Automatic: Kraftwerk perform at Tate Modern in 2013. Photo: Rex
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Krautrock: Germany’s coolest export that no one can quite define

Krautrock is a term that is bandied about alarmingly freely by bloggers, hipsters and, most of all, bands, desperate for its reflected cool – but what does it actually mean? By Stuart Maconie. 

Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany
David Stubbs
Faber & Faber, 496pp, £20

 

As the seventh of Germany’s goals made their opponents’ net billow on that balmy July evening in Belo Horizonte – thus completing the humiliation of this year’s feted World Cup hosts, Brazil – and then a few days later, as the benign but steely alpha hausfrau Angela Merkel watched her boys lift the trophy, it was odd to reflect that at the end of the 1960s, while England swung and Brazil bossa-ed, Germany skulked, at least culturally.

Today, the Federal Republic of Germany is the world’s third-largest exporter behind China and the US and creates a quarter of the eurozone’s annual GDP. Yet, in the early 1970s, the economic miracle and Gerd Müller notwithstanding, it was still to an extent a nation in shadow; riven by terrorism, mistrust and a generational schism between parents who had grown up in Hitler’s Third Reich and children burdened with its toxic inheritance of shame.

Nowhere was this fracture seen more clearly than in the world of music. At the music school of Darmstadt and in the classical field, Karlheinz Stockhausen and his disciples were embracing a boldly experimental approach that overturned the cloying conservatism of the Nazis. And in popular music, whose practitioners were sometimes Stockhausen’s pupils and often emerged from the conservatoire, there was “Krautrock”.

Currently, Krautrock is a term that is bandied about alarmingly freely by bloggers, hipsters and, most of all, bands, desperate for its reflected cool. The latter will generally claim to have been immersing themselves in such 1970s German music during the making of their latest masterpiece, even if no one is quite sure what Krautrock means, or if indeed it means anything at all. As David Stubbs, in this first large-scale survey of the “movement”, neatly puts it: “Whenever a new group wish to show their experimental credentials, they will reach up and pick out the word ‘Krautrock’ like a condiment to add a radical dash to their press release.”

What this usually means is that they have appropriated the driving “Motorik” beat from the records of one particular act, Neu! – but, in truth, no two Krautrock acts sound remotely alike. Compare the dreamy synthesiser washes of Tangerine Dream with the alien noise collages of Faust or the psychedelic funk of Can. What Stubbs points out is that it was rather a modus operandi, a generational response to both the consumerist imperialism of the Marshall Plan and the US in their native land and the sins of their fathers and mothers.

The Third Reich looms large over Kraut­rock. Few bands or pieces address it directly but the ghost of it informs every riff and groove. Irmin Schmidt said that the loose, collectivist vibe of his band Can was down to a deliberate “no führers” policy. Stubbs smartly points out that when Frank Zappa goaded hippie audiences in the US by telling them that their schools were run by Nazis, he was being figurative and hyperbolic. For Can, Faust, Kraftwerk and the rest, it was literally true. Altnazis were still in positions of power in German social life, a tolerated stain on the national culture.

Stubbs is also good at placing this music in  an economic and industrial context. “Invention, quite simply, is what Germans did. Industry and manufacture are key to the functioning of the German state,” he explains. “When Kraftwerk named themselves thus, the German word for ‘power plant’, they did so ironically but not scornfully . . . The Kraut­rock generation were born into a mostly prosperous, highly industrial society.” Kraftwerk addressed this most directly, with witty, tongue-in-cheek paeans to motorways, calculators and nuclear power stations. Like their peers, they did this in a way that owed little to the tropes of American or British rock.

The leading members of groups such as Can and Cluster were older than the Beatles and generally more influenced by Yoko Ono, or at least the Fluxus art movement of which she was a part. They belong to rock music but they are not entirely of it, more likely to have grown up immersed in musique concrète, Terry Riley and serialism than Little Richard or Elvis.

Krautrock is an uncomfortable term, not just conceptually debatable but crude – racist, even. Colin Newman of Wire, a band steeped in the German music of the era, says: “Germans have every reason to be offended by it.” John Weinzerl, a leading light of the movement with Amon Düül II, regards it as “criminal” and “insulting”. Stubbs argues that we would never describe a form of music as “Fagrock” or “Spade­rock”. I’m not so sure, given the mores of the 1970s, but the point is taken. Some prefer the term “Kosmische Musik”, which is less inflammatory and even less meaningful. Stubbs reaches an uneasy truce with his conscience, considering the term to have been “semantically cleansed” to a degree.

In any event, the music coming out of the communes of Cologne and Munich and the academies of Düsseldorf and Berlin made small but significant inroads into British rock culture, thanks in no small degree to Virgin’s savvy releasing of albums such as The Faust Tapes for 49 pence. Tracks such as Kraftwerk’s “Europe Endless” helped relocate the hip cultural nexus of rock in the east to Berlin, Vienna and Paris, rather than Burbank, California, or New Jersey. Working-class Scottish punks such as Simple Minds and the Skids made records namechecking futurism and the Bauhaus. Eno collaborated with the German act Cluster and Bowie reshaped his oeuvre in the style of Neu! and Tangerine Dream.

