Deutsche Musik: Die Bewegung “Krautrock”

The Germans – efficient, productive, organised, efficient, efficient and… efficient. Those pesky lads and lasses have brought us so much – the Autobahn, technology, mass automobile manufacturing, a creative education system, as well as an unfortunate Austrian and a wall, but we won’t talk about that now will we? They also seem to be the only nation anywhere who can actually run an economy without giving it a poxy name to spruce it up, only to have it fall flat on its face because it was all fake money that never existed. I’m sure they don’t like the sound of “ghost estates”, capitalist banker-wankers and half their country living in Australia as well… Rant over.

Deutschland’s influence on the world is extremely apparent, but one aspect goes horrendously underappreciated particularly by our corporate-obsessed, Apple-wanking generation, and that’s their music. “Kraut” was a derogatory slang invented during World War I by the British “poking” fun (racism to be frank) at the Germans. “Krautrock” was coined by the UK media in the late ‘60s when the musical movement was at its humble beginnings. Revolving around predominantly new technology and electronic music mixed with elements of traditional rock, the scene was vital for future music, not just for the next wave or generation but for music right up until today. To be honest, technology has improved music for the most part but fucked it too with any back-bedroomed casualty able to put some sort of sound together. Though sales of vinyl records have been at a peak since 1996 showing a revival in physical music purchases, record shops are struggling and need people to appreciate their artists more, but we know that ain’t happening. Music is too accessible these days. When I told someone recently that I buy music it just wouldn’t register with them, and then when I mentioned vinyl they asked me are they a good band… another rant, sorry.

The beginnings of krautrock can be seen in the works of wacky German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1950s. The weird use of a twelve-year-old boy’s vocals, random textures, pauses and white noise were so obscene in one of his first renowned compositions “Gesang der Jünglinge” that much of his work wasn’t publicly recognised a good two decades afterwards. However, he laid the foundations for futuristic music and incorporating technology into compositions that may not have been recognised or attempted otherwise.


Early electro-wizards Tangerine Dream formed in 1967 and offered melodic synth and a slightly more commercial sound with a vast discography of over a hundred albums, including multiple movie soundtracks.

Kraftwerk

Stockhausen and Tangerine Dream’s influence can be directly linked to one of Germany’s greatest popular acts – Kraftwerk. Ya know your Deadmau5, and your Daft Punk, and all your DJs, dance, trance, house, synthpop, much of punk and post-punk, and modern-day pop? None of these would be anywhere near the heights it has hit, or at least would’ve taken an age to get there if it wasn’t for the influence of the German electropop pioneers. Formed by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970 with fluctuating members throughout its lifespan (though it’s constantly stated Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür along with Hütter and Schneider was the greatest line-up), the act’s influence and visionary thinking still remains as relevant and as striking today as it did over four decades ago. Their futuristic look and sound was something that the world had never seen before illustrated hilariously by their television appearance in 1970 on Germany’s Rockpalast; a live music show where some of the world’s most famous acts have performed since its inception not long before the techno giant’s appearance. The band just formed earlier that year so it was likely their television debut if not their first big television showing. The look of sheer bemusement and utter confusion from the crowd was something to behold, and did the lads give a shit? Nah.

Their earlier work consisted of mainly instrumental demos and recordings but it wasn’t until 1974’s Autobahn that their influence on Western culture would begin. Autobahn broke the top ten in multiple countries across the globe, including the US, the UK and their native Germany. But guess what? – I didn’t like it. It was a long drone of monotonous nothing, just like driving down the Autobahn I would suspect. The opening title track is nearly twenty-three minutes long, and it’s a drag. I listened to it and ended up flicking through the rest of the album to see if any of it was any good, and got nothing, so I quickly moved on and found their delightful next effort that came out the following year, Radio-Activity. Though predominantly bleeps and random buzzes, it still gave you the experience of being in a nuclear radiation zone which was great to actually feel like you were experiencing the theme of an album physically as well as sonically.

The band’s influence on synthpop nearly a decade on is seen through legends New Order sampling a section of “Uranium” on their club classic “Blue Monday”.

trans-europeexpress

Trans-Europe Express (1977)

The band’s seminal record (maybe) is 1977’s Trans-Europe Express which I love, starting with the beautiful “Europe Endless” and ending with “Endless Endless”, which for me is the personification of being on the Trans-Europe Express, endlessly travelling around the continent. The record possesses a great divide between Kraftwerk’s work and modern society in that they were pushing the boundaries of music with their revolutionary ways but through their art they wanted to let the listener know that the world was becoming extremely commercialised and everything we do is monitored and displayed to society through technological innovations and advanced ways of thinking.

