WE CAN BE HEROES
Andy Gill, Mojo, April 1997
Born into Germany's economic miracle but cultural wasteland, World War II's children set about alchemising the 60's revolutionary spirit into sound and vision. Wildly radical then, highly influential now, Krautrock is back. Andy Gill recalls some of the most outlandish, other-worldly music in rock history, and meets the legends who made it.
It's sometime in the bleak widwinter of 1973-4, and Faust are playing Sheffield City Hall. The occasion is one those early Virgin Records package tours which attempted to revive the collective spirit of the Motown and Beat-boom era revues within the context of that label's sternly uncompromising -- some would say largely unlistenable -- roster of avant-garde art-rock acts. Gong may have played, or perhaps Henry Cow or Hatfield & The North, and there may have been a film of label whizzkid Mike Oldfield performing his celebrated Tubular Bells at somewhere like the Albert Hall; it's hard to be precise, recollections growing mercifully more cloudy with the passing years.
Faust, though, remain clear in my mind to this day -- quite an achievement, since they played in near-total darkness, save for the illumination furnished by a couple of TV sets facing the band, and a pinball table positioned off to one side. In front of the TV sets are a couple of comfy, overstuffed armchairs, and behind them a drum kit. A block of concrete is dimly visible centre-stage.
Like virtually every other British 'head' of unquenchable curiosity but limited means, I'd recently invested in the copper-bottomed uncertainties of The Faust Tapes, 49 penn'orth of musical madness decked out in the deceptively calming waves of Bridget Riley's op-art painting Crest, and I was prepared for -- well, just about anything, really. Even so, I got more than I bargained for.
Through the gloom, it's possible to make out a few reassuringly hairy figures lounging comfortably in the armchairs, cradling bass and guitars. A single-minded drummer appears, and sets up a rhythm of spare, minimalist efficiency. The loungers strike up a chord and plod along earnestly for awhile. And then some. There is none of the decorative embellishment or flashy musicianship of the most 'progressive' rock of the time: this is pure riff, and nothing but, as focused as anything by James Brown, if not as danceable. How could it be, without a second chord to play against? It's like a perpetual set-up with no pay-off.
Five or 10 minutes into the piece, one of the musicians puts aside his instrument, levers himself out of the armchair, and sidles over to the pinball machine where he plays awhile, the bleeps and sproings of the leisure machine offering welcome detail over the riff which churns on, unstoppable, like a golem. His game over, he turns his attention to one of the TV's, changing channels randomly. Then, bored with that, he moves over to the concrete block, picking up something which had until then been hidden behind it. It's a tool of some form, either a hydraulic drill or, more likely, an electric-powered Kango hammer, which, without more ado, he sets to work on the block.
The noise is deafening -- and dangerous, with fragments of concrete spitting out into the front rows of the audience, who shield their eyes behind their arms. But the shock is utterly exhilarating, prompting the same thrill of modernist liberation that early 20th century audiences must have experienced at Dada or Surrealist exhibitions, or at the performances of Futurist Luigi Russolo's Intonarumori noise machine, or Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring -- the feeling that some Rubicon has been irrevocably crossed, that taboo boundaries have been sundered. Jaws drop all around the hall. Even those who had been getting restless about the relentlessly static music are won over, gleeful smiles creasing faces at this majestic bout of art-terrorism. If they could be heard over the din, they'd be cheering.
Like all great aesthetic transgressions, it also draws the requisite outraged reaction, but from an unforeseen source. Suddenly, the drill is silenced, along with the TV's, the pinball machine, and the electric instruments. The stage power has been cut. The hall lights, conversely, fade up. Bemused, the musicians grin at each other as a neatly-dressed man -- the hall manager, or someone in suchlike authority -- strides to the front and addresses the audience.
"That's quite enough of this!" he shouts at us. "This is not music!" It's the perfect complement to the performance -- so perfect that, for a moment, I suspect it's part of the act. It isn't, of course. It's some sad Horatio, left to vainly guard the bridge of musical politeness against these barbarian hordes. Or, more prosaically, trying to save the polished wood of his stage from getting scratched to buggery by the shifting concrete block.
