For many years, Countdown was an institution on Australian television and I was a dedicated fan, never missing an episode. I even made it into the studio audience once in 1980 (I can pinpoint the year as Ghengis Khan’s Olympics theme song, Moscow, was number one on the charts). It was through Countdown that I had my first exposure to Krautrock when “The Model” was released by Kraftwerk in 1978. Of course, purists would argue that by then Kraftwerk had moved beyond their krautrock roots into electro-pop, but it would be another 30 years before I understood that.
So what is Krautrock? It’s a loose term and is defined by time and place rather than a unified musical style. The time was the 1968 to 1975 (give or take a year or two) and the place was West Germany. 1968 saw the climax of French and German student activism and this turbulent political environment fomented a period of intense musical output in Germany. Many artists were inspired by British and US psychedelic and early progressive rock such as Pink Floyd and Jefferson Airplane. Others drew on jazz or contemporary classical influences. As albums by the likes of Faust and Neu! arrived in Britain, they were enthusiastically received by the influential and now legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ, John Peel, who helped popularise these new German sounds. In the process, the Brits latched onto the term “Krautrock”, which at times bemused or annoyed the Krautrockers themselves but, for better or worse, the label has stuck.
One enthusiastic collector of Krautrock was a young Julian Cope. Years later, Cope memorialised his passion in his wildly effusive book Krautrocksampler. The book, emblazoned with this iconic picture from the cover Amon Duul II’s album Yeti, is sadly now out of print but determined searchers are likely to find scanned copies out there on the internet. For some, Krautrocksampler is the definitive guide to Krautrock while for others it is simply the ravings of an uncritical fan who throws the forgettable together with the truly great. Either way, it is an entertaining read.
Probably best-known Krautrock bands, whose careers extended beyond a few intense years, were Can, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk. But perhaps the most definitive Krautrockers were Neu! They released three albums between 1972 and 1975 and, with the help of producer Conny Plank who had a hand in many Krautrock recordings, pioneered a style that came to be known as “Motorik”. Much of Krautrock sounds like a wild form of Progressive Rock—more Mahavishnu Orchestra than Yes—but Motorik is different. Characterised by a steady, driving beat and trance-like repetitive melodies that conjure up images of endless motorway driving, Motorik sounds much more contemporary that other Krautrock styles. “Hallogallo”, the opening track on Neu!’s first album is arguably the best example of the Motorik style and, while they also experimented with noise and heavier rock numbers, if Neu! had recorded nothing other than “Hallogallo”, they would have earned a place in Krautrock history.
The two reclusive experimenters behind, Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, were classically trained at the Düsseldorf Conservatory. Their first three albums are explorations of electronic noise and soundscapes and are really only for serious collectors. It is with their 1974 album Autobahn that they consolidated their distinctive electronic style. In the pioneering title track, another example of Motorik, Kraftwerk pointed to the future of electronic music. They continued to develop their style over the next few years and when the title track of their 1977 album Trans-Europe Express was sampled 5 years later in Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal rap track Planet Rock, it still sounded new. Over this period, Kraftwerk’s influence can be seen in the likes of David Bowie, Gary Newman, New Order and Art of Noise but by the mid 80s the rest of the world had caught up to them and their sound no longer sounded so distinctive. Their work was done.
Can‘s music is more challenging than Neu! or Kraftwerk. Their bass player, Holger Czukay, had studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen and was a music teacher with no interest in rock until, the story goes, a student played him “I Am the Walrus” by The Beatles. This then led to his discovery of Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground. With that Czukay’s personal history changed and avant-garde music along with it. More influenced by jazz, particularly free jazz, than many other Krautrockers, Can experimented relentlessly with wild improvisation, heavy drumming, electronics and noise. While they did manage the occasional commercial hit, such as “Spoon”, their real legacy was influence on others, including Coil, The Fall, Stereolab. More recently, when describing their latest album Narrow Stairs, Death Cab for Cutie said “we’ve got a ten minute long Can jam”, so the spirit of Can lives on.
Tangerine Dream is certainly the most prolific band to emerge from the Krautrock era, having released over 100 albums. Their early releases, those favoured by Julian Cope, share an abrasive edge with many of their Krautrock peers, but they quickly evolved towards a more ambient electronic style. Their line-up has changed many times over the years, the only constant being founding member Edgar Froese and unlike other bands, such as Kraftwerk, they have been more successful at adapting their style over time and in recent years have shifted towards electronic dance music. Tangerine Dream have perhaps been the most influential of all of the Krautrockers. Their ideas have reached from fellow electronic experimenters Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis to more recent artists such as Global Communication, Future Sound of London, DJ Shadow (who samples “Invisible Limits”), Radiohead and Cut Copy. The biggest challenge with Tangerine Dream is knowing how to get started on such an enormous discography. For the TD novice, I would recommend the 1976 Stratosfear.
I have only touched on a few of the bands under the Krautrock banner. Others worth devoting more than a passing listen include Faust, Amon Düül II, Harmonia, Ash Ra Tempel, Cluster and Guru Guru. But rather than just reading about Krautrock, have a listen to some of the the music on my Mixwit Krautrock Sampler. If that inspires you and you happen to live in Sydney, pay a visit Bravery, Repetition & Noise [now sadly closed]. The proprietors of this fine Newtown music and video shop have helped me feed my Krautrock addiction and in return I inspired them to listen to it again and they now feature Neu! and Can prominently on their display wall. If Sydney is a bit too far to go, there is always the Krautrock & Motorik Desk over at the Music Advice Centre (MAC) virtual store on last.fm.
By the way, “The Model” is still one of my favourite tracks.