Dhananjai Sinha explains how the unknown subgenre is an alternative history of rock and roll music itself
What the hell is Krautrock? No. It isn’t some sort of an exotic root that you can eat. It doesn’t have anything to do with Sauerkraut, but yes, it does have a lot to do with Germany.
The term comes from the world wars when armies would refer to their German counterparts by the name ‘kraut’. In 1968, nearly two decades after the second world war, the foreign press was introduced to the burgeoning German music scene through one of the many major rock concerts that took place in the city of Essen. Melody Maker, one of the most popular music newspaper in the UK christened this genre Krautrock, a slightly offensive yet acceptable label after the racial slur and also after a track from the German band, Amon Düül’s 1969 album, Psychedelic Underground titled “Mama Düül und Ihre Sauerkrautband Spielt Auf (Mama Düül and her Sauerkrautband Strike Up)
What was charming about this genre was that, when the rest of the world was stuck in the radio trap which had them struggling to make three-minute per song music, the Germans didn’t give a damn. This movement fashioned itself without keeping a radio in mind and the results were intense—wild rock and roll mixed with new sounds that no one had really heard before like, psychedelic rock, avant-garde electronic music, jazz improvisation, minimalism and world music styles. The fact that it sounded nothing like the traditional rock and roll and blues influenced music of the time just aided its popularity.
The sound was majorly attributed to the kind of music produced by one Rolf Ulrich Kaiser, a German music producer who through his label, Ohr, was pivotal in recording the sounds of artists like Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, Klaus Schulze and Amon Düül. Bands like Can and Neu became characteristically famous for incorporating drone like sounds into their long jam format of music, in order to create a post-modernistic world of the future-present; which was miles ahead of the time space they inhabited. Krautrock tested the limits of musical soundscapes which could be built and imagined. This new German sound, which relied immensely on experimental, ambient improvisations using a combination of electronica and psychedelia would prove to be one of the most influential sounds to future musicians. It set base for modern acts like David Bowie, Radiohead, Porcupine Tree, The Mars Volta Band, Oresund Space Collective to build their compositions on.
There has been historical evidence to the fact that a large number of people, in isolated inhabitations have used music as a marker to collectively bond with each other. Shamanistic societies still have rhythm and beats as an integral component in the algysh dance of shamans to connect psychically with each other, feel whole and break away from the individual to reform into a collective being. It is supposedly easier to reach a meditative state when you’re playing or listening to repetitive music.
At a time when the agitated, disillusioned youth of West Germany were fighting to create such an open, shared space, Krautrock borrowed its own beat from one of Germany’s greatest creation of the age –The Autobahn- the network of roadways which started within days of the Nazi takeover of West Germany in 1933 and which is still the densest road network in the world inspired the motorik, or the motor beat—a simple 4/4 beat that plays relentlessly for continuous intervals of time, inducing free long jams, experimental ambience and a transcendental atmosphere that sounds like you’re driving down the Autobahn in your motor. This almost mechanical creation of sound on a loop was enabled extensively by the usage of keyboards to replicate electronic music, the music which a generation growing up to the Soviet-American space age (and the race to it) associated more with their present existence.
In 1969, USA beat the Soviet Union in the race to the moon, and Krautrock pioneered technology to finally come to the forefront of musical compositions in a way where it was not solely meant to replicate or add to the octaves within the reach of an instrument. Kosmiche music was born, and sounds of drones and bombs were replicated to create space shuttles and spinning vortexes. This was the time when the world was experimenting with drugs, and the youth was resisting to authority. At a time when the rest of the world was playing around with the psychedelics of music, the German scene was indulging in the psychedelics of atmosphere. Krautrock musicians would call it ‘concrete music’, or environmental music, which would ‘tear down song structures and help uncover sounds ancient and new’
What is more interesting to this story though (apart from the music which came out of it), is the fact, that this sound was coming out of youth which were the first generation spawn of a culture which had been left in devastation and ruins. Where ex-Nazis supposedly still held high positions at offices of cultural importance. There had been simultaneous uprisings in student and worker unions in France and Italy, and the German youth was ready to confront the unsaid horrors of their past, which for years were covered up by the previous generation that was complicit in the horrors, but now refused to talk about them or discuss them openly.
The shame of loss and embarrassment of a war they had not been part of but had been thrust with, was now ready to be brought out and accepted. There were sentiments that the ruling government was still as undemocratic, conservative and racial as the previous one, and that the German media and agenda had been bought over by this ruling class. The German economy had also gone into recession for the first time in fifteen years, with the Free Democratic Party(FDP) ousted from the major coalition with the ruling Christian Democratic Party (CDP), something which the students and intelligentsia of the time had seen as a threat to democracy. The German Emergency Act, which repelled the authority still held by the Allied Forces in times of potential emergency in the country, was also seen as a way for the ‘pseudo-democratic’ party to consolidate all power in Germany.