“The Hall of Mirrors” is a life lesson in that even the stars we idolise and long to be have an equal longing to be like us. “He made up the person he wanted to be/And changed into a new personality/Even the greatest stars/Change themselves in the looking glass”.

After this record came a string of their most endearing singles; “The Robots”, “The Model” (UK number one single) from The Man-Machine and some more sampling in the form of Computer World’s “Computer Love” and Coldplay’s “Talk”, displaying further influence decades on. Hardcore/industrial punks Big Black also did a cover of “The Model” on their second studio album Songs About Fucking.

The pioneers’ final studio record of the 20th century Electric Café in 1986 brought more monotonous rhythms and repeated lyrics than their previous efforts. The album wasn’t as well received by fans due to the length of time it took to release and maybe it wasn’t as cutting edge as material a decade previously. Personally I think it’s their most fun record, not their best, but coolest to listen to. A multilingual aspect is also introduced with Spanish lyrics on certain releases with the usual German/English mishmash.

CAN

For the less electronically-inclined, the ‘60s and ‘70s movement did conjure up some more rock-influenced artists. Just before Kraftwerk in the late 1960s German experimental rock music was coming to the fore. A friend of mine introduced me to a band called CAN, and subsequently onto krautrock music. He said “they inspired everything” and listening to CAN I don’t think I’ve ever heard a band that had nearly every sound or idea musically in their artillery – noise rock, garage rock, punk, new wave, funk, psychedelic rock, instrumental, ambient, blues, jazz, avant-garde, and that’s only the first half of their discography. Fronted by African-American Malcolm Mooney for their debut record Monster Movie (1969), he added a Velvet Underground influence with an almost funk/soul vocal performance, producing a hybrid of German instrumentation and black influence.

Mooney was highly influenced by Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, illustrated potently by CAN’s habit of ending their albums in long jams; a nod surely to “Sister Ray” mentioned in my first blog. The band’s seminal record Tago Mago released in 1971 is a strange experience. Mooney was fully replaced on this record by a Japanese singer named Damo Suzuki, who moved to Germany in the early ‘70s, adding more influence to the band’s diverse sound. Listening to it, I was on the exercise bike one night, and before I knew it the hour and twenty minutes was up and I felt no pain or tiredness whatsoever during the workout, when normally I’m drowning in self-pity and sweat. The original bass player and co-founder Holger Czukay was a pioneering rhythmist and immediately when I heard his bass I could hear elements of post-punk. The weird and eerie drum work performed by Jaki Liebezeit had me in a bit of a trance particularly during the last six/seven minutes of “Aumgn” along with Suzuki’s possessed screaming. I didn’t really know what was going on, I just sort of, went with it.

The band kept to an experimental feel with Ege Bamyasi (1972) which has influenced numerous artists from different genres right up until today with an almost funk style.

Future Days the following year brought about a more serene, ambient style which would dominate their sound for the next few years keeping with that funk influence.

After Future Days fluctuating vocalists from Soon Over Babaluma (1974) appeared when Suzuki departed in ‘73. CAN had a major hand in the development of punk and more so post-punk with pungent basslines and dense percussion. Manchester’s mercurial post-punk fiends The Fall composed “I Am Damo Suzuki” as a tribute to the Japanese singer. Any post-punk, gothic rock and new wave band you listen to can be linked to bands such as CAN.

NEU!

When I first plugged into the duo NEU!, two words resonated through every sound, syllable, bassline, percussion, electrical impulse and riff – “Joy” and “Division”. This band is an early Joy Division, listen, it’s everywhere.

The sounds of post-punk started with this band before punk even began. NEU!, much like CAN, inspired much musical influence and mixed electronic music with experimental rock. The band formed by Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother in 1971 after their split from the original line-up of Kraftwerk has inspired punk, post-punk, new wave, gothic rock, synthpop, electronic music and much of experimental and alternative rock. Many punk and post-punk giants including Sex Pistols spin-off Public Image Ltd (PiL) were inspired by the bass-heavy sound and dense percussion of NEU! Their debut self-titled record hit the underground shelves in 1972, providing electronic sounds, experimental noise and the trademark post-punk bass. One of my all-time favourite drummers, Joy Division’s Stephen Morris cites this album as one of his favourites and one where his unique percussion skills stem.

