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So why Krautrock, and why now? Maybe it's simply because contemporary guitarpop on both sides of the Atlantic is unusually lame and conservative, and Krautrock beckons as a beacon indicating just how much can be done with the basic rock format of guitar, bass and drums. Seizing the possibilities of the recording studio, the German kosmische bands of the early '70s produced results as otherworldly and rhythmically sophisticated as today's "sampladelic" music (techno, drum & bass, hip hop, ambient etc).
Today's Britpop and American corporate grunge'n' punk are overtly pre-psychedelic and anti-experimental, merging playsafe 1966-meets-1978 power-pop aesthetics with radio-friendly production. Krautrock--as the missing link between the tumult of the late '60s and the anti-rockist vanguard of 1979 (PiL etc)--is therefore a crucial resource for any contemporary band who resists the reductive notion that (pre-psych) Beatles + Buzzcocks = the Essence, the Way and the Truth, for Ever and Ever.
Immerse yourself in Krautrock--and this is the immersive, engulfing music par excellence--and you'll find a paradox at the music's heart: a combination of absolute freedom and absolute discipline. Krautrock is where the over-reaching ambition and untethered freakitude of late '60s acid rock is checked and galvanised by a proto-punk minimalism. Krautrock bands like Can, Neu! and Faust unleashed music of immense scale that miraculously avoided prog-rock's bombastics, its cult of virtuosity-for-virtuosity's-sake.
Alongside Tim Buckley's "Starsailor", Miles Davis' circa"On The Corner", Yoko Ono circa "Fly", Krautrock was true fusion, merging psychedelic rock with funk groove, jazz improvisation, Stockhausen-style avant-electronics and ethnic flava in a way that avoided the self-congratulatory, dilettante eclecticism that marred even the best of the '70s jazz-rock bands, like Weather Report.
Tweaking this Anglo-American legacy, the German bands added a vital distance (coming to rock'n'roll as an alien import, they were able to make it even more alien), and they infused it with a German character that's instantly audible but hard to tag. A combination of Dada, LSD and Zen resulted in a dry absurdist humour that could range from zany tomfoolery to a sort of sublime nonchalance, a lightheaded but never lighthearted ease of spirit.
If the triumvirate of Can/Faust/Neu! has gotten so cliched as a hip reference point, it's for a good reason. Despite being quite dissimilar and lacking any kind of fraternal, comradely feelings towards each other, Can, Faust and Neu! are the unassailable centre of Krautrock's pantheon-- its Dante/Shakespeare/Milton, or Beatles/Stones/Dylan, if you will.
CAN's core was a quartet of lapsed avant-garde and free jazz musicians (bassist Holger Czukay, guitarist Michael Karoli, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and drummer Jaki Leibezeit) who--blown away by the VU and the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus"-- decided rock was where it was at. Can were the most funky and improvisational of the Krautrock bands. Recording in their own studio in a Cologne castle, they jammed all day, then edited the juiciest chunks of improv into coherent compositions. This was similar to the methodology used by Miles Davis and producer Teo Macero.
Can's early sound--spartan, crisp-and-dry trance-rock, like the VU circa 'White Light' but with a smokin' rhythm section--peaked with the 15 minute mindquake of "Mother Sky". As the influence of James Brownian motion kicked in, Can began to fuse 'head' and 'booty', atmosphere and groove, like nobody else save Miles Davis. After the shamanic avant-funk of "Tago Mago" and the brittle angst-funk of "Ege Bamyasi", Can's music plunged into the sunshine with "Future Days", "Soon Over Babaluma" and "Landed", their mid-'70s 'Gaia trilogy'.
Despite an almost utter absence of input from black music, NEU! were probably the closest to Can, in their sheer hypno-groove power and shared belief that "restriction is the mother of invention" (Holger Czukay's minimal-is-maximal credo). Devoid of funk or swing, Neu! is all about compulsive propulsion. Klaus Dinger was an astoundingly inventive, endlessly listenable drummer who worked magic within the confines of a rudimentary four-to-the-floor rock beat.
FAUST similarly combined proto-punk mess-thetic with acid-rock's galactic grandeur. But instead of Neu! streamlined symettry, Faust oscillated wildly between filthy, fucked-up noise and gorgeous pastoral melody, between yowling antics and exquisitely-sculpted sonic objets d'art. Above all, Faust were maestros of incongruity; their albums are riddled with jarring juxtapositions and startling jumpcuts between styles. Heterogeneity was their anti-essence.
