Saturday 10 April 2021


Keep Thinking Forward

Let's start with the summing up… this book’s a labour of love by a genuine afficionado. It’s approach has its problems, but it’s still very much something you need to read.

So, having nailed up our colours, let’s start on one of those problems - Stubbs sometimes Does Writerly Research. Which of course just gets in the way. In ’68 Can recorded a whole album, with a sound quite different to their debut, which at the time they couldn’t get released. The chapter on them skips the whole of that, yet starts with a three-page potted history of their home town Cologne.

But at other times research has its half-full side, even when it might seem most tangential to the music. As Stubbs rightly says “Krautrock was a cultural and historical phenomenon, rather than a mode of playing”. And few in Britain realise just how big the extra-parliamentary opposition was, contravening our easy stereotype of the sober-minded German. It’s summarised by Geronimo in 'Fire and Flames: A History of the German Autonomist Movement’ (PM Press):

“The revolt brought a new, uncompromising political morality. Its proponents rebelled against a generation that portrayed itself as an unaware victim of history while carrying the responsibility for Auschwitz. The new generation intended to make history as conscious subjects, thereby changing everyday life… a radical opposition to the existing order of West Berlin and West Germany.”

As the name suggests, the extra-parliamentary opposition was in part a reaction to the narrow, stratified notion of politics as ticks in boxes for rivalling bureaucrats. It effectively rejected the whole of western society as moribund. So its influence was both big and broad. Even Can, a band primarily composed of thirty-something ex-music tutors, performed their early gigs before footage of Parisian riots.

It’s true that overtly political lyrics are rare. But the bands were playing to already politicised times. Why call in song for people to come out on the streets when they’re already out on the streets? Instead they concentrated on making music as culturally radical as the times were politically.

On the front line of the Cold War, Germany had more American troops stationed than anywhere outside America itself, save Japan. Which helped disseminate rock music, while paradoxically heightening its association with dominant American culture. AFN was a radio station designed for US servicemen, eagerly listened to by German youth - yet a continual reminder of that enticing music’s origins. Stubbs puts it pithily: “What had once been the soundtrack of young rebellion now itself needed to be rebelled against”.

For years I’ve been saying a line from Wenders’ film ‘King of the Road’ (1976) states a foundational premise of Krautrock: “The Yanks have colonised our subconscious”. (Of course in a film stuffed with a rocking American soundtrack, even named after one number.) Now Stubbs has put it in print I feel a familiar mixture of vindication and envy.

Similar things happened in Britain, of course. But here the solution was to look back to our own history. If Can’s ‘Monster Movie’ was arguably the first Krautrock and Fairport Convention’s ’Unhalfbringing’ the first electric folk album, then the respective dates (August and July 1969) almost completely coincide. Yet the past was not an option for post-war German youth. Stubbs quotes Can’s Irmin Schmidt:

“The headmasters, judges were ex-Nazis, who quite astonishingly had become ‘denazified’ overnight. You weren’t allowed to question your father about what he had done in the war, nor your grandfather. Naturally we wanted to be free from this waste, this violent legacy.”

So the only direction left was ahead. The book’s name, after a Can album, is well chosen. But there’s another German term, Stunde Null (ironically, not one Stubbs uses). Literally Hour Zero, it means something more like Year Zero. As the official end of the war in Europe had been midnight, it carried both the specific meaning of “no more Nazi shit” and the general sense of a radical break with the past. If the sound of the bands varied massively, to the point where they never saw themselves as part of a scene, they were united by this desire to make music that was entirely new. The blank staves that made up the cover of ’Faust IV’ epitomise this.

And, as we live in a time when rock music is little more than a heritage industry with bands formed like re-enactment societies, it’s precisely this forward thinking which makes Krautrock feel so invigorating.

Kraftwerk, Can, Faust and many others had their own home studios, which in Faust’s case was literally their home. They banned TVs, even radios and record players, the better to instil in themselves that self-reliant mentality. Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hutter recalled “We were in our studio, with the doors closed and there was silence. Now what is our music, what is our language, what is our sound? We realised we had to start from zero…, We didn’t have to reject anything. It was an empty space. And that same feeling was everywhere.”

This might help explain how bands worked in such isolation from one another, quite unlike the contemporary electric folk scene in Britain. Conny Viet, Conrad Schnitzler and Michael Rother moved between bands, but they were very much exception not rule. In the booklet accompanying Faust’s ’Wumme Years’, CD, Jean-Herve Peron recalled “we knew there were other groups riding the same waves. But we didn’t bother once to try and contact them. It was stupid, it was arrogant, we just ignored the rest of the world.”

