Krautrock Created a New Sound for a New Generation
"Krautrock," originally coined as a somewhat derogatory term by the British music press, was a label pinned to legions of West German bands that sprang up in the late 1960s and 70s. These groups, most of whom were radically different from their UK and US contemporaries, experimented with a variety of sounds, often incorporating primitive synthesizers, electric guitars, driving drum beats and pre-recorded audiotape to create droning, sonic soundscapes.
Similar to the British invasion groups who took a uniquely American form and reinvented it for themselves, krautrock encompassed not only the whole canon of rock and jazz but also visual art ideas about structure and composition as well as a uniquely German postwar 'everything is new' sense of urgency.
It's difficult to pick a handful of representatives out of a genre that was by its very nature composed of experimentalists and outsiders. But a good place to start would be the highly influential triumvirate of Can, Faust and Neu!, followed closely by the likes of Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Harmonia, Guru Guru, Amon Duul, La Düsseldorf and Cluster to name a few.
Art in postwar Germany
To put a finger on the pulse of this musical zeitgeist, one has to imagine growing up in a postwar Germany that was literally rebuilding itself from the ground up. Despite the undercurrents of political unrest, the gaiety of the hippie era in much of the western world was a guilt-free indulgence in a wealth of new possibilities.
While German youth of the same era shared similar hopes and desires, there were other, much darker influences on their world view.
"All the young revolutionaries of 1968 had parents who were either Nazis or had suffered under the Nazis, and the relationship of the parents to the Nazis, and of their children to them, was a special German thing and had a big influence on the 1968 troubles," explained Can's Irmin Schmidt. "And for 20 years, we had got rid of culture. It wasn't just towns that were bombed; culture was bombed too, and you can't rebuild culture."
Musical ground zero
Tweaking the Anglo-American legacy, the German bands added a vital distance. By viewing rock 'n' roll as a foreign import, they were able to make it even more unique. They infused it with a German character that's instantly audible yet hard to categorize. A combination of Dada, LSD and cold-war politics resulted in a dry, absurdist humor that could range from zany to nonchalant.
"The single unifying factor I see in most of these bands is that they -- we -- wanted to get away from traditional ways of making music, that we were looking for a new form ... like the students in and after 1968 were looking for new forms to live and organize society and politics," said Jochen Irmler, who played keyboards in Faust.
Equally significant during this time was what krautrock didn't draw from, namely the blues-rock purism purported by the likes of Eric Clapton's Cream or the Rolling Stones.
"There were so many reasons to be different," said Michael Rother of Neu! "We didn't discuss 'theories,' we just got together and started playing and it happened. We all knew about the Velvet Underground but somehow ended up with different structures."
Foreshadow of things to come
Talking to the legendary music critic and writer Lester Bangs in 1975, Kraftwerk's Ralf Hütter offered this explanation: "We were very lucky. At the time there were electronic music concerts, happenings, the Fluxus group, etc. It was very normal; we played on the same circuit, the galleries. When we began we didn't have any engagements in the traditional music world, we were engaged in the artistic world, galleries, universities."
But it would be a mistake to characterize krautrock as so far out that it didn't make an impression on mainstream pop music. While the post-1960s music world was becoming ever more decadent, the Germans moved in the opposite direction, becoming more stripped down, more inward. Holger Czukay's so-called "minimal-is-maximal" credo, which he pioneered in Can, would soon become the status quo for much of the punk, post-punk and new-wave era.
Can, Faust, Neu! and Tangerine Dream, which sold well in Europe, cultivated a devoted circle of fans including other hip art-rockers such as David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop and Negativeland. Likewise, a group of classical music students from Düsseldorf known as Kraftwerk (German for 'power plant') were bringing new visual art concepts to their music while at the same time tinkering with electronics, altering their Moog synthesizers and building their own drum machines.