Once you've immersed yourself in the best, what about the rest? ASH RA TEMPEL took The Stooges' downered wah-wah rock ("We Will Fall", "Ann', "Dirt") way way out into the mystic (but beware guitarist Manuel Gottsching's subsequent New Age dotage as Ash Ra). AMON DUUL II were the most baroque and bombastic of the krucial Kraut kontenders: imagine Led Zep produced by John Cale with Nico on vocals and a crate of magic mushrooms to hand.
After Can/Faust/Neu!, CLUSTER were probably the most innovative and ahead-of-their time. After a spell as the purely avant-garde Kluster, the two-man soundlab of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius hit their stride with the mesmeric dronescapes of 'Cluster II' and "Cluster '71". Later, they traded in their armoury of FX-pedals and guitar-loops for synths, knocked out a bunch of bewitching albums with Brian Eno, and chalked up a mammoth oeuvre (as Cluster, but also solo and as Roedelius and Moebius) with the odd gem lurking amid much New Age mush.
Although they were only "rock" for an instant, KRAFTWERK ought to be mentioned around about here. For three fascinating albums (and an interesting prequel as ORGANISATION), Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider jumbled the New York minimalist school (La Monte Young, John Cage, Steve Reich etc) with German avant-electronics (Stockhausen). Then they staked everything on the idea that the synthesiser was the future, and won, becoming godfathers of Eurodisco, New Romanticism, Electro and Techno-Rave, not to mention a big influence on Bowie's "Low" and Spacemen 3's "Playing With Fire". 'Kraftwerk: the most important band of the 1970s' -- Discuss.
TANGERINE DREAM followed a similar trajectory, shifting from their early transcendental rock (which produced four terrific albums) to synth-based proto-trance tedium. Early T. Dream associate KLAUS SCHULZE also did a few interesting albums of early electronica noir.
Featuring Klaus Schulze and Ash Ra's Manuel Goettsching, COSMIC JOKERS/COURIERS were something of a Krautrock supergroup; their six elpees of hallucinogen-addled studio-shenanigans range from Gong-style buffoonery to Hawkind-like hurtles into the remotest reaches of der kosmos. Also treading a tightrope between sublime and ridiculous were BRAINTICKET and GURU GURU; both erred on the side of prog but still afford a fair amount of amusement.
In their own day, the German kosmische bands were hip but not especially influential. Oddballs in Britain and America took similar sources as their launch-pad, but generally ended up in less appealing places (e.g. Henry Cow and the Canterbury school of jerky jazz-influenced art-rock). In the early '70s, only the Eno-era Roxy Music, Stooges' offshoot Destroy All Monsters, and Robert Fripp/Brian Eno's guitar-loop albums ("No Pussyfooting" etc) really picked up on German ideas.
But in the immediate aftermath of 1977-and-all-that, bands were looking for ways to expand on punk's sonic fundamentalism without bloating up into prog-rock indulgence, and Krautrock provided a host of pointers for the post-punk vanguard. Can especially offered a fertile source of rhythmic ideas, not just for avant-funkateers like PiL and Pop Group, but also The Fall. Their early anthem "Repetition" ("repetition in the music and we're never gonna lose it") expressed Holger Czukay's creed of 'self-restriction" in word and sound; Mark E. Smith would later pen "I Am Damo Suzuki" as a tribute to Can's second and most barmy vocalist.
The pan-global panoramic trance-dance of Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" owed a lot to "Soon Over Babaluma", and yet more sincere flattery came in the form of David Byrne and "Remain" producer Eno's "My Life In The Bush of Ghosts" (1981). Its use of ethnic vocal samples was unfavourably compared with Czukay's recent "Movies", whose "Persian Love" recontextualised an Iranian ballad; in actual fact, Holger had got there 12 years earlier with "Canaxis", which used Vietnamese boat-woman's song!
In the late '80s, Krautrock's influence shifted from rhythm & structure, towards texture & sonority. Loop covered "Mother Sky", then mutated into the"Cluster II" tribute band, Main. Spacemen 3 reached Kraftwerk-like Elysian fields on "Playing With Fire", while its sequel bands often have an uncanny resemblance to Neu! (Spiritualized) and Cluster (Spectrum, E.A.R.). A single Neu! track, "Negativland", prophesised Lee Ranaldo & Thurston Moore's "reinvention of the guitar" and harmonic dissonance on "Sister" and "Daydream Nation". Sonic Youth paid homage with the silly filler track "Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu!' on their silly Ciccone Youth side-project.
