Recalling GERMANY CALLING and DEUTSCH ROCK - Part 1 (Revised illustrated version)
(Text by David McConnell)
Published in Background Magazine, The NetherlandsIntroduction
Readers may wonder about the curious title and what exactly the content can be. Well, perhaps not surprisingly, the subject covers two aspects or viewpoints of Krautrock from long ago that deserve to be publicized – one of them for its overall and unjustified negative bias, hostility and appalling research, and the other one for the opposite reasons. “Germany Calling” was a series of articles in the British weekly rock magazine New Musical Express back in 1972 and 1973, which I read at the time about the emergence of the new experimental rock scene in what was then West Germany. Over this three-part series, I have written most of the material as a representation of the general pessimism of that series, which was written by a journalist calling himself Ian MacDonald in NME but whose real name was Ian MacCormick, brother of Bill MacCormick, the former bass player of Matching Mole, the band of Robert Wyatt. In the year 2000, after nearly three full decades, I decided to go to the British Library’s newspaper library in London to obtain photocopies of the series and remind myself of what I read, with negative amazement, all those years ago. From the same library at the same time, I obtained a photocopy of the first-ever Krautrock article that I had ever come across – even earlier, in 1972 – in the British weekly rock magazine Melody Maker. It was called “Deutsch Rock” and was written by, judging from the article itself, a fair-minded journalist, Michael Watts. In contrast, this was a positive, unbiased and refreshing account; and after my conclusion of MacDonald’s series in my three-part series, I portray this single article with satisfaction, and with respect for its author’s work.
So, in beginning with MacDonald’s NME series, I have, for clarification, placed his words in italicized double-inverted commas, while all other uses of inverted commas are non-italicized, except where already they fall within MacDonald’s words. My comments intersperse MacDonald’s statements on some occasions, but when these don’t occur, it doesn’t mean that I agree with him – for I would be hard-pushed to agree with anything negative that he wrote, and he certainly wrote plenty in the negative. Ardent Krautrock fans will also readily find their own words of astonishment in response to MacDonald’s bizarre views, unhelpful descriptions and erroneous statements.
Ian MacDonald’s Part One
The first part of “Germany Calling” appeared in the NME issue of 9 December 1972 and was spread over the centre pages, with three separate sub-headings that represented the content of the series. These were: (1) “The First IN-DEPTH examination of the strangest rock scene in the world”; (2) “German rock challenges virtually every accepted English and American standpoint”; and (3) “Several groups consist of two, or even one performer. How long before the machines take over?” Then there were the following five captioned photographs that added fascination to the article: (1) “Berlin’s Cluster duo prepare for take-off”; (2) “Neu from Düsseldorf ponder what to do next”; (3) “Tangerine Dream inspecting the Berlin Wall”; and (4) and (5) captioned together, “Popol Vuh and Can – worshipping in the church of their choice”. The last two photos were indeed taken in churches.
It is ironical that MacDonald was unbiased and even positive in the first part of the series. He described the social and political background that led to the rise of the new music, and this is well worth reading in its entirety, but it is too detailed even to summarise here. Furthermore, anyone reading the first part at the time, and, therefore, not realising what negativities were to follow, would have had the impression, without doubt, that MacDonald was a fan of the new German rock scene. However, as would be vividly indicated thereafter, this was far from the case, although he did not despair of all of it! My “Recalling Germany Calling”, in publicizing what is effectively a part of the early Krautrock story, concentrates mainly on MacDonald’s opinions of the bands and individual musicians – the subjective aspect – rather than outlining, from his series, the historical and other factual material of the German rock scene – the objective aspect. His representation of the latter aspect is generally acceptable, and is very informative to Krautrock fans who are interested in the music’s history; but it is his bias in the former aspect that results in much of his credibility and judgement being put into question through my three-part series.
MacDonald had praise for German rock’s differences from typical British and American rock, especially in regard to the improvisational side, in that “German bands tend to play their ‘compositions’ live until they have them as they want them, following which they record and cease to play them”, he explained. And he added: “One wonders why that logic cannot equally be seen to apply to Anglo-American rock groups.” He amplified what he meant by quoting the bassist and manager, Derek Moore, of the German-based British band Nektar: “German audiences”, noted Moore, “don’t go for careful reproduction in concert of something recorded in a studio. They like records – but they think that live performances should be very different experiences. They’re not into perfection. They’re into feeling.” MacDonald took up the matter again: “Some groups, like Can and Kraftwerk, are so ‘into feeling’ that, when they go into the studio to make an album, they simply jam for a certain specified period – select the tapes they deem preferable – and edit them to manageable length. This is quite extraordinary considering the infrequency with which the average German group undertakes a recording session. In their place a British band would be at each other’s throats over whose songs were finally to be committed to the care of posterity, or (at the very least) utilising every studio facility to capture take after take of the numbers they’d preplanned.”
