BOMB BLASTS AND THE BEAT: PART TWO OF IAN MACDONALD’S DEFINITIVE SURVEY OF GERMAN ROCK
IN 1946 OUT of fun and without a political, ideological, or sociological motive, the eight-year-old Holger Czukay blew up a Russian ammunition depot. “It was,” he recalls, wistfully, “an unforgettable accoustical experience.”
Twenty-two years later in Cologne, Czukay found four others who shared his special taste in music and together they took over the aforementioned Schloss Norvenich, soundproofed it economically with army surplus mattresses, and began rehearsing and recording under the name of The Can. In 1970, with the release of their first album on a private pressing, they became an underground legend in Germany and Britain. When German Liberty bought up the distribution rights of Monster Movie (subtitled “Made In A Castle With Better Equipment”) the record achieved an unprecedented 20,000 sales and everybody wanted the group.
At the same time that Can were lugging mattresses into their castle, a dozen or so painters, poets, and musicians were congregating in a house three hundred miles away outside Munich.
Before long two factions emerged within the community, one advocating direct political commitment, the other a more oblique approach. In September 1968 the ideological split became a physical one, two members leaving for Berlin to join the revolutionary socialist Kommune Eins, seven others dropping all peripheral artistic pursuits to concentrate on music.
The original community ceased to exist, but the seven resolved to identify themselves with it by taking its name – Amon Düül. When the two who had departed to K1 began playing music under an identical title, they altered theirs to Amon Düül II.
Can were intellectuals. Two of them were in their mid-30s and had studied under Stockhausen, while the drummer had played with the leading German jazz groups, the Gunther Hampel Ensemble and the Manfred Schoof Quartet. Theirs was the equivalent of the New York scene of the middle Sixties, of Andy Warhol and Lamont Young, the milieu into which the Velvet Underground and Joseph Byrd’s United • States of America were born.
Amon Düül were heads. Symmetry requires that they have something in common with the American West Coast, but that scene, as developed as it was, was too far away to have much impact on a group rehearsing in southern Germany.
So they became roughly equivalent of what had happened in Britain during ’67, the summer of the Pink Floyd, the Soft Machine, Tomorrow, and the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown – except that, without at first much in the way of technical ability, they sounded more like Hapsash And The Coloured Coat and the Social Deviants.
German rock first drew critical attention at the International Song Days Festival held at the Grugahalle Essen in September 1968. Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser, who organised the event, recalls the first time he heard of Amon Düül:
“They sent us a tape in August and the band was bad, the sound dull and monotonous. But they radiated something, so we asked them to come. ‘We’re eleven adults and two children, and we decided to do everything together, even music,’ they wrote in their cheerful letter.
“Eight adults and one child came, the others remaining at home. No critic understood their half-hour rhythmic exploration, the writer for the middle-class Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reporting a ‘musical nothing’ from which he diverted himself by admiring ‘the erotic movements of the pretty girls’.”
A few days later Amon Düül had split up and, although the bill included two other German bands, Tangerine Dream and Guru Guru, most of the audience attention went to the big names from America (the Mothers Of Invention and the Fugs), leaving the cause of German rock to lie quiescent for nearly two more years.
Interest was temporarily aroused again by another festival at Burg-Waldeck in late 1969 at which a band from Essen called Soul Caravan made their debut, but it was not until the release of Monster Movie and of Amon Düül II’s Phallus Dei that critics in Britain began to prick up their jaded ears.
It is a situation which prevails even today that the German audiences will take no notice of their own groups until foreign critics write about them, and the British papers’ interest lent the newborn German scene enough credibility for the Ohr label to be successfully inaugurated, the single most important event in the brief history of the country’s rock boom.
Suddenly the demand was there and a flurry of activity went into supplying it. Not surprisingly, much of what was initially offered as evidence for The Great German Awakening was worthless; names like Missus Beastley, Krokodil, Erna Schmidt, and Nine Days Wonder joined the debris of Daily Flashes, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Stone Ponies, and Jacob’s Ladder Construction Companies left lying about after previous rock explosions.
