Krautrock and the West German Identity

Sandra Canosa

 

Krautrock is a sticky word. Never meant to be a label, much less a compliment, the term was coined in the ‘70s by a British journalist trying to figure out the same thing the rest of the popular music world was wondering at the time – what exactly is going on over in West Germany?

 

Other musical movements in pop history that converged around a single geographic place – New York punk, Britpop, Chicago jazz – have all had a common underlying aesthetic going for them; it’s music that’s undeniably informed by and derived from its surroundings. But Krautrock? It’s a term that gets pressed on music as varied as drone, ambient, electronic, free jazz, psychedelic, avant-garde— anything coming out of West Germany at the time, regardless of its sound.

 

British and American rock’n’roll had been seeping its way into the West German consciousness since its inception in the ‘50s, with the club scenes of Hamburg and other cities playing loving host to soon-to-be stars like the Beatles. At the tail end of the ‘60s, the music of the peace-and-love scene raging abroad was pushing the limits of what rock music was and could be. Bands like Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead became more experimental, dismissive of long-held pop conventions,  and increasingly immersed in trying to replicate the experiences of the psychedelic drug culture.

 

 West German youths latched on to Anglo/American music just as readily as they consumed the other tenets of capitalist culture, the other privileges afforded them during American military occupation and constant scrutiny. The Federal Republic of Germany as an independent nation was not much older than many of the kids forming bands in the late 1960s and early ‘70s — those who would start what we now call Krautrock. They relished the sounds, but not necessarily the virtues of the hippie movement: “The German interpretation of psychedelic music,” writes Piero Scaruffi in A History of Rock and Dance Music, “had little to do with reproducing the effects of drugs: German musicians saw a relationship between psychedelic experiments and [the more established German school of the] electronic avant-garde… that no one had articulated before.” When West Germans began making their own rock, filtered through the lens of their own culture and history, the music became something entirely different.

The combined influences of the German avant-garde and psychedelic rock make up Can’s 1971 Tago Mago, an album definitive of the era, yet seemingly in a sonic universe all its own. The band boasted two ex-pupils of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen;:a jazz musician, and a singer found off the streets—Damo Suzuki, a child of another ex-Axis, war-ravaged country. Tago Mago rages schizophrenically from song to song, from the two-bricks-shy of a pop song “Mushroom” to the sprawling “Halleluhwah” and everything in between. This confusion, this constant search for how best to communicate, is part of the album’s appeal. West Germany and its people had to find new ways to be heard in the world—a nation dismembered, no longer quite German, not yet fully Westernized, and always idling in the Cold War shadows of the Iron Curtain.

 

Even if American and British bands were pushing at the limits of rock music, the German bands were going after them with a sledgehammer. The debut albums of bands like Amon Düül II (Phallus Dei, 1969), Tangerine Dream (Electronic Meditation, 1970), and Faust (Faust, 1971) sound more like psychedelic rock than not, but they are miles ahead of their counterparts in their expeditions of the human mind. Faust pays homage to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles in the first few minutes of their opening track, “Why Don’t You Eat Carrots?” But the album goes on, in just two more songs, to obliterate any preconceived notions of the typical rock album. As one critic of Ground & Sky writes, “Faust is not trying to destroy rock because they hate it, they’re trying to liberate it because they love it and they adopt the attitude that if morphing it into something new requires that it first be ferociously beaten into a substance more malleable, then, so be it.”

 

Meanwhile, the darker, more dystopian sound of Amon Düül II strongly reflected the political atmosphere of West Germany. The band itself began as part of a commune comprised of artists, musicians, and political activists with ties to left-wing militant group the Red Army Faction. The widespread protests against the Vietnam War had considerable momentum among students in West Germany, as elsewhere. But students in Berlin and other German cities were simultaneously combating the lingering National Socialist attitudes of the generation before them—people who were their teachers, mentors, or family members, people who were complicit in the horrors of the Nazi regime. As their generation came into adulthood, those born after WWII sought to distance themselves from the former country’s harrowing past, trying to establish an identity uniquely and positively West German.

 

 

But the proximity of the German Democratic Republic and the massive Eastern Bloc could not be ignored. Berlin was a peculiar case—a city literally divided, the Western half an island marooned within the heavy hand of Soviet influence. It’s against this grim backdrop that Tangerine Dream emerged, and their Electronic Meditation is a dramatic and surreal foray into the human psyche. The album encompasses birth (“Genesis”), the struggles of life (“Journey Through a Burning Brain” and “Cold Smoke”), death (“Ashes to Ashes”), and, finally, “Resurrection.” Its cyclical perpetuations hold little hope, little ability to see past their own conditions.

 

As dark and conflicted as much of Krautrock can be, there was excitement in being West German, too—the promise of a fresh start, the possibility for a new future for a country with a haunted past. The 22-minute-plus title track off Kraftwerk’s seminal Autobahn (1974) is nothing short of a celebratory drive down that most distinctive of German innovations: the über-highway. West Germany continued work on the Autobahn after the war, striving to make it nothing less than the most impressive infrastructural feat in the world.  Kraftwerk’s signature motorik beats and ever-expanding use of musical technology celebrate the modern condition and exalt West Germany’s potential in the contemporary world. In ways, it harks back to the promises of German exceptionalism made by the Third Reich—and the song is not without its somber moments of reflection—but it makes these vows anew, with hope and optimism for the future.

 

 

Julian Cope called Krautrock “a subjective British phenomenon” in his guide Krautrocksampler, and he’s perfectly right: While the rest of the world tried to make sense of this sudden West German tour de force by crowding it under one umbrella term, to the West Germans, it was simply popular music. But with such an expanse of noise, variant from band to band, album to album, and even song to song, it’s hard not to find something impressive or inspiring. Krautrock carries the privilege of being a major influence for artists from David Bowie to Johnny Rotten, Radiohead to Pavement. The cultural exchange between West Germany and Britain/America proved mutually symbiotic: Without the initial catalyst of rock’n’roll, there would have been no Krautrock. Without Krautrock, we may never have seen the light of many of today’s most relevant artists. The growing pains of West Germany on the brink of a new chapter of cultural identity created music that, as Cope says, “sounds only like itself, like no one before or after.”

 

Author Bio:

Sandra Canosa is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

Photos: Yamashito Yohei, Brennan Schnell, Simon Zirkunow (Flickr, Creative Commons). 

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Comments

Muito bom! [Very good!] rock, revolução, cultura e história [rock, revolution,culture and history] Eu amo Krautrock! [i love krautrock!]

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