"Berlin's Cluster duo prepare for take-off"
MacDonald highlighted another difference between some German bands and their Anglo-American counterparts by his valid statement that “a by no means inconsiderable faction of German groups, including Cluster and topliners Tangerine Dream, confine themselves in their albums to tonally-free sound improvisation without tempo. It’s safe to say that, within the Anglo-American sphere of influence, not even the Third Ear Band has laid down three-quarters of an hour of music without key or regular pulse. In Germany such blatantly avant-garde proceedings are taken for granted by ordinary rock audiences.” Or, in his other words: “Many German bands lack drummers entirely (those which don’t, frequently relegating him to a strictly metronomical function such as might easily be fulfilled by a machine, an idea pursued to its logical conclusion by Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter), and the general absence of possibilities for guitars in freeform has led to an accent both on keyboards and on sound-effects instruments.” From here, MacDonald was led to a possible future scenario: “Thus it is that several German groups consist of two, or even one performer. The final step – a band consisting of no members at all – is more than likely to materialize in the near future.”
Next, he explained that the music’s emergence was mainly due to the enterprising few people who had founded the Ohr and Brain labels. These were initially to writer Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser and publisher Peter Meisel for Ohr, and then to Bruno Wendel and Günther Korber for Brain, who were refugees from Ohr. An indication of the importance of both labels was given by the following words from him: “So far the [Brain] label has sixteen records to its credit and is doing very well – remarkable, since Ohr [with over thirty, he had earlier stated] has all the top German groups under exclusive contract except a handful already snapped up by Polydor and United Artists.” He could have added Philips.
At the end of part one of the series, he communicated some useful information about the recording studios. “German recording techniques were in a primitive state when the current boom began three years ago. These days production standards are more than adequate, but the number of studios equipped to handle rock groups is small and most bands limit themselves either to Conny Planks’s Starstudio in Hamburg, or to Dieter Dierks’ 16-track at Stommeln just outside Cologne. Amon Düül II record at Peter Kramper’s small Bavaria Studio in Munich; the ‘cosmic’ groups [he meant Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, Popol Vuh and Klaus Schulze] at a new 8-track in Berlin; and Can have their own Inner Space Productions studio in Cologne’s Schloss Norvenich, a castle converted into a cinema. The most advanced studio of all, however, inhabits an ex-schoolhouse at Wumme, somewhere off the road between Hamburg and Bremen in the countryside adjoining Luneberg Heath.” And continuing from this last sentence, he suddenly hinted that perhaps he was not a fan of the German scene in general: “Here the sole spectacular success of German rock is quietly making its own mythology – but more of that next week.” NME readers of the time would have been unaware of the band being referred to, but Krautrock fans reading the present account will know that he was alluding to Faust.
MacDonald’s Part Two
With reference to a Russian ammunition depot being blown up for fun in 1946 by eight-year-old Holger Czukay, who recalled it as “an unforgettable acoustical experience”, the second part of the series, in the issue of 16 December, contained the first of two sub-headings in the form of “Bomb blasts and the beat”. There were photos of three bands: Floh de Cologne, Amon Düül II and Can; and there was a fourth photo captioned “Faust: not so well known, but real German leaders”. However, the music of Faust would be described not in this second but in the third and originally-intended final part of “Germany Calling”. So, for part two, more history, rather than musical opinion occupied three, though not complete, pages; and here were outlines of the early history of Can, as far as their first album “Monster Movie” and of the Amon Düül commune - both without criticism. But then came the start of his derision about the German rock scene, in that “two-thirds of it consists of bad imitations of Anglo-American rock, a lucrative, if otherwise pointless, pursuit, of which the leading exponents are Birth Control, the country’s richest band [who] have an album released here [UK] on Charisma, whilst their various followers are all on the Brain label, all to varying degrees ploughing the same tedious furrows as Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple; and amongst whom are Gomorrha from Cologne, Jane from Hanover, and Grobschnitt from Dortmund.” In particular, how he could have likened the progressive Grobschnitt, on the basis of their first album, to the stated British hard-rock bands is beyond my comprehension.
