Krautrock: finding beauty in the brutalism – a response to David Stubbs’ Future Days

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Krautrockers Kraftwerk

Krautrockers Kraftwerk

With the recent release of Future Days by David Stubbs, Getintothis’ Jono Podmore provides an indepth response to Krautrock and the building of modern Germany.

Despite taking its title from Can’s 1973 album, Future Days isn’t merely another opportunity to indulge in Can and Kraftwerk mythology.

True, there is a chapter on each of those bands, but the heart of the book is worn on the back cover with a list of artists. David’s thoroughness was never in doubt but I was convinced he’d overlook one of my favourite unsung heroes of the period, Gunther Schickert. But there’s his name on the cover, same font and magnitude as Amon Düül II or Popol Vuh.

The other focus of the book – one previously woefully overlooked is also loud and proud in the title – the building of modern Germany. Previously approached with “don’t mention the war” coyness, Herr Stubbs tackles post-war Germany head on – refreshing and necessary. It’s clear that the bands that conform to the Krautrock criteria of place, period, politics and style had little or no influence on the German mainstream in their lifetime, but dig a little deeper and you can find all the peculiar tensions and comforts of German society reflected in this music and the lives of its creators – and that’s what you have in Future Days.

After an introduction, the book kicks off proper with a lengthy prologue dealing with the political, economic and cultural background of Germany in the late 60’s and 70’s. It’s a complex and tense mix of rebuilding, rejection, idealism, confusion and sheer anger that is presented to us here – never losing sight of the objective of understanding why the music sounds the way it does, deftly navigating us through turbulent waters.

My experience of the Krautrock world and then eventual immersion into German society and culture started in earnest in ‘97. I went to work with Irmin Schmidt from Can in his house in Provence, France on his opera Gormenghast, thereby also living with his wife and Can’s manager Hildegard Schmidt, and their daughter and later my wife Sandra. The country setting is important as it’s a constant theme in the Krautrock story.

As we see with Faust, Neu!, and under the hood of Kraftwerk, the bourgeois German dream of living with nature in the countryside is a strong cultural identity. In fact this bucolic desire was brought to us by the urban Germans of the Romantic movement. Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony could never have been written or performed from a shepherd’s hut on a mountainside surrounded by flowers, days away from the nearest piano tuner, restaurant or wine merchant, but it drips in longing: Sehnsucht. Perhaps this idealised vision of nature is the clearest definition of urban art. For me, after an initial summertime honeymoon period, the isolation, the constant noise of crickets when I was trying to work, the mosquitoes and then the mud and further, deeper isolation of winter in another culture’s theme park put paid to any bucolic illusions of my own.

But for the Krautrockers: “Apart from the practical or accidental reasons for fetching up in such far flung places, … 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…” We’re shown that corollaries, tensions, counter-balances and paradoxes are at the heart of this music and culture.

Although superficially connected to the subsequent rise to political potency of the Green movement in Germany, the Germans that have lived the dream and set up studios admist the nymphs of Arcadia have a thirst for fossil fuels (cars, flights and logisitics) that make a Berliner’s carbon footprint appear tiny. The notions of escape and luxury on the cheap are much stronger than any sense of responsibility. One of the expressions for rich living is wie ein König in Frankreich – like a king in France. With the economic miracle still in full swing in the 70’s and then later driven further by EU legislation, great swathes of pastoral southern Europe are now colonised by bourgeois German communities, living in second homes, rebuilding so-called ruins, distorting the housing market as the local youth go to find a future in the housing estates of Marseille, Lisbon, Barcelona, Rome, Athens.

This colonial behaviour is not at all uniquely German (a brief trip to Marbella will cure you of any misapprehensions there) but the scale is greater due to one simple reason: wealth. The sons and daughters of the Nazis are simply richer than their equivalent generations in other European nations. The economic miracle is the source of this wealth, but crucially it more fairly distributed in German society. No class system, no Bullingdon Club; a Federal Republic of opportunity built quite consciously on the American model, with American money.

This was very attractive to me in my 20’s after I had left Liverpool to study in London. The Capitocentric, class-riven society so clearly failing so many young British people in the 80’s made me admire West Germany. A trip along the Rhine by train calling in at tiny, administrative Bonn after leaving behind the national centres of industry in the Ruhrgebiet and of culture in Köln and Düsseldorf, before heading for the national banking centre in Frankfurt am Main left me with a picture of how distorted my own country was. In Deutschland, everywhere was a national centre of something, nowhere was abandoned and all this was administered without colonial grandeur from little Bonn.

This unprejudiced vision of opportunity played itself out for me years later whilst living in Köln when I was appointed Professor der Praxis der Populär Musik at the Köln Musikhochschule – Cologne University of Music, one of the most prestigious academies in Europe, erstwhile academic home to Stockhausen, Henze and base for the 70’s Cologne scene in both Neue Musik and Jazz.

But all is not as it seems in the Bundesrepublik. Two issues arise: that capital city; and the source of the wealth.

