A TASTE OF KRAUTROCK
by Patrick O'Hearn, Perfect Sound Forever, November 1997
When I was about 16 years old, I discovered David Bowie's Heroes album - the whole album sounded so fresh, exciting, and new. Around the same time, I also discovered King Crimson and that led me to the Fripp and Eno No Pussyfooting LP. That album also held my attention as something ground-breaking and different. When I finally got a copy of Another Green World by Eno a few years later, I really felt that I was listening to some of the most unique rock music ever recorded.
Although I left all those albums behind me as I discovered other bands and musical styles, I would still return to them through the years and my opinion of them has never diminished until I discovered "Krautrock" a little over a year ago. Bowie and Eno's mid to late 70's recordings owe so much to the Germans - that after reading this beginners guide to Krautrock, you may be as surprised as I was that my "heroes" were not leaders, but merely followers.
What's Neu! ?
Neu! hits you like a thousand orgasms at once. Neu!'s 1972 debut album sounds like it was recorded yesterday. The 10 minute opening song 'Hallogallo' has a pulsating driving rhythm, the drums (played by a human: Klaus Dinger) sound like a drum machine (but with soul). The guitar (played by Michael Rother) slices and dices it's way through the song, chunking along with just a slight white-boy funk and some Beatles' backwards guitar swirls added for atmosphere.
The mixing and production (by the legendary Conny Plank) sounds like it could have been done in 1997 or 1985 or 1992 - there's nothing about the sound of the record to make it sound 'dated'. In fact, if it sounds like any year, it sounds like maybe it was recorded around 1980 (Johnny Lydon used Neu! as the blueprint for the first two Public Image albums). Song #2 is called 'Sonderangebot' and starts off atmospheric and dreamy, like an old Eno album, who was also heavily influenced by Neu!.
To think that this album was recorded in 1972 (actually the tail end of 1971) is mind blowing. It's so far ahead of it's time. Think about the other records made around that time: The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street, John Lennon's Imagine, Led Zeppelin's 4th album, The Doors' LA Woman - all great albums, but they all have a basic 'rock n roll' sound - there is nothing that is 'cutting edge' on any of them from a 'progressive' or futuristic point of view.
Probably only Who's Next by The Who (also recorded in 1971) with it's clean, clear production and super fucking tasteful (and very ground breaking and original) use of synthesizers could match the first Neu! album in terms of timelessness.
David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust might come in a close second after Who's Next for timelessness. About 4 years later, Bowie would be inspired by Neu! (and the offshoot band La Düsseldorf), move to Berlin and record his own version of Krautrock on the Low and Heroes albums.
In Berlin By The Wall. . .
Ash Ra Temple also used the services of engineer and producer Conny Plank for their self titled debut album Ash Ra Temple. Consisting of two side long tracks 'Amboss' (19 minutes on side one) and 'Traummaschine' (25 minutes on side two). Ash Ra Temple at this time was guitarist Manuel Göttsching, Hartmut Enke on bass, and the legendary Klaus Schulze on drums. Recorded in March 1971, this record has a slight lo-fi sound, but the music is totally modern. Manuel's guitar playing has some British blues rock influences - most of the time his playing reminds me of the real far out and wild shit that Pete Townshend does on The Who's Live At Leeds album, like the great soloing on 'Young Man Blues' and the 15 minute guitar jams on 'My Generation'. Hartmut and Klaus are a great rhythm section and keep things moving along (think of Pink Floyd's 'Interstellar Overdrive' and 'Astronomy Domine'). This is space rock at it's finest.
I recently picked up a 6 CD set of unreleased, live, and rare Ash Ra Temple called The Private Tapes. With over 8 hours of totally mind expanding jams, this music gets way up inside of me and just fucks me up, fucks me up good.
For many years, most people have considered Einstürzende Neubauten to be the cutting edge of the Berlin music scene. The real truth is that Ash Ra Temple (also from Berlin) had already reached the experimental heights and divine cosmic sounds 9 years before Neubauten ever released a record. Turn on, tune in and drop out to the sounds of Ash Ra Temple. Timothy Leary did - he moved to Switzerland in 1972 and recorded an album with Ash Ra Temple called Seven Up.
Agitation Free was another great Berlin band. Their first album Malesch was recorded in June 1972. It must have been a hot summer that year in Berlin, because this music will melt you. Then again, perhaps some of the heat of this music comes from a trip the band made to North Africa and the Middle East before recording this album. The tribal rhythms of the first song 'You Play For Us Today' with Uli Pop on bongos and Burghard Raush on drums mixed with the 'church-like' Hammond organ sounds of Peter Michael Hamel makes this music feel like a walk thru the desert... In fact the next song is called 'Sahara City' and features some middle eastern language and street music mixed in with some Pink Floyd styled space rock. How many copies of Saucerful of Secrets and Piper At Gates Of Dawn were sold in Germany in the late 1960's??? I'm beginning to think they must have been like televisions and toilets - everyone had one in their home.