The original Amon Düül were soon in the firing line. “The least necessary [bands] are those Revolutionary Head ensembles which, far from learning to play their instruments, have never attempted to come up with any but the most primitive of musical ideas. The prototype for this movement is the collective Amon Düül . . . [which] commenced to lay down 20 hours of improvised instrument clouting, some of which has unfortunately emerged on two Ohr releases, “Collapsing” and “Para Dieswarts Düül”.” Other adherents of the Revolutionary Head, he continued, included Ash Ra Tempel, “a kind of pre-Diluvian Hawkwind (whose second album “Schwingungen”, is in advance of their first solely in that it’s played on electric rather than acoustic instruments and is therefore louder) [What kind of a judgement is this?], and Mythos, a sloppy little imitation of a sloppy little English group called Continuum”. On such evidence alone, what an discourteous chap he must have been - this Ian MacDonald, who, of course, was decidedly wrong about the Ash Ra Tempel electric-acoustic ‘difference’, as there was no such difference at all, which he would have realised had he just listened properly. His derogatory statement about Mythos and Continuum was unjustified and unfair to both bands, and out of order for someone purporting to be a journalist; while similarities between the two bands were, in reality, only minimal, which he would have known in allowing the required listening. The next band fared no better: “Likewise to be avoided is a record called “Mandalas” made in 1970 by a quartet of Heidelberg University students calling themselves Limbus 4, and which comes on like the Incredible String Band under teargas attack.”
He then turned to Guru Guru and mentioned their first three albums, “UFO”, “Hinten” and “Kanguru”, before explaining that he had asked his NME colleague Tony Stewart, who had been a drummer in Germany in 1967, for his opinion on how developed the German scene was. Stewart’s response was: “If there were any British bands five years out of date, they’d go down a storm in Germany at the moment.” MacDonald then seized on the opportunity to deride – unfairly - not only Guru Guru but two British hard-rock bands: “In fact there ARE British bands five years out of date (mishandlers of the Hendrix theory in its earliest stages like the Pink Fairies and the Groundhogs) and Guru Guru sound remarkably like them, once their disguise of simplistic electronics has been pierced. Thus, this band forms the link between the more boring ‘cosmic’ groups of Berlin’s Revolutionary Headland and the plagiarists of British heavy rock which operate mainly between Hamburg and the Ruhr.” Guru Guru were one of the first German bands to have been heard by me, and my view about them all those years ago was that they were well ahead of British hard-rock bands, without the latter being demeaned. He placed Embryo, Xhol and Annexus Quam in the same category, only because they were among the first Krautrock bands to include wind instruments in their line-up. In describing “Opal”, the first album by Embryo, he said that “though the music on it could not have been made by people of any other nationality, its lack of substantial material eventually defeated the romantic semi-competent appeal it shared with the early Velvet Underground (to whom this group bears no other resemblance)”. His IN-DEPTH examination should certainly have also revealed the band’s second album, “Embryo’s Rache”, and possibly the third, “Father, Son and Holy Ghost”, with both having been released on United Artists before his series had commenced. In referring to Xhol, based on their three albums – with “Electrip”, recorded under their previous name of Xhol Caravan, being counted as the first – he summarised that “they’re prone to long interludes of monochordal wandering, punctuated by sudden anomalous departures into soul music”, adding that: “No explanation is offered by them, [and] neither do I recommend their records.” Now, why should Xhol have had to offer such an explanation, and why should MacDonald have been surprised about their soul connection, for he had earlier acknowledged their original name of Soul Caravan? Anyway, for me, Xhol were, and still are, the most intriguing band ever. Their music was superb, and MacDonald’s lack of recommendation had no meaning for me. And of the third band with wind instruments: “A slightly better bet is Düsseldorf’s Annexus Quam who, having got over the dreadfulness of “Osmose”, their first album, are now playing amnesiac free-jazz on a new one, “Beziehungen”, a sound pleasant from a safe distance but a somewhat dubious purchasing prospect.” So, what exactly did this mean? Could readers be anything other than puzzled?
MacDonald did not mention the Munich band Out of Focus, who also used woodwind instruments, and who had three albums released by the time his series had commenced. However, to be fair to him, the third of these – the very jazzy double LP “Four Letter Monday Afternoon” – may have been issued too near his time limit for the start of the series, but the first two, “Wake Up” and “Out of Focus”, were from 1970 and 1971, and his IN-DEPTH examination failed to discover this band, both initially and latterly. If he had been able to bring Out of Focus into focus, what criticisms would he have made of them too, I wonder?
On the folk-rock side, two duos were next ‘dealt-with’. His description of Witthüser and Westrupp was of “a pair of unprepossessing appearance, whose stock in trade (apparently) is bawdy and satirical songs performed to various sorts of acoustic accompaniment”; and he continued: “Unless you speak German you’ll find their music, as presented in albums like “Lieder von Vampiren” and “Tripps und Traume”, banal in the extreme; moreover, a degree in Gibberish would be unlikely to qualify you as a hierophant of “Sturmischer Himmel”, the first recording of Paul and Limpe Fuchs, a Teutonic Two Virgins whose central interests appear to be the sounds of sheep, Alpine horns, and yet more bongos”.
