Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Brief Introduction To Krautrock

Calum Marsh

The term "krautrock" gets thrown around a lot in relation to indie music; bloggers looking to show off their knowledge of music history often label experimental indie rock groups as having "krautrock sensibilities", "a distinct krautrock sound", and so on. But the meaning of the term is worth exploring beyond its connotations as an adjective, so I'd like to spend a little time talking about its original meaning.

"I was there in 1968", James Murphy brags on 'Losing My Edge', "I was there at the first Can show in Cologne". The line refers to the emergence of a series of bands in Germany in the late sixties and early seventies, many of which went on to record groundbreaking albums that are now among some of the most important ever made. Though Cologne was generally recognized as the locality of the scene, the 1968 concert series James is probably nodding his hat to actually took place in nearby Essen; there, numerous experimental rock bands came together to perform at the first major German rock festival, which was a incredible success with German youth.

Two music producers from Cologne, Dieter Dierks and Conny Plank, became wildly popular all across Germany. Many of the bands who became instant successes as a result of the Essen concerts worked closely with Dierks and Plank, producing albums which sounded like nothing before. A great deal of American and British groups were experimenting with their sound, too, but where the hippie culture of the sixties revolved largely around hallucinogenic drugs and strictly psychedelic sounds, the artists of the German experimental scene were more interested in serious artistic expression and creative freedom. The people of Germany, especially the youth who were the primary audience for this music, were in dire need of recreating their own tired post-war image, typically meaning a movement away from American pop culture. The radical sound of the Cologne groups happened to be the perfect venue for such a culture revolution - the people embraced the work and the scene was thereby established. The American and British music critics, though, didn't care for the Cologne crowd, dismissing it as worthless; the press dubbed the new genre "krautrock", a play on the slang term for a German, a "kraut".

Though the term "krautrock" is usually talked about as a particular genre, it is more accurately a heading for a specific group of bands from a specific time and place: 1968-1978 in Cologne. Krautrock bands share ideological and artistic values, but stylistically they're not so much the same. Consider two major groups from the movement: the Murphy-mentioned Can, who were among the first of the krautrock groups (who remain one of the most influential), and Faust, a seven-member band formed in 1971. The latter have become one of the most widely appreciated krautrock groups, and were, at the time, considered the most radical and challenging of the movement. Both groups were experimenting primarily with tape edits and electronic noise, but where Can were known for their Jazz-like improvisations and wild tantrums (the vocal tracks are largely comprised of chaotic yelling and screaming), Faust was more interested in bending genre conventions with experimental editing and electronics now heard in Noise music.

Other Krautrock groups of importance are Neu! and Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk were the most commercially successful group, breaking into the mainstream both in their native Germany and abroad. Their music was more explicitly electronic than other krautrock groups, and as a result had a more lasting impact on music in the digital age. Neu!, on the other hand, achieved very little notoriety when active, even in their homeland of Germany. Still, their work is very highly regarded - their debut self-titled LP is frequently cited as one of the most influential albums of the past few decades - and recent artists as famous as Thom Yorke and David Bowie have declared Neu! as a major influence.

Perhaps krautrock's most consistent stylistic convention is the use of repetition, usually for excessive lengths of time. Most krautrock songs clock in it at over fifteen minutes, and are rumoured to have been edited down from much longer demos (Can recorded a six hour improvisation, which later was cut down to the 20 minute 'Yoo Doo Right'). The problem with using "krautrock" as a description or as genre is the degree to which its most common conventions are a part of other contemporary genres; tape edits and distorted sound are commonplace in most electronica and all noise music, and the extended repetitions can be found in most ambient work and even post-rock. The mistake many music critics make is associating the sound of a specific krautrock group with the sound of krautrock as a whole. Though there are some abstract notions tying the bands together, they just don't share enough aesthetically to form a genre, with its implication of overarching convention commonality.

By defining "krautrock" as the use of repetition and sporadic editing instead of as a musical movement in Germany in the 60s, it becomes all too easy to let the meaning of the word slip away. In the same way that "alternative" stopped meaning "music outside the norm" in the 90s and "indie" stopped meaning "independent" recently, "krautrock" fell into the trap of becoming an empty descriptor that hardly means anything at all.

