Krautrock Revisited: Life After Can and Ash Ra Tempel

EVEN BEFORE KRAFTWERK’S great mid-’70s cars, trains, and airwaves trilogy, Krautrock was largely about getting away – especially from Germany itself. The band Can in particular fused cut-and-paste wanderlust with a transgeneric rhythmic paganism guaranteed to transport musicians and listeners alike out of their skulls back into their dancing butts. More ethereal, Ash Ra Tempel sought utopia through psychedelic guitarist Manuel Göttsching’s long and winding solos.

Can conceptualist Holger Czukay pioneered what I call “short-wave rock”, a subgenre in which the exotic sound of the other disrupts implacable beats. Czukay had studied with avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose seminal 1966 work Telemusik combines electronic music and international short-wave radio transmissions into the eeriest Martian mix tape you’ll ever hear. Shortly after joining Can, Czukay attempted to emulate Stockhausen with Canaxis, a dry sandwich of choral loops and Asian samples.

A decade later, however, Czukay announced his departure from Can with Movies, a gloriously giddy traipse through ethnodelic soundscapes, and a much more successful fourth-world montage than Canaxis. Two years in the making, Movies develops the slicker, funkier side of the multi-flavoured Can. If film is the locus of imaginary worlds, as Czukay believed, Movies is a virtual Imax experience. It kicks off with a refreshing blast of hot summer funk (‘Cool in the Pool’) before venturing into woozy sampled Arabia (‘Persian Love’) and extended cinematic reveries (‘Hollywood Symphony’), all intercut with bits and pieces of found dialogue and sound effects. Czukay cutting-room flair for unlikely juxtapositions is almost as evident on his 1981 follow-up, On the Way to the Peak of Normal, whose slippy, opiated grooves float on Pink Floyd carrier waves and a Zappa-esque sense of the cosmic absurd. The key tracks here are ‘Ode to Perfume’ and ‘Fragrance’, which Baudelaire fans will recognize as the poet’s royal road to ecstatic elsewhereness.

After Can, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt – another former Stockhausen student – drifted toward (relatively) traditional song structures. On 1987’s Musk at Dusk and 1991’s Impossible Holidays (a double bill reissued on a single Spoon/Mute disc), Schmidt leads a musical tour through swoony vacation scenarios exuding the dreamlike allure and romantic artifice of movie sets. Schmidt is literally all over the place on these records. The rhythm section lays down fat, funky Carribean beats underneath Paris accordions, breathy chanson lyrics brimful of mock (“The women have no pity / The men are sometimes shitty”) melodrama, and more ennui than Roxy Music.

Drummer Jackie Liebezeit and guitarist Michael Karoli were Can’s real groove shamans. Deluge – Karoli’s newly unabridged 1984 solo album – is a sweetly flowing tube ride of a record buoyed along by Polly Eltes’s repetitive sing-song chants. It’s a reggae album, really, a dubbed-up tribal trip through hippie truisms (“sooner or later something will come along”). Sadly, only the first three tracks feature Liebezeit’s amazing man-machine drumming – as though Eltes’s patchouli-scented meditations had forced him to bail out prematurely and thus miss the cleansing rainstorm – ‘Deluge (The River)’ – that washes everything away

If Krautrock is defined largely by droning, rhythmic minimalism, Ash Ra Tempel could be the rule-proving exception. Manuel Göttsching finds his bliss in seemingly endless jams edited down to album-side portions. The ecstatically spacey ‘Freak ‘n’ Roll’, which kicks off the Purple Pyramid reissue of 1973’s Join Inn, contains nearly twenty minutes of top-shelf improvisation. Sounding uncannily similar to Anthem of the Sun-era Jerry Garcia, Göttsching is kicked further into the stratosphere by prog/psych-keyboardist (and former Ash Ra member) Klaus Schulze’s squealing oscillations. The following year’s Starring Rosi (on the same disc) highlights vocalist Rosi Mueller, whose gypsy-queen-in-rainbow-land lyrics can unfortunately drag even Göttsching’s otherworldly flights back down to German soil. And who wants to go there?

© Richard GehrSpin, 20 July 1998

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