This is very living electronic music. Nothing is wrong with that.
-Can bassist Holger Czukay
As a typical rock snob, I harbor a major yen for Krautrock (It’s foreign! It’s esoteric!), the German musical movement/trend/zeitgeist that flourished from the late-1960’s to the mid-1970s. The name, like most genre monikers, was coined derisively by critics and then adopted by pop music historians. It’s politically incorrect of course, but the Germans are one of those groups it’s okay to be racist toward, right? The very Germanic band Faust first embraced the label (or at least we can infer by their calling one of their songs “Krautrock”), then rejected it. But musically speaking, it’s a non-descriptive rubric that covers a pretty wide array of styles, as if we lumped The Velvet Underground, The Grateful Dead, and Frank Zappa into one genre. As fellow underground rock nerd Richie Unterberger explains, Krautrockers “were merging psychedelic rock with avant-garde/contemporary classical compositions, as well as cutting-edge electronics. The emphasis was not so much on tightly-constructed, singable songs as relentless cosmic exploration, often instrumental and or jam-like in texture.”
The most well-known Krautrock band are electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, which is ironic and somewhat unfortunate, since they are atypical in their romance (so to speak) of technology. In 1975 rock critic Lester Bangs wrote a rather cranky article for Creem on Kraftwerk and their contemporaries (“Kraftwerkfeature”), where he complained that rock and roll was “being taken over by the Germans and the machines” and called their album Autobahn “an indictment of all those who would resist the bloodless iron will and order of the ineluctable dawn of the machine age.” Bangs was never more myopic.
Many people associate Germany with a kind of mechanization and emotional coldness, and there is a certain fondness for the precision of machines (shared by their neighbors, the Swiss and Austrians). But the Germans are at the same time the most romantic and dreamy of Europeans (the German poet Heine said that “God rewarded the French with dominion over the land, the English with dominion over the sea, and the Germans with dominion over the clouds”), and their relationship to Enlightenment and the industrial culture that is its product is troubled and complex. The charge of rampant mechanization and “Teutonic raillery” that Bangs leveled at Krautrock is unfair and innacurate, and reflects one school of thought in assessing the Nazi rise to power as well, even though this was a counter-enlightenment movement. What has this to do with Krautrock? Everything, I say, since Krautrock has everything to do with German identity in the postwar period. As Unrteberger writes, 1960’s German youth,
had to buck the enormous historical weight of the atrocities committed by the Nazis of the previous generation; the postwar occupation of Germany by American and British forces had amounted to a sort of cultural imperialism that inundated the country with Anglo popular culture, especially rock n’ roll. It would be difficult to beat the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, or the Doors at their own game. Something that was in a sense even more radical would be needed to carve an identity for German rock.
Lester Bangs’ interview with Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider confirms that this “cultural imperialism” was in the minds of German musicians and artists of the time, and specifically connects this with technology:
“After the war,” explains Ralf, “German entertainment was destroyed. The German people were robbed of their culture, putting an American head on it. I think we are the first generation born after the war to shake this off, and know where to feel American music and where to fell ourselves. We are the first German group to record in our own language, use our electronic background, and create a Central European identity for ourselves. . . . We create out of the German language, the mother language, which is very mechanical, we use as the basic structure of our music. Also the machines, from the industries of Germany.”
The irony of Kraftwerks mutation into the Menschmachine as a response to American cultural imperialism is that their technological innovations, it is universally acknowledged, layed the musical groundwork for the American hip-hop and dance scenes for the next several decades.
Aside from Kraftwerk, who may or may not be embracing total mechanization ironically (probably not, but I can’t say for sure), most of the Krautrock bands are more accurately described by the term Kosmische Music, which should be viewed as a continental analogue to psychedelia (and a far more inventive and listenable one at that) which attemps to merge and dissolve the human and the machine into nature. Human, machine- from the perspective of the Kosmos, what’s the difference? Or so I offhandedly speculate. At any rate, the music could be organic and funky, never more so than with Halleluwah by the greatest of the Krautrockers, Can.