Music and Krautrock: The 1970s Bands That Helped Postwar Germany Overcome a Dark History

More than fifty years later, their influence is visible in hip-hop and techno music, in the work of alternative rock groups and in modern jazz music.

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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

During the early 1970s, a group of experimental bands in West Germany brought about a true musical revolution.

Born in the radical times of post-war Germany, artists from these loosely-knit groups - and among them were Ostrich! (New!), Ken (Dog), Kraftwerk (Kraftwerk), Faust, Tangerine Dream (Tangerine Dream) and Amon Dul II (Amon Düül II) - created the sound that became known as "krautrock".

The mark these bands left behind, musically and socially, has a lasting legacy.

All of them had a strong influence on artists such as David Bowie, the Sex Pistols (The Sex Pistols), Talking Heads (Talking Heads), Joy Division (Joy Division, ), Radiohead (Radiohead) and Bjork.

More than fifty years later, their influence is visible in hip-hop and techno music, in the work of alternative rock groups and in modern jazz music.

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However, we cannot call the krautrock scene similar to, say, punk rock.

For a so-called genre, krautrock was defined as something it was not, rather than what it did represent.

Even the tendency towards long, hypnotic, repetitive beats aside, but this movement did not have a clearly established musical style - under the term krautrock you could hear rock, jazz, funk, electronica, psychedelia and avant-garde minimalism, often in the oeuvre of a single band.

At their zenith, the bands themselves were quite disjointed, scattered across German cities and with very little connection to each other.

Even the name krautrock itself was controversial.

It was compiled by British rock journalists who wanted to describe the movement.

Today, many musicians consider that term at least watered down, and in the worst case, offensive (the term kraut is also used as a derogatory, xenophobic term for Germans).

"It's a journalistic term," says Irmin Šmit, founder of the Ken group, for BBC Culture.

"It doesn't mean anything more than that these were bands that had no limitations in their own music."

Regardless, in 1974, the group Faust released a brazenly reflective track Krautrock which purified this so-called genre and became one of their key songs.

A product of turbulent times

However, if we ignore the justification of the term itself, what really connected these bands was the desire to create a new musical style that grew out of the growing sense of progressiveness that dominated Germany in the late 1960s.

Michael Rother, the founder of the group Neu!, tells BBC Culture that his band was a "product of the political, social and cultural eruption" that took place in 1968, the same year that the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas later affirmed by marking it as the year "fundamental liberation" of German society.

The accelerated reconstruction of post-war West Germany and the new birth of a global economic power - also known as the "economic miracle" - reached its final stage in 1968.

For many young people, rebuilding the nation after all the atrocities of the Second World War was considered inadequate and immoral and only served to preserve the interests of the protected establishment.

The new generation did not just want economic realignment.

What they were striving for was a cultural revolution.

They saw the old, conservative order of Germany as elitist, patriarchal and moralistic, but the key objection was the association with Nazism that was still evident.

Many institutions were still run by men who were officers of the Third Reich.

When the student Ben Onezorg was killed by the police on July 1, 1967, during a protest against the visit of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the seeds of social unrest were sown; the attempted assassination of student activist leader Rudi Dučke on April 11, 1968 proved to be the catalyst for mass protests across the country.

In his own struggle, Ducke then applied calls to the protests of the communist leader Mao Zedong to "a long march through the institutions of the system".

Some have gone further than that - Faction of the Red Army, group Bader-Meinhof, a radical leftist option that used a violent, guerilla strategy to fight what they still saw as a fascist state, killed more than 30 people through bombings, kidnappings and attacks.

This revolutionary feeling was in line with similar aspirations around the world.

Demonstrations like this took place all over France in 1968, and student protests took place everywhere - from Italy to Japan and from Mexico to Pakistan.

But although cultural eruptions took place in every region, the one in Germany was particularly turbulent.

"I think the riots in Germany were particularly existentialist because of the Nazi past," says Dr. Hanno Baltz, a German historian and lecturer at the University of Cambridge.

"That's why they were so radical. It was about a generational conflict - how do you deal with your parents' Nazi past?"

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Schmidt was 1968 years old in 30 and this dilemma was familiar to him - he had a stormy relationship with his father who was a supporter of Nazism.

He was expelled from a school in Berlin because he revealed to the public the Nazi past of some of the teachers.

This was exactly the background of the Ken group's desire for innovation.

"We were a product of that time," says Schmidt.

"Growing up after the war in a town razed to the ground, in ruins, as well as in a culture that was shaken by Nazism, living in that post-war intellectual atmosphere - of course all of that had a great impact on us.

