July 27, 2015

“Krautrock was paradoxical”: An excerpt from Future Days


This is an excerpt from Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music. Click here to purchase the book. 

Musicians are often loath to subscribe to the broader cultural explanations imposed on their work by journalists or writers, disliking the idea that what they do is to any extent governed by external factors, rather than purely driven by their own innate creativity. However, it is freely admitted by all of the major players that in the sixties and early seventies, German music, in common with the arts, cinema and literature, went through a rebirth that was connected with the aftermath of the Second World War. As the titanic free-jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann put it, ‘What has happened to us in Germany is a kind of trauma of our generation . . . as a German, I come back to my own history. Of course we are not guilty for what happened in Germany in the war, but there is a very special German fate, there is a great shame here and a terrible kind of trauma. And that’s why maybe the German way of playing this kind of music sounds always a bit different from the other parts of Europe, at least. It’s always more kind of a scream. More brutal, more aggressive. When we started, we thought, “Okay, enough of Art Blakey, enough Horace Silver, enough of form and notation and measures and all kinds of ways. We don’t need that.”’

Brötzmann’s father had served in the German army before being captured by the Russians, but after the war he never spoke about his experiences and refused, until on his deathbed, to acknowledge the ‘scream’ of his son’s music. That terrible, beyond-awkward silence, and the scream that proceeds from it, is one of Krautrock’s vital birth pangs.

Not that Krautrock was always a scream – it varied in its tones, from the chaotic and brutal to the serene and pastoral. It was postrock, before rock had even run its course, but post-jazz, too. For musicians like Jaki Liebezeit, even the ‘free’ jazz movement had its own limitations, and, albeit extreme and modernistic, was still jazz, an imported, transatlantic voice. It did not satisfy his own need to begin again, utterly anew, start from scratch. This was the common impulse that drove Can, Faust, Neu!, Kraftwerk, Cluster and the rest.

Krautrock was paradoxical. It loathed the prevailing German pop culture of Schlager, banal drinking-to-forget songs dripping with nostalgia but in which the horrors of the Third Reich were conveniently airbrushed away. Yet it wanted to create something German in origin that was not beholden to the Anglo-American beat music or jazz traditions, so strong in West Germany after the Marshall Plan, thanks to the number of British and American troops still stationed in the country and the unrivaled potency and attraction of The Beatles, The Who, Dylan, Hendrix. These groups were adored and initially imitated by most of the Krautrock musicians themselves, as they earned their spurs in clubs and concert halls in Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Cologne. However, a broader disaffection with America’s imperial misadventures in Vietnam, which prompted a wave of student demonstrations in the late sixties, making many think again about what amounted to an Anglo-American cultural occupying force. What had once been the soundtrack of young rebellion now itself needed to be rebelled against.

‘I think that ambivalence started in 1968,’ says filmmaker and German music documentarian Stefan Morawietz. ‘That was the first time anyone in Germany started criticising anything American. Before that, anything American was brilliant – the Marshall Plan, the food packages, but also the best cars and cigarettes, the coolest music, they were the heroes of the new time. All we had were the old things of the past. Only the old people wanted that. Most of the rock ’n’ roll records weren’t available over here, you never heard them on the radio – things really started with the Beatles. And when they came over, people were horrified. They were everything the older generation hated – long hair, unwashed – and what they called over here negro music. Up to 1963, all you would hear in this country was German Schlager. Nothing else. You wouldn’t hear it. Not even Frank Sinatra. Not in German pubs or fairs or anything like that – in American or British military clubs, maybe. So the Beatles were a revelation, the starting point of a new time. All that Schlager was a dream world, nothing to do with the real world, and young people didn’t want that any more.’

The Beatles had been so beloved that they inspired flagrant imitators, in particular the Rattles (not to be confused with The Rutles), who formed in Hamburg, where the original Fab Four had germinated unnoticed at the turn of the sixties. A sense of shame at being straitjacketed as a moptop doppelgänger would eventually overcome their leader, singer Achim Reichel, and in the seventies he went solo to release a series of albums under the title of Achim Reichel & Machines, whose fried, echo-drenched and mutated guitars occupied a similar kosmische orbit to the likes of Ash Ra Tempel. (In a still further, perverse twist he later returned to the mainstream as an actor and curator of folk shanties.) Reichel’s need to break away from the initially liberating imposition of beat-music norms was widely shared by ambitious young musicians fired up by the general revolutionary, countercultural spirit in towns and cities across West Germany.

Irmin Schmidt, co-founder of Can, was older than most of the Krautrock generation – older than Ringo Starr. ‘That’s one of the reasons why our music lasts, because we were older, we were not teenagers. We had the consciousness of this experience. That made the difference. I really have talked a lot about it; Jaki [Liebezeit] mentions very little about it. I fought my father like mad when I was fifteen or sixteen. But still, that makes the difference in the consciousness with which we made music.’ Schmidt did not come via the beat route to the music. He was a highly gifted composer and conductor who could have settled down quite nicely in the upper seats of Hoch music culture but who, having studied under Stockhausen and with eyes open to such manifestations as the Fluxus art movement of the 1950s and 1960s, shared a need to return to a point zero, to begin again. Despite the restored prosperity of postwar Germany following the ‘economic miracle’, he was haunted by a sense of ruin, of that which remained unreconstructed.

‘Until the late sixties, everything came from outside. Everything was imitation, especially of the English. But that was normal, especially after the devastation suffered by German culture. It wasn’t just the towns that were in ruins, it was the culture that was in ruins. Minds were in ruins. Everything was ruined.’

So, another paradox. In order to invent anew, it would be necessary for people like Schmidt to reject Anglo-American dominance by drawing from it.

