Like punk, writing about krautrock is what all music journos love to do. It’s like the cycling proficiency test of pomposity and pontificating. And sneery as I may be about it, I’m no different. Here’s my yadda yadda on the subject from Classic Rock presents Prog 4.
Krautrock: was there really more to it than six hippies and a drum machine? In retrospect it’s hard to say what krautrock is or was: like every ‘genre’, when you get too close there’s no real cohesion. Did the late psychedelic freak-out sounds of Amon Duul really have anything in common with the primitive disco of Kraftwerk or the frenetic explorations of Can other than that they all hailed from West Germany? Probably not. And despite the impression given by krautrock cheerleaders at the time – NME writer Ian McDonald, DJ John Peel and Brian Eno of Roxy Music being among the most prominent – these bands actually meant very little in Germany, outside of small radical circles, where fairly conventional hard rock bands like Jane, Atlantis and Kraan were more likely to attract the average fan. Krautrock may be hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Guru Guru, they were krautrock. Except, well, was it really rock? The Scorpions were krauts who unquestionably rocked, but were they krautrock? And Nektar, they were obviously a krautrock band. Except they were actually British…ho hum.
What is indisputable is that in the late 60s and early 70s there was a vast underground scene in Germany of musicians who wanted to take their music further. Their inspirations ranged from, obviously, Pink Floyd to the avant garde. Members of Can had studied music under composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and many universities and music schools had departments where they pioneered electronic music. There was also a huge upsurge of interest in American ‘minimalist’ composers like Terry Riley, LaMonte Young and Steve Reich as well as in another rock band who successfully straddled rock and the avant garde, The velvet Underground. Many of the musicians who drifted in and out of the line-ups of krautrock bands came from the jazz scene, heavily influenced by the free jazz of Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, as well as the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Sly Stone and The Grateful Dead. While many of the cutting edge US and UK psychedelic bands of the late 60s had – after a brief and glorious period of LSD-inspired weirdness and wild experimentation when all things seemed possible – retreated to the comparative sanity of country music, blues based hard rock and even pop, in Germany the great experimental leap forward had only just begun. In arts labs and improvised recording studios, at all night acid fuelled jams in radical communes and in the minds of its pioneers like Michael Rother, Holger Czukay and Ralph Hutter, the revolution that started with The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn continued relentlessly.
Like many rock fans of a certain age, your reporter’s musical world was turned upside down in the early 70s thanks to an album that cost the then bizarre price of 48p. It was the novelty of an album by a name band – albeit one that few of us had actually heard – going on sale at this price that sent thousands of fresh faced innocents to their local hip record emporium to snap up their copy of The Faust Tapes. No doubt we all saw ourselves as being somewhat more adventurous than our contemporaries who were into – ugh – glam pop like Slade and T-Rex. We were the kids who regularly listened to Zappa and Genesis and King Crimson and thought we were into the real heavy shit.
No doubt many took the album from its disconcerting sleeve (originally a nausea-inducing op art painting by Bridget Riley) and after about 10 minutes of listening to cut up sounds, snatches of songs, electronic instrumentation and the speaking clock in German thought What the fuck? before ditching it for the comparatively easier listening of the new Tull album. But others persevered, possibly because – and I throw my hand up here – they were chronically pretentious gits who wouldn’t admit that the emperor was bolock naked. More charitably because Faust were rich with possibilities that a lot of so-called progressive bands at the time barely touched on.
The story of Faust is bizarre: they were essentially a manufactured band, put together from two existing groups by political activist, journalist and producer Uwe Nettelbeck who somehow managed to convince the Polydor label in Germany that what they needed was an album of chilling Zappaesque noise collages and what’s more that they should press it on transparent vinyl. Faust made two albums for them that still sound like nothing before or since. Inevitably they sold shit – less than 1000 copies – but not before piquing the interest of a few fans, critics, DJs and label bosses who took the term ‘progressive’ at face value. The newly launched Virgin label signed them – in the days before spaceships and airlines, let’s not forget that Branson made his dough supplying hardened avant garde prog fans with their fix – and in an artistically inspired if fiscally questionable decision, decided to release a ‘bootleg’ style album while Faust were in the studio working on their third proper album (confusingly released as Faust IV) and sell it for the price of a single.
