Krautrock: Pioneers of a New World

May 15, 2020

 

Krautrock, a name given by the 1970s British press to the various experimental rural German bands flourishing throughout an ideologically torn nation, described one of the most musically influential movements of the twentieth century. The suffix kraut, taken from the German word Sauerkraut, a type of cabbage delicacy, was often used to insult Germans throughout the First and Second World War. Bands such as CAN, Tangerine Dream, Faust, Neu, Harmonia and the most successful, often dubbed Germany’s Beatles, Kraftwerk adopted the suffix and rejected its pejorative connotations of belligerence, chauvinism and militance. Instead, they provided a soundtrack to a movement that was dedicated to redefining a nation torn apart by Nazism.

 

Devastated both socially and physically after the Second World War, Germany remained in social turmoil throughout the 1960s and 70s. Ex-Nazis continued to occupy positions at all levels of society, such as teachers, lawyers, bankers and doctors. The anti-war movements of 1968 and 1969 which preoccupied the United States in its commitment to ending the Vietnam war also affected German cities such as Berlin, Cologne and Düsseldorf. The difference, however, was the commitment of Germany’s youth in denouncing the post-Nazi social infrastructure with which many ex-Nazis remained. 

 

 Above: Cologne based band Can  

 

The Krautrock movement wanted to construct a new cultural identity; one committed to creativity, liberation and freedom. The endless plateaus and landscapes of Krautrock’s music which ranged from space rock, ambient rock, electro-pop, synth rock and much more, crafted with traditional instruments and electronic equipment, reflected the new social ideals which were emerging at the time. Rejecting traditional song structures, Krautrock musicians aimed to create something new and futuristic. Amazingly, German musicians broke free from the conventional, dominant sound of Britain and the United States. They crafted sonic landscapes and endless ravines of sound.

 

Active between 1968 and 1979, CAN were a band consisting of Holger Czukay (bass), Irmin Schmidt (keyboards), Michael Karoli (guitar) and the legendary drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Liebezeit combined his jazz techniques with a new, minimalistic and repetitive style of drumming which gave CAN their avant-garde sound. Acting as the powerhouse behind their music, 'motornik' was the name coined for the style he introduced. This sound helped to revolutionize modern music, influencing a diverse number of bands such as The Stone Roses, Joy Division, Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, Radiohead and Sonic Youth. 

 

As Krautrock progressed and the style of music began asserting itself throughout the underbelly of New York and London, the genre started to evolve into a much more electronic sound. Kraftwerk and Harmonia were at the forefront of this, with Kraftwerk being one of the first completely electronic bands, most famous for their single ‘The Robots’. Harmonia, a super-group consisting of Neu and Cluster members, who shied away from the limelight, unlike their counterparts, worked on various groundbreaking albums such as Musik Von Harmonia [1974] and Deluxe [1975]. 

 

In 1976, three years after Brian Eno had left the British glam rock band Roxy Music, he joined Harmonia and worked on their third album Tracks and Traces [Recorded 1976, released in 1997], in which the super-group assiduously tutored Eno on how to manipulate sound and create electronic ambient music, putting him in good stead for his career in which he would become known as one of ambient music’s most revered and important musicians It was not only Brian Eno’s career in which the electronic side of Krautrock had profound influence, but David Bowie’s too. A huge fan of Kraftwerk and Harmonia, strangely enough, his 1977 album was named Heroes after one of Neu’s tracks ‘Hero’ was released within the previous year of 1976. The late musician has described Harmonia as one of the most important and influential bands of the 1970s.

 

Kraftwerk, a band that characterised themselves as 'music workers', the most famous Krautrock band who crashed onto the scene of the modern age of the 1980s with a more electro-pop sound, were undoubtedly essential to the formation of most modern dance music today. Forming in 1969, their first three albums Kraftwerk [1970], Kraftwerk 2 [1971] and Ralf und Florian [1973] were largely experimental rock, with a lot of flute sounds and post-production distortion. It was not until their release of Autobahn [1974] in which their sound really started to be defined. Using more electronic equipment such as keyboards, vocoders and synthesisers, Autobahn [1974] and Radioactivity [1975] grew to critical acclaim across the world and they were seen as one of the very first dance acts, regarded as electro pop, or what they called 'robot pop'. Their identity was set in stone and their last few albums showed this in their conceptualisation of the future, with names like The Man Machine [1978], Computer World [1981] and Electric Café [1986]. The first techno music scenes which sprang up throughout Detroit in the early 1980s, fronted by visionary musicians like Juan Atkins and his groups Cybotron and Model 500, took huge influence from Kraftwerk's repetitive and up-tempo electronic sound. Even Juan Atkins' obsession with the future belonging to technology, with man becoming one with machine, was taken from Kraftwerk's futuristic narratives.

 

This introduction to Krautrock, the genre of all genres, is a small scratch on the surface of the immaculate German experimental discography which was so rife throughout the late 1960s, 70s and 80s. Krautrock was a style of music which set out to redefine Germany's identity. Indirectly, they had a profound impact on the rest of the world, not only smashing to pieces the Anglo-American perception of an ex-Nazi riddled Germany, but setting the tone for many more bands that would form throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. 

 

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