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If judged strictly on Billboard chart position, of course, the latter wouldn't make the list. The occasional Teutonic commercial success -- Nena's chirpy 1984 hit, "99 Luftballons," say -- is just the sort of forgettable fluke that proves that Germany (like such occasional hit-makers as Sweden or Brazil) is not a serious contender. Indeed, of the '70s-vintage German bands that are (once again) being discovered, only Kraftwerk ever entered the American Top 40: An edited version of the 22-minute "Autobahn" made it all the way to No. 25 in 1975. Yet Capitol, the same label that's put the Beatles' leftovers in play, has also recently reissued such Kraftwerk albums as "Trans-Europe Express" and "The Man Machine."
Even less known in the United States is Can, perhaps the best of the spacey, early '70s German ensembles that combined elements from avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Velvet Underground with jazz, funk, dub and other influences. This style is often called "Krautrock," after a song from 1973's "Faust IV," the final album by Faust, another German group of the period.
Though discs by Faust and such other contemporaries as Neu are hard to find, Can's catalogue is again available through an alliance between Spoon, a French label, and Mute, an English one with American distribution. Spoon/Mute began reissuing the Cologne jam band's albums in 1989, although they didn't become widely available in the United States until recently. Its latest projects are "Can: Anthology 25 Years," a two-CD set, and "Cannibalism 3," the third sampler of solo work by the former band members.
Though Can recorded for a decade, its best albums -- "Ege Bamyasi," "Future Days" and "Soon Over Babaluma" -- were made between 1972 and 1974. Kraftwerk hit its stride soon after, with "Autobahn" (1974), "Radio Activity" (1975), "Trans-Europe Express" (1977) and "The Man Machine" (1978). This period also produced Berlin's Tangerine Dream, whose burblings presaged much of contemporary "ambient" music -- "They sound like silt seeping on the ocean floor," wrote Lester Bangs, not altogether unadmiringly, in 1977 - and synth-based movie soundtracks. (The group has composed a number of the latter itself.) Around the same time, Munich became a disco powerhouse with the success of Silver Convention ("Fly, Robin, Fly") and especially Giorgio Moroder, who produced a dozen Top 40 (and dance-floor) hits for American singer Donna Summer.
Because Moroder's music was once ubiquitous and soon faded, his reputation is in decline. His artier contemporaries, however, have never been more prized. "Kraftwerk invented the pristine, precise, surface-oriented pop phuture we now inhabit," argues British rock critic Simon Reynolds, one of the most vehement advocates of the position that rock-and-roll is old-fashioned and space-rock is cutting-edge. (However valid this argument may be aesthetically, it's not exactly historical: Leon Theremin's pioneering synthesizer is a contemporary of the electric guitar.)
Proponents of Kraftwerk and its Teutonic peers have long claimed that theirs is the music of the future (or "phuture"). The suit-and-tie scientist look cultivated by Kraftwerk founders Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider emphasizes their distance from messy, human rock-and-roll, and even the Dusseldorf band's advocates find it difficult to write about them without mentioning such German inventions as the V2 rocket and methamphetamine. "In the music of Kraftwerk, and bands like them present and to come," exulted Bangs in 1975, "the machines not merely overpower and play the human beings but absorb them, until the scientist and his technology, having developed a higher consciousness of its own, are one and the same."
It may not have furthered a higher consciousness, but by the late
'70s Krautrock had become a significant resource for experimental
rockers (mostly British) dissatisfied with the relatively modest damage
done by punk to traditional rock.
Krautrock also influenced such British post-punk synth bands as Cabaret Voltaire, Prag Vec, Throbbing Gristle and (early) Human League. Within a few years, a new generation of bands had crafted a commercial version of these groups' synth-based sound. Depeche Mode, while retaining some of its English pop sensibility, recorded in Berlin and cultivated a Weimar graphic style; so did Nitzer Ebb, which actually tried to pass as German by designating its music "Nitzerebbprodukt." (The Chelmsford return address gave the band away, though.)
As Kraftwerk's albums became less frequent, its influence grew.
Perhaps the crucial event was hip-hop innovator Afrika Bambaataa's 1982
single, "Planet Rock," which borrowed its "perfect beat" from "Trans-
Europe Express." This Bronx/Dusseldorf synthesis was "the start of hip-
hop," insists British pop-music historian Jon Savage, and it's true that
early hip-hop and break-dancing was frequently based on mechanical beats
derived, directly or indirectly, from Kraftwerk.
Reportedly overwhelmed by bringing their technique and sound into the digital age, Kraftwerk hasn't released an album of new material since 1986's "Electric Cafe." The band's most recent release, 1991's "The Mix," remodeled such tracks as "Computer Love" to acknowledge the harsher, harder beats of such Germanic '80s and '90s successors as Einsturzende Neubauten, Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft and Die Krupps. (Recently, Tangerine Dream also issued an album of its standards remixed for the more aggressive demands of today's dance floors.)
If Kraftwerk's influence has become as universal (albeit less acknowledged) as that of the Beatles, groups like Can are again the darlings of the underground. Virtually all the acts on London's trendy Too Pure label -- Stereolab, Th' Faith Healers, Laika, Moonshake, Pram, Long Fin Killie, Mouse on Mars -- are indebted to Can. (Most of the Too Pure bands are British, although Mouse on Mars has a Cologne return address and Stereolab's French singer, Laetitia Sadier, gives the band a continental aspect.) Such post-punk veterans as Sonic Youth and Julian Cope, who wore a Neu T-shirt when he performed at the Black Cat in November, have taken up the cause as well.
Although Can's music is sometimes cosmic in a '70s mode that has
failed to return to fashion, it augurs many of the most celebrated '90s
bands that favor groove and atmosphere over melody and lyrics.
Those advocating post-rock's inevitable triumph tend not to be thrilled with the pop music that's actually selling these days: grunge, Brit-pop, Hootie and the Blowfish. Indeed, one of things that commends Kraftwerk, Can and their followers to rock sophisticates -- their emotionlessness -- may be just what undermines them in the Anglo- American market.
"We are showroom dummies," sang Kraftwerk robotically, and later devised a live performance in which the band members were impersonated by automatons. On many of its best-known songs -- "Autobahn," "Trans- Europe Express," "Tour De France" -- Kraftwerk tried to embody not human exhilaration but the sensation of speed itself. Hutter, Schneider and company aspired to be "man-machines," creatures that wouldn't want to hold your hand -- and indeed might not even have any hands.
Can's chilliness was less programmatic, but this band too eschewed popular music's customary emotional concerns. Frequently chanted and submerged in the mix, its multi-lingual vocals were simply another sonic element, texture rather than thought. Whatever connection Can makes with the listener is a matter of sound, not sense.
Perhaps that's why Krautrock remains a storehouse to be plundered by pop's cognoscenti rather than -- as Depeche Mode's knockoff once proclaimed itself -- "Music for the Masses." Rock's history can't be written without Germany, but more people are interested in scraps of music from the Beatles' Hamburg days than with the world-altering sounds Kraftwerk and Can fashioned nearby. Krautrock's influence is vast, but few CD buyers are ready for the day when the machines play the human beings.
Mark Jenkins | The Washington Post | 1/96