the others - that might sound like hyperbole. And to suggest that the fairest of them all was actually West Germany - that haven of careful drivers in reliable cars - that might sound like insanity. And yet its true! The only people who think otherwise are those who imagine you can measure music history by who got to Number One in any particular year.

Germany was the place where rock music morphed most into free music, where the musical rulebook was ripped to the smallest shreds. Krautrock took the American influence of rock'n'roll, reassembled it in a different order and launched it back upon the world – like the crazy neighbour kid in the 'Toy Story' film who reworks toys into freakish Frankenstein creations. Bands gravitated towards counter-cultural arts spaces over conventional venues, where they eschewed set-lists, refused curfews and charged at most a few marks on the door. Quite often bands weren't really bands at all but collectives, living and playing together in communes.

In the process it became like the stem cell of modern music - influencing punk, post-punk, hip-hop, dance and electronica. (One strand of Krautrock also fed into New Age music. Nobody's perfect.)

One day I might give release to my conjectures as to how that time and location became such a hotbed. But for now let's just say... fur jetzt und immer, Ich bin ein Krautrocker! (Und das is alles das Deutsche Ich weiss, das nachste bit kommt nur von Google Translate.)

But just in case you're not quite convinced just yet, here's a few vidclips to clinch the case...

Can


Like any great music scene, the concepts, the stories about Krautrock are as important as the music itself - and Can are no exception. Formed from impresarios out of the classical and free jazz worlds and (mostly) older than rock outfits of the time, they were kind of like zen masters. Exceptionally skilled musicians to the point where they could play pretty much what they wanted, they decided whatthey wanted was to play endless trance-out metronomic riffs - often for hours at a time. There's film of Irmin Schmidt hunched intently over a bank of keyboards, concentrating intensely, then deciding he needs to play one single note over and over. They moved into a castle, and set it up as their own studio so they could play all the time. I mean, what's not to love?

'Mother Sky' is imbued with an awesome guitar riff and swirling keyboard pattern. Highlights include the singer Damo looking like Sadeko from the 'Ring' films, only more possessed, and the girl who doesn't let the presence of TV cameras put her off her hash pipe. Lowpoints include discovering that Sixties audiences really did sit down. (Jungs and Madchen, you're watching Can, one of the grooviest bands in history, and you decide to sit down - wass???)


Faust


Faust were (and remain) a legendary band in about every sense. The striking, stark modernist design of their LP covers (so at odds with the gaudy prog sleeves of the time), the stunts they performed, the tales about them, all are as important as their music.

If Can were the Beatles of Krautrock, Faust were the Stones. If Can were linear and purposeful, able to distill their myriad influences through the blender of their smooth pulsing groove, Faust were abrasive, cacophonous and ultimately Dadaistic. They must make the most pranksterish anti-music of any music act, and to this day can achieve utter derangement on stage. (I have seen, I have witnessed.)

One of the (many) stories behind their name is that they regarded record contracts as Faustian pacts, and took a proto-Pistols glee in taking labels' cash without ever delivering marketability. Despite the band being actually very good at this, somehow there doesn't seem much film of them back in the day. But this is one of their classic tracks, 'Rainy Day Sunshine Girl,' assembled before your very eyes until it reaches Tatlin Tower heights, in Manchester in 2007. (And, for anyone who's never been to Manchester the clip's title, 'It's A Rainy Day in Manchester'.. that's that English humour thing you hear about. You get it if you live here. Which admittedly is a price to pay.)


Neu!


Originally a kind of offshoot from Kraftwerk, Neu! would be an essential band merely for having invented the motorik beat, one of the few beats to have it's own Wikipedia entry.

Though by no means ubiquitous to this scene (as we'll see) motorik did function as both heartbeat and signature. Much music soars and crests, climbing scales. Motorik glides, as if it's sound was so pure a thing as to be untroubled by the lumpen world of gravity. It's pulsing drive sounds organic and mechanical at once, repetitive yet so propulsive it always seems to be stretching ahead of you. It's like the car that always seems to stay in front of you on the motorway, seemingly sailing ahead without burning up any energy.

Alas best I could find for back-in-the-day footage was not just a short but an edited clip of 'Hero' (though with cool white dungarees and a bubble machine)...


...but as this is Neu! we're talking about let's have a double helping! Here's more recent footage of 'Hallogaloo' from 2010, with none less than Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley on drums...


Kraftwerk


Ever the contrarian, I have to admit when it comes to the most famous... okay the only famous Krautrock outfit I've never been that keen on them. I seem to rate their output in the very inverse to the way the band do. They've effectively disowned everything before the first all-electronic offering 'Autobahn' (keeping their first three albums out of print), while for me it's everything after 'Autobahn' which pales. All that “we are robots” stuff? Just a gimmick past its sell-by.

'Ruck Zack' is about as other-end as you can go without falling off - the opening track off their first album, where Florian Schneider was still playing a very un-machine-like flute. (Though not as we know it.) They obviously had a lot of stage sets in Seventies West Germany, this is exactly the same as the Can clip!


