Elektronische musik: a guide to krautrock

It might be more than 30 years old, but krautrock, Germany’s experimental music from the 1970s, still has a freshness that sixth-generation British indie bands can’t match

It began out of nothing, was given a joke name, and became the pop influence du jour: krautrock, kosmische musik, elektronische musik, or whatever you wish to call German experimental rock from the 1970s. Cited and adapted by artists as diverse as Q-Tip, the Horrors (whose epic Sea Within a Sea convincingly updates that Neu! motorik), Foals, Deerhunter, even Kasabian and Oasis (but don’t let the last put you off).

The list is so long as to be almost meaningless, but a new Soul Jazz compilation, Elektronische Musik, reinforces just how wild German music from that period was. It also raises the question of why kosmische musik, which has impacted on pop for the last 30 years (just think of Afrika Bambaataa, Brian Eno and David Bowie, to name but three), is still so popular today.
It began out of the revolutionary student movement of 1967 and 1968: one strand formed communes and became political activists, others began to attempt a new German music that was not schlager, the mainstream music of the day. Their quest was given added impetus by the fact that many of these war babies knew their history had been erased. They had nothing, but that meant freedom.

This was their year zero. Informed by Karlheinz Stockhausen, the Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd, among others, the late 1960s and early 70s saw the formation of many key groups: Can, Faust, Amon Düül II, Organisation (later Kraftwerk), Guru Guru and Tangerine Dream, many of whom were released on German labels such as Ohr and Brain.
There are several DVD bootlegs covering this early period, as well as YouTube clips and the actual albums. What they record is a balls-to-the-wall experimental approach that takes ideas, feelings and competence as far as they can go, and then further. There are no limits. This first-time delirium continues the psychedelic upsurge of 1966-67 but gives it a tougher edge: it was, as Julian Cope wrote, “soaringly idealistic and hard as nails”.

It was Cope’s Krautrocksampler, published in 1995, that first organised and codified a history of “the great kosmische musik”. Cope focused on the first wave of groups, many of whom were popular in England thanks to the visionary Andrew Lauder, who released Can and Amon Düül II on United Artists. (Then there was the 49p issue of The Faust Tapes.)

Since this groundbreaking study, the floodgates have opened; but the Soul Jazz compilation opens out the genre even further. If you go into the affiliated Sounds of the Universe shop in Soho, you’ll see a rack for experimental German music alongside all the reggae 7”s, funk/disco 12”s, dubstep, free jazz and cosmic disco CDs. Put together by Stuart Baker and Adrian Self, the Elektronische Musik compilation totally fits that free-booting eclecticism.

It begins with Can’s A Spectacle, sampled by Q-Tip on Manwomanboogie (from his 2008 album The Renaissance). There are the usual suspects: Faust, Neu!, Cluster – the last represented by the track Heisse Lippen, from their best album, Zuckerzeit – but there is a greater reliance on funky beats/breaks, and you get long improv epics such as High Life by Ibliss. The second disc ends with the blissed-out drones of Deuter’s Soham, a higher-key masterpiece.

The implication is that there is more here than you ever thought. German music from this period is a bit like the Tardis: you got through a narrow portal into a huge, dynamic space. Kosmische’s fertility is only matched by its desire to create something totally new, and it is that which has proved inspirational to successive generations of musicians from right across the spectrum.

Its increased resonance in the 21st century comes from the fact that Anglo-American rock has a six-decade history and has been thoroughly cannibalised. Tired of sixth-gen Brit indie groups? Sick of Americana apologists? Then let kosmische be your guide. Starting from nothing but their imagination, the 70s German groups continue to offer a third way: a long, straight road out of this cultural impasse.

Elektronische Musik is out 5 April on Soul Jazz


Jon Savage

The GuardianTramp

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