Not everything was negative in part two, for MacDonald did manage to offer some praise. For example, it was “quite mortifying” for him to discover the music and radical philosophy of “the excellent Floh de Cologne”, as he introduced this Marxist band. ““Fliesbandbaby’s Beat Show”, made in 1970, is a rough and ready combination of Brecht-Weill theatrics and small-scale rock-n’-roll, whilst “Profitgeier”, ironically launched as ‘the first German rock opera’ in the following year, represents a considerable advance in both music and lyrics, featuring a libretto that contains, as well as the sung and spoken words, short essays on various aspects of capitalist exploitation and full Marxist reading-lists on a wide range of topics.” However, in another respect, he cautioned: “Floh are by no means a comfortable experience (they even managed to impress the world-weary German newsmen by freaking out in the middle of their first and only press conference, overturning the tables, and charging at the cameras bellowing ‘Fuck for money!’)”; but he concluded by saying that “though the casual rock fan will get little out of Floh’s records, any German-speaking socialist should find “Profitgeier” remarkable both as music and as sophisticated propaganda.”
"Neu! from Düsseldorf ponder what to do next"
MacDonald felt encouraged that none of the sub-genres of German rock existed in complete isolation. “Lying between the more conventionally-based of German bands and the radical ‘cosmic’ groups like Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, and Cluster, is a music which retains, albeit in a much simplified shape, the organisational references of the former (such as regular tempi, a home key, occasionally even thematic material), whilst taking full advantage of the latter’s freedom of concept and practice.” After “Bomb blasts and the beat”, the second sub-heading of part two was “The Bands outside the cosmic zone”, and two essentially-similar bands were classified here: firstly, Kraftwerk - whose personnel history, with a split leading to the formation of the second, Neu! - were outlined and stated to be “a cold, mechanical group, seemingly bent on eliminating all traces of emotional _expression from their music”. This was not necessarily criticism, but such was soon in evidence from him: “For me, the music [of Kraftwerk] is hard without convincing structure, heartless with no redeeming dignity, and ultimately a numbing bore – quite unlike Neu’s first album [but he didn’t ‘spell’ the name correctly, as Neu!, with an exclamation mark], constructed following similar principles, but nearer to the wellspring of Teutonic emotional expression.” Then, with reference to the tracks of Neu!’s album, he continued: ““Sonderangebot” maintains interest in the sound of a phased cymbal for over five minutes, “Weissesee” and “Lieber Honig” get as tender as a German group is ever likely to get, and even Kraftwerkian tracks like “Hallogallo” and “Negativland” project a warmth and imagination which, theoretically, just shouldn’t be there. In Neu, a previously mystifying development in German rock is beginning to explain itself – but even so, I recommend a careful listen before any investment is made.” Unfortunately and ironically, it was MacDonald who was mystifying his readers. A more detailed and partly-critical account of Can’s progress from “Monster Movie” through “Tago Mago” to “Ege Bamyasi” - but also mentioning “Can Soundtracks” - then followed what he had written earlier about the band in part two.
“Their thing is free jamming over deliberately simple motifs for, on occasions, quite inordinate periods of time, and only on “Monster Movie” does this rather risky self-limitation (Can prefer to see it as total freedom) produce anything consistently gripping. “Mary, Mary, so contrary”, from this album, remains one of the most powerful statements of German rock [though he didn’t say why], making the hour of modal improvisation on “Tago Mago”, their second, appear even more impoverished than it actually is. “Ege Bamyasi”, the band’s latest, contains two more lengthy exercises in bleak repetition, but also features a number of the shorter, more controlled numbers that graced the listenable sections of the preceding albums – and these, like “Outside my door” (“Monster Movie”), “Oh yeah” (“Tago Mago”), and “Vitamin C” (“Ege Bamyasi”), can prove as hypnotically engrossing in their way as, say, a long Taj Mahal blues, or “Sad-eyed lady of the Lowlands”.” He summed up the band like this: “A strange, unique band of intellectuals struggling to make people’s music in a prevailing anti-cerebral climate, Can epitomize a central contradiction of German rock, play some good and some awful music, and look unusually happy for a bunch of incipient schizophrenics. At the very least they’re honest and articulate and cannot be ignored. Try “Ege Bamyasi” for yourself. I’m not a Can person, but it’s possible that the world is full of them and they ought not to be denied.” Now, why could he not have shown such objectivity, as in some of his preceding statements, throughout his series? Well, for a start, he had no interest in, and was biased against, his task of writing about the new German rock.
