Welcome To The Machine: Kraut Rock

Julian Cope has championed it, new Nineties bands are ransacking it and the ageing German hippies that first created it are now packing in techno and indie converts. Word is out on Krautrock, the ‘70s trance underground that was the best kept secret in music history – until now.

VICKY SPILSTED is 24. She used to listen to Sonic Youth, Ultra Vivid Scene and “loads of indie rock”. Now she listens to Faust, Can and Cosmic Jokers. She makes the four-hour train journey from Edinburgh to London just to attend strange, one-off club nights going under names like “Kosmische” or to see rare performances by obscure ‘70s groups like Amon Düül. Yes, some of the groups Vicky reveres still exist and have members that could probably take her age, double it, then add ten.

Vicky has discovered perhaps the best-kept musical secret of the past 30 years. Consigned to the dustbin for wearing the wrong trousers, Krautrock demands your attention. It is the influential thread running through so much “new” ‘90s music. And, as the pile-up of “new” bands stealing from a sound and an attitude can be traced back to experimental pop musicians working in early-‘70s Germany grows, Krautrock is screaming out to be explored. “I went to see Stereolab last year,” adds Vicky. “It was packed and I looked around and thought, ‘So how many people here have actually heard Neu!?'”

Similar sentiments are expressed by the colourful Kosmische crew, a London-based collective who have been pioneering Krautrock club nights in the capital over the last four months. “Listen to Stereolab and you can virtually hear whole Neu! records lifted and reworked a bit,” says the club’s co-promoter Flint. “I think it’s important that people out there get to hear all the incredible, obscure records that have inspired bands like Stereolab.”

“The interest is definitely there,” says his club-running partner Leon. “We weren’t sure at first, but when we put a few flyers around earlier this year we had at least a hundred people asking what was happening.”

The first Kosmische club night featured a performance by the British psychedelic guru Brian Barritt, who, with the help of a bottle of 7-Up laced with industrial-strength LSD, once made a record with Timothy Leary and Krautrock supergroup Ash Ra Tempel. This record (for obvious reasons called ‘7-Up’) is so far out there you need binoculars to find it. It also encompasses the kind of madcap spirit that Kosmische are now busy trying to incorporate into their exotic nights, employing huge backdrops and projection shows in an effort to create a uniquely Kraut environment.

“That first Kosmische night in July was like nothing I’ve been to in years,” says 26-year-old Londoner and photographic assistant Mark Fay. “People were standing around dazed – not quite knowing how to react to this incredible old guy up at the front who was out-raving the lot of them. It was like: ‘Is this a club or a gig or an art statement?’ It’ll be interesting to see where these sort of nights can go from here.”

I decide to track down Brian Barritt to ask him much the same question. At the age of 61, he is obviously still running on some kind of five-star rock’n’roll petrol. “I want to see as much action as possible at this new club,” he tells me. “I want to feel that old vibe all over again.” Kosmische Leon is more immediately concerned with getting the right DJs for his events. “We’ve asked a lot of people we know would be great but they don’t want to bring their albums out to a club and have some Krautrock virgin spill lager all over them. That’s the danger, isn’t it?”

Turn to page 74 for a fashion feature on the Krautrock look. A list of suppliers of army greatcoats and kaftans can now be found in the back of the magazine. Only joking. Or am I?

I’ve not asked my mother yet, but I’m sure if I did she would advise me never to trust a man in leggings. Certainly, she wouldn’t invest her life savings with a man who looked anything like Julian Cope does these days – after all, he wears a pointed hat and tends to go on and on about great lumps of prehistoric concrete that get in the way of a good motorway. But by the close of the ‘90s Julian Cope just might have been re-evaluated and become as hip as a Jeep-load of cussing MCs. Overdue for reappraisal or not, for my money Cope has more to say right now than any of the current crop of daft fuckers pretending to be The Small Faces.

According to these people, those “Noelrock” devotees with their earnest top 50s full of Pet Sounds and Neil Young’s Zuma, the only musical history we have is contained in the racks of any high street HMV. But with his passionate book, Krautrocksampler (first published at the start of this year and already on to its third reprint), and with his tireless free-press campaign on behalf of a lost nation of German hippies either chemically smashed beyond caring, dead or in steady teaching jobs, Cope has helped join the dots in a hidden history.

