November 1, 2010
Okay, kids! Edu-muh-cation time! For those of you who regard my references to krautrock and its sub-genre motorik with suspicion and unease, this month's installment (which borrows its title from eccentric British musician - of The Teardrop Explodes and multitudinous solo albums - enthusiast and historian Julian Cope's long out-of-print fanboy tribute) should help clarify things.
What I won't do is get bogged down in history - there are numerous tomes dedicated to just that, including Cope's more subjective musings. In fact the playlist is organized by flow, not chronology. Sticking with my policy of never repeating a track I may have not been able to include my first choice of tracks from these bands, but you can search the previous posts for various other appearances of the artists featured here. Nor will I attempt to be comprehensive - only the major players, the most influential and innovative, some of whom cross-pollinated the scene by playing in more than one of the bands I've included, will be featured. Sorry Cosmic Jokers. Sorry German Oak. Sorry Agitation Free. If I tried to include everyone we'd have an even lengthier set than this one already is (hey, the songs are long too! which is typical of krautrock). I'm more concerned with who did what and how they sounded. The various modi operandi of the krautrock scene are wildly disparate, from psychedelic to free rock to proto-prog to analog electronic to pure avant garde... and everything in between.
Suffice it to say... it's the late 60s/early 70s in Berlin, in Cologne, in Dusseldorf... and it's one of the most exciting times for rock music, momentous at the very least, as many of these bands never made much of an impact outside the European and British undergrounds music scenes until many years, even decades, later. Oh, at let's clear up a misconception: the term krautrock was coined by the pigeonhole-crazed British rock press - the politically correct term, coined by Tangerine Dream's Edgar Froese, is kosmische. As in COSMIC.
We begin whit La Dusseldorf, which, like I said, isn't the best place to start chronologically. But I think it's a great track to start the set off with a bang and also introduce the concept of motorik. The word means just what it seems to: it describes a form of music that is motorized, moving, propelled ever forward by a propulsive, usually minimalistic, 4/4 beat. Bass, guitar and keys should be interlocking with the percussion, flowing and lush, embellishing the rush of movement. It is the very antithesis of "free" music drumming (think free jazz, where the beat purposefully never settles into a locked groove). The drummer who, if he didn't "invent" it (he very well may have), excelled at its simple tenets, is one Klaus Dinger. He developed it during his tenure with a very early incarnation of Kraftwerk, who continued the style with their synthesizers and drum machines after his departure along with guitarist Michael Rother to form Neu! (who are next up in the set) where he perfected it (as well as heavily influencing loads of modern bands from Stereolab to Trans Am). Rother and Dinger split and while Dinger did La Dusseldorf for a few albums, Rother birthed a large catalog of solo albums (the next track is from one of them) continuing his bandmate's drumming style but focusing more on his own guitar explorations, then Rother joined up with members of Cluster to form Harmonia, a perfect midway point between those two acts. Harmonia blended a streamlined motorik vision with the more amorphous electronics of the experimental electronic (krautronic?) duo Cluster (aka Kluster). The tracks from those two artists I've featured are of their more straight-forward variety rather than the free-drifting experiments both dabbled in.
Speaking of free-drifting electronics, I guess now's the time in the set to showcase Tangerine Dream, who dabbled in the formless masses of sound of avant garde eletronica, but also had some more structured pieces, like the slow-burner I've included here, as well as the hackneyed 80s soundtrack work most Americans know them for. They actually used traditional instruments along with their proprietary electronics! Who knew? Guitar, bass, drums, flute, strings, etc. are featured in their early work. The same can be said for Kraftwerk, who in the early lineup mentioned above (Rother and Dinger along with Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider) , who ventured on into their more widely known robot rock on the Autobahn) were downright experimental, as evidenced by this track which should catch many of you by surprise.
I think it's about time to bring the ROCK, don't you? Ash Ra Tempel and Guru Guru were acid rock afficionados, who combined traditional blues-rock format, blazing wah-wah guitar solos and swirling psychedelics with the occasional foray into avant gardism and lysergic exploration ("Wouldn't it be great to get Timothy Leary to sing on an album?"). Then we bring the weird: no less rockist OR psych-inspired, Amon Duul literally began as a hippie acid cult/commune; the more refined version II laid out the template for future prog rockers to follow, all multi-part song suites, virtuoso soloing, and histrionic fantasy story-telling.
Let's quiet things down a bit with the elegiac/ecstatic compositions of Florian Fricke, who as Popol Vuh (taken from the Mayan creation myth), drew from classical, ethnic and devotional music to create, if not all actual soundtracks (he composed for Werner Herzog, among others), at least soundscapes. Popol Vuh was the least rockist of all krautrock, but entirely kosmische and utterly essential. It would be impossible to chronicle the krautrock bands without including their most legendary possibly their most influential wunderkinds, known as The Can (later amended to just Can). Combining ethnic music elements, circular improvisatory song structures, and unhinged stream-of-consciousness vocals (first briefly from the American Malcolm Mooney then more prolifically from the Japanese Damo Suzuki, who both sang in English). Can were and continue to be one of the greatest spacerock bands of all time, as this epic illustrates.
And we wrap this survey up with the enigmatic Faust, the tricksters of the bunch, who dabbled in folk, experimental, musique concrete, tape manipulation, and the heavy instrumental psychedelia that would influence multiple future genres, especially that of sturm-und-drang post rock (next month's segment will be my definitive post rock set!). The track I've included is somewhat atypical of their sound, but is featured for two reasons: the title is a piss-take on the musicians of the genre's disdain for the demeaning label kraut, but simultaneous beats the motorik bands at their own game in a blazing maelstrom of hypnotic sonic mayhem that only Faust could pull off (check their latter day "comeback" work in the 90s and 00s for examples of where this has led them).
This, kids, is krautrock! What do all these bands have in common? Well, in a nutshell, they're all... sehr kosmische. I highly recommend continued study here: The Crack In The Cosmic Egg
The following tracks should appear in the player below:
Düsseldorf - La Düsseldorf - s/t
Hallogallo - Neu! - s/t
Erikönig - Michael Rother - Fernwärme
Walky-Talky - Harmonia - Deluxe
Sowiesoso - Cluster - Sowiesoso
Fly And The Collision Of Comas Sola - Tangerine Dream - Alpha Centauri
Stratovarius - Kraftwerk - Kraftwerk I
Amboss - Ash Ra Tempel - s/t
Immer Lustig - Guru Guru - Kanguru
Soap Shop Rock - Amon Duul II - Yeti
Hosianna Mantra - Popol Vuh - Hosianna Mantra
Halleluhwah - Can - Tago Mago
Krautrock - Faust - Faust IV