In 1969, two albums of German rock were released in Germany. In 1970, more than a dozen.
“Right now,” says Kaiser, “there are thousands of groups over here, of which about 150 are under contract. Two hundred records will be released this year alone.”
To detect the crosscurrents of such a musical tidal wave is not as hard as it may seem. Firstly, two-thirds of it consists of bad imitations of Anglo-American rock, a lucrative, if otherwise pointless, pursuit of which the leading exponents are Birth Control, the country’s richest band.
Birth Control have an album released here on Charisma, whilst their various followers are all on the Brain label, all to varying degrees ploughing the same tedious furrows as Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, and amongst whom are Gomorrha from Cologne, Jane from Hanover, and Grobschnitt from Dortmund.
Scorpions, a pop-group gone heavy, reportedly a year ago “scared a crowd of teeny-boppers by starting to write and play their own music” – a remarkable feat, if spontaneous upon the night. Frankly, I’m with the teeny-boppers. Forget these groups.
Of the remainder, the best known already have British outlets or are available on Ohr or Brain, the entire catalogues of which have been conveniently imported by Virgin Records.
The least necessary of these are those Revolutionary Head ensembles which, far from learning to play their instruments, have never attempted to come up with any but the most primitive of musical ideas. The prototype for this movement is the collective Amon Düül of the 1968 Essen Festival.
After the split, Chris Karrer, Peter Leopold, and Falk Rogner formed Mark II, whilst Rainer Bauer and Ulrich Leopold arrived in Berlin and entered the studios with a horde of freaks from K1.
Following certain disagreements concerning orthodox doctrine, the drummer was forcibly ejected and the assembled multitudes commenced to lay down 20 hours of improvised instrument-clouting, some of which has unfortunately emerged on two Ohr releases, Collapsing and Para Dieswaarts Düül.
The most valuable sociological inference to be made from these execrable records is that the early years of German rock must have coincided with a colossal boom in the sale of bongoes. “
Adherents of the Revolutionary Head creed in this, its most atavistic form, include fellow Berliners Ash Ra Tempel, a kind of pre-Diluvian Hawkwind (whose second album, Schwingungen, is an advance on their first solely in that it’s played on electric rather than acoustic instruments and is therefore louder), and Mythos, a sloppy little imitation of a sloppy little English group called Continuum.
Likewise to be avoided is a record called Mandalas made in 1970 by a quartet of Heidelberg University students calling themselves Limbus 4, and which comes on like the Incredible String Band under teargas attack.
Guru Guru, one of the more senior combinations, spend most of their time travelling to and fro across the Continent in their Ford Transit, but have still managed to fit in recording three albums, UFO, Hinten, and Kanguru, the first two for Ohr, the last for Brain.
I asked Tony Stewart how developed he considered the German scene, which question raised a wry smile. “If there were any British bands five years out of date, they’d go down a storm in Germany at the moment,” he opined.
“When I was there, the German groups all had 30-watt amps with the singer going through the guitarist’s set-up on another channel – they hadn’t heard of P.A.s. When the heavily amplified Hendrix-influenced British bands began touring there, nobody understood them. They thought they were just being noisy.”
In fact there are British groups five years out of date (mishandlers of the Hendrix theory in its earliest stages like the Pink Fairies and the Groundhogs), and Guru Guru sound remarkably like them, once their disguise of simplistic electronics has been pierced. Thus, this band forms the link between the more boring “cosmic” groups of Berlin’s Revolutionary Headland, and the plagiarists of British heavy rock which operate mainly between Hamburg and the Ruhr.
The rest of the German bands under discussion are at least trying to produce something unique, but the fact that hardly a one is succeeding reflects the situation suggested in the contradictory viewpoints quoted at this article’s outset.
Few groups in Germany include wind-instruments in their line-up and it is this feature only which links Embryo, Xhol, and Annexus Quam.
The first was a Munich band made up of three Germans from the old Amon Düül community, plus one English ex-member of Ten Years After. They recorded one album, Opal, in 1970 and, though the music on it could not have been made by people of any other nationality, its lack of substantial material eventually defeated the romantic semi-competent appeal it shared with the early Velvet Underground (to whom this group bears no other resemblance).