It's an unequal contest. Immediately, even those who had been bored by Faust's performance are seething with indignation at this suit's attempt to control their taste. Boos resound around the hall, and a slow handclap sets up. The suit departs, but the power stays off. One of the musicians comes to the front of the stage and says, sans microphone: "Hey, it's your gig. Are you gonna let this guy tell you what you can listen to?" The clapping gets louder, and the drummer takes up the beat again, while his colleagues bang along on whatever comes to hand. It's no more complex a rhythm than before, but it's a great deal louder, and there's a euphoric, collective spirit to it that wasn't present earlier. The fourth wall of performance has been shattered, and nobody who was present will forget it, or listen to music in the same way again. Who would have thought that one chord and the simplest of beats could be a life-changing experience? And what more could you want from a gig?
IT'S FEBRUARY 1995 -- FEBRUARY 17, TO BE EXACT -- AND FAUST ARE playing London's Queen Elizabeth Hall.
In the foyer, the city's avant-rock cognoscenti mingle earnestly during the intermission. Veteran improvisors AMM have just played a typically detailed, engrossing set, and hypothetical goatees are being figuratively stroked in contemplation of their work. It's a mixed crowd, though, not entirely composed of bedsit intellectuals. Over by the windows, a group of what appear to be filthy European bikers are laughing loudly and drunkenly. There are quite a few professiorial types d'un certain age, counterbalanced by a substantial complement of young, crusty hippy types. A curious Jarvis Cocker wanders around, making the most of a relative anonymity that will, within a matter of weeks, be but a distant memory.
There's a strange air of expectant, barely-suppressed violence quite at odds with the open-minded atmosphere of the Sheffield show two decades before. It's not like the audience doesn't know what to expect; on the contrary, for some in the audience, their expectations are every bit as pre-formed and rigidly demanding, in their own way, as those inflicted upon teen acts like Boyzone: if bourgeois conventions aren't given a damn good kicking tonight, well, they'll have something to say about it. No matter that such knee-jerk expectations are in themselves just as comfortable and bourgeois as those of more conservative types: in the '90s, even revolution has its own formal style.
A large curtain of scrim hides half the stage. In front of it, two men stand motionless, one a barefoot bassist, the other a balding drummer standing, Mo Tucker-style, behind a drum kit which, in the intervening 20 years, has shrunk to just one snare, one tom-tom and one cymbal. Behind the scrim, backlit so his shadow looms hugely, is Tony Conrad, the minimalist-violinist with whom Faust once recorded an album entitled Outside The Dream Syndicate. A cellist and another violinist sit alongside him, also motionless. Conrad plays a chord, then keeps on playing it, a piercing, mesmeric drone of immense, ear-endangering volume. Some time later -- about 10 minutes into the performance -- the other string players join in with similarly minimal intent, setting up a static harmonic drone which continues for another 10 or 15 minutes before the bassist and drummer suddenly launch into the kind of riff which Status Quo might have discarded as being too basic. The drummer bangs each drum alternately at regular tempo, looking for all the world as if he's jogging on the spot; the barefoot bassist, meanwhile, pummels his instrument with such single-minded fury that, shortly after he begins, one of the thick, well-wound strings has snapped. Have you ever tried to snap a bass string? It's not easy. Usually, you need pliers, but there are no tools available on-stage tonight.
The performance continues, with no discernible subsequent change, for another half-hour. But this time, no hall manager turns off the power or leaps on-stage to berate the audience's musical taste -- and the self-satisfied applause (not to mention a certain relief) which greets the piece's conclusion stands in stark, smug contrast to the sense of exhilaration felt two decades earlier. For an encore, the barefoot bassist gives the floor a desultory thump with a nearby hammer, almost like an abbreviated gestural signature, before the ensemble wade into another 10-minute piece. No-one, save maybe a few of the old-dear ushers, has been outraged, and it's my guess that no-one has been liberated, either. We all got exactly what we expected.
FAUST WERE, BY COMMON CONSENT, THE MOST EXTREME OF THOSE German bands of the early '70s that came to be regarded under the collective rubric of Krautrock -- a patronising British term (pointedly satirised in the track of that title on Faust IV) covering a multitude of disparate musical approaches spanning the entire spectrum of composition and improvisation.
At one end, Faust would be deconstructing the nuts, bolts and griders of rock music through relentlessly monotonous pieces like 'It's A Rainy Day Sunshine Girl', and laying the groundwork for today's sampler-collagists through the intricate cut-ups and splices of their astonishing debut, Faust Clear, which, as its name suggests, was released on clear vinyl in a clear plastic sleeve imprinted with an X-ray of a hand and sleevenotes in German by producer Uwe Nettelbeck. (The follow-up Faust So Far would be in contrastingly sombre none-more-black, packaged with a set of tasteful prints illustrating each of the song titles.) At the other end, Kraftwerk would labour over exquisite melodies and metronomically precise rhythms, taking the concept of machine-music to its logical conclusion, and ironically, providing the groundwork for the future development of black American music.
