Top 15 Krautrock moments – this is a real weird trip
Daft question? Well, I don’t think so, as I actually think that this
wonderful, free, funny music in both its greatest and most
cringe-worthy aspects – is in grave danger both of being overlooked
and dismissed through perversely – a perception that the whole thing
has suffered from a sort of over-analysis.
Everyone thinks they have Krautrock off pat. I’ve heard rumblings that this genre has had its moment in the sun, over-analysed, that its hip quotient has dried up. And I can appreciate that it’s easy to be dismissive or even cynical about the whole âgenre, or its new-found fans. Krautrock, (a brilliant and terrible moniker if ever there was one) seems to be cemented in the clutches of slightly nerdy types who get very hung up if you question their love or knowledge of the music.
It’s a serious, slightly passive-aggressive thing: don’t dare say the odd Can track is shit, even if you think it is. And use the word Motorik with a knowing wink, don’t forget.
Now don’t get me wrong I think it’s marvellous, and long overdue that the likes of Faust, Can, Amon Düül 2, Cluster and Neu! are now seeping into the mainstream indie (sic) conscience. But seeing Michael Rother’s triumphant and celeb-endorsed Hallogallo gigs last year did get me thinking: why this sudden desire to see the likes of Michael and at the same time display an almost callous tick the box âseen that attitude to it all? It’s weird. Is this music about to be safely bundled into the âclassic rock straightjacket with all the baggage that comes with it?
You see, for me, this whole era in Germany produced music that was the
perfect indication of a state of mind, an evocation and a yearning for something more, politically, emotionally, intellectually and socially (as well as all the shagging and drugs, of course let’s by no means dismiss that): and this something that can be found in the most unprepossessing or dusty of the era’s releases.
This isn’t music to catalogue. To me the sound was, and is, emotionally based. Its heroes and accomplices, from Beethoven to Salvador Dali to Stockhausen, to elements of the Baader Meinhoff gang, still inform it. The people who made it are still to this day, shy nomads, surly unprepossessing types, hippy punks, amateur dog breeders or just on the run (where I wonder is Ralph Ulrich Kaiser & Gille Letteman?). In short they ain’t rock stars in the traditional sense. The music’s mercurial, shaman-like nature means that even the most obvious big hitter LPs from the canon still possess the deep draughts of reinvigorating ichor that can irrigate the listener’s soul.
I just hope that this music always retains its underground, spiky nature and its shape shifting aspects. Krautrock is an ever moving feast with a lot to offer.
PS: I should point out that this article is really aimed at the UK / US scene. I know from first-hand experience that the likes of Can & Neu! are barely heard of in Germany. I remember seeing a brief Harmonia reunion in Holland (with Jaki Liebezeit ) in front of around 30 people in 2004. And not so very long ago, I got invited along to the opening of the Can Inner Space studio exhibition at the National Popand Rock museum in the German border town of Gronau; a place where, it seems, German pop music has been conveniently banished. Prior to this opening, I was asked to find people to come and talk to Holger Czukay, Rene Timmer and Irmin Schmidt . And boy was it difficultâÂ¦ I still find this insane, given that Daniel Miller from Mute had flown over
specially to answer questions too and basically say how great Can were In the event a handful of journalists and interested parties turned up, and we all shuffled round the recreated studio snapping shots of Michael Karoli’s guitar, and (bizarrely) yapping onto Irmin, Rene and Holger about this and that: biscuits and Damon Albarn In Holger’s case. Later we spent long hours talking to a host of locals who had never heard of Can who had been rounded up to applaud the band. At Can’s own introductory party into the German rock Hall of Fame.. Weird.
What was that quote about prophets in their own land?
Here’s a personal selection of favourite Kraut LPs that you might have overlooked but are really great listens. I’m not mentioning the big ones: of course Neu! 75 is one of the greatest records ever made, and you’ve probably got it. I would say it’s worth buying them on vinyl if you can, as some of the music really suits that format, especially Walter Wegmuiuller’s behemoth, Tarot. A fair number of these records were mentioned by Julian Cope in Krautrocksampler, too.
1. Tangerine Dream Atem
Last track Wahn is one of the most primal moments on any rock LP, three blokes making screaming noises at each other. And Atem is a beautiful fanfare of an opener, like some grand painted barge floating out to sea. It’s a stately LP, full of drama and emotion. A truly great band at the time, it’s weird to hear their more modulated later releases against such a demonstration of grandiose, Ur-punk headspace. Living in Berlin must have been a constant headfuck.
2. Amon Düül 2 Made in Germany
Nowhere near their best LP (that’s Yeti, for sure,) but it’s an essential listen for two reasons, first the cod introductory interview with Adolf Hitler, second the epic scale of the conceit: German history as an opera, sometimes with a disco beat, it’s awful at times and brilliant at others. I’d say it’s one of those LPs that shine a light on the headspace of some of the original Krautrock dudes, as does that picture of the Amon Düül squat in 1968âÂ¦ just check the LP cover.