Also spawned in 1968 as a result, was the The 68er Bewegung, the student movement of ’68, which gripped West Germany all of a sudden. The Red Army Faction or the Rote Armee Faktion was formed when on 11 April, 1968. Ulrike Meinohff, the co-founder of the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Faktion), a retaliatory group of ‘militants’ who were involved in a series of bombings, assassinations, bank robberies and shoot outs with the police, famously proclaimed, “…protest is when I say this does not please me. Resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more…” An entire generation rebelled and made a show of it in the ways they could which was mainly through art, and music.
The Zodiac Free Arts Club came into being. It was founded in Berlin by three musician- artists Conrad Schnitzier, Hand Joachim Roedeulius and Boris Schaak, to primarily house Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer a politically motivated theater company which usually performed late into the night, after the din of the last vehicle had subsided, so that the performers voices weren’t drowned by it. The Zodiac club was divided into separate areas, the white area, for play performances and the black area, which housed an assorted collection of instruments and audience. It was here, at the junction of political impressions and musical experiments, that bands like Tangerine Dream and musicians like Klaus Schulze would meet great minds like Werner Herzog, and music would be considered as strong and clear an expression of discontent as words were.
By the end of the 1960s, The Zodiac Club would shut down, but the German art and culture scene had evolved to find a voice of their own—a counterpart to the the American and British counterculture and hippie movement that had moved rock towards styles that incorporated socially and politically incisive lyrics. The 1968 German student movement, along with isolated yet not unrelated French worker protests and Italian student movements had created “a class of young, intellectual continental listeners, while nuclear weapons, pollution, and war inspired protests and activism.” The German youth was finally a part of a revolution and they were leading the way with their music.
The German Krautrock has pioneered the the use of electronica in music in a way which has stretched the genre of music to new dimensions, the limitless form and freedom in expression. Curated below is a ten song Krautrock playlist, which the writer feels represents the most influential songs of this genre, which will take you into a journey of those volatile times. These are songs that capture the essence which drove this shift in global music and its influence.
1) Nue! ‘Hallogallo’ 1972
Klaus Dinger famously set stage to the motoric beat with this song, later changing the name to The Apache beat, after the trance state beat in Apache shamanistic rituals.
2) Kraftwerk- Autobahn,1974
This 22-minute sonic masterpiece encompasses the sounds and experience of the times. It plays with progressions, time signatures and sounds of the future, a perfect example of what Krautrock as a genre, provided to the music world.
3) Popol Vuh-Kyrie, 1973
The German electronic avant-garde band has been attributed to the very first usage of Moog synthesizers and is known as one of the earliest space music band. They were also known to borrow their musical influences from Tibet, Africa and pre-Columbian America.
4) Amon Duul-Love is Peace, Paradieswärts Düül, 1970
A powerful German political art commune, Amon Duul was one of the bands active in the free expression of arts movement of the time, and was well known for its free form musical improvisations. Love is Peace from the Paradieswärts Düül album, was the last recorded album by the band which spawned another band from within itself called ‘Amon Duul II’, and features a pastoral, folk influenced sound which was in contrast with some of their earlier works.
5) Tangerine Dream-Green Desert, 1986
If you (like so many others) are a fan of the psychedelic atmospheric music Pink Floyd indulged in, Green Desert by Tangerine Dream deserves your notice.
Can’s electrifying stage performance in this live version for German TV set benchmarks for live stage performances and has influenced artists since. The sound is expansive, and seems to hold everyone in a trance.
7) Ash Ra Tempel-Light: Look at Your Sun,1972
One of their most famous songs, covered widely by musicians influenced by the style, the composition begins delicately and journeys through a warm guitar solo track into cosmic proportions, and reminds us that we’re all one. The band remains a legend in the domains of acid rock, having influenced bands like Acid Mothers Temple and Hash Jar Tempo
8) Klaus Schultz-Bayreuth Returns, 1975
One of the first tracks to use a an analog sequencer in music, Bayreuth Returns pays homage to the Bavarian town in which the German composer Richard Wagner built an opera house to stage Der Ring des Nibelungen, the four part ring cycle composition. Playing on a single Leitmotif (or a repeating musical pattern, characteristic of Wagner), the song showed the possibilities and dimensions which electronic music can take you through.
9) Faust-The Faust Tapes, 1973
The experimental Faust Tapes were released as cut and paste tapes, which contained a lot of bits and pieces from their jam sessions and were released by Virgin Records. Although it went on to sell over 100,000 copies, the album was ineligible for chart placing because of its innovative pricing of just 48 pence.
10) Guru Guru-Oxymoron, 1972
Known for their ‘politically left oriented’ performances, Guru Guru were known to have performances in jails, read political text in between their songs and play with the German Socialist student wing of the time. Guru Guru were the forerunners in the free jazz genre; singer and drummer Mani Neumeier is a well known figure in the European jazz-rock scene.