Faust were German and those who had been affected by The Faust Tapes wondered if there were any more at home like them. The answer, of course, was how blown did you want your mind to get? Scouring the imports section of the full page Virgin mail-order ad that appeared every week in the music papers revealed a vast unknown world of terrifying music emanating from Germany. You might have heard of bands like Can, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Amon Duul II. But who the Hell were The Cosmic Jokers, Annexus Quam or Ash Ra Tempel? Once a week we listened religiously to John Peel’s Top Gear show on Radio 1, where you might hear what sounded like 25 minutes of radio static with a child reading the periodic table of elements through an Echoplex only to be told by the great guru that it had in fact been the opening track on the new Kosmiche Osiris album. If British bands were still at heart middle class white boys trying to play like American bluesmen, getting it wrong but creating something unique in the process, this whole German scene was something else again. It was like music from the future and not necessarily a future you ever wanted to see. While most British prog band were still struggling with early synthesizers, sometimes using them as a novelty fill in pieces played by conventional instruments, sometimes as a poor substitute for an orchestra, groups like Neu! were using them to create sounds and music never heard before.
critics who dismissed these bands with their experimental and electronic edge as being ‘cold’ and ‘soulless’. Nevertheless, a small but fanatical cult of devotees sprang up, kids who would spend ludicrous amounts of cash on imports on the Ohr or Brain labels, derided by their mates because they had forked out a fortune for Atem by Tangerine Dream which, they sneered, was ‘just a lot of bloody noise’.
For a short period in the early 70s – about five minutes to be exact – great things seemed to be promised by krautrock. The newly formed Virgin label signed Tangerine Dream along with Faust and Can. Kraftwerk enjoyed a minor novelty hit with Autobahn. Slade, however, need not have lost any sleep…
Where the krautrock bands fell down was as live performers. There were exceptions: Can were always entertaining to watch. But when Kraftwerk arrived on these shores to tour in 1974, they played to empty halls. At the Glasgow Apollo where they had been booked to play doubtless on the understanding that Autobahn was not, in fact, a one hit wonder novelty, they actually had to give the tickets away and even then, on the night, the venue was practically empty. Watching a few boffinish blokes hunched over what looked like telephone exchanges couldn’t really compare with watching Alice Cooper hang himself. Eventually, of course, they would learn their lesson and just stick a few shop dummies there instead!
Tangerine Dream, who were the first krautrock band to start selling out large venues thanks in part to their abandonment of the formless cosmic noise of the earlier work in favour of the more structured proto-disco sound of albums like Rubicon and Ricochet, went the Floyd route, with an ever more impressive light show. Otherwise a Tangerine Dream show was, after all, just a few fat blokes onstage sat at black boxes. Amon Duul II – who were at heart a fairly standard rock and roll unit – kept the liquid lights and strobes at maximum. But few of the first wave of krautrock bands made many ventures out of the studio and onto the stage, at least not outside of Germany. So even if there was an appetite for 40 minute free-form freakout jams and extended ring modulator solos among the world’s pop kids at that time, it wasn’t as if you had Cluster or Popol Vuh playing down at your local rock flea pit every week to sell you on the idea.
Krautrock ultimately suffered from a serious lack of commercial potential. Having enjoyed massive success with Tubular Bells, Virgin records no longer saw any merit in funding a mob of dirty German lunatics to make appalling noises in the studio. Hence Faust went into mothballs for a few decades after the 70s ended.
But krautrock was like prog rock’s Trojan horse: while the mainstream media sneered at Yes and Genesis, they were oddly respectful of krautrock. Barely 10 minutes after punk started and threatened to sweep away everything that had gone before and smacked of long hair and hippiedom, bands like Public Image Ltd and Alternative TV were namechecking Can as a massive influence while the likes of This Heat, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle had certainly tapped a toe to Faust in their time. Krautrock never really suffered the derision that other prog bands were subject to, probably because Can, faust et al were much more difficult targets than Rick Wakeman and ELP.
Space barely permits us to argue that it was krautrock started hip hop – DJ Afrika Baambaataa mixed tracks using kraftwerk; Holger Czukay seems to have invented sampling on some mid 70s Can tracks – and acid house. Obvious really.
Krautrock was the most progressive aspect of progressive music. It was prog’s prog. Albums made in 1971 can still make you sit up and wonder aloud What the fuck is all that about? Collectives like the two revitalised versions of Faust continue to rattle the cages of sanity after nearly 40 years. And its influence is everywhere: electronic dance music from disco to dubstep still acknowledges its debt to the pioneering work of Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Neu! Bands as diverse as Stereolab and Ufomammut are constantly rediscovering and re-exploring different aspects of krautrock. You can hear its influence in everyone from Radiohead to – God save us – U2. And what is more, every day some blogsite seems to unearth a lost or unreleased album from krautrock’s golden age – roughly 1972 – 1979 – that is every bit as essential as Can’s Tago Mago, Tangerine Dream’s Rubicon or Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine.
Makes you wonder who really won the prog war?