The places where this survey comes closest to conventional rock journalism of the kind Stubbs grew up with – the swiping generalisations about music he isn’t keen on, the always doomed coloratura descriptions of music, the occasional crassness of expression – are weaker than the terrific narrative about nationhood and art, how the mainstream and the avant-garde cross-pollinate and how the aloof, addled and politicised young dropouts and eggheads of postwar Germany continue to influence Brits today who are making records in cities that the Luftwaffe once tried to shape and influence in a different way. Back in 1970, Melody Maker’s Richard Williams eulogised Kraut­rock bands thus: “Nobody in Britain is making this kind of music.” They are now. 

Stuart Maconie’s latest book is “The People’s Songs: the Story of Modern Britain in 50 Songs” (Ebury, £9.99)

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
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The best film soundtracks to help you pretend you live in a magical Christmas world

It’s December. You no longer have an excuse.

It’s December, which means it’s officially time to crack out the Christmas music. But while Mariah Carey and Slade have their everlasting charms, I find the best way to slip into the seasonal spirit is to use a film score to soundtrack your boring daily activities: sitting at your desk at work, doing some Christmas shopping, getting the tube. So here are the best soundtracks and scores to get you feeling festive this month.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Although this is a children’s film, it’s the most grown-up soundtrack on the list. Think smooth jazz with a Christmas twist, the kind of tunes Ryan Gosling is playing at the fancy restaurant in La La Land, plus the occasional choir of precocious kids. Imagine yourself sat in a cocktail chair. You’re drinking an elaborate cocktail. Perhaps there is a cocktail sausage involved also. Either way, you’re dressed head-to-toe in silk and half-heartedly unwrapping Christmas presents as though you’ve already received every gift under the sun. You are so luxurious you are bored to tears of luxury – until a tiny voice comes along and reminds you of the true meaning of Christmas. This is the kind of life the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack can give you. Take it with both hands.

Elf (2003)

There is a moment in Elf when Buddy pours maple syrup over his spaghetti, washing it all down with a bottle of Coca Cola. “We elves like to stick to the four main food groups,” he explains, “candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” This soundtrack is the audio equivalent – sickly sweet, sugary to an almost cloying degree, as it comes peppered with cute little flutes, squeaky elf voices and sleigh bells. The album Elf: Music from the Motion Picture offers a more durable selection of classics used in the movie, including some of the greatest 1950s Christmas songs – from Louis Prima’s 1957 recording of “Pennies from Heaven”, two versions of “Sleigh Ride”, Eddy Arnold’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Eartha Kitt’s 1953 “Santa Baby”. But if a sweet orchestral score is more your thing, the Elf OST of course finishes things off with the track “Spaghetti and Syrup”. Just watch out for the sugar-rush headache.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

There are some Christmas-specific songs hidden in each of the iconic Harry Potter scores, from “Christmas at Hogwarts” to “The Whomping Willow and The Snowball Fight” to “The Kiss” (“Mistletoe!” “Probably full of knargles”), but all the magical tinkling music from these films has a Christmassy vibe. Specifically concentrate on the first three films, when John Williams was still on board and things were still mostly wonderful and mystical for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Perfect listening for that moment just before the snow starts to fall, and you can pretend you’re as magical as the Hogwarts enchanted ceiling (or Ron, that one time).

Carol (2015)

Perhaps you’re just a little too sophisticated for the commercial terror of Christmas, but, like Cate Blanchett, you still want to feel gorgeously seasonal when buying that perfect wooden train set. Then the subtly festive leanings of the Carol soundtrack is for you. Let your eyes meet a stranger’s across the department store floor, or stare longingly out of the window as your lover buys the perfect Christmas tree from the side of the road. Just do it while listening to this score, which is pleasingly interspersed with songs of longing like “Smoke Rings” and “No Other Love”.

Holiday Inn (1942)

There’s more to this soundtrack than just “White Christmas”, from Bing Crosby singing “Let’s Start The New Year Off Right” to Fred Astaire’s “You’re Easy To Dance With” to the pair’s duet on “I’ll Capture Your Heart”. The score is perfect frosty walk music, too: nostalgic, dreamy, unapologetically merry all at once.

The Tailor of Gloucester (1993)

Okay, I’m being a little self-indulgent here, but bear with me. “The Tailor of Gloucester”, adapted from the Beatrix Potter story, was an episode of the BBC series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and aired in 1993. A Christmastime story set in Gloucester, the place I was born, was always going to be right up my street, and our tatty VHS came out at least once a year throughout my childhood. But the music from this is something special: songs “The Tailor of Gloucester”, “Songs From Gloucester” and “Silent Falls the Winter Snow” are melancholy and very strange, and feature the singing voices of drunk rats, smug mice and a very bitter cat. It also showcases what is in my view one of the best Christmas carols, “Sussex Carol.” If you’re the kind of person who likes traditional wreaths and period dramas, and plans to watch Victorian Baking at Christmas when it airs this December 25th, this is the soundtrack for you.

Home Alone (1990-1992)

The greatest, the original, the godfather of all Christmas film soundtracks is, of course, John William’s Home Alone score. This is for everyone who likes or even merely tolerates Christmas, no exceptions. It’s simply not Christmas until you’ve listened to “Somewhere in My Memory” 80,000 times whilst staring enviously into the perfect Christmassy homes of strangers or sung “White Christmas” to the mirror. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. Go listen to it now—and don't forget Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which is as good as the first.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.