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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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle