Fifty years ago, German rock groups including Neu!, Can and Kraftwerk created an eclectic sound that had never been heard before. It remains as exhilarating as ever.
In West Germany in the early 1970s, a collection of experimental rock bands revolutionised music. Born out of a radical time in the history of post-war Germany, this loosely connected group of artists – including Neu!, Can, Kraftwerk, Faust, Tangerine Dream and Amon Düül II – created a sound that became known as “krautrock”.
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The social and musical trailblazing of the bands has a lasting legacy. Together, they influenced artists like David Bowie, Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Joy Division, Radiohead and Bjork; over 50 years later, their impact lives on in hip hop and techno, alternative rock groups and modern jazz.
Yet to call krautrock a scene similar to, say, punk rock, is not strictly true. For a so-called genre, krautrock is defined as much by what it’s not than what it is. Apart from an inclination for long, hypnotic, repetitive rhythms, it actually has no clear established musical style – under its umbrella, you’ll hear rock, jazz, funk, electronics, psychedelia and avant-garde minimalism, often by the same band. In their heyday, the bands themselves were mostly very separate, scattered around German cities with little contact.
Even the term krautrock itself is controversial. Coined by British music writers to describe the movement, it is considered by many of the artists themselves to be reductive at best, and downright offensive at worst (since “kraut” is used as a derogatory, xenophobic term for Germans). “It is a journalistic term,” Can founder Irmin Schmidt tells BBC Culture. “It doesn’t really mean anything, other than there [were] bands who no longer [imitated]”. Nevertheless, in 1974, Faust released the cheekily self-referential track Krautrock, which crystallised this so-called genre and became one of its key songs.
Products of the tumultuous times
But, the validity of that term aside, what really bound these bands together is how a desire to create new musical styles arose for each of them from a growing sense of progressiveness across late-1960s Germany. Neu! founder Michael Rother tells BBC Culture that Neu! “were the result of the political, social and cultural eruptions” that happened around 1968, the year that German philosopher Jurgen Habermas would later affirm marked the beginning of the “fundamental liberalisation” of German society.
West Germany’s rapid post-war reconstruction and rebirth as a global economic power – known as the “economic miracle” – was reaching an end point in 1968. For many young people, the rebuilding of the nation after its atrocities in World War Two was deemed inadequate and immoral, and only went as far as to safeguard the interests of a protected establishment. This new generation didn’t just want an economic realignment. What they really sought was a cultural revolution. They saw the old German conservative order as elitist, patriarchal, moralistic and, crucially, still tied to Nazism. Many institutions were still run by those who were officers in the Third Reich.
I became aware that it’s okay that you have to be different – that as an artist it’s not good enough to sound like Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles – Michael Rother
When student Benno Ohnesorg was shot dead by police on 1 July 1967 at a protest against the visit of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, the seeds of social unrest were sewn: the attempted assassination of student activist leader Rudi Dutschke in Berlin on 11 April 1968 proved the catalyst for widespread protests across the country. Dutschke, adapting the rallying cry of communist leader Chairman Mao, called for a “long march through the institutions”. Others went much further – the Red Army Faction, or the Baader-Meinhof gang, were a far-left activist group that used violent guerrilla tactics against what they still deemed a fascist state in all but name, killing more than 30 people in a series of bombings, kidnaps and attacks.
This sense of revolution was in tune with many places around the world. In 1968, there were also famous protests across France, and student-led protests occurred everywhere from Italy to Japan to Mexico to Pakistan. But while there were cultural eruptions in every region, Germany’s were particularly acute. “I think Germany was a bit more existential because of the Nazi past,” says Dr Hanno Balz, a German historian and lecturer at the University of Cambridge. “That made it more radical… it was a generational conflict: how do you come to terms with the Nazi past of your parents?”
Schmidt, who was 30 in 1968, had already asked that question: he had a challenging relationship with his Nazi-supporting father, and was expelled from school in Berlin for exposing the Nazi past of some teachers. It was the backdrop to CAN’s desire to innovate. “We were a product of the times,” Schmidt says. “Growing up after the war and in a totally flat town, in ruins, and also in a culture which was so much affected by the Nazi time, by the whole post-war intellectual atmosphere, of course this has a big influence on you. If you are consciously creating something, you are continuing a tradition, but at the same time you want to destroy it. And you destroy it by creating something totally new.”
In 1968, Rother, who will perform a career-spanning concert at London’s Barbican Centre next month, was 18 and living in Düsseldorf, a psychology student ripe for a political awakening. Indeed, Rother refused to join the military – “I was a conscientious objector,” he says – deciding to serve his time working at a local mental institute. “My mind was gradually becoming aware of my identity, as opposed to conservative structures in Germany, and the struggle of suppressed people around the world. So that sort of was the backdrop [to my] forming my own political views.”
Popular culture was another deeply conservative sphere in Germany at the time. The predominant mainstream music of the day was known as Schlager music, a cheesy, easy listening type of inoffensive Europop. Like many countries, Germany simply imported much of its music from Britain and America, such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. US troops were still stationed in many German cities, ensuring a constant influx of English-word culture. This saturation gave emerging krautrock bands something to artistically define themselves against – and so began a reclaiming of German identity through a rejection of the status quo.
Striking out musically
For Rother, this made his creative birth more profound. “I was becoming aware that it’s okay that I have my own identity and that you have to be different, that as an artist it’s not good enough to sound like Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles, although I love them. I started to feel unhappy about being a shadow of other people’s musical ideas… and so I went through a transition period, from around ’69 to ’71”.
For Schmidt, a classical music scholar and protégé of hugely influential German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, this desire to forge a radically new musical identity manifested itself in a deliberate attempt to use the past to create something totally original. “My idea was putting some musicians together with experience in all of the important styles of music of the 20th Century,” Schmidt says. “Because jazz and rock and contemporary music, electronics and all that was equally important.
“So I wanted it in one group altogether – but represented by musicians that had a larger experience with these things, like Jackie (Liebezeit), a fantastic jazz drummer. And me being from a classical background, it brought something different too.” Can’s classic albums Tago Mago (1971) Ege Bamyasi (1972) and Future Days (1973), all created with vocalist Damo Suzuki, a Japanese busker they discovered in Munich, set a benchmark for experimental rock.
What happened with krautrock was an expression of a wider ideological transition within the younger, disruptive German population during the 1970s, says Balz, away from “counter” culture and towards “alternative” culture. So it wasn’t really about “we want to abolish the state” anymore. It was more like, “I don’t care about the state any longer. I’m moving out of here and I’m moving to the countryside.”
We never made any political statements, except for what we were. We were one organism. We had no hierarchy. And that’s a kind of anarchy – Irmin Schmidt
Krautrock bands lived this ethos: in the early 70s, Can lived and recorded at a 15th-Century castle outside of Cologne; Faust spent the same period living in a commune in Wümme, near Hamburg. And thus, krautrock bands were political by dint of their actions rather than anything explicit: on one hand representing the idealistic vision of a new, alternative way of life, while their music’s disregard for tradition suggested the disruptiveness of protest and action.
Can’s socialist-like philosophy showed a way towards how society could be structured. “We never made any political statements,” Schmidt says. “Except for what we were. We were one organism. We had no hierarchy. And that’s a kind of anarchy. But there’s not one piece (of music) for us which has an author except Can”.
In Düsseldorf, Rother and his eventual Neu! bandmate, drummer Klaus Dinger, were in an early three-piece incarnation of Kraftwerk with Florian Schneider, Ralf Hutter briefly having left to study. While this version of Kraftwerk never released a record, Rother and Dinger fostered a proto-Neu! sound, as captured in a 1971 TV appearance. “I saw the people going nuts,” Rother says. “They were thrilled. And by the way, this was a younger audience. It was the beginning of something new for the crowd. That was clear.”
Rother and Dinger soon left Kraftwerk to form Neu!. An evolving Kraftwerk would release three never-since re-issued albums before its run of classic albums began with 1974’s Autobahn; they would go on to transcend the krautrock genre by becoming a pioneering electronic act and one of the best and most influential groups of all time.
The era’s defining band
But initially, it was Neu! who were breaking new ground. In Dinger, Rother had found a kindred spirit (even if they didn’t always see eye-to-eye). “Without discussing or having to find an agreement, we had in common that we wanted to be unique – a very modest approach. And that made us steer away from the traditions and set out on this path of reinventing the wheel. I decided to drop all the clichés, the standards. I threw all that overboard and tried to come back to the most simple elements in music – one tone, one note, one chord, one rhythm.”