Modernism Was the Tradition

Yet influences come in different forms. Hutter insisted “music didn’t exist and we had to make it up.” Jon Savage wrote in the Guardian “their history had been erased. They had nothing. But that meant freedom.” Yet too much freedom, an absolutely blank slate, is less liberating than daunting. Like floating in space, you need something to push against to move.

So Hutter also said “our roots were in the culture that was stopped by Hitler, the school of Bauhaus, of German expressionism”. First this leapfrogs you past your parents and their dodgy associations. You go back to where things had left off, before the Nazi clampdown crushed anything creative. And Germany had a rich Modernist history, its value surely proven by the efforts the Nazis went to in suppressing it.

So, ironically, looking back to Modernism helped them to look forward. The future had already been started, it just needed picking up again. As the Russian Constructivist Lyubov Popova had said: “We break with the past because we don’t believe in it any more, because its premises are not acceptable to us, and we will create new ones.”

You would struggle to find much of an expressionist influence on Kraftwerk, despite what Hutter says, but Bauhaus there certainly is. Down to calling themselves ‘music workers’, after ‘cultural workers’. (Though the imprint of Dada on Faust, which might seem the most obvious link of the lot, is played down. Peron, the member who gets interviewed, claims he was unaware of it at the time, though other more “educated” band members may have been.)

And there was another influence, less felt in Britain. The ‘New Music’, which sought to supplant the outmoded classical world, was heavily supported by Westdeutscher Rundfunk (the German BBC) and often released by the German label Deutsche Grammophon. And one of its key figures was German, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Two members of Can had studied under him.

So, much like the American music, this now had to be rejected wholesale. Neu! titled a track ’E-Musik’, a contraction of ‘Ernste Musik’ (‘serious music’, but meaning something more like ‘proper music’ a a definite snub. ) Their chosen band name was partly a parody of advertising, but could equally be taken as a riposte to all this - an insistence we’re the real new music.

At this time when much rock music was trying to bust out of the simple beat, de-emphasising rhythm in praise of musical dexterity, Krautrock intensified it. Can in particular were crossing the other way, taking to repetitive beats with the zeal of the converted. Holger Czukay recalls “Stockhausen denied repetition. He thought it was a weak point… For me, by repeating something, you create something new in it.” And this was a common feature. If not universal it’s true of the big four bands (Can, Kraftwerk, Faust and Neu!), who make up four out of the first five sections here.

And, similarly but more generally, despite having such a clear mission statement Krautrock retained rock’s faith in the instinctual and spontaneous. This was quite at odds with the screeds of theory, manifesting in the form of copious sleeve notes, which the New Music generated. An early member of Faust was kicked out for a list of ‘bourgeois’ crimes, including being neat and tidy, but starting with “he discussed things”.

And they took this even further than standard rock music, which was (for the most part) composed and choreographed while trying not to sound like it. Songs were almost never written then taken to the studio to be recorded, like transcribing notes into neat handwriting. Instead bands would show up at the studio and then see what happened. (When they weren’t living there already.) “We did not care about compositional rules that imprint a predictable order on the music” commented Wolfgang Seidel of Eruption. (Kraftwerk are the exception to the rule here. But then they often were.)

These two influences (Modernism and New Music) might not seem so unusual now. But that’s in itself part of Krautrock’s wide-ranging influence. Back then they simply weren’t considered part of popular music’s source code, but beamed in from outside. And so they enabled Krautrock to fulfil its Stunde Null promise. Or at least get closer to it than might seem possible.

Space Travel Broadens The Mind

But then generalise about Krautrock at your peril. For a whole bunch of groups broke that cardinal rule of back to the beat. The Berlin School, as Stubbs tags them (Tangerine Dream and Kluster/Cluster, among others) saw rhythm as yet another encumbrance which had to be cast off. They wanted a freer, less constrained sound than beats to the bar allowed.

Much of this music’s appeal is its sense of boundlessness, temporal or spatial. ’Electronic Meditation’, the title of the first Tangerine Dream album is a good tag for it. Stubbs comments: “This is not so much music as the artful, purposeful interplay of sounds, liberated from scale, metre, melody, mobile sculptures floating in a zone somewhere between free rock and music concrete.”

At this stage synthesisers were unknown, unaffordable or both. Instead conventional instruments were treated, or more often mistreated, and combined with other sound sources. Particularly with Kluster, this had more in common with today’s free impro scene than punk, dance, psychedelia or any of the usual subjects. If it was to later become associated with ambient music, this was not particularly serene scene. A track on ’Electronic Meditation’ was titled ‘Journey Through a Burning Brain’. Stubbs describes it as “vast and indifferent to human concerns”.

How did any of this come from Berlin, Germany’s largest city, now often thought of as a party destination? “It’s not hard” says Stubbs, but when talking about the later and far more aggressively nihilistic Einsturzende Neubaten. Of this scene he concludes “it did not seem to have the imprint of the city running through it.”

But even as he pronounces it a mystery, he hands you the set of keys you need to unlock it. Surrounded by greyness of East Germany, Berlin is often seen as something between a ghetto and an oasis. (Political and artistic radicals were drawn there to get out of the draft.) Yet, squeezed in space, it expanded in time. This Berlin was liminal. “It is harsh, brusque in its modernity and its juxtapositions… perpetually half-built, crumbling on the brink of bankruptcy…. Redolent of a hundred years of history.” (He even mentions the Wenders film ‘Wings of Desire’, which most depicts it in that light.) A very different terrain to the stretching autobahn which Kraftwerk rode.

Where Opposites Collide

So were these two separate scenes we clueless auslanders try to stitch together, just because they happened in the same country? Like some know-nothing looking at the Stooges and the Grateful Dead and helpfully pointing out they’re both American. The Berlin bands were sometimes described as kosmische (comsic) music, a term popularised by a 1972 compilation and a 1975 manifesto (‘Discover the Galaxy Sound of Cosmic Music’) designed to promote the Ohr label.

And it’s true that when things later degenerated (as they inevitably did) Krautrock fell back into regular rock music, as if ultimately unable to break out of America’s orbit, while Kosmische lost its tang and turned into tasteless New Age slush.

It’s also true that, in the long period where Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream were the only well-known West German bands, no-one thought to associate them much. To this day Tangerine Dream’s Wikipedia page calls them “a German electronic music band”, without mention of the K word.

But that can be countered with one name - Neu!

Ask anyone about Krautrock and they’ll come back with a name - Kraftwerk. But ask a Krautrock fan and they’ll give you the holy trinity - Can, Faust and Neu! For Neu! are no marginal case, but one of the most important outfits the scene produced.

And as Stubbs says, there’s “a duality about Neu!” As captured in the contrasting personalities of the two members, Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, fire and water. Rother has said “I feel comfortable near water - it has an effect I can’t explain. It has to do with the passage of time, it also moves along like music itself”. There’s tracks called ‘Weissensee’ (White Sea) and ’Seeland’ (Sea Land), there’s water sounds on ’Leb Wohl’.

In another interview he recalled childhood years spent in Asia: “I do remember being completely fascinated by the strange sounds of Pakistani music as a child… this music that seemed to go on and on, with no structure that I could make out, - just an endless stream of melody and rhythm, like a river.” (Nor was he the only Krautrocker to be influenced by the rhythms of what we’d now call world music.)

While Dinger’s great contribution was the motorik beat, now so associated with Krautrock that Stubbs needs to explain a track doesn’t need to use it to count. (Ever the contrarian, Dinger then abandoned drums before the band had even split.) It’s hard to explain the effect of this beat without hearing it.

Writing in the Quietus, Stubbs said: it “just breathes out - a single line, a constant process. Not circular, but driving from A to wherever.” And Dinger’s favoured term for it was “long straight”. Unaccented, without stress on any one strike, it becomes all about forward motion - each iteration there just to take us to the next one.

And if all that makes it sound like Neu! were a collision of opposites whose “opposing constituents” could only temporarily be reconciled, their third album was effectively a contractual obligation which they only coped with by allocating themselves a side each. After the band split, Rother set up a studio in rural seclusion (from where I believe he works to this day) while Dinger remained in industrial Dusseldorf. Dinger always claimed Neu! had to come not just from West Germany but specifically from Dusseldorf, as Stubbs puts it “emerging from the unique friction between that town’s fine art scene and plethora of advertising agencies.”

But the music simply doesn’t sound like that! As Stubbs points out “Rother’s sense of limpid, ambient beauty lies perfectly atop Dinger’s undercurrents of emotional turbulence and sublimated rage.” There’s never the friction between the driving numbers and the pastoral pieces there theoretically should. And the heart of it all is the motorik beat, which doesn’t just epitomise Krautrock but runs straight through any barriers you might want to build between it and the Kosmsiche.

In rock music, power is venerated. Power chords are a positive thing by definition. The Stooges made an album called ‘Raw Power’. In the celebrated ‘Spinal Tap’ gag, the amp goes all the way up to 11. Yet motorik is driving without any sense of power. ’Hallogallo’ means “wild party”, but the track’s not at all raucous. It’s spirited but disciplined and measured, seeming to advance effortlessly. To use a water metaphor, which should really belong to Rother, it flows.

