Tunnel visions: Krautrock on the Underground

Paul Morley recalls 1979, and travelling on the London Underground with his first ever Walkman, listening to the other-worldly sound of Can.

Sony's Walkman first freed Londoners to travel in a private sound world. Photograph: Contrasto/Eyevine

In 1979, my girlfriend, Karen, brought me a present from Japan, where she had been working. It was a Sony Walkman, able to play, but not record on, cassettes, in stereo, with relatively decent sound quality. It was a little smaller than a paperback book, so therefore not much bigger than a cassette, which seemed some sort of miracle – that the workings required to power the machine and produce the sound could be incorporated into such a compact casing.

Perhaps the most significant thing, along with the removal of an internal loudspeaker, was the 50-gram, or 1.7-ounce, weight of the headphones, which were in scale with the player itself, replacing the usual eighttimes ‑as‑heavy, bulbous, ear-covering headphones. You could now take music with you wherever you went, and somehow, at the time, even though there were machines that could have done this job, and there had been tiny transistor radios for years, this seemed incredibly exciting. Not least because you couldn’t take a radio on the Tube, if you wanted to, because there would be no signal.

Not only did I consider myself the first person to own the fabulously cool new Walkman, but I also imagined that I was the first person to sit on the Tube listening to music of my own choosing. I can’t remember what the very first cassette was that I played on the Bakerloo Line, but thinking about where I was and where the music I mostly listened to was in the late 1970s, I can take a very good guess. It could have been something released in 1979 that was already not only my favourite album of the year but of all time, because this was – if you were approaching music from the point of view of someone my age, with my interests, my levels of anxiety and ardour and with my job on the New Musical Express – a year of considerable transition and purfication. Elsewhere, and perhaps this new music abstractly, nervously diagnosed this, the once-promising countercultural energy of the 1960s had dissipated, and a conservative countercultural revolution was looming, leading to the emergence, along the tracks, around the corner, through the next tunnel, of the controlling, fanatically moralistic New Right of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

This keyed-up, highly charged pre-digital new music also anticipated a world that was about to be cut into gleaming pieces by technology, television, ideology, assisted by its fancy pleasure-seeking slave, the music video, which, what with one thing and another through roaring tunnels that stretched back to the invention of the telephone and forward to the introduction of the Sony Walkman, eventually led to the all-change free-for-all of Facebook and Twitter.

In 1979 – before this post-internet vortex of pressure and pleasure – certain currents and principles had made the disruptive, avant-garde end of rock music particularly engaging. There was still an almost chaste belief in progress, a natural craving for a violent renewal of meanings, and a treatment of influences that was midway between the reverential and the murderous. It was a culmination, rearrangement, refinement of experimental ideas, sounds and principles instigated by punk.

This music was labelled, possibly first of all by me, in the NME (perhaps thought up while daydreaming on the Bakerloo Line stuck outside Oxford Circus), “post-punk”. This name, another slice of convenient collective identification, introduced to diagnose, even conceive, an apparently important cultural movement, slid into general use quite nicely, but didn’t come close to expressing the concern this music and these musicians, often haunted by dread, had with spatial and rhythmic, temporal and geographical displacement, with plotting the physical universe and the individual’s place in it. In some ways they were producing in advance a soundtrack to the disorientating, paradoxically lonely effect of constant contact with the internet.

This 1979 music, not heard much on Radio 1 outside of the John Peel show, where it starred, music which followed on quite naturally from music the year before and would logically move into the 1980s, losing some of its momentum once compact discs arrived, included: Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Entertainment! by Gang of Four, Metal Box by Public Image Limited, The Raincoats by the Raincoats, 154 by Wire, Lodger by David Bowie, Reproduction by the Human League, Drums and Wires by XTC, Cut by the Slits, New Picnic Time by Pere Ubu, A Trip to Marineville by Swell Maps, Dragnet and Live at the Witch Trials by the Fall, Fear of Music by Talking Heads, Half Machine Lip Moves by Chrome, Eskimo by the Residents, The B-52’s by the B-52’s, Y by the Pop Group, 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle, This Heat by This Heat, Solid State Survivor by Yellow Magic Orchestra, pragVEC by pragVEC, Join Hands by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Mix-Up by Cabaret Voltaire.