After reunification it became clear that Berlin could be the capital of Germany once again not the modest admin centre at Bonn. Indeed to quote a German expression popular in the Nazi times, “Modesty is the virtue of slaves”. Jaki Liebezeit was particularly scathing of the new, old capital – as far as he’s concerned Berlin always means trouble – from Prussian militarism and expansion through to the Nazis. The other side of the argument, supported most vocally by Irmin, originally a Berliner himself before being evacuated in the war, was that a nation like Germany needs a metropole – needs a central point both culturally and administratively to function on the international level.

Cologne can compete with Düsseldorf, but Berlin competes with Beijing, London, Washington DC. The extension of this is that the federal dream I bought into in the 80’s had created a nation homogeneously provincial: Hamburg, for instance, might be a national centre in certain fields but remains a provincial city at heart, with provincial ambition and culture. The result of reinstating Berlin as capital has proved this a self-fulfilling argument, as many of the most energetic international cultural players in the German cities relocated to Berlin in the early years of this century, leaving the provincials to worry about their neighbours down the road in the next provincial city.

Then there’s the source of the wealth. David doesn’t mention this is the book, but I don’t consider it an oversight, it’s simply due to the deeply engrained blind spot in German culture. This most pacifist of nations, whose military has only in the last 15 years begun to take a supportive role in UN peace keeping missions and whose citizens endlessly berate what they see as the bellicose behaviour of the UK (who they still feel a deep sense of competition towards) is, in fact, the world’s third biggest arms exporter.

German-made weapons represent 7% of the total global market, behind only the US and Russia with the UK 6th at 4% of the global market. The manufacturing base that they managed to maintain while the UK was pushed into a nigh on exclusively service economy is manufacturing small arms, tanks, anti-personnel mines and ammunition quietly shipped to the world’s conflict zones.

Nobody talks about this in Germany, no-one seems aware of it. People are aware there is an arms trade and readers of Der Spiegel are uncomfortable about it, but the scale is hidden. The provincial opera houses, the wonderful public art shows are brought to you by BMW, Deutsche Bank and in the small print Heckler and Koch. The trade is central to the economy.

After the prologue, Future Days deals with individual groups and scenes in detail, and despite the importance and quality of the political and cultural background provided, this where the book shines. David is after all a great reviewer by trade. His descriptions and enthusiasm for each of the albums he leads us through makes you feel the need to listen to the music. I told David once that I had given up reading The Wire in frustration as to how technical musical terms were used so ignorantly: “the piece begins with a magnificent coda..” etc.

Using the terms would lend gravitas to the review, whether they were understood or not and for me completely undermined any authority the writer could have had. His response was that that is forgiveable, though dim, as the reviewer needs to be able to approach the music with the audience’s ears. That music reviewed by the musically trained just excludes the ordinary listener and presents a technical rather than emotive response. As a non-musician himself this point is proved conclusively in this book by descriptions ranging from “…It’s all backdrop, a vast yet somehow compact tableau of infinite drones and sparing but telling droplets of keyboard into the dark pools of the near-starless cosmos”, to “[the piece]…maintains a high-pitched electronic peal around which the Moog coils its oblique variations. For the less tolerant it will resemble an uninvestigated car alarm; for the hardier listener it is like the doors of sonic perception jammed wide open.”

But it’s not just the style that’s important here, it the exhaustive completeness. Not only does Gunther Schickert make the cut, we are presented with the likes of Limbus, Anima, Floh De Cologne. Not only are these bands worth investigating but their inclusion puts the music of the bigger names into a stronger context. I’ve been central in remastering the Can back-catalogue twice (CD remaster then vinyl), listening and relistening, then going through the lost tapes and editing them into shape as The Lost Tapes, keeping stylistic coherence as strongly as I could. But even then I feel through reading about Xhol Caravan and Kluster in this book I’ve learned much about even my own work.

The meeting points in this music are discussed a couple of times, but throughout the book themes appear that underpin the relationships between these bands. I’ve mentioned the pastoral urge already, but alongside and related to this are others. Gemütlichkeit is a truly German concept. It’s as central to and descriptive of the mass psychology of the German mind as Wabi-Sabi is to the Japanese. English translations are woefully inadequate, such as “cosiness” and “snugness”. Gemütlichkeit is actually nearer to a state of comfort derived from the world around you being in peaceful order. Neat, organised, spotless, untroubled, static, cool, calm, collected environments produce Gemütlichkeit as much as a favourite duvet.

It is the drive in so much of this music too. Kraftwerk’s work oozes Gemütlichkeit from the sound of the snare drum to the stitching on Florian’s shoes. It shines, with a beatific smile from the visionary calm of Popol Vuh. It sits us comfortably at the wheel of the Neu! motor as chords and clusters gently pass by. But this calm also reeks of the aims of the parents of this generation, it turns a blind eye to the atrocities they committed and this is where the great heaps of smashed detritus fall from the ceiling in much of this music. The interruptions and brutal edits in Can and Faust, Ballardian views of destroyed cities demonstrate the pull to and from Gemütlichkeit.