3. Agitation Free Malesch
A brooding LP, full of vim invention and attitude, also a bit lumpy in parts it must be said. Coming on like the Cosmic Jokers and T-Dream especially with the intermittently kosmische keys ââ the LP is a set of long brooding instrumentals which sometimes have a burning, intense focus to them. The (sometimes pedestrian) keyboard sounds are balanced out with scratchy, Amon Duul 2 style guitar parts and weird cut ups from Egyptian radio and field recordings: it’s an LP that tries to both cram too many crazy ideas into the recording process and make something that could be commercially viable, that’s what I find really appealing about it. An interesting mess.
4. Popol Vuh ââ Train Through Time (track on Affenstunde)
Often overlooked sadly, but they shouldn’t be as their music is so beautiful. I really like the late great Florian Fricke’s later film soundtrack stuff like Cobra Verde, though this very early cut is one of my favourite pieces too. It appears on the re-release of the brilliant debut Affenstunde. The track is more upbeat and energetic than a lot of his very impressionistic and widescreen work (he was, literally, the music behind Werner Herzog’s vision) and there’s a brilliant balancing of the burbling synth noises and the insistent beat representing the train. Another Popol Vuh LP to check out is the very different, meditative and guitar-led Einsjager & Seibenjager.
5. Organisation Tonefloat
Kraftwerk playing with Bongos, Glockenspiel and Maracas? No shit, Sherlock. I haven’t checked, nor can I be arsed, but I reckon Ralph Hütter might have tapped the odd triangle on this record even though the credits say he didn’t.
It’s a percussion-based racket, at turns full of invention, or just plain weird / shit. Milk Rock is a woeful attempt to make a rock song, but the opening track Tone Float is a marvellous mix of light and shade, texture and rhythm. The CD I got back in the nineties came with the Vor Dem Blauen Bock performance on Beat Club in 1971; (the famous & tragically unexplored Neu! with Florian Schneider line up).
6. Conrad Schniztler Zug
The original tape weirdly enough very much like Popol Vuh’s Train Through Time in spirit – was recorded in 1974, 3 years before Kraftwerks’ mighty TEE first started rolling. And boy is it light years ahead of its time. It’s based on a restless rhythm and at times is almost proto disco or trance, clocking in at twenty minutes. You can almost touch the excitement generated by this music: it’s as if the idea (later to be hammered into shape by TEE) has been suddenly set free in its most raw and elemental form, like a genie from the
bottle. The vinyl LP version of this has a couple of modern remixes worth checking out, by Pole and BorngrÃÂ¤ber and Strüver. A truly great piece of music.
7. Guru Guru UFO
Weird yelps, a primal noise that only rarely lifts its head from the electronic murk it seems to dwell in and some of the BEST song titles in rock. Der LSD Marsch, Stone InâÂ¦ brilliant. It’s a great and strange record, sprawling, proto-slacker and quite happy to be left alone. Not easy that’s for sure but if you like Julian Cope’s Brain Donor stuff you will be up for this.
8. Witthüser and Westrupp The Jesus Mushroom Musik von Evagelicum
How I love these two. I can’t verify this but I have heard that double LP The Jesus Mushroom is an attempt to explain the inherent psychedelic nature of the Bible. What I can verify are the weird children’s choirs, the awful / marvellous kazoo solos and the ultra-trippy folk mantras, all wrapped up in a cover of utter genius:
Witthüser and Westrupp glide through space courtesy of some huge (magic) mushrooms. Think on, Simon Cowell would never allow this as valid entertainment.
9. Conny Plank and Dieter Moebius – Rastakrautpasta / Material
Essential records: and packed with sounds that are both funny and challenging from two pioneers of slacker electronics. It is mood music, but with a wry smile. The records are a bit like Cluster in style, but shorn of Rodelius’s wistful vibe. Juts listen to Cluster’s Sowiesosso to hear the difference in approach Dieter Moebius takes, as it’s sharper in attitude and that wee bit funkier. The opener on Rastakrautpasta, News is utter madness and, (like Czukay’s Movies), the attitude present makes Eno & Byrne’s approach on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts sound a bit stunted. Material is indistinguishable from the earlier LP, I reckon they knew they were onto a good thing with this template. Conditionierer is a tremendously perky work out, half Jonathan Richman, half electro work-out. Whereas Tolkühn is a
fabulously trippy and dizzy slice of lo-tech trance.
10. La Düsseldorf – La Düsseldorf / Viva / Individuellos
Possibly the greatest and most frustrating of all Krautrockers, Klaus Dinger produced three untouchable LPs from 1976 to 1981 with his band La Düsseldorf : Mixing Eddie Cochrane-isms with long, drawn-out electro mantras was their forte, it’s this mix of smooth and abrasive which make the LPs so great. Viva and Individuellos are shiny exponents of Schlager punk, cheesy melodies are balanced against crunching riffs and shuddering beats. I think the first LP, La Düsseldorf is as near perfection as you get. Overlooked in favour of Harmonia and Neu! Dinger’s work with his brother is my favourite material from the Düsseldorf scene.