‘It was quite natural to take from the outside, where things had gone on. So, Stockhausen had to study in Paris because there was nothing in Germany. In the late forties and the beginning of the 1950s when I was twelve, I saw hundreds of Westerns. It opened another world. I was living in Dortmund in a real ruined, bombed town. The cinema represented something quite outside all that. It was quite normal, to reconstruct German culture by first going outside of it.’

Schmidt travelled to America and absorbed the Velvet Underground, Terry Riley and the minimalists. For others, Pink Floyd’s new burst of Technicolor psychedelia was a jumping-off point. Floyd played the Essener festival, a gateway experience for many young or would-be musicians, as did Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, whose mixture of highly disciplined arrangements and scathing countercultural anti-American dissent struck multiple chords. It would not be long before a mood of disaffection, even humiliation grew among young German musicians at the prospect of forever functioning as covers musicians in covers bands in a covers nation. This would converge with a general dissatisfaction among young people over the place they were expected to take in society as a whole.

* * *

‘Product of West Germany’, inscribed Kraftwerk on the sleeve of their album The Man-Machine, and this is true in a geographical sense. The physical landscape of Germany is a determinant in shaping Krautrock. As with America, the sheer space impacts on the music, and the journeys undertaken across it affect its sense of narrative. In the course of researching this book, I made most of my journeys by rail, quite extraordinary, long trips across a landscape both breathtaking and mundane, through forests and past distant little gingerbread towns but regularly sweeping past enormous industrial plants, great complexes of zig-zagging metal tubing, as formidable as outdoor art installations but integral to Germany’s productivity and economic health.

Writer and editor of The Wire Chris Bohn has written about Germany as ‘the one country to challenge American road mythology’, and of the Neu! motorik experience as paradoxical – to travel along the ‘exhilarating sweep’ of those motorways is to enjoy at once a sense of freedom and breakthrough but also, as they trail on, the feeling that there is in fact no escape, merely a shimmering, utopian mirage. There’s no comparison for this in the UK. Hit the road in England and its dull sprawl of conurbations, and within barely an hour you’ll have hit a Derby, a Watford or a Doncaster.

Krautrock, however, was specifically a product of West Germany. The circumstances which gave rise and shape to it were to do with the condition of that temporary, federal state – prosperous, ashamed, liberal in many respects but clinging to conservative illusions, low in self-esteem, in conflict with its own youth, fragmented by national disunity, riven by traumas, disconnected from its past, having possibly sold both its soul and its identity for the dubious bounty of American materialism, in dire but unacknowledged need of cultural reinvention and replenishment. What of East Germany? Although there was such a thing as ‘Ostrock’ in the 1970s, groups like the Klaus Renft Combo, the Puhdys and Karat, some of whose members flirted with dissidence and showed courage in difficult circumstances, listening to them is a somewhat moldy, hand-me-down experience, redolent of the dismal brown panelling of seventies pop culture at its worst. Unsurprising, really. They were postwar Germans who came up a different way, made fully conscious of Germany’s fascist past, sent on compulsory school trips to concentration camps, but also faced with an official hostility towards Anglo-American rock ’n’ roll which left the GDR’s ‘bad boys’ in no doubt as to how to dress and play. Young musicians there had desperately little access to basics such as decent transport or even telephones, had few outlets or opportunities. It was far too much to ask that they have their own generations of Cans and Neu!s, their own kosmische or motorik music. How could they and why would they?

There’s a strong sense of the identity of great cities in the Krautrock era, too, particularly at a time when Berlin had temporarily ceded its dominance as capital city to Bonn. Today it has reassumed its centrality but in the seventies it had a distinct outsider status, hard to get in and out of, an island within East German-controlled terrain. Other cities such as Hamburg and Munich assumed a rival importance of their own, the latter hosting the Olympic Games of 1972, for example, while the competition between the near-neighboring, antithetical cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf was akin in some ways to that of Manchester and Liverpool in the early 1980s and evident in the contrasts between Can and Kraftwerk.

As significant as the cities are the rural heartlands and forests of West Germany, solaces of both romanticism and retreat. So vast are the dense recesses of forest in Germany that they have long been invested with myths and meanings of all kinds, by all German parties, prominent both as a geographical reality and a feature of the collective German imagination. The Nazis prudently commandeered them, placing great store on Naturschutz (protection of the forests), but they also appealed to artists like Joseph Beuys, who inaugurated his ‘7000 Oaks’ project in the 1980s, designed to replenish the ailing woodlands as a process of healing and redemption. The forests could be seen as symbolic of a ‘truer’, forsaken German identity but also a vast refuge for the countercultural, for those who wished to distance themselves from the prevailing, urban-generated ideas and values of their own time.

Stockhausen had eventually made a home for himself in the forest; the members of Cluster would do the same, as did Klaus Schulze, while Faust were allowed to develop undistracted in a converted schoolhouse in remote Wümme. The danger of such a retreat to nature is the development of an agrarian, neo-Romantic aesthetic, and there’s no doubt that Krautrock sailed close to that at times, but correctively, all of these artists were steeped in electronics. Apart from the practical or accidental reasons for fetching up in such far-flung places, and the misbehavior they could get up to undisturbed, the sort of contemplation of nature in its stillness that the groups were able to engage in there was a necessary, healing corollary to their kinetic, motorik, noisenik tendencies – to achieve what Julian Cope termed, in reference to the music of Hans-Joachim Roedelius, ‘a raging peace’.

It marked, also, their exile from the urban mainstream of German pop life. They were not ambitious entryists, like the punk generation. ‘Why do people hark back to these bands?’ says Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. ‘What makes them truly outstanding? I suppose it’s the same as the way you could talk about King Tubby – they experimented, they’re artists, and it doesn’t sound as though they had a single commercial consideration.’ Artists, indeed – landscape artists, depicting a real Germany and possible, physical futures.