The other strand is atavism. I discussed with Irmin when we first started working together the idea of releasing scratchy, noisy recordings of drums and flute and claiming they were the result of capturing ancient music using new technology that could recall events “recorded” in rocks and walls of caves. Pure comedy, but this urge for Urmusik, to find the brutal, pre-culture artefact crops up in so many of these artists. I’ve been working in music all my life but it wasn’t until I worked with Germans from this period that I’d ever heard such constant reference to the music of cavemen.

What is the source of this? I think it might be too easy to say they feel that human culture lead to the Nazis so the response is to look to prehistory for inspiration or reference. There is a link to the love of Natur here, a belief that things, people, are at their best in their natural state – whatever that may be being utterly culturally informed, of course. A suggestion that intellectual and marketplace pursuits can be left to lesser beings – to be a true human you need only to crawl into your cave and bang the drum as your blonde beard grows.

Both these threads lead inevitably, as so many things do in contemporary German culture, to the Third Reich. Despite the backdrop of radical leftist politics, and the disgust so many people of the Krautrock generation have for their parents, these people are still products of the very culture that lead to the Holocaust. In discussion with German friends who are two generations removed from the Nazis I’ve come across and used terms like “Nazi with a small ‘n’ ” or “anti-social socialists”. Germans of my generation have seen their fathers and mothers argue bitterly and endlessly with their grandfathers and grandmothers only to unwittingly demonstrate how they are all arguing in the same way from the same position. The Krautrock generation are often people with impeccable left wing credentials but approaching life with a deep-seated knowledge of their superior position in the human race by way of their earliest conditioning. They find the art and culture of Africa, the Far East even Southern Europe beguiling, complex and deeply moving but still from a position of unshakeable superiority – never at eye level, an attitude to the exotic spearheaded by Leni Reifenstahl.

 

The socialist father is programmed to become the Altnazi grandfather by the powerful early conditioning of the Nazi parents. But these people will never cause a single atrocity and are more politically active and questioning than many in the nations around them. They are good people with the finest of intentions. They simply carry with them longer shadows than we’re ready to acknowledge.

Through looking at all these bands in detail the definition of Krautrock broadens as paradoxes deepen. There’s an anti-American sentiment that links these bands; Germans of this age will often drop the line Die Scheiß Amis – “those shitty yanks”. Germany was used as an American base on the front-line against communism. At the Can studio in Weilerswist the band would watch the USAF Starfighters wheel overhead during recording sessions. So much of the character of Krautrock – perhaps, at least technically, its most important aspect of identity and greatest legacy is what is referred to in the book as attempts to “de-bluesify”.

Trying to take the afro-american out of rock as it appeared somehow dishonest for white europeans to play that way. The clearest example of this process is the motorik beat created by Klaus Dinger of Neu!, who get a whole chapter dedicated to them in the book. This style of drumming is characterised by a relatively high 4/4 tempo, a light touch and the accents constantly on the beat. There is no emphasis at all on the off beat. The West African rhythms that form the basis of Afro-American and Latin music are structured over 2 bars – one bar with the accent on the beat, the next with the accent off the beat. Think of the Funky Drummer breakbeat, the Amen break or the Clave rhythm. This forms a duality – breathe out, breathe in. The motorik Dinger-beat just breathes out – a single line, a constant process. Not circular but driving from A to wherever.

But then paradoxically there’s Micky Karoli’s guitar. He once told me how Jaki would berate him about his guitar solos by asking him when he had ever picked cotton in the Mississippi delta. When not indulging in blues soaked solos he played with a clean melodic African sound which he developed on his trips to Kenya. Can crystallised the moment that Jaki and African American Malcolm Mooney clicked. Sly Stone’s influence is felt across Krautrock in the use of drum machines in serious music – again an Afro-American innovation. Even dub reggae, at least in terms of method makes its presence felt. It seems the great swirling cultural engine of the black atlantic is too powerful to resist.

The last couple of chapters in the book deal with the legacy of Krautrock. This genre seems to be the one that died and went to heaven. The very idea of these artists being placed together in a genre is somehow posthumous. Bowie is cited as the conduit through which the mainstream caught up with this music. Eno too is included as an honorary Krautrocker through his work particularly with Harmonia, extending the lineage to Talking Heads/David Byrne, ambient and his plethora of productions.

Berlin festival promoter Emil Bange is quoted: “Krautrock is the missing link between the hippies and the punks…” In essence that’s why this music in particular has endured – 70’s music but without the sheer tastelessness of banal British progressive rock or the patriotic posturing of American rock. It has taste that sits better with our times. I remember being dragged into a gallery in a museum in Nantes by Hildegard Schmidt excitedly telling me the art in there brought back the gallery life that Can and others were involved in. I was expecting abstract expressionism or black and white pencil drawings of slag heaps – but what greeted me was calm, tasteful, figurative Pop Art. Despite Fluxus, Stockhausen and all the Oedipal rage, the smartest of these bands were creating Pop Art as music – or simply Pop music, but with a knowing sense of restraint and it’s place in culture in the greater sense; using the techniques and processes of fine art and virtuosity but avoiding bombast or hideous ego-trips. No Führers in the prehistoric future.

If you are interested in anything from European history to the humour in Kraftwerk, from David Bowie to the smelly Munich communes this book is essential – and although informative, thought-through and exhaustively researched, funny too.

 

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