Xhol, the Soul Caravan of the Burg-Waldeck festival, have made three albums since 1970, the obscure Electrip on the Hansa label and two more for Ohr. Another Anglo-German outfit, they’re prone to long interludes of aimless monochordal wandering, punctuated by sudden anomalous departures into soul music. No explanation is offered by them, neither do I recommend their records.
A slightly better bet is Dusseldorf’s Annexus Quam who, having got over the dreadfulness of Osmose, their first album, are now playing amnesiac free-jazz on a new one, Beziehungen, a sound pleasant from a safe distance but a somewhat dubious purchasing prospect.
On the folk side of affairs we find Witthuser and Westrupp, a pair of unprepossessing appearance, whose stock in trade (apparently) is bawdy and satirical songs performed to various sorts of acoustic accompaniment.
Unless you speak German you’ll find their music, as presented in albums like Lieder Vop Vampiren and Tripps Und Traume, banal in the extreme; moreover a degree in Gibberish would be unlikely to qualify you as a hierophant of Sturmischer Himmel, the first recording of Paul and Limpe Fuchs, a Teutonic Two Virgins whose central interests appear to be the sounds of sheep, Alpine horns, and yet more bongoes.
For reasons of international appeal, most of these records possess lyrics and sleevenotes half in German and half out of it (usually heading in the general director of English) and, even when the whole is in German, as with the last two cases, the language barrier is rarely regrettable.
In the case of the final band in this article to feature anything like an orthodox rock sound, it is quite mortifying – since the group are the excellent Floh de Cologne. Hansi Frank (drums), Dieter Klemm (vocals), Markus Schmidt (guitar, organ), Dick Stadtler (bass), and Gerd Wollschon (vocals) have been together for six years, the first two as a satirical cabaret act, the remainder as a rock group (having witnessed the power of the PA in the performances of the Fugs and the Mothers at Essen in 1968).
Fliesbandbabys Beatshow, made in 1970, is a rough and ready combination of Brecht-Weill theatrics and: small-scale rock-‘n’-roll, whilst Profitgeier, ironically launched as “the first German rock-opera” in the following year, represents a considerable advance in both music and lyrics, featuring a libretto that contains, as well as the sung and spoken words, short essays on various aspects of capitalist exploitation and full Marxist reading-lists on a wide range of topics.
Floh are by no means a comfortable experience (they even managed to impress the world-weary German newsmen by freaking out in the middle of their first and only Press-conference, overturning the tables, and charging at the cameras bellowing “Fuck for money!”).
Says Gerd Wollschon: “We don’t scratch anyone’s back. We avoid intellectualisation and say directly what we want. This, we find, is frowned upon.’
The appreciative audience on this live recording is not composed of students, as one might assume, but of apprentices and factory-workers to whom the group prefer to play and, though the casual rock-fan will get little out of Floh’s records, any German-speaking socialist should find Profitgeier remarkable both as music and as sophisticated propaganda.
An encouraging sign of natural development in German rock is that none of its sub-genres exist in complete isolation; there is always a relationship between neighbours, ranging from shared devices to the presence, in a kind of evolutional nomansland, of other groups practising music which, for analytical purposes, bridges the gaps most conveniently.
Lying between the more conventionally-based of German bands and the radical “cosmic” groups like Tangerine Dream, Popul Vuh, and Cluster, is a music which retains, albeit in a much-simplified shape, the organisational references of the former (such as regular tempi, a home key, occasionally even thematic material), whilst taking full advantage of the latter’s freedom of concept and practice.
Kraftwerk, from Dusseldorf, occupied a position closer to the conventional end of the scale only in that they were a cold, mechanical group, seemingly bent on eliminating all traces of emotional expression from their music, whereas the bands most proximate to Kaiser’s “cosmic” genre are those most profoundly expressive of the true German rock character: a New Romanticism based equally on Richard Wagner and Robert Moog.