On the cosmic side, Tangerine Dream were acceptably and interestingly described as “like a Pink Floyd without a beat, for since “Fly and collision of Comas Sola”, on their second album “Alpha Centauri”, no regular pulse has appeared anywhere in their music – a fact which may deter the more rhythmically-orientated listener”. He followed the undeniable fairness of this assessment with another: “Anyone, however, for whom “A Saucerful of Secrets” remains an avenue worthy of further exploration will find Tangerine Dream fascinating.” Now, see here, Mr MacDonald – this objectivity just won’t do. Ah, but then he went into negative mood again by summarising their first three albums. ““Electronic Meditation” was a poor effort, pretentiously conceived and confusedly executed with [Edgar] Froese’s blues-based guitar sounding laughably anachronistic against the aural backdrop of synthesized sound.” Of the other two members, he remarked that “[Conny] Schnitzler forthwith split to form a rival ‘cosmic’ group, Eruption, who have not recorded yet, whilst [Klaus] Schulze left to pursue a solo career, the first fruits of which blossomed on “Irrlicht”, his sonomontage of synthesized orchestra.” This last sentence may have been praise from him for Klaus Schulze, but it may, instead, just have meant ‘appeared’ by his use of ‘blossomed’. From MacDonald’s overall bias, there is room for doubt.
The title track of “Alpha Centauri”, he said with no significant criticism, “is an extensive essay in doodlings from Udo Dennebourg’s flute and the synthesizer of Roland Paulyck and, as such, forms a link between this album and the band’s most recent project – the enormous ‘largo in four movements’ for moogs, VCS3s, organs, vibes and massed cellos: “Zeit””. However, an erroneous statement followed about a personnel change for this double LP of sombre spacey music that didn’t impress him of course. “Here [Chris] Franke is replaced by Peter Baumann and guest-artist Florian Fricke, the foremost German exponent of the synthesizer. I am bored; you may be in raptures.” In fact, it was Steve Schroeder who was replaced by Baumann, while Schroeder also played on “Zeit” as a guest; and a proper look at the album covers would have prevented MacDonald from communicating wrong information. While the error cannot be counted as especially significant in itself, it still suggests – in conjunction with his other wrong and misleading statements – a slipshod attitude from him as he carried out his IN-DEPTH examination.
Near-sarcastic remarks regarding Tangerine Dream and Cluster, and their array of electronic instruments, came next. “Even though they’re one of Germany’s best-paid groups, Tangerine Dream’s equipment is so expensive that they all have other jobs during the day to pay for the instalments. Frankfurt’s Cluster are by no means as well known and must have to struggle to keep the hire purchase companies from reclaiming their mass of electronic gadgets, organs and electric cellos.” Still, some praise for Cluster did materialize: “Dieter Mobius and Joachim Roedelius make a less passive sound than Tangerine Dream – in fact, “Live in der Fabrik”, from their Brain album “Cluster II”, is reminiscent of the coruscating electronics from “The Ipcress File” – and, for this reason alone, they emerge as more enthralling than the generally rather bovine contemplations of “Zeit”.”
Preferable to Tangerine Dream and Cluster in the field of electronics, he said, was the work of Wolfgang Dauner and his group, with the release of “Output” in 1970 on the ECM label, and who had a new one, “Rischkas And Soul” [“Rischka’s Soul”], which was soon to appear on Brain – immediately after which he said: “The subject here is jazz synthesized with humour and a tremendous energy – recommended.” Presumably, the description and recommendation did refer to “Output”, but whether, at the time, he also meant “Rischka’s Soul” is difficult to determine from his ambiguous writing, and I quote later that he did not, after all, recommend the latter. Did he somehow change his mind, or was his meaning just obscured in ambiguity? Nevertheless, in retrospect, it is strange how he recommended “Output” to his NME readership, for if this album was to be categorized simply, it would have to be under the term ‘free jazz’, and how many of the NME rock-orientated fans would have been readily able to accept his recommendation of free jazz? What fraction of Krautrock fans, past or present, did or now like “Output”? A very small fraction overall, I would say. It’s strange too that he could recommend the free jazz of Wolfgang Dauner but he could not recommend the free jazz of Annexus Quam.
The last paragraph of part two introduced Amon Düül II and the fact that they had recorded five albums. He commented that “Phallus Dei” and “Yeti”, the first two, “are rough and heavy affairs, far more interesting than the average German rock of the period, but poor by today’s standards.” However, more of a positive – as well as of a negative – nature was to be said about Amon Düül II in part three.
Second part of this text
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