Motorik translates literally into “motor skill”. It evokes that feeling of getting into the rhythm of something, be it dancing or chopping wood. Rather than the task tire that rhythm seems to grant you energy, for as long as you’re in it. Stubbs sums it up well: “Motorik equals the liberation of rigidity”. It's reminiscent of when as a child you wanted not to drive a fast car but be one. (As evoked by so many children’s toys and cartoon characters.)

But most of all… there’s been invented a solar-powered gilder where, the more it flies, the more the sun heats its panels, allowing it to fly still more. Which could have been designed as the absolute best place from which to listen to Neu!

And you can play Neu! over either urban or rural scenes, over Rother’s rivers and forests or Dinger’s Dusseldorf, over stretching highways or cascading streams. Overall, comparisons of Krautrock to Minimalism seem overstated. Reich and Glass (if less Riley) were composers, in the conventional sense of writing scores for musicians to follow. Even their more aleatory pieces worked by following precise instructions, not decisions left to the musicians. Renditions of Minimalist works can stumble if the players assume their role is to bring something of themselves to the piece. Whereas Krautrock was, and had to be, created in the moment.

But this combination of the pulsing withe the serene is a genuine overlap. I’ve written before of how Reich’s music evokes “a city yet to be built… a harmony of gliding electric cars dancing round grid blocks… exuberant and free flowing”. Yet also “the workings of nature… where simple cellular forms can multiply into astonishing variety”.

Neu! contain these contradictory elements, in such a way as to make them seem no longer contradictions. Krautrock is less trying to find a line between the Stooges and the Grateful Dead, and more like the then-contemporary American punk scene, which could incorporate both Television and the Ramones.

Planetary Romanticism 

Yet however wide-ranging all of this is, more a set of enablers than a proscriptive description of a genre, some things do still lie outside of it. And though it goes against tradition to say, though they don’t just appear in but kick off this book, Amon Duul 2 were at most a transitional band.

Stubbs gives you all the evidence you need for this, even if he doesn’t join the pieces together. As any fule no, you can’t judge a book by its cover but you can with an album. And just compare the sleeve of ‘Dance of The Lemmings’ to the first Neu!, Harmonia or Tangerine Dream albums. They’re effectively talking different languages, the uniqueness of the sound reflected in the uniqueness of the images.

Whereas you could have stuck ‘Dance of The Lemmings’ in any British record rack of the day and it would have slid neatly in between those psychedelic rock sleeves. The others are a different thing entirely. Even when Krautrock went in for SF imagery it tended to be in a vectorised, Pop Art form - as with the first Cosmic Jokers album. The cover of the book itself, with its neat angle and bitmapped fonts, aligns with this.

Or check out their free-flowing surrealistic song titles - ‘Flesh Coloured Anti Aircraft Alarm’, ‘Stumbling Over Melted Moonlight’, ‘Dehypnotised Toothpaste’. Krautrock titles were short and punchy or affected a deliberately prosaic air, like Faust’s ’Why Don’t They Eat Carrots?’. Or, perhaps most at the opposite extreme, Neu!’s advertising-copy monickers like ’Special Offer’ and ’Top Quality’.

While bands often took to living communally, Amon Duul 2 came out of a commune. True, a commune they left in order to become a band, to escape the obligation to hand every spliff-holding sofa-surfer a maraca, but that was still the world they came from.

And their sound remained linked to the psychedelic underground. They not only shared a member with Hawkwind (Dave Alexander) but a trajectory, starting out with long spacey jams which over the years took on more of a song structure, before the final degeneration into regular rockism. (All of which is intended entirely as description of their sound, not criticism. I wouldn’t compare a band to the awesome Hawkwind lightly!)

And in those heady days, the dividing line wasn’t nation but generation. Flights then becoming affordable to regular folk, the underground saw itself as something inherently internationalist. London’s radical paper of the day was ‘International Times’. A common chant on demos was “Paris, London, Rome, Berlin”. Guitarist John Weinzierl has said: “We felt international. You have to learn English in German schools, and that’s a good thing.” Similar bands had international line-ups, such as Gong or Brainticket.

And yet with the strong dynamics in their music, the other tradition they’ve inherited would be German Romanticism. The original cover to ’Phallus Dei’ (1969) was a tree, not something Faust or Kraftwerk would have contemplated. Their love of grandiose Science Fiction imagery (in tracks such as ‘Surrounded by the Stars’), like much science fiction, is the Romantic awe of nature scaled up - overpowering mountains and waterfalls made planet size. Ironically this is something German. And yet from quite a different lineage to the Bauhaus and Dada of Krautrock.

Anyway, to finish by summing up… this book’s a labour of love by a genuine afficionado. It’s approach brings problems at times, but it’s still very much something you need to read.

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