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

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.