:: Article

filters, modulators, magnetic tape

By Houman Barekat.

David Stubbs, Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany, Faber & Faber

The World Cup was just the cherry on the cake. Germany is enjoying its moment in the sun: prosperous, progressive and – subject to southern European misgivings – generally admired. More than that, it’s positively happening, its major cities among the hippest places in the world just now.  Take a look at your Instagram feed: all your coolest friends are in Berlin.

But not so long ago – within living memory, in fact – things were very different. The term ‘Krautrock’ doesn’t just denote a disparate grouping of experimental German rock/pop groups of the 1970s and 80s, it is also a callback to the characteristically condescending, parochial worldview of the English journalists who coined it. The word is an ironic, sneering oxymoron, playing on the inherent preposterousness of the idea that anything remotely sexy could emerge from all that Teutonic stiffness.

Paradoxically, groups like Can and Neu! owed a good deal of their breakthrough success to the very novelty of their ‘otherness’. Often underappreciated in their home country, where Anglo-American rock ruled the airwaves, they found admirers and champions in the English independent music press. In a similar vein, Kraftwerk had a Chicago music station to thank for popularising a four-minute edit of their seminal track, Autobahn, which launched them to stardom as the harbinger of an electronic sound that would revolutionise pop music.

David Stubbs’ Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany takes us back to a grim postwar landscape: a nation under occupation, haunted by the ghosts of Nazism and suffocating in cultural banality – from the fluffy, anodyne rural nostalgia of the Schlager pop movement to the alienating commercialism of American film. For most disaffected youth, the countercultural backlash meant growing your hair out and taking drugs and maybe even espousing radical politics; for the likes of Can’s Holger Czukay or Amon Duul’s John Wenzierl, it also entailed a specifically artistic component. Just as the 26 German film-makers who produced the 1962 Oberhausen manifesto pointedly rejected the values of Anglo-American cinema in favour of an aesthetic that was truer to the country’s heritage, so the practitioners of Krautrock took issue with nothing less than the entire blues tradition.

The wonderful, expansive strangeness of Krautrock was a product, then, of an implicitly political mission – to supplant a tonality synonymous with American cultural colonisation with a sound that was distinctly German. This was a nationalism that was entirely free of the taint of Hitlerite chauvinism: as Stubbs points out, Kraftwerk’s celebration of the German motorway system in Autobahn might have had sinister overtones to 1970s observers mired in atavistic Germanophobia, but in fact it reprised traditions that predated Nazism and had nothing to do with it – German expressionism, and the unity of art and technology that was a cornerstone of Bauhaus.

Technological progress was on their side: the development of manipulative electronic devices – filters, modulators, magnetic tape – opened up a wealth of possibilities for musicians wishing to eschew conventional time-scales, bearing out the predictions of the pioneering electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007), who as early as 1953 had prophesied the end of traditional linear composition. Kraftwerk acquired ARP and Moog synthesisers in 1972; two years later they were household names.

This detailed retrospective is brought to life by extensive and candid interviews of key protagonists like Czukay and Wenzierl, whose recollections range from exuberant self-deprecation (“We’re not musicians, we’re universal dilettantes.”) to Tao Lin-esque drug-addled whimsy (“I remember we were tripping on the day of our concert. I remember Dave Anderson going down the stairs onto the stage. It felt like half an hour of him simply going down the stairs.”) But it is the author’s astute engagement with the wider social history of postwar Germany that makes Future Days more than just a book about music. While conceding that Krautrock ‘only vaguely overlapped’ with the wider countercultural and far left currents of the time, Stubbs suggests that Krautrock did greater justice to the spirit of 1970s radicalism – in its eclecticism, innovation and intuitive humanism – than the dead-end misanthropic rage of Baader Meinhoff.

A formative influence on some of the biggest bands in post-punk – Can in particular were cited as influences by both The Fall and Joy Division – Krautrock has nonetheless been regarded as something of an eccentric sub-plot in the wider rock & roll narrative. Stubbs’ book – witty, good-humoured and, despite its infectious enthusiasm, refreshingly unencumbered by the fanboyish obsequiousness that lets down many a rock biography – is a fitting tribute to this important and often misunderstood scene.

Houman Barekat edits the literary journal, Review 31He lives in West London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 29th, 2014.