In his 1995 book Krautrocksampler, musician and artist Julian Cope calls Neu! “the epitome of krautrock, they have defined the term more clearly than any other group”. Their debut album Neu!, released in 1972, remains a landmark release in rock music, featuring Neu!’s – and indeed krautrock’s – defining sound: the pioneering motorik beat. Literally meaning “motor skill”, the motorik is a driving, constant, prolonged, propulsive 4-4 beat, best exemplified by brilliant Dinger performances in early Neu! tracks like Hallogallo and Negativland. With the help of visionary producer Conny Plank – krautrock’s answer to Sam Phillips – it was in-part inspired by Rother’s love of perpetual motion.
“I like driving down the highway. Not speeding, that is completely the wrong picture, but I like rushing forward, whether it’s on a surfboard in big waves or just the feeling of strong forward movement,” he says. It was also, surprisingly, part-inspired by his love of football, the success of the West German football team being one aspect of German culture that was untainted by the atrocities of war. “There is a connection. Because I still love the fast forward style in football, when they just rush and the ball goes forward with high quality technical skills, but also trying to gain territory trying to move the ball to the goal.”
The motorik beat is still deployed by rock groups to this day seeking to signal a sense of experimentalism into their music. “It’s the foundation of that music on which experimental parts can move and shift around it,” says Alexis Taylor, singer with British electro-pop group Hot Chip, a band influenced by Neu! and krautrock. “And when that stays very constant, just small fluctuations or small changes in the groove can feel very exciting. And also, it’s a way of driving the music in a very primitive way. I think it’s quite clever to do something so simple”.
Neu! Released two more records: Neu! 2 and Neu! 75, the latter of which was an influence on punk with tracks like Hero and After Eight. Meanwhile, Rother was again innovating, having teamed up to form Harmonia with members of Cluster, another groundbreaking German band whose experiential soundscapes pathed the way for the ambient experimentation of Brian Eno.
A legendary fan
By 1976, David Bowie was drawing influence from Neu! and Harmonia. During his Berlin period and the making of classic albums Low and Heroes, Bowie spoke to Rother about collaborating. “If you look at his career, when he turned into his Berlin phase, the sales dropped,” Rother says. “And so it could have been the case that someone in management thought it’s not a good idea if we have David getting to work with Michael, he has some crazy ideas and maybe he’d make even more uncommercial music. So after speaking, I never heard from him again. Then years later, I saw an interview where he said ‘I invited Michael, but he turned me down’. So that’s a contradiction,” he laughs, “and you’d need Poirot to detect what happened”.
Krautrock was the first time people were blending acoustic instruments and electronics … the bands were completely forward thinking in that respect – Hannah Peel
The student protest movement and krautrock’s imperial phase concluded in strange parallel. By 1978, both were, as defined, more or less over: Can and Neu! had split – they would both later reform to mixed results – and the era of protest had slowly come to an end. The suicide of three Red Army Faction members in jail in October 1977 following their abduction and killing of former SS officer Hanns Martin Schleyer came to be seen as the protest movement’s symbolic culmination. Rudi Dutschke died on 24 December 1979 as a result of complications from the injuries of the assassination attempt on his life.
But what about the rest of the ’68 generation? Balz said they certainly had wins and shifted German culture to a more liberal place, but only partially: the state had not been overthrown, but rather co-opted. “They asked for revolution, but they got cultural and social reforms. But that was important. Rudi Dutschke called for a long march through the institutions, but what eventually happens, if you look at it, was a long march into the institutions – not through them. That makes all the difference, because they all became professors and doctors and foreign ministers, and that whole generation turned out to be the new elite. And of course, they brought something with it. They were corrupted by being in the institution, but they would also change a few things.”
Krautrock’s influence is far clearer. While, Kraftwerk aside, sales for most of the groups were modest at the time – “we were the underground of the underground”, Rother says – their enduring legacy of experimentation continues to shape modern music. “What I’ve taken away from krautrock is that that element of play,” says Hannah Peel, a Mercury Prize and Emmy-nominated composer/producer. “It was the first time people were blending acoustic instruments and electronics. I think there’s an element of what we are still doing that is exploring that, even now. They were completely forward thinking in that respect”.
“The basic element was the lack of modesty back in ’71,” Rother says, reflecting on why Neu! still endure, “when Klaus and I were determined to be different, not take the middle road, but to do something that was maybe for many people confusing or unacceptable. But it was our personality, our heart was in that. That is something that still somehow impresses musicians today, that’s my simple [analysis].”
Michael Rother plays Neu!, Harmonia and solo works at London’s Barbican Centre on 3 February. Rother tours in Australia from 22 February.
Can – Live in Paris 1973 is out 23 February on Mute.
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