Popol Vuh


What was the difference between Krautrock and Kosmische? It's there in the names really, the ironic tag Krautrock was a proto-punk sonic assault on everything you thought you knew about music while Kosmische (German for 'cosmic') is spacier, less beat-driven, feeding into both to electronica and world music. Everything listed from this point on might better be called Kosmische. (Read Wikipedia on the Kosmische Music label, which many of the bands had releases on.)

Popol Vuh (chiefly known today for their Herzog film soundtracks) were perhaps the archetypal Kosmische outfit, seen here on 'Bettina' taking synthesizer and tabla drums into outer space. Dig those far-out groovy Sixties graphics!


Kluster/Cluster


I don't know this outfit as well as I should, to be honest. Almost the very inverse of Neu!, their trademark was not to bother with beats at all. Their style was more proto-industrial electronic ambience, like the soundtrack to the coolest SF show in the world. After all, why bother with music when you can get so far by just making sound?

Despite... or more likely because of... a distinct lack of commercial potential, not overcome even by a later Anglicisation of their name to Cluster, their influence extended far beyond their sales. They recorded an album with Eno and echoes of them are all over Bowie's Berlin-era sound.

The clip below claims there's no actual footage of them back in the day and uses instead some old TV doc. (During which we learn the German for “trendsetter”. Its “trendsetter”.) But while slideshow vids are normally dull, here the photos of piles of lead-trailing DIY electronic equipment and pop-art album sleeves are awesome! (Even though there's noticeably not enough of them to fill even a scant two minutes.)


Agitation Free


This band's monicker could quite possibly sum up the whole scene. Inevitably enough, it refers both to free music (playing what you felt like, impervious to custom or constraint) and free concerts (no door tax, no commercial venues, no curfew). Anyone who thinks this enormous, epic music is “mellow” mistakenly shot glue into their ears during their punk rock youth and is welcome to stick to their Anti Nowhere League.

There seemed to be no actual video footage of Agitation Free for the longest time. (Though thankfully plenty of live audio.) Then this longish clip from French TV came to the rescue...


Tangerine Dream


And there was a time when even Tangerine Dream... yes, Tangerine Dream were good! Not for long, though, judging by the brevity of clip of 'Sing All This Together'. (They actually sound quite Doorsish here. Which is generally a good thing.)


Amon Duul II


Some Krautrock purists complain Amon Duul II were more of a straight rock band than their contemporaries. Which is a restrictive view of their sound, and anyway overlooks the fact that even when they were a rock band they were a great rock band. (Okay, they became increasingly generic as the Seventies rolled on. So did most people.) Here they're punching and kicking their way through 'Eye Shaking King.'


Brainticket


Though often labelled a Krautrock band, Brainticket probably stretch the definition. Formed by a Belgian, with an American singer, they mostly operated out of Italy and only drummer Wolfgang Paap was genuinely German. And they sound at times like an American band, with a strong psychedelic soul influence. On the other hand, they normally recorded for German labels. Oh - they sound great! Who cares about the categories?

They were one of those Sixties bands who were always been censored or condemned for their drug references, despite never really making any. It was more something that permeated their look and sound. They reeked of derangement, inviting some and infuriating others.

I vowed I'd only link to authentic and contemporary footage. But this seems in short supply for Brainticket and, though post-hoc, this accompanying film is supremely fitting.


And to play us out...

Ash Ra Tempel


Everyone seems to talk in hushed tones of the Grateful Dead, like they were free-form jam pioneers and sonic cosmonauts. But they only ever sounded like over-indulding noodling hippies to me. Luckily though a band did exist which matches their description – the awesome Ash Ra Tempel! Listen as, knowing neither rules nor limits, they bend and reshape music much the way Salvador Dali did clocks. And reflect that Richard Branson has taken to space tourism too late, and gone the wrong way about it. Mellow hippies? They had a track called 'Flowers Must Die', and I could let my attempt to describe them rest just there.

Given their preference for free form, live was where the band most excelled. (The story goes that, even with some of their studio releases, the band had no idea they were being recorded as they worked out.) I even like the drum solo part on this one! Their live performances seem to come and go on YouTube. If the link below no longer works, just search by their name. You really can't go wrong.


Should your appetite be whetted at this point, might I suggest checking out my YouTube playlist for further sonic offerings? I'd also welcome suggestions of anyone I may have missed out. I lay not claim to be an expert, just an enthusiast.

Krautrock ist nich tot! Krautrock lebt ewig, aber für jetzt, das ist alles...

Coming soon! Maybe checking out some of those other scenes...

Sunday, 1 June 2014

QUAY BROTHERS: 'IN ABSENTIA' + 'KWARTET SMYCZKOVY'

Union Chapel, Islington, London, Fri 30th May


The annual Kinoteka Polish Film festival closed this year with a UK premiere from the Quay Brothers. 'Kwartet Smyczkovy' featured a live accompaniment by the Arditti Quartet, and was backed by their 1999 classic 'In Absentia'.