The Agitation Free boys could really kick out the jams - by the end of the 8 minute 'Sahara City' they are really bringing it all back home, intense rocking that brings together so many elements. I would suggest this album to fans of King Crimson, the Floyd, and the Velvet Underground.
That's really the thing that separates Krautrock from other forms of progressive music, it's such a mixture of styles and 'unpretentious' feeling. Unlike the English groups, such as later period Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, and Yes - the Krautrock bands did not seem to get dragged down with their own bullshit and egos. The music is 'free' and relaxed. It's free of stupid lyrics and grand styled concept albums. The bands were not afraid to rock out in 4/4 time (like the Velvets and the Stooges) and did not feel that all jamming should take place in odd time signatures like 17/6 or 12/4 time, like many of the English bands did.
Cluster. Clusterfuck would also have been a good name for these guys, a duo that brought together so many elements and influences between them, that it was a 'clusterfuck' of ideas, genius, and madness. Does anyone in Germany use this term 'clusterfuck' or is it strictly an Americanism?
Cluster made so many interesting and mind expanding albums that it's hard to focus on just one. But we'll do that with Cluster's Zuckerzeit. Produced by Michael Rother of Neu! and recorded by Conny Plank, you just know that any album that brings together members of Neu! with Conny Plank is gonna be a motherfucker of an album, throw in the added bonus of two of Germany's greatest weirdos, Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and you've got a real interesting record cooking here. Complex electronic rhythms that are subtle and relaxing in their own special way. Eno heard this album and ran back into his studio to create Another Green World which is also filled with short, relaxing instrumental pieces (does anyone remember 'Sombre Reptiles'?). Later on, Eno would get into a big old jet airliner, fly it into Hamburg and him and the Cluster boys would whip together a tasty stew called Cluster And Eno.
Rocking In Düsseldorf
La Düsseldorf was born out of the ashes from the break up of Neu!. Klaus Dinger switched from drums to guitar and brought in his brother Thomas Dinger to beat the skins. Like the Cluster album 'Zuckerzeit', the self titled debut album from La Düsseldorf is 'sweet' music. The opening song recalls the driving rhythms of NEU's best work, with the Dinger brothers singing the words 'Düsseldorf' over and over again along with some nonsense words.
'La Düsseldorf' (the band and the album) was the main inspiration for David Bowie's Low album - Bowie took entire musical phrases and riffs and weaved them into his songs on both Low and Heroes. Although written as a tribute to the Kraftwerk founder, 'V-2 Schneider' is one example and there are many examples on Low such as 'A New Career In A New Town' which Bowie took from La Düsseldorf's hit single 'Silver Cloud'. The final song 'Time' builds to such a powerful climax, it really could be the soundtrack to a film of the end of the world - it's reflective and dynamic all at the same time. Truly a piece of genius.
Once again, it seems important to mention that Konrad Plank is sitting behind the mixing desk for this very important album. It's impossible to underestimate this man's influence on the German music scene during the early to mid 1970's. More than just an engineer, Conny brought a basket of fresh ideas to each session he did. Such is the spirit and legend of the man, that bands like The Walkabouts and Smiles In Boxes have continued to use 'Conny's Studio' long after the great man was laid to rest.
On January 13th, 1981 and again on the 22nd, Michael Ruff of Geisterfahrer got some money from those wonderful guys at Phonogram, picked up his pal and drummer Jürgen Weiss and they drove over to the Tageslicht Studio in Hamburg and recorded three songs of delicious and inspired minimalism. These three beauties were put together as a 12 inch single and released under the name of Die Schonsten: Michael Ruff & Jurgen Weiss and packaged in one of my favorite covers of all time - a cartoon of a giant chicken looking down on some tribesmen.
Side one contains 'Linientreu'. The song starts with some weird sound effects and slowly starts to build with a funky drum and bass pattern. Simple guitar lines are laid over the top. Ruff's vocals come in briefly and then disappear again - his voice sounds like a north German version of Jonathan Richman. It's a happening and trippy party. The basic vibe of the thing reminds me of The Fall (and let's face it, besides Julian Cope and early Stereolab, The Fall are the most Krautrock thing to come out of England in the 1980's). Side two features two versions of a song called 'Spätkapitalismus'. This stuff is much more upbeat than side one. The drums and bass are moving a lot quicker now and it sounds like both Ruff and Weiss are singing while the influence of something illegal. The second version is the more interesting of the two - with wacky keyboard blips and bleeps - sort of like early Devo, but much cooler.
Copyright © 1997 Patrick O'Hearn.
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