I would not be listening on purpose to Rod Stewart, the Eagles, Styx or Foreigner, because they seemed blasé and instantly antique, working on behalf of a mega-corporate entertainment state, with no statements to make about the future. I kept my distance from the Jam, if only because rumour had it one of them voted Tory, and they dressed as though they all did, as if punk were routine show business, a mere day job. Although I would have been paying constant close attention to Neil Young and Bob Dylan, who released Rust Never Sleeps and Slow Train Coming that year, these don’t seem likely candidates for that first Walkman trip. I would have been instinctively drawn to something that belonged on this pioneering new machine that had the capacity to turn an everyday journey on the Bakerloo into an explicit plunge down the rabbit hole or tumble through the looking glass.

Other music that it could have been, the music from the past I tended to play the most at that time: all albums by the Velvet Underground, the spaced-out, splintered Englishness of pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, the telepathic, serenely abstracted post-rock jazz of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, most Hendrix, Robert Wyatt, Stooges, Joni Mitchell, John Martyn and even (in a spirit of a nerdy need for otherness, or a need to know something other than what the outside world gave and told me) the new forms, and related protean formlessness, of Tony Conrad and Faust, La Monte Young and Karlheinz Stockhausen – whose sparse, spectral 1956 electronic composition Gesang der Jünglinge, incorporating synthesised and natural voices, sounded like music emerging in the dead of night from Tube tunnels that connected the Bakerloo Line with underground cave cities on Jupiter.

All this music that I could have played for the very first time underground on my Walkman, whether right there from 1979 or from earlier, was sound that would have directly or indirectly influenced or been directly or indirectly influenced by a group formed in Germany in 1968 called Can.

Can were less a rock group than a compact orchestra, a jazz collective, a cartel of dreamers, a loose affiliation of individuals, a battery of technicians, a faction of dissidents, a circle of minds, a square of mystics, a haze of weed, an ambush of gurus, a buccaneer of savants, a warp of collaborators, a cabal of freaks, a body of procedures, a lightness of heads, an education of vagabonds.

“Krautrock” was the convenient collective name given in a slightly jokey, slightly wary and affectionately patronising way to an eclectic collection of radicalised German groups from very different parts of the country that contained musicians who were born in the few years before, during or just after the Second World War. Another collective name for these groups, still frivolous but more descriptive of their mission to create sound never heard before on our planet and invent music that could make you feel you were leaving the earth behind, was “kosmische”. As well as Can, these groups included Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Amon Düül II, Cluster, Popol Vuh, Harmonia, Neu! and Faust, and they were looking for ways to repair their traumatic recent history, remove the crippling infection of fascism, break free of totalitarian artistic repression, negotiate turbulent social and emotional currents, and radically, romantically reinstate the positive, progressive elements of their mortified national psyche.

Also linking them, perhaps, was the spectre, the awareness, the modulated, post-linear cosmos of Stockhausen, a notorious, internationally known techno-shaman from within their corrupted land who emerged from deeper inside the grim Nazi shadow (he was 17 when the war ended) with a clear, spiritualised vision – an act of revenge – of how to break free of the poisoned past and dream up the future and a new sort of other-worldly national sensibility.

From Kraftwerk, Can, Neu! and Faust – speculative, observational artists creating their work in a recording studio with what could be called a post-impressionist, even cubist approach – came a way of manipulating, treating and structuring sound, establishing rhythm, heightening dramatic effect and capturing experience that significantly extended the structural and sonic possibilities of all forms of pop and rock music, from the commercial to the extreme.

These new German musicians were to some extent making a new classical music following on from savage, edited musique concrète and tonally opulent, romantically influenced minimalism, experimenting with tape-recording techniques and multi-track recording that prefigured sampling and remixing, but hearing provocative ideas at the more experimental end of rock and the more electronic end of pop; this led to them placing a repetitive groove resembling a funk groove, a psychedelic rock groove, even a compelling disco groove, inside lengthy abstract compositions that seemed to be pondering the shape of the solar system, the colour of orgasm and the density of experience. Pinning a consoling, pleasing, almost jocular rhythm within epochal, Stockhauseninspired pools and patterns of sound and noise rotating past each other with random, tingling electro-acoustic precision meant that, in 1976, before all that 1979 post-punk commotion which connected a lot of the dots Can helped scatter into the universe, Can had a minor hit. They crept on to Top of the Pops miming to the Dalí disco of “I Want More” as an unholy one-hit wonder, prophets dressed as tramps, treated as curios, spooks out of their skulls possibly needing to be exorcised by nervous non-believers before they caused a change in human behaviour. This was my kind of pop group.

This is an edited extract from Paul Morley’s “Earthbound” (Particular Books, £4.99), part of the new Penguin Lines series, inspired by the 150th anniversary of the London Underground