Essentially, Kraftwerk consisted of two people – Raff Hutter (organ, bass, rhythm-machine) and Florian Schneider-Esleben (flute, violin, guitar) – joined by the percussionists Andreas Hohmann and Klaus Dinger for their first album in 1970, and by Michael Rother (guitar) and Eberhard Krahnemann (bass) in the period intervening between then and the recording of Kraftwerk 2 in late 1971.
Just before the second session, a policy disagreement split the group leaving Hutter and Schneider-Esleben alone again whilst Dinger and Rother formed Neu.
Kraftwerk has the double-meaning of “power-station” and “men-at-work” and this ironical objectivity was reelected in the covers of both albums (white, with Temporary Diversion traffic bollards in red and green, respectively).
For me, the music is hard without convincing structure, heartless with no redeeming dignity, and ultimately a numbing bore – quite unlike Neu’s first album, constructed following similar principles, but nearer to the wellspring of Teutonic emotional expression. ‘Sonderangebot’ maintains interest in the sound of a phased cymbal for over five minutes, ‘Weissensee’ and ‘Lieber Honig’ get as tender as a German group is ever likely to get, and even Kraftwerkian tracks like ‘Hallogallo’ and ‘Negativland’ project a warmth and imagination which, theoretically, just shouldn’t be there.
In Neu, a previously mystifying development in German rock is beginning to explain itself – but, even so, I recommend a careful listen before any investment is made.
“You screamers play electric instruments while sitting on wooden chairs. What would happen if you played wooden instruments on electric chairs?” Thus wrote the drama critic of a leading Swiss newspaper following Max Peter Amann’s production of Prometheus at the Zurich State Theatre in 1971, for which the music was provided by Can; the group, delighted by this psychotic snippet, have since adopted it as their motto.
In the light of certain attitudes ascribed to them in Duncan Fallowell’s sleeve-note to Tago Mago (and from which they dissociate themselves), they’ll be rather less enthusiastic with my placing them at the Romantic end of the aforementioned nomansland.
In their four years of existence. Can have made only one alteration in their line-up – the substitution of Japanese Damo Suzuki for black American Malcolm Mooney in the vocal department – whilst cutting one single (‘Soul Desert’/’She Brings The Rain’) and three albums.
A fourth album, Can Soundtracks, available only on a private pressing in Germany, is a collation of some of the work the band, as Inner Space Productions, have done for films: so far, they’ve worked on 13 such projects with, amongst others, Rochus Spieker, Roger Fritz, Peter Schamoni, and – best known – Jerzy Skolimowski, for his feature Deep End.
Leaders Irmin Schmidt (keyboards) and Holger Czukay (bass) are in their mid-30s, the rest – including Michael Karoli (guitar) and Jackie Liebezeit (drums) – some 10 years younger. Their thing is free jamming over deliberately simple motifs for, on occasions, quite inordinate periods of time, and only on Monster Movie does this rather risky self-limitation (Can prefer to see it as total freedom) produce anything consistently gripping.
‘Mary, Mary, So Contrary’, from this album, remains one of the most powerful statements of German rock, making the hour of modal improvisation on Tago Mago, their second, appear even more impoverished than it actually is.
Ege Bamyasi, the band’s latest, contains two more lengthy exercises in bleak repetition, but also features a number of the shorter, more controlled numbers that graced the listenable sections of the preceding albums – and these, like ‘Outside My Door’ (Monster Movie), ‘Oh Yeah’ (Tago Mago), and ‘Vitamin C’ (Ege Bamyasi) can prove as hypnotically engrossing in their way as, say, a long Taj Mahal blues, or ‘Sad-eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’.
Where Can fail for me is in their basic credo, which Irmin and Holger explain with great patience and humour, but which remains essentially solemn to the point of sterility.
They play such harmonically ungenerous tunes, they insist, because they want to be “together” on a higher plane than that usually indicated when other groups describe themselves as such.
This has a lot to do with the various political intrusions on German rock previously described, but Irmin prefers to see things in existential terms which tend to cloud the issue, whereas, for Holger, it’s just music.