“The time is right for this music,” he chatters excitedly over the phone. “Sure, some of it is over 25 years old now, but to a lot of people it hasn’t made sense before. The world just needed to get weirder and catch up. I just wanted people to know that this is hard motherfucker of a music. It’s not some wimpy hippie shit.”

Definitions, then. Krautrock: the result of experimental minds on serious drugs trying to make inspired pop/rock music (and often failing miserably). Rock’n’roll innovation with a repetitious trance element to its groove. The great radical music of the ‘70s.

The German groups of that time actually encouraged the Krautrock tag, titling albums things like Mr Kraut’s Jinx and Rastakrautpasta. But a news blackout inspired by punk made sure that much of this sort of thing passed by unheard. That blackout is over now. Time to make point that Can were at least as important as The Clash.

Some personal Kraut observations: there are no 20-minute drum solos, precious little “progressive” “axe” strangling going on, and this music has fuck all to do with Rick Wakeman or Gong. Some of those bands back then may well have looked like they’d been dragged through a hedge backwards, but – honest! – I don’t hear anyone singing about gnomes and fairies on these records. Krautrock studio innovators such as Dieter Dirks and Conny Plank are matched only by other Seventies innovators such as Lee Perry and King Tubby in their breathtaking ability to make music fly, yet they remain largely unsung heroes.

But why do you need to know all this when all you want to do is sing in the middle of a football field singing old Slade songs? Because without Can’s ‘Halleluhwah’ there would be no loose-limbed cover version by Happy Mondays, and Black Grape would have far less of a sleazy swagger. Yes, Shaun Ryder and his mates have been digging and openly lifting Krautrock for years now. [Without mentioning Stone Roses, whose ‘Fool’s Gold’ was almost directly nicked from Can’s ‘Vitamin C’ -Ed.] Without Neu!, David Bowie and Brian Eno would have been stuck for ideas during a good portion of the late ‘70s.

Without Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa wouldn’t have caught the Trance Disco Express called electro, and without that Juan Atkins wouldn’t have laid the bare bones of techno for Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson to see. Without the more extreme experiments of Krautrock, The Aphex Twin would sound like Disco Tex and PIL’s much-lauded Metal Box simply would not exist. And that twisted wail John Lydon uses on Leftfield’s ‘Open Up’? That belongs to Renate Knaup, a woman in her forties who did a tour of Japan with Amon Düül II a few months ago and got mobbed by teenagers obsessed with records she helped make 25 years ago. Oh, and check The Beastie Boys’ listening recommendations in their own Grand Royal magazine. Yes, that’s why those spaced-out jams on Ill Communication sound so engagingly raw and Can-like.

All just so you understand. When we talk about this music we are not just speaking about history. We are talking about the Tortoise record that is single of the week in the NME and has been remixed over at Mo’Wax. We are talking about that brilliant techno record that you bought yesterday that takes its cues and clips from Manuel Gottsching’s ‘E2-E4’.

It was almost a relief when easy listening became fashionable. The public had been happy to remain ignorant about Krautrock anyway, despite the name-dropping here and there of Cluster and Can. But Julian Cope’s book has reinvigorated the Kraut groundswell, successfully tying all the bits and pieces together and helpfully informing that the phrases “Krautrock” and “progressive rock” are not one and the same. The book was by no means definitive – the anoraks, old Kraut heads and spotters are still moaning about it – but Cope had never meant it to be. He called it a “field guide” – in effect, a cool shopping list. “I don’t want to put people off the music,” he stresses. “I just want to infect people with a delirious desire to go out and buy loads of mad CDs.”

Could the swelling success of a crop of British bands who openly admit a huge debt to Krautrock (notably Porcupine Tree and the superb Main) mean that the prospect of a Krautrock Oasis is now perilously close? You never know. Certainly, more and more people are now name-checking Porcupine Tree, a band who recently spawned a sideline project called The Incredible Expanding Mindfuck – an obvious tribute to the Kraut genre with four tracks ingeniously cloning the sounds of Neu!, Can, Cluster and Faust. “We were just having fun,” says Porcupine Tree’s singer Steve Wilson. “I’m fascinated with the simplicity and repetition in the music. It’s like house and techno except it’s more interesting because it changes in subtle ways. This music is the antithesis of progressive rock. Faust were far more radical than The Sex Pistols for me. While John Lydon was still picking his nose they really were smashing up pinball machines.”