In the '90s, Krautmania blew up big time. First, there was American lo-fi: Pavement, Thinking Fellers Union, Mercury Rev, F/i, Truman's Water (who covered not one but TWO Faust songs), Soul-Junk. Then came the international drone-rock network (Flying Saucer Attack, Labradford, the Dead C/Gate, Flies Inside The Sun, Third Eye Foundation), and the neo-Neu! motorik maniacs (Stereolab, Trans-Am, Quickspace Supersport), and the nouveau kosmonauts (Sabalon Glitz, Telstar Ponies, Cul De Sac) and the post-rock groove collectives (Laika, Tortoise, Pram, Moonshake, Rome), and even the odd art-tekno outfit (Mouse On Mars). Inevitably, the referencing is getter more arcane: Cluster & Eno with Labradford, Popol Vuh with Flying Saucer and Sabalon, Cosmic Jokers with Telstar....
Why is the Krautrock legacy being embraced so fervently, at this precise point in time? Firstly, Krautrock is one of the great eras of guitar-reinvention. Expanding on the innovations of Hendrix, Syd Barrett, the VU, etc, the Krautrock bands explored the electric guitar's potential as source of sound-in-itself.
Second, Krautrock brought into focus an idea latent in rock, from Bo Diddley to the Stooges to the Modern Lovers: that the rhythmic essence of rock music, what made it different from jazz, was a kind of machinic compulsion. Pitched somewhere between Kraftwerk's man-machine rigour and James Brown's sex-machine sweat, bands like Can and Neu! created grooves that fused the luscious warmth of flesh-and-blood funk with the cold precision of techno. There was a spiritual aspect to all this, sort of Zen and the Art of Motorik Maintenance: the idea that true joy in life isn't liberation from work but exertion, fixation, a trance-like state of immersion in the process itself, regardless of outcome.
Holger Czukay declared: "Repetition is like a machine... If you can get aware of the life of a machine then you are definitely a master ... [machines] have a heart and soul... they are living beings'." . Taking this idea of the 'soft machine' or 'desiring machine' even further, Neu! created a new kind of rhythm for rock, bridging the gap between rock'n'roll's syncopation and disco's four-to-the-floor metronomics. As Stereolab's Tim Gane says, "Neu!'s longer tracks are far closer to the nature of house and techno than guitar rock."
Beyond all this, Krautrock is simply fabulous music, a dizzy kaleidoscope of crazily mixed up and incompatible emotions and sensations (wonder, poignancy, nonchalance, tenderness, derangement), an awesome affirmation of possibility that inevitably appeals in an age when guitar-based music appears to be contracting on a weekly basis. Listeners are turning to it, not as a nostalgia-inducing memento of some wilder, more daring golden age they never lived through, but as a treasure trove of hints and clues as to what can be done right here, right now. Krautrock isn't history, but a living testament that there's still so far to go.
"I'm interested in Krautrock as a German phenomenon. It's like an objective, outsider's take on rock, stripping it down to its basics: to rhythm, or an abscence of rhythm. The German bands were the first to really respond to the Velvet Underground. And because they had a European sensibility, they weren't worried about being pretentious.
There's also a mystical side to the music, an urge to total absorption in the universe. The German kosmiche bands spotted the common link between psychedelia, free jazz and the drone music of La Monte Young. It's all about freeing the head and exploring the unconscious.
"As a band, Telstar Ponies originally come from a punk aesthetic, and we were quite anti-studio. Listening to the Cosmic Couriers made us realise that that idea of 'honesty' was crap, basically. We got into the idea of freaking out, and we became less afraid to use effects and the studio, to mess with structure. We got more interested in sounds, but still within the engine of a rock band. The Couriers' 'Tarot' album fitted my mental picture of what Krautrock's pinnacle would be like: it's totally effects-soaked.
"In Britian right now, there's nothing exciting going on in the mainstream, and anyone who still believes in the expressive power of rock is forced to look back to the past, for something else. For us and other bands, Krautrock is a good take-off point, because it's where experimentation is combined with hard driving rock.
"The real heirs of Krautrock today aren't so much the obvious ones like Stereolab or Cul de Sac, but the New Zealand bands like the Dead C and Gate, or the stuff going on in Japan. To me Keiji Haino and his band Fushitsusha are the most important musical development of this decade: their music sounds like aliens, you listen and think how could they even conceive of this sound. Heino is more in the tradition of the Beatles than f***ing Cast!
"The most pernicious misapprehension about Krautrock? That being a Krautrock fan is an anal thing, that it means you're a trainspotter. To me that word 'trainspotter' is a diss on anyone who's enthusiastic."
Simon Reynolds | Melody Maker | 7/96