Krautrock: Germany’s Contribution to the Rock Canon

In September of 1967, when The Velvet Underground went into the studio of Verve Records to record the last song for their second record, little did they know that they would help influence an entire musical movement only a few years later. The record was White Light/White Heat (1968), and the song was “Sister Ray.” Reed, Cale, and co. conceptualized the track as an improvised jam only to be played and recorded one time, leaving whatever the session yielded as the final product to be released. What resulted was a 17-minute journey into debauchery driven by Reed’s provocative lyrics about drug abuse and sexual deviancy, Cale’s distorted organ line, and drummer Mo Tucker’s primal 4/4 using mallets on a turned over timpani. The progressive groove, which would become known as the “motorik beat” (or Hallogallo) laid the groundwork for the movement that would become known as “Krautrock” to foreign audiences.

In the Post-War cultural wasteland of Germany, the country had no real contribution to rock or pop music of the time period. At the tail end of the ’60s However, influenced by the popular psychedelic rock movement of Britain and the United States, the art schools of Berlin, and the avant-garde music movement of the ’50s, students with jazz and classical music backgrounds started congregating for jam sessions. The initial Krautrock releases were derived mostly from English progressive rock. Records such as the jam-influenced Monster Movie (1969) by Can (featuring the American Malcolm Mooney on vocals), the psychedelic-inspired Phallus Dei (1969) by Amon Düül II, and the flute-driven Kraftwerk (1970) by Kraftwerk (performing a very different style of music than what they would be experimenting with less than 10 years later) gave Krautrock its first records.

Krautrock hit its apex in ’71 and ’72 with the emergence the holy trinity of the genre: Can with new vocalist Damo Suzuki (whom bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit encountered Suzuki busking in Munich), Faust, and Neu!. On Tago Mago (1971), Can produced the genre’s first double album, with the first half being dedicated to progressive jazz-rock and the second half being occupied by Suzuki’s avant-garde vocal styling as well as drum machines and tape loops. Faust’s self-titled album, also from 1971, showcased the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen and his musique concrète movement (who Czukay studied under while learning about electroacoustic music). The record’s opening track “Why Don’t You Eat Carrots” contains samples of The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction),” which exhibited the band’s willingness to comment on contemporary pop music (Faust themselves were once projected to be Germany’s answer to The Beatles). On Neu!’s 1972 self-titled album, the drive of the motorik beat dominates the momentum of songs like “Hallogallo” and “Negativland.” Founding members Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother were briefly former members of Kraftwerk (where Dinger played drums on their self-titled album) before they departed to form a new group as Kraftwerk became more synthesizer-based.

All three progressive bands recorded further classics of the genre up until the mid ’70s, while bands such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Popol Vuh pushed the boundaries of “kosmische musik” (Germany’s preferred term for “Krautrock,” meaning “cosmic music”), and achieved success in the United States and Britain as well. When Kraftwerk’s founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider shifted their initial progressive rock approach to a more ethereal, synthetic sound on their electronic albums from the futuristic Autobahn (1974) onward (influenced by the fast drives the band would take on Germany’s highway system). Hütter and Schneider additionally upgraded their band after recording a couple albums as a duo before adopting a new trajectory to take the group. The ambitious conceptual and sonic experiments that the band explored on Radio-Aktivität (1975), Trans Europa Express (1977), Die MenschMaschine (1978), and Computerwelt (1981) all cemented the future of electronic and synth-based popular music. A hit both in Germany and abroad, Kraftwerk recorded all four of these albums with English lyrics as well, which proved to contribute to their success in Britain and overseas. Meanwhile, Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh were busy working in a different medium: film. Tangerine Dream composed the soundtrack (which also included recordings made by the band from previous studio albums) for Michael Mann’s debut film Thief (1981), which gave them even greater success after recording albums for Richard Branson’s label Virgin Records. Popol Vuh also began working with director Werner Herzog on the soundtracks to his films. The ambient scores to Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979), and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which ended up defining the sonic landscape of New German Cinema, which, like Krautrock, also sought to reinvent the respective art forms in their country.

In the early to mid ’70s, as Kraftwerk moved to synthpop, Tangerine Dream, and Krautrock solo artists Klaus Schulze (of Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel), and Manuel Göttsching (leader of Ash Ra Tempel) all contributed to the growing progressive electronic movement once rock instruments started to become phased out of German avant-garde music in favor of synthesizers. However, unlike the rhythmic form of the earlier Krautrock, music from the “Berlin School” (a metaphorical name for the group in which Schulze, Göttsching among others were all affiliated) was ambient and cosmic. The genre was textural, not musical. Tangerine Dream’s double album Zeit (1972) is an 80 minute dark ambient odyssey which startingly replicates the isolation and vastness of space. Schulze’s first of 60 plus albums, Irrlict (1972) is a dramatic, haunting album that uses crescendos to build its tension. And Göttsching’s Inventions for Electric Guitar (1975) is a repetitive, hypnotic train of experimentations in electric guitar.