Avant-garde noisters Negativland obtained their name from the track of the same name and created their own record label named after the band’s penultimate track on their third studio album NEU! ’75, Seeland Records. Negativland ruffled some feathers here in Ireland, “borrowing” U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and making a sampled EP out of it. Island Records weren’t too pleased. NEU! 2 (1973) brought about more space-like experimentation and late elements of proto-punk.


Their penultimate studio record NEU! ’75 was released after the band took a two-year break. It probably has the most influence on punk with tracks such as “Hero” which the likes of David Bowie and John Lydon love. Of course Bowie’s classic “Heroes” must be some sort of nod hmmm?

Faust

Faust, one of the more stranger acts of the krautrock era, added more than just musical-instrumentation noise, but, well, noise with anything they could find, really. Their self-titled debut released in 1971 is a cult classic apparently. I unearthed it in an indie record shop in Cork a few weeks back (Plugd Records) and heard of it before I thought of writing this piece. I nearly neglected a couple of CAN records in favour of it, but at the last minute declined buying anything at all. Thank God. The sound of the record hitting the bottom of my bin would’ve been more sonically pleasing. The opening track adds samples from what sounds like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, and… something else. I know people will say Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music is just stupid noise, but it’s a constant and consistent drone; this is just unstructured nothingness, and I like noise and sampling.

Hope is not lost however; I quite enjoyed their second album Faust So Far. The Moe Tucker-esque drum bashing on the opening track “It’s a Rainy Day (Sunshine Girl)” and the jumpy guitar on “No Harm” add an almost Velvet Underground/psychedelic feel. Jazz fusion is heard on “So Far” and “… In the Spirit”, with saxophones and bluesy basslines.

Gaining optimism once again I traverse to The Faust Tapes, another cult favourite with success in the UK. I disliked it on initial hearing, not anywhere close to the debut mess but still enough not to recommend it. It does have nice touches of acoustic, synthesisers and organs here and there, but then random stupid noise appears, and I’m done. I did give bits of it a listen again and it grew on me slightly, worth a dabble, perhaps. Finally, I said one more go with these lads. Faust IV (1973) was the next stop, and again with a wry smile as I type, I enjoyed it. It possesses elements of space rock, psychedelic rock and even reggae in spots.

Ash Ra Tempel – Schwingungen Amon Düül II – Phallus Dei Cluster – Cluster
schwingungen phallusdei cluster

One of the most diverse and underappreciated musical movements and only scratching the surface with this blog, the Germans still remain undervalued, and as I’ve learned when studying the language in my school days many light-months ago, a key force in popular culture. I would’ve loved to have learned about their music a lot sooner and would hope people would dive in and discover as soon as possible themselves. Rammstein, Farin Urlaub, Die Ärzte and much more continue to fly the flag for German music today and possess eccentric elements of their krautrock predecessors. Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s forlorn and greatly missed frontman introduced the band to Kraftwerk and German music of the time. Drummer Morris saying they played Trans-Europe Express before every gig backstage to get them going. Multiple covers of Kraftwerk’s music have been produced as well as endless samples. Their return to album producing in 2003 with Tour de France Soundtracks gave them their only number one album in Germany showcasing their relevance still in the music world. NEU! and CAN’s influence on punk, post-punk and much more is evident and so vital to today’s music. Their percussion and basslines were the foundation for post-punk adding a dark edge to rock. Along with CAN’s first record, Amon Düül II’s debut Phallus Dei (1969) is regarded as one of the first krautrock albums and has an almost sludgy Beatles-feel in places, particularly at the beginning with progressive/psychedelic rock with an Indian spice.

With the likes of Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, producer Conny Plank has pushed the sounds of numerous bands ranging from electronic music to punk and is a legend of this period. There’s plenty out there, haven’t made a dent in it yet myself. Go have a gander. Danke.

Recommended listening:

  • Kraftwerk
    • Radio-Activity
    • Trans-Europe Express
    • The Man-Machine
    • Computer World
    • Electric Café
    • (the German versions are cool as well)
  • CAN
    • Monster Movie
    • Tago Mago
    • Ege Bamyasi
    • Future Days
    • Soon Over Babaluma
  • NEU!
    • NEU!
    • NEU! 2
    • NEU! ’75
  • Faust
    • Faust So Far
    • Faust IV
  • Amon Düül II
    • Phallus Dei
  • Ash Ra Tempel
    • Schwingungen
  • Tangerine Dream
    • (plenty there… plenty)

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