Vicky Spilsted isn’t so sure about the new bands claiming Kraut allegiance. “We’ve got to make sure this doesn’t become some sort of ‘new wave of new wave’ thing. It’s like, if you’re 14 years old and you heard a S*M*A*S*H record, you might think they were pretty amazing. But their music has none of the intensity punk originally had.” Julian Cope, on the other hand, says he can’t get upset by anyone who is getting inspired by the Krautrock groundswell. “If there were any imitation Krautrock bands out there I would definitely go and see them. I’d love to hear some young bands taking some chances, playing some 20-minute freakouts.”

This is no mere London clubland infatuation. Piccadilly Records in Manchester has been selling “bucketloads” of reissue CDs since Krautrocksampler was published. Manager John confirms that techno and indie converts have been slipping Ash Ra Tempel LPs and CDs into their bags of Orbital and Money Mark. Paul at Greyhound, a company which distributes records nationally, points out that even shops which might have sold just house and techno a year or two back are now ordering records by Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream.

Manuel Gottsching’s massively influential ‘E2-E4’, meanwhile, which effectively got remade by Carl Craig as ‘Sueno Latino’ a few years back [actually, ‘Sueno Latino’ was by the Italians Persi, Collono and Gemolotto, as ‘Remake Uno & Duo’ by Carl Craig’s Paperclip People project appropriated the ‘E2-E4’ sample –Ed.], was recently reissued on vinyl and caused a real stir in Britain’s dance record shops. Dedpite the fact that it is now freely available, some shops – aware of its previous rarity – were still charging lots for copies and getting it. DJing in Manchester recently, Richie Hawtin and John Aquaviva spotted it during a record-buying trip to Eastern Bloc and each bought four copies.

The Kraut originators aren’t necessarily ageing gracefully; the members of Amon Düül II, for example are approaching 50 without due care and attention. The band’s singer Renate Knaup – still the ultimate Krautrock siren – claims that during a recent mini-tour of Japan a young girl stood in front of her singing every word and mimicking her movements. “It was very strange. I just wasn’t ready for that kind of reaction,” she tells me.

Despite having no record to promote and zero coverage by the mainstream media, Amon Düül II sold out three big concerts in Japan, as well as two packed gigs at London’s Astoria and Shepherd’s Bush Empire. FACE contributor Cliff Jones was among those in attendance at the Astoria show: “I think that gig was the first moment of collective consciousness for ‘90s Krautrock – a gathering of the tribes in the good old-fashioned sense,” says Jones. “All these pockets of people, from teenagers to old muso-heads, were so overwhelmingly enthusiastic for this music.”

After DJing in Nottingham recently I met 22-year-old Paul Coulam, who mentioned that he’s persuaded two of his mates to drive down to London for this same Amon Düül gig. “If you had walked in there off the street you wouldn’t have made any sense of it. But to me they were fucking brilliant. It kind of filled in the gaps. I’m hanging around with people who think Underworld are experimental. This music reaches far beyond that.”

But a nation of indie kids planning holidays in Munich looking for the legendary Cosmic Cavern? Krautrock mix CDs from Danny Rampling and Jeremy Healy? Isn’t a special musical secret now in danger of being spoiled? And isn’t all your fault, Mr Cope?

The Druid is having none of it. “I’m just glad that all the things that have happened recently have put straight all those people who declared this music to be nothing more than crap Euro Rock,” he says. “People were laughed at for being into this music. A few years back I used to get pissed off when I went into a second-hand record shop and saw all these albums just sitting there not being appreciated. Somebody just needed to define this music…”

For the record, it’s called Krautrock and Neu means “new” in German”.

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A YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO KRAUTROCK
EIGHT KOSMISCHE KILLERS

Even if you think Noel is a genius you should try and listen to these:

Can “Tago Mago” (Spoon/Mute)
Ash Ra Tempel “Same” (Spalax)
Cluster “Zuckerzeit” (Spalax)
Faust “IV” (Virgin)
Neu! “Neu ’75” (Germanofon)
Amon Düül II “Lemmingmania” (Captain Trip)
Cosmic Jokers “Galactic Supermarket” (Spalax)
Harmonia “Deluxe” (Spalax)

© John McCreadyThe Face, November 1996

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