In between, all manner of musical endeavour was encouraged, from the trance-scapes of Tangerine Dream and the space-rock of Amon Düül II to the psychedelic proto-punk grooves of Neu! and the Eastern-tinged mysticism of Popol Vuh. What's extraordinary about virtually all these bands -- apart from the music itself, which was rarely less than that -- is that despite severely limited commercial returns, their influence was so wide-reaching that most are still working today; or if, like Can, they're no longer together as a band, the various members are still engaged on projects every bit as bonkers. Most Anglo-American bands of equivalent age and popularity, by contrast, have long since succumbed to the reaper, or totter as sad parodies of their former selves.
The difference is cultural, of course. For British and American bands, the hippy era represented mainly freedom from the utilitarian chains which post-war redevelopment had placed upon their parents. The '50s, the era of Ike and Mac, had been a time of parsimony perpetually passed off as a great bounty -- "You've never had it so good! -- and by the allegedly Swinging '60s the younger generation was determined that its surroundings and activities should reflect that supposed bounty. Despite the undercurrents of political unrest, the gaiety of the hippy era was primarily, for Brits and Yanks, a guilt-free indulgence in the wealth of new possibilities.
While German youth of the same era shared similar hopes and desires, there were other, much darker influences at work on their world view. As Can's Irmin Schmidt explains, "All the young revolutionaries of 1968 had parents who were either Nazis or had suffered under the Nazis, and the relationship of the parents to the Nazis, and of their children to them, was a special German thing, and had a big influence on the '68 troubles. And for 20 years, we had got rid of culture. It wasn't just towns that were bombed, culture was bombed too, and you can't rebuild culture."
Consequently, the iconoclasm of the times cut that much deeper with these German bands, and provided them with a more enduring cast of mind. When Faust took up their road-drills and attacked concrete blocks on-stage, it was with the same order of symbolic destruction that would fire the original punks a few years later: tear down the walls, cut out the cancer. Except that in their case, the cancer in question was more than just a vague feeling of generalised boredom or, as the Germans have it, Weltschmerz. And as with German performance artists of the '60s -- such as Otto Muehl, who would climb inside freshly-slaughtered animal carcasses, or the self-mutilator Rudolf Schwarzkogler, who eventually bled to death after severing his own penis -- German musicians of the period applied fearsome standards to their work: it wasn't just a brief diversion, it was a whole-hearted attempt to find a new route to the future, by exorcising the past.
In doing so, they rediscovered their own national identity. As Kraftwerk's Ralf Hutter explained to Lester Bangs in 1975, "After the war, German entertainment was destroyed. The German people were robbed of their culture, putting an American head on it. I think we are the first generation born after the war to shake this off, and know where to feel American music and where to feel ourselves. We cannot deny we are from Germany."
TO THE BRITISH AUDIENCE STUMBLING UPON KRAUTROCK ALBUMS, they were like the proverbial mystery surrounded by an enigma.
The minimal cover designs of early Faust, Neu! and Kraftwerk albums promised something completely self-contained compared to the psychedelic fantasies of Roger Dean which dominated the home market's 'progressive' iconography. The brave mix of art, noise and strange beauty present in most Krautrock was also somewhat at odds with the lumbering traditionalism of Yes, Genesis and ELP, whose work always seemed to be apologising for not being classical music.
Just as revolutionary was the discomfiting blend of deep seriousness and mad humour that most Krautrock bands displayed as they pirouetted at the interface of new technology and new consciousness -- who else but a Krautrocker would dare pass off the same piece of music at different speeds as separate tracks, as Neu! did on their second album? Not least among Krautrock's attractions was the thrilling notion that somebody had entrusted all this expensive new machinery to such obvious headcases.
Aficionados sought out anything recorded at Conny Plank's legendary studio, where many of the great Krautrock epics were recorded. Meanwhile, alerted by the strange, exotic soundtracks to Werner Herzog's idiosyncratic films, the curious unearthed the mystical, mantra-like music of Florian Fricke's Popol Vuh, the most overtly religious of the Krautrock groups (Fricke himself appeared in some of the films, most notably as the deaf pianist in The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser). Others were more extreme in their interest: David Bowie, ever the intrepid explorer, went the whole hog and actually moved to Berlin, where he and Brian Eno would fashion two of pop's great leaps forward (Low and Heroes under the influence of Krautrock).