A strange, unique band of intellectuals struggling to make people’s music in a prevailingly anti-cerebral climate, Can epitomize a central contradiction of German rock, play some good and some awful music, and look unusually happy for a bunch of incipient schizophrenics. At the very least they’re honest and articulate and cannot be ignored. Try Ege Bamyasi for yourself. I’m not a Can Person, but it’s very possible that the world is full of them and they ought not to be denied. “I really think,” says Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser, “that there exists a trypical German sound, which originates from the national mentality. It’s most extant form is in ‘cosmic’ music, a music with electronic Ulrich Kaiser, “that there exists a typical German sound, which originates from the national mentality. It’s most extant form is in ‘cosmic’ music, a music with electronic elements.”
First on the scene with “cosmic” music was Edgar Froese, the one consistent feature of the extremely volatile line-up of Tangerine Dream, Germany’s oldest rock group.
From Berlin, they are like a Pink Floyd without a beat for, since ‘Fly And Collision Of Comas Sola’ on their second album, Alpha Centauri, no regular pulse has appeared anywhere in their music – a fact which may deter the more rhythmically-orientated listener.
Anyone, however, for whom A Saucerful Of Secrets remains an avenue worthy of further exploration, will find Tangerine Dream fascinating.
Beginning in 1970 with Electronic Meditation, the group consisted of Froese on guitar and keyboards, Klaus Schulze on percussion, and Conny Schnitzler on cello and electronics. It was a poor effort, pretentiously conceived and confusedly executed with Froese’s blues-based guitar sounding laughably anachronistic against the aural backdrop of synthesized sound.
Schnitzler forthwith split to form a rival “cosmic” group. Eruption, who have not recorded yet, whilst Schultz left to pursue a solo-career, the first fruits of which have blossomed on Irrlicht, his sonomontage of synthesized orchestra.
For Alpha Centauri in the following year, Froese added Chris Franke and Steve Schroyder on a variety of keyboards and electronic gear to play a psychedelic score written on graph-paper and “dedicated to all people who feel obliged to space.”
The title track is an extensive essay in restful doodlings from Udo Dennebourg’s flute and the synthesizer of Roland Paulyck and, as such, forms a link between this album and the band’s most recent project – the enormous “largo in four movements” for moogs, VCS3s, organs, vibes, and massed cellos: Zeit. Here Franke is replaced by Peter Baumann and guest-artist Florian Fricke, the foremost German exponent of the synthesizer. I am bored; you may be in raptures.
Even though they’re one of Germany’s best-paid groups, Tangerine Dream’s equipment is so expensive that they all have other jobs during the day to pay for the instalments.
Frankfurt’s Cluster are by no means as well-known and must have to struggle to keep the hire purchase companies from reclaiming their mass of electronic gadgets, organs, and electric cellos.
Dieter Moebius and Joachim Roedelius make a less passive sound than Tangerine Dream – in fact ‘Live In Der Fabrik’, from their Brain album Cluster II, is reminiscent of the coruscating electronics from The Ipcress File – and for this reason, they emerge as more enthralling than the generally rather bovine contemplations of Zeit.
Preferable to both in the field of electronics is the work of Wolfgang Dauner whose group released Output in 1970 on the ECM label and have a new one, Rischkas And Soul, shortly to appear on Brain. The subject here is jazz synthesized with humour and a tremendous energy – recommended.
Whatever you think of Zeit and Irrlicht, they both possess beautiful covers – a feature shared by a large number of German albums for, in this area, German rock already leads the world. There are, naturally, terrible lapses of taste every once in a while (see the cover of Birth Control’s Operation if you have to), but generally the standard of imagination and skill eclipses all the trendier British designs completely, not the least of the successful practitioners being Amon Düül II.
Since 1969 they have recorded five albums and four singles, at the approximate rate of one of each per year. Phallus Dei and Yeti, recorded at a time when Hawkwind’s Dave Anderson was on bass, are rough and heavy affairs, far more interesting than the average German rock of the period, but poor by today’s standards.
© Ian MacDonald, New Musical Express, 16 December 1972