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Krautrock needed to find the music of the future because it had botched the rock 'n' roll of the present, though that wasn't so obvious in the late 1960's and early 1970's. With the exception of the not-too-venomous Scorpions, these German bands showed little flair for blues basics, and many artier groups simply proved that combining symphonic with Teutonic was bad for rocking out. Still, the German distance from Anglo- American rock could provide stimulating perspective, much as the British outlook added irony and theatrics to American blues and rockabilly.
The term Krautrock is itself a latter-day appellation, taken from a track on a 1973 album by the band Faust. It's now used as an umbrella term to cover a variety of the era's progressive German styles, centered in cities from Berlin to Hamburg to Düsseldorf. A select number of these bands got the classical references right (Stockhausen, yes; Wagner, no) and were led by hippies who thought electronics were compatible with be-ins and who could rip open three- chord song structures without throwing away form altogether. Of the thousands of German rock albums released from 1969 to 1976, about 25 located the shape of tomorrow and did so at least as well as their peers in England and America.
Krautrock fans most frequently tout some half-dozen groups: Can, Faust, Kraftwerk, Popol Vuh, Cluster, Guru Guru and Neu! The overt prog-rockers like Popol Vuh and Guru Guru fell into the bottomless pit of the unfashionable long ago. More recently, with Faust and such intellectually less rigorous fellow travelers as Amon Düül 2 sounding like antique anarchists, and with the urbane jazz and sleek funk of Can sounding increasingly washed-out, the steady but sizzling, nearly lyric-free atmospherics of Kraftwerk and Neu! appeared to have reached farthest into tomorrow.
Some devotees might grumble that the Neu! reissues on the Astralwerks label should have arrived five years ago (but did not because of resistance by Mr. Dinger), when numerous mentions and peak interest in the unavailable recordings prompted high-quality bootlegs to crop up in stores across the country. But the finest tracks on "Neu!" (1972), "Neu! 2" (1973) and "Neu! 75" (1975) have remained hypnotic for decades, and one suspects they will continue to do so. At least partly because they found a fresh, bare-bones beat.
Neu!'s home base, Düsseldorf, is industrial. For noise that epitomizes monochromatic and rigid, the throb of factories has supposedly inspired a wild range of performers, including Motown soul bands, art- punks like Pere Ubu and the members of Neu! and Kraftwerk (whose name means power station in German). Just as likely, however, Mr. Rother and Mr. Dinger had studied the relentless, regular beats invented by the Velvet Underground, for the debut Neu! album was the first imaginative advance on the Americans' primal, unswinging rock drone. Mr. Dinger, who played drums, used the term "motorik" (motor function) to describe this rhythm.
The compelling, disorienting affect of motorik is nowhere clearer than on the first album's 10-minute salutation, "Hallogallo," and the more sinister "Negativland." In these tracks, the interaction among the head-down drive of Mr. Dinger, the long, curling guitar figures of Mr. Rother and the engineer Conny Plank's ever-present distortion effects opens up the gloomy, blind-alley cityscape of the Velvet Underground into a sci-fi superhighway vista. Neu! is not a joyride, though, but an anxious careen, with Germany's totalitarian past erased and its consumerist present uncertain. Clearly, Neu! added its own antic twist to the longstanding German fascination with the interface between human and machine.
Tension between the two players kept low- key thrills going through the next two Neu! records, though neither are quite satisfactory. Running out of money midway through the "Neu! 2" recording session, Mr. Rother and Mr. Dinger padded the album with three previously recorded songs played at different speeds and on a balky cassette machine. Neu! apologists now refer to these tracks as pioneering remix experiments rather than desperate, low-cost fitler — and they are intriguing amusements, for all that.
ON "Neu! 75," the principals began to pull apart into their respective moods: Mr. Rother glimpses the first rays of the New Age dawn in "Seeland," Mr. Dinger offers a sour foretaste of punk with "After Eight." When the musicians reunited in the middle 1980's after a decade of estrangement, they produced only a toy version of their aesthetic on "Neu! 4."
Nor have any of the numerous other projects of Mr. Rother and Mr. Dinger gathered more than cultic cachet. Some, like Mr. Dinger's group La Düsseldorf or Cluster's collaboration with Mr. Rother in Harmonia, are canny foretastes of today's chill-out electronica. But they sound too similar to it — there's little of the neurotic adventure of early Neu! One looks forward to the garage- band versions of Neu! now that the albums are readily available.
Beyond that, prime Krautrock is not finished as an influence yet. The
earliest Kraftwerk albums, before the breakthrough hit "Autobahn,"
are not tapped out as cybernetic music sources. And when the progressive
impulse hits young rockers again — and it will — the slithering,
unpredictable and un-blues guitar work of Guru Guru's Ax Genrich awaits.
After three decades, the original Krautrock, the music of tomorrow, is
still a step ahead of today.
© Milo Miles| New York Times 05/2003