11. Walter Wegmüller Tarot
Where to start with this? I just couldn’t face explaining this LP
again here so I nabbed the more sentient parts of a review I did about
5 years ago. Here goesâÂ¦ âNo matter what I write isn’t going to come
close to capturing and explaining the strange genius of Tarot for you.
You just have to get it. And it’s for sure that the first two listens
will give you the mother and father of all headaches. It is all too
much, but then, so is trying to get your head round the genius of
Michelangelo is a couple of hours.
A bit of history is worth repeating here. Recorded in a seedy Berne
basement in 1973, the band was made up of Krautrock supergroup Ash Ra
Tempel, various musicians from Witthüser and Westrupp, Wallenstein and
the celebrated gipsy mystic and Tarot card diviner Walter Wegmüller.
As was the wont with any recording from the Cosmic Couriers set up, a
lot of hallucinogens were consumed, and long, epic free-form jams were
played in an attempt to locate the soul of the album. Wegmüller got so
into the whole thing that he designed a complete new set of Tarot
cards for the LP (which can be seen in the lavish CD reissue booklet).
However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is one big
self-indulgent hippy trip. This is no way a hippy record, despite
being swathed in hippy-ish idealism, there is no safety net, no
passport home, not politics of the comfortable (to mis-quote VS
Oh, and Die Welt is possibly one of the greatest tracks of all time,
as it seemingly swallows up everything in its path; Detroit, funk,
ambient, you name it. In some ways it is closer to PiL in spirit. A
12. Michael Rother ââ Katzenmusik
A whole LP dedicated to cats (the titles are KM1, KM2, etc.), this is
a shimmering and reflective set that can leave you in a slightly
stewed state. It veers on the edge of cheesiness and it can feel that
bit too sticky sweet, but that’s Rother’s vibe. He just keeps knocking
out these sparkling hooks over Jaki Leibezeit’s steady beat. The
backwards track that ends side one is beautiful too. All Michael
Rother’s solo work is worth checking out, from Flammende Herzen right
up to recent LPs like The Great Adventure.
13. Holger Czukay ââ Movies / Der Osten Ist Rot / Rome Remains Rome / Linear City
I don’t know which to pick, they are all such fun. Czukay is a
complete joker and sometimes his music is informed more by comedy than
trying to blaze any sonic trail but his lightness of touch with these
records is marvellous. Movies and Der Ost ist Rot make similar âsound
collageâÂ LPs like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts sound worthy and that
bit stunted. It’s poppy and propelled by a bubbling funk undertone.
There was once footage on YouTube of Holger being pulled along on a
small cart by two boxer dogs. The music’s a bit like that.
Also check a great and weird 12âÂ put out in 1981 Czukay, Liebezeit and
Jah Wobble, dedicated to Ian Curtis. It was released on Island and
featured four very dubby, trippy tracks and what sounds like a vocal
take from our Ian. Thanks are passed to Anthony H. Wilson too.
14. Can ââ Delay
This is as good as anything they did. I’m a fan of all Can’s stuff, as
I like the way they change from being a Velvets-influenced, proto
punk/stoner ensemble to this multi-dimensional pop outfit, adding
sparkling jazzy runs, cod/bubblegum-Glam and blatant pop into their
music. They never stopped trying, even when it got all pompous and
knowing. This album (posthumously released in the 1980s)is a bloody
belter, with its hard attitudes balanced against rumbling, stumbling
riffs. The whole thing feels as if it’s held together by attitude and
cheek. Cope reckoned in his Krautrocksampler polemic that this was
the sound that the Fall explored ten years later. Listen to Malcolm
Mooney on vocals, tearing the place up with tracks like Nineteen
Century Man and Butterfly and you can sort of see what he means.
There’s a great take on Little Star of Bethlehem too.
15 Faust ââ Patchwork & You Know
It’s important to remember Faust are still churning out some of the
best music around: yes it’s nice when they play the old songs, but by
heck some of the stuff they’ve been busy with this last 15 years is as
good as anything they did on those first 4 LPs. Patchwork is a truly
great compilation, drawing from 1971 and 2001, and showing that
there’s almost a seamless line between the old and the new. The LP has
(for me) a very explanatory cover: the artwork indelibly links Faust
with the city of Hamburg and reveals their inherent Rock sexinessâÂ¦ I
felt an immediate connection was revealed with the Reeperbahn and
Faust’s roughly welded, salty, and up for a good/bad time vibe. You
Know is a classic studio LP, released in 1997, and hewn from the same
sonic template as their debut, albeit over 20 tracks.