As the record shows, I am a huge fan of their surrealist-influenced film-making, and so had seen 'In Absentia' several times before. It hardly matters. Like the classic Surrealist films by Bunel and Dulac, you feel like you could watch it time and time again with it still coming up fresh.

However, this time I discovered something new - an association I'd always made turns out to have been a direct influence. The film focuses on a woman in an asylum, obsessively yet hopelessly trying to write and rewrite a letter. And yes, that furiously overwritten letter was inspired by the 'Beyond Reason' exhibition of art made by the commited insane. (Staged by the Hayward back in 1996, and still live in my mind.)

Like much in that exhibition, the film presents art not as self-expression in that sense of encouraging parents pushing at children's elbows, but as release - the only way to expurge your inner demons. As William Burroughs once said, “I had to write my way out.” And yet art is hard, and sometimes deceptive – sometimes refusing to deliver what it seems to promise. So pencil nibs break, works become smudged and smeared, lines written and over-written in the hope that some sense might emerge soon. (The fetish creature is wooden, and should I think be associated with the pencil in some animist fashion.) Her lead-stained fingers pass over the nape of her neck as though she herself is the paper, blotting her own copy book.

The two images that always stay with me are the pencil nibs placed on the windowsill, planted like they might somehow bloom, and the posting of the letters into a heavy dresser beneath a broken clock. A post box with no collections.


For the film to work on you the best you need to access those childhood memories, not of the unbounded creativity adults like to remember but of the action of writing being so frustrating. The pencil sitting awkwardly in your hand, the marks appearing on the paper so defiant of your intention – it all being such a compulsion and yet such a seeming impossibility.

But what makes it so involving is the way the themes are conveyed less by the narrative or even the imagery, and more by the overall mood. It becomes hard to work out how its doing what its doing on you. First we have Stockhausen's involving score. ('Two Couples', actually composed independently of the film.) Though there's a few concessions to the 'rules' of film narrative, such as opening with an establishing shot, it's essentially plot-less, conveying the woman in the room endlessly repeating those same movements. In that way it's more musical in it's structure, arranged around repeating motifs. (The brothers have said “We much prefer to obey musical laws, because they're not logical.”)

But there's also the visual style. Images are indistinct, as if seen through gloom. Light and shadow constantly play across the frame, as though scenes are lit only by passing car headlights. At points the light flares up, whiting the images out. The held image, the linking vowel of film grammar, seems unable to adhere itself to the screen. It's like the film has itself fallen to the virus it set out to present. We see both worlds simultaneously, the woman writing in the asylum, and the inside of her haunted mind. There's no framing, no Doctors calmly discussing her condition, no sense of the rest of the asylum as a smoothly running institution. There's just the madness.

In classic Quay brothers style the opening shot provides no sense of scale, and throughout tiny objects are framed as if gigantic, a pencil sharpener the size of a tunnel. This adds to the skewing of our perpections and heightens the sense of entrapment. This room is the woman's universe, and all meaning has to be found within it.


You know when something has affected you when, after you've seen it, the incidental details of the world around you seem permeated by it. A whiteboard message on the Tube had been inexpertly part-wiped, fragments of letters still clinging to it. I found myself looking at it like it was a statement about the failure of communication. Though, come to think of it, that's the way I often feel about the Tube. And anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself...

What of the main film, the premiere, the thing we'd all come to see? 'Kwaret Smyczkovy' has a similar visual style to 'In Absentia', though also incoporating what looks like vintage found footage. Arguably, it also has similar themes. Part-based on a silent one-act play ('The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other' by Peter Handke... no, I'd never heard of it either) it focuses on the distance between a man and a woman. At one point we see them in separate compartments of a tram. Are they unable to make contact, or simply oblivious of one another? 

Similarly, the woman of 'In Absentia' writes undeliverable letters to her husband, while she and the asylum guard who passes her pencils are never shown in the same frame. (This aspect of the film may be underplayed by my focus on the desire for release. But it's not a film you're ever going to pin to one reading.) Yet, while 'In Absentia' is very much about presenting an inner world, this seems to play between exterior and interior.


When a film has a live soundtrack, you cannot help but foreground it in your mind. Which was perhaps unfortunate here as, unlike the captivating Stockhausen piece, I found it hard to get to grips with Witold Lutoslowski's string quartet. While a reliable source of gossip informs his intentions are to “build harmonies from small groups of musical intervals”, my ears were able to make out only the intervals from those skittering snatches of sound. It sounded the way broken crockery looks. I was still waiting for it to resolve itself when it abruptly ended.

There is of course something of an irony in the work I went to see being the one I have least to say about. 'Kwartet Smyczkovy' is a film I need to see again, but next time I intend to push the soundtrack further back in my mind.