Can - Mushroom
Faust - It's A Bit Of A Pain
Neu! - Sonderangerbot
Kraftwerk - Mitternacht

Can - Tago Mago
Faust - Faust IV
Neu! - Neu!
Kraftwerk - Computer World

Comments on "A Brief Introduction To Krautrock"


Blogger Jonathan Migneault said ... (23/3/06 1:33 pm) : 

I think i just learned a lot of new stuff... from a blog!!! Mocking Music no less ;)

Damn Calum, I only have so many brain cells to spare. Excuse me while I compensate by reading Rolling Stone.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (23/3/06 7:16 pm) : 

Krautrock Smkrautrock.

Rolls off the tongue.


Anonymous mjrc said ... (23/3/06 9:08 pm) : 

Do you remember on SNL the bit called "Sprockets" and Mike Myers was the host, Dieter, and he'd say, "Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance" in a heavy German accent? Is that reminiscent of Krautrock as you define it?


Blogger FRITZ said ... (23/3/06 9:55 pm) : 

We here at the Fritz, inc. household are unfamiliar with the term 'krautrock'.

However, we play ample amounts of Kraftwerk and liken it to a bit of a forerunner to our much-loved industrial music.

And can also see how it may have simmered into Thom's work. Perhaps, even influencing synth-pop wonders such as VNV Nation.

Mucho favorito.


Anonymous Brian said ... (24/3/06 2:30 am) : 

Great post but no Ash Ra?

The groups influence has been very noticeable in these past couple years with the emergence of groups like Delia and Gavin and the whole minimal electronica thing.


Anonymous Aeris said ... (24/3/06 3:34 am) : 

WHA! could you please switch back to full rss feeds? because sometimes people have to read their stuff offline after just quickly updating everything...


Blogger Casey Dorrell said ... (24/3/06 3:55 am) : 

Uh, we haven't changed our feed. I'll double-check to make sure something hasn't gone awry though - I know we have a 100 or so dedicated feed readers.



Blogger Casey Dorrell said ... (24/3/06 4:01 am) : 

Just checked it and you're right. Our feed is set to full, but for some reason some robot somewhere decided it would ignore that.

I've republished and it seems to be a full feed again. Thanks for the heads up.


Anonymous Aeris said ... (24/3/06 5:46 am) : 

thanks for checking and fixing :)


Blogger alienliebe said ... (24/3/06 12:51 pm) : 

great post. thx. but it would be perfect with a german version. :)


Blogger Calum Marsh said ... (25/3/06 12:57 am) : 

Delia and Gavin are excellent, and I agree that there's some krautrock influence in there. Most modern ambient or electronic - particularly DFA stuff - has a tinge of the ol' Kraftwerk and whatnot.


Blogger Casey Dorrell said ... (25/3/06 1:28 am) : 

But I thought the whole point was the Krautrock was a time-period referent rather than a a genre-type?


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (25/3/06 4:08 pm) : 

This brief introduction of Krautrock says nothing beyond what most people who are even marginally interested in Krautrock already know. C'mon Can, Faust, Neu! and Kraftwerk -- how can you really can this any type of introduction no matter how brief?

The jpeg you've got associated with this article is more informative.

You suck.


Blogger Casey Dorrell said ... (25/3/06 4:58 pm) : 

If you were looking for something indepth then you would search out the information on a krautrock site, or wikipedia.

Don't be a dumbass, or at least, do it elsewhere.


Blogger Calum Marsh said ... (25/3/06 5:47 pm) : 

The idea of an introduction is to, you know, introduce something to people. If you already know a lot about Krautrock, of course you're not going to learn anything from an article that briefly explains the movement - why would you even bother bringing that up?


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (28/3/06 7:19 am) : 

most music critics confuse Krautrock with gonzo drumming.

this was a good article though, i learned a bit and smiled a bit.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (3/7/08 8:46 am) : 

Wow, I learned a lot from this blog. I wanted to learn more about Krautrock because the only thing I knew were the bands themselves but nothing about the origin of the name Krautrock or much about the bands in general. Thank you for the post. I have read the wiki articles and other sites but I really liked how you wrote this. I got more out of this than other sites that I read.


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