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|> Article: The Sunday Times

Raising the Teutonic;
     German 1970s minimalism is invading the British rock scene.
     Stewart Lee finds that an Englishman is to blame. |

Something is seeping into popular culture, and it bears none of the hallmarks of accepted good taste. Flared of trouser, moustached of face, unashamedly German and more than two decades old, the music ironacally dubbed Krautrock has made a comeback.

From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, German underground bands were allowed to flourish in glorious isolation from their American or British counterparts, and issued forth a mighty clang that was equalparts educated, intelectual experimentation and instinctive, primal rock'n'roll.
Now the big names of the once-forgotten 1970s German scene are joining Bowie, the Byrds and the Beatles as accepted members of the critical canon, and independent record shops are shifting dozens of CD reissues from ancient Teutonic groups that two years ago seemed only irrelevant and oddly spelt footnotes in rock's history.

Cologne's Can were thirtysomething Stockhausen disciples who, on hearing the Beatles' I Am a Walrus in 1968, abandonned classical composition for a self-consciously minimalist rock'n'roll rush; Ash Ra Tempel allied the collosal garage-band riffing of Iggy Pop and the Stooges to the free jazz of Sun Ra.
Years before emulsifying into an easy listening new age group; Tangerine Dream created enormous soundscapes from the ambience of electronic experimental music and the clatter of free-form percussion.
Agitation Free offered more organic blues based improvisations of the same epic scale; and the young Kraftwerk, best known for The Model, the pop hit of their later incarnation, slung repetitive, hippyish flute parts over ever-shifting tempos of mathematical rigour.

But the Krautrock bands are by no means museum pieces. Tonight and tommorrow , Faust, who in their heyday were as much at home backing New York's avant-garde violinist and composer Tony Conrad as they were creating strangely catchy deconstructed pop, play two more reunion gigs at Londons Garage.
Last month the cumbersomely named Amon Duul II, the "serious" offshoot of the improvisation based Munich cummune-band Amon Duul, issued an album recorded live in Japan, after re-forming last year.

This summer Virgin records thought it commercially viable to release Unknown Deutschland - The Krautrock Archive Volume I, an album collecting the work of hopelessly obscure Cologne-based third-division German experimental bands.
And, in a daring behind-the-lines operation, the 1970s sounds of young Germany have infiltrated the pages of the monthly style bible The Face, as the first Kosmische Club, Londons first Krautrock only club, opened in the summer. The sleeve of Amon Duul's 1972 Live in London album shows a giant insect-robot in a German stormtrooper helmet, trashing the most distinctive monuments of the city's skyline. At the time a perfect example of Krautrock's self-mocking humour, today the image has an air of prophecy.

My Krautrock curiosity was aroused by seeing the name Amon Duul II written in felt tip on the wattle-and-daub of a 16th-century Suffolk cottage three years back, but this cannot be by any means a typical experience. So what accounts for a Krautrock revival?

The apparently innovative sounds of British indie pop group Stereolab seemed without precedent. Then they cited the chugging futuristic motorised pop mantras of the then unknown Neu as an influence, and then the secret was out.
Production and editing work on Faust's 1994 comeback album, Rien, was by the Chicago free-improviser Jim O'Rourke, and his presence on the record, along with that of the Japanese hurdy-gurdy abuser Keiji Haino, draws a ley line connecting Faust to the most ambitious modern experimental post-rock of Americans Tortoise, the jazz-thrash of the Tokyo hard-core scene.

Certainly, the collective unconscious has been softened up for Krautrock's elliptical drones by rave music, perhaps the most determinedly abstract sound ever to be popular enough to feature in soft drinks commercials. But even Amon Duul II themselves lay the blame for the music's resurgent poularity squarely at the feet of one man, former Teardrop Explodes vocalist and professional English eccentric, Julian Cope.

Cope's 1995 book, Krautrocksampler, is already on its third reprint. Written with an unashamed and infectious enthusiasm that blows the cobwebs off any tendency to overintellectualise, Krautrocksampler is both a field guide that steers the curious record buyer away from the less inspired areas of his subjects' later efforts, and a lively history of a fascinating period, half encyclopedia, half psychadelic detective story.

Read Chapter 8 and thrill as record producer Rolf-Urich Kaiser assembles the then fugitive acid guru Timothy Leary and the cream of Krautrock's musicians in a chalet in the Swiss Alps, and makes them perform endless free-form jams in return for all the LSD they can eat.
Howl with righteous anger in Chapter 9 as Kaiser releases the results in five album-sized segments under the name Cosmic Jokers, without the knowledge or prior consent of the penniless players. If copes forthcoming book on British prehistoric sites has as much impact as Krautrocksampler, then expect the pathways to our most far-flung moorland monuments to be worn into deep trenches.

The Faust and Amon Duul II reunions have little to add to the Krautrock legend. Faust's Rein, though admirable for its determined originality of sound and relentless experimentation, offers little of the more conventional pop sensibility that once made them such an irresistable proposition. Amon Duul II, despite having the utterly distinctive banshee howl of Renate Knaup to the fore, seem to have mutated into just another showy technically sophistocated progressive rock band.

As for Krautrock's influence over modern music, via rock groups Stereolab, Quickspace Supersport or the techno acts that have sampled it, perhaps it is ironic that a genre that prized originality above all else might be reduced to the sum of its keyboard sounds and metronomic onbeats alone. But for now Krautrock is back in common currency, daring contemporary musicians to raise their game.

Stewart Lee | The Sunday Times | 12/96

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