"If you consciously build something, you continue the tradition, but at the same time you want to destroy it. And you destroy it by creating something completely new".

Rother, who next month will hold a retrospective concert in London's Barbican in which he will look back on his entire career, was 1968 years old in 18 and lived in Dusseldorf.

He was a student of psychology, ready for a political awakening.

He refused to join the army - "I invoked conscientious objection," he says, and decided to do his own service by working in a local mental institution.

"Slowly, I started to become aware of my own identity against the conservative structures in Germany, as well as the struggle of oppressed peoples around the world.

"That was the background that shaped my personal political views".

Popular culture in Germany at that time was also conservative.

The dominant musical form was schlagers, sweet music that was a subgenre of light and harmless European pop music.

Like many other countries, Germany also imported music from Britain and America - the Beatles (The Beatles), the Stones (The Rolling Stones) and Jimi Hendrix.

American troops were still based in Germany and this was a constant source of English-language culture.

This also gave momentum to the krautrock bands that appeared around the country in those years to define themselves artistically against such a situation, and thus began the process of establishing a German identity through the rejection of the status of immutability.

Musical expression

All this creative formation made Rotera even deeper.

"I slowly became aware that it's okay to have my own identity and to be different and that, as an artist, it's not enough for me to sound like Jimi Hendrix or the Beatles, even though I love them very much.

"I was unhappy because I was just an echo of other people's musical ideas... And that's how I entered a transitional period that lasted from approximately 1969 until 1971."

For Schmidt, who had a classical musical education and whose mentor was the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, this longing to be the creator of a radically new musical identity manifested itself in deliberate attempts to use the past to create something completely original.

"I wanted to connect some musicians who had experience with some of the most important musical styles of the 20th century," says Schmidt.

"All this because jazz and rock and contemporary music, electronics and the like were equally important.

"So I wanted to see it all in one group - performed by musicians who had a lot of experience in it.

"That was Jaki Libejajt, a fantastic jazz drummer. I myself had a classical music education, so that also brought something new".

Albums-classics of the group Ken - Magician Tago (1971) Ege Bamyasi ((1972) i Future Days (1973), all created with singer Damo Suzuki, a Japanese street musician they discovered in Munich, became the basis for experimental rock.

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What happened to krautrock is an expression of the broader ideological transition of the younger, disruptive population of the 1970s, which was parting with the "counterculture" and moving closer to the "alternative" culture.

So it was no longer about "aspiration to abolish the state".

It was more like - "I'm not interested in countries anymore." I'm leaving here and going to the countryside."

Krautrock bands lived their own ethos: during the early 1970s, members of Ken lived and recorded in a 15th-century castle near Cologne, while members of Faust lived in a commune in Fume, near Hamburg.

In this way, krautrock bands became political by their own actions, and not by explicit actions.

On the one hand, they represented an idealistic image of a new, alternative lifestyle, while the disregard for tradition in their music hinted at their protest nature and desire for action.

Their apparently socialist philosophy indicated the way society should be restructured.

"We never had any political statements," says Schmidt.

"Except that we were what we were. We were one organism. There was no order with us. And it's a kind of anarchy.

"But there is not a single part of our music that can be appropriated by any individual - it belongs only to the Ken group".

Rotter and drummer Klaus Dinger, later his bandmate Neu!, were part of the early three-piece Kraftwerk line-up along with Florian Schneider, after Ralf Hütter had to leave the studio for a while.

Although this Kraftwerk lineup never released an album, Roter and Dinger built proto-noj! sound, which can be seen from their television performance in 1971.

"I've seen people get unstuck," Roter says.

"Everyone was excited. By the way, it was a very young audience. It was the beginning of something completely new for the audience. That was evident."

Roter and Dinger soon left Kraftverk and formed Noj!.

Kraftwerk continued to develop through three never-to-be-reissued albums, before releasing their classics, beginning with Autobahnfrom 1974.

Kraftwerk would later transform the krautrock genre and become pioneers of electronic music and one of the best and most influential groups of all time.

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A group that marked an epoch

In the beginning, Ostrich! were the band that made the first breakthrough.

Rotter found a kindred spirit in Dinger (although they didn't always get along).

"Without discussion or any need to agree on those things, we had in common that we both wanted to be unique - it was a very humble approach. And that led us to move away from tradition and to spin the wheel of change ourselves.

"I decided to reject all stereotypes and standards. I threw all that aside and tried to return to the simplest musical elements - one tone, one note, one chord, one rhythm".