"I was a big fan of Kraftwerk, Cluster and Harmonia, and I thought the first Neu! album, in particular, was just gigantically wonderful," admits Bowie. "Looking at that against punk, I had absolutely no doubts where the future of music was going, and for me it was coming out Germany at that time. I also liked some of the later Can things, and there was an album that I loved by Edgar Froese, Epsilon In Malaysian Pale; it's the most beautiful, enchanting, poignant work, quite lovely. That used to be the background music to my life when I was living in Berlin. In a way, it was great that I found those bands, because I didn't feel any of the essence of punk at all in that period, I just totally by-passed it."
Bands proliferated in the wake of the pioneers featured here. Names like Guru Guru, Ash Ra Temple, Between, Agitation Free, Cosmic Jokers, Embryo, Wallenstein, Brainticket, Triumvirat, Novalis, Ramses, Kraan, Jane, Hoelderlin, Grobschnitt, Floh De Cologne and Achim Reichel fought for space in the limited Krautrock market. Meanwhile, older bands like Neu! split into their separate elements, adding names like La Düsseldorf and Harmonia to the fray. Before too long, the Krautrock section of the record racks was bulging with synth-twiddling weirdos and space-rock cadets, many of whom seemed to have little grasp of quality control. People like Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler released vast quantities of electronica, while the borders between true Krautrock and the more mundane German heavy rock bands started to blur as the '70s wore on.
Eventually, interest inevitably waned in the genre as a whole, save for the occasional boost such as that given when Johnny Rotten owned up to liking Can, or the ripple effect caused by Kraftwerk's hit singles. Through the '80's and '90's, the Krautrock light was kept aflame by such as the Freeman brothers, Steven and Alan, via their Audion magazine and Ultima Thule record shop; and, more recently, Julian Cope published his Krautrocksampler guide to the genre, re-igniting wider interest in the form.
As for the bands themselves, there are fresh stirrings from various quarters: Popol Vuh last year released City Raga, Florian Fricke's attempt to come to terms with current technology and musical style, and Amon Düül II have likewise put out Nada Moonshine and hauled themselves back into live performance. Tangerine Dream have never cut back on their recording schedule, augmenting their own releases with a constant stream of soundtrack work. And Kraftwerk... well, Kraftwerk proceed at their own pace, with scant regard for fashion.
IT'S DECEMBER 2, 1996, AND Faust are playing The Garage, at London's Highbury Corner.
On-stage there is a vast array of percussion -- metal pipes, tin things, drums, cymbals -- alongside an adapted keyboard with wires bristling from its back and sundry boxes piled on top of it. A cement mixer grinds out a rhythm, while the bassist hammers away at a minimal beat. Out front, an enormous oil-drum on wheels stands ready to be pummelled, while fenced off for our protection, a sculptress grinds away at a metal construction, sending showers of sparks across audience and band alike.
At one point, the bassist tears off his clothes, jumps into the audience and makes his way to the side, where he starts flinging paint at hundreds of album sleeves stapled to a board, smearing it liberally across them. (The sleeves, when dry, are then used as personalised covers for a numbered limited-edition of 300 12-inch singles, costing 㿀 each -- mine's number 155). Later on in the proceedings, he again jumps into the crowd and makes his way to a tarpaulin-covered machine in the centre of the room. It's that most invaluable of musical instruments, a threshing-machine. Straddlind it as the crowd cheers, he dumps into its funnel sack after sack of dead leaves, which come blasting out across the assembled masses.
Compared to the monotonous Queen Elizabeth Hall show a year and a half earlier, it's an all-action show: action-painting, action-sculpting, action-playing. When the lights go up, the scene is one of devastation, a cross between factory, forest and artist's studio. No-one turned the power off, though. It's almost like a continuation of their shows from 1973-74, a belated picking-up of the baton they so noisily dropped back then, and a resumption of the spirit of Krautrock.
"We should have communicated with Kraftwerk and all those others back then," acknowledges Jean-Hervé Peron before the show. "We should have invited them to Wümme, because all these groups, in their different styles, were creating a movement. We didn't realise that at the time. Now, that movement is accepted and appreciated, but we didn't know then. We were spread all over, and nobody felt the urge to bring all these people together. Now people are talking about putting on Krautrock festivals."
Copyright © 1997 Mojo Magazine. Reprinted with a permission.
[Faust] [Amon Düül II] [Tangerine Dream] [Can] [Brian Eno on Krautrock] [Kraftwerk]
Back to Krautrock @ pHinnWeb