In the book Krautrock sampler, musician and artist Julian Cope of the group Noj! called "the epitome of krautrock because they defined that term more than anyone else".

Their debut album Noj!, released in 1972, is a real landmark in rock music.

On this album you can hear that Ostrich! a sound that became defining not only for the band, but also for krautrock itself - it's a pioneering, "motoric" rhythm.

Motoriki literally means "motor qualities" - a motoriki is a constant, prolonged, propulsive 4/4 rhythm, best seen in Dinger's great renditions of songs like Hallogallo i Negativland.

With the help of another visionary, producer Connie Plank - Krautrock's answer to Sam Phillips - this sound was inspired by Rother's infatuation with perpetual motion.

"I like to drive on the highway.

"Not too fast, that would be a completely wrong image, but I like to rush somewhere, whether it's on a big wave surfboard or just the feeling of moving forward," he says.

Surprisingly, this feeling was partly inspired by his love for football and the success of the West German football team, which represented that aspect of German culture that was not stained and burdened by war crimes.

"There is a strong connection there.

"I still like the attacking style in football, when everyone runs and the ball moves forward, when the high technical abilities of the players are shown and when they start winning the field, when the ball starts approaching the goal".

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Motor tact is still being developed by rock groups that try their hand at experimental music.

"It's a legacy of that music where the experimental parts were mobile and changeable," says Alexis Taylor, lead singer of British electro-pop group Hot Chip (Hot Chip), of the band to which Noj! and krautrock made a big impact.

"And when that becomes a constant in your music, then even the smallest fluctuations and changes can sound very exciting.

"Also, this is a very primitive approach to music. I think it was very smart to make something so simple".

Ostrich! released two more records after their debut: No! 2 i No! 75.

Songs from this third album, Hero i After Eight had an influence on the punk movement as well.

Meanwhile, Roter was once again innovative when he teamed up with members of the Cluster (cluster) and formed the band Harmony (Harmony), another groundbreaking German band whose experimental soundscapes paved the way for Brian Eno's ambient experiments.

A legendary fan

Already in 1976, David Bowie was influenced by the group Noj! and Harmony.

During the Berlin period and the creation of the album low i Heroes, Bowie talked to Rother about some sort of collaboration.

"If you look back at his career, you can see that during the Berlin phase his record sales dropped," says Rother.

"And it's very possible that someone there in the management thought that it wasn't the best idea for David to collaborate with Michael, he had some crazy ideas and might have influenced Bowie's music to become even more non-commercial.

"After that conversation, we didn't hear from each other again. Many years later I read in an interview how Bowie said 'I invited Michael but he turned me down'. It was very contradictory," he says, laughing.

"We would need Inspector Poirot to investigate what really happened there".

The student protest movement as well as the imperial phase of krautrock ended with a strange parallel.

Both movements were more or less finished by 1978.

Ken and Noah! broke up—both bands later re-formed with mixed results—and the protest era slowly died down.

Suicide of three members Factions of the Red Army in prison in October 1977 after the kidnapping and murder of the former SS member Hans Martin Schleier, today is considered the symbolic culmination of the movement.

Rudi Dučke died on December 24, 1979, as a result of the complications that followed the assassination attempt on him.

But what happened to the rest of that 1968 generation?

Balz says that they were successful and that they led German culture into more liberal trends, but only partially: the state was not overthrown, but co-opted.

"They wanted a revolution, but they got cultural and social reforms. But that was also important. Rudi Dučke asked for a long march through the institutions of the system, but what happened was a march into the institutions, not through them.

"That's the difference, because they all became professors and doctors and ministers of foreign affairs, and that whole generation became part of the new elite. And of course, they also brought something new. They corrupted themselves by entering the institutions, but they still changed some things".

The influence of krautrock is much clearer.

Sales to all but Kraftwerk were modest at the time.

Rotter was able to say that they were the underground of the underground - but the legacy left by their music has shaped today's contemporary music scene.

"What I got out of krautrock is that element of play," says Hannah Peel, Mercury Prize winner and Emmy nominee for Best Composer and Producer.

"It was the first time that people started to combine acoustic instruments and electronics. I think that these elements are still being explored in music today. They were very advanced in that aspect."

"The basic element was the lack of moderation in all of that in 1971," says Rother in reference to the remark that Noah! have survived even today, "when Klaus and I decided to be different, not to go down the middle of the road, but to do something that will be confusing or unacceptable to many people.

"But it was a reflection of our personalities, we were in it with all our hearts. It's something that still inspires musicians today, and that would be my simplified analysis of it all."

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