Krautrock: Krafty.

22 April 2002 | 12:00 am | Chris Ryder
Originally Appeared In

Kraut It Out Loud.

More Melodyssey More Melodyssey

Krautrock. It’s a simplistic and possibly demeaning name, but behind it lies some of the most influential bands to emerge in the last few decades. Generally, it has come to mean those German experimental and alternative bands shaped by the upheavals of the 60’s but which only really surfaced in during the 70’s. Mind you, that’s still a broad spread, taking you from the mirage-like synth drifts of Tangerine Dream to the mystic guitar noodling of Ash Ra Tempel to the rugged space rock of Amon Duul II to the trippy jazz-rock of Thirsty Moon.

And that’s further complicated by the diversity of styles marked by acts like Klaus Schulze, Popol Vuh, Guru Guru, Grobschnitt, Birth Control, La Dusseldorf, Wallenstein, Cluster and Jane, just to name a few. Yet it was a movement neither unified (people in Munich weren’t really paying attention to what was going on in Berlin), nor generally all that popular outside a small circle of followers - most German bands were into the same stuff as most everybody else, leaning to American and British sounds.

But somehow, the word spread that there was something strikingly new about these bands, spreading first to Britain and eventually to the U.S., changing the direction of modern music at its very heart. Yet, even though some of these acts are now seen as highly significant, it has often been very difficult to get a hold of their pivotal releases. However, this month sees the re-issue of albums by some of Krautrock’s legendary names, Kraftwerk, Neu, Can and Faust. Of these, Kraftwerk are the most famous and the most influential.

You can see their impact in individual cases, from Donna Summer’s 1977 disco hit I Feel Love right up to current dance tunes like Ladytron’s He Took Her To A Movie, from Afrika Bambaataa sampling their stuff in 1982 to The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim doing it now, from covers of their songs by everybody from Simple Minds to Zoot Woman to the classical Balanescu Quartet, from influencing the sound of Devo, Human League and countless others. But more significant has been its impact on the whole idea of dance music generally, with a solid lineage that dates back to the pioneering days of Detroit techno and the Kraftwerk-obsessed Juan Atkins.

Kraftwerk (German for powerplant) grew out of the industrial city of Dusseldorf in 1968, drawing on influences as diverse as Stockhausen and Velvet Underground to develop an experimental style, manipulating the sounds of flute, violin and guitar with tape machines. By 1971, they were building their own electronic gadgets and playing with primitive drum machines.

The line-up kept changing but at its core were the classically trained Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider who, over the next few years, tightened both the image they wanted to project and the music, making both more minimalist and clinical. It was their fourth album, Autobahn, in 1974 that revealed the potential of this pared-down approach. A surprise hit in the U.S., it uses synthesisers to turn the mundane experience of driving on a freeway for twenty-two minutes into something thoroughly mesmeric.

But this was still a sound in transition, taking them through the geiger bleeps of the concept album Radio-Activity in 1975 (which some mistook as being pro-nuclear energy) and on to another transport theme in 1977’s Trans Europe Express (which also alludes to their meeting David Bowie who is in turn influenced by them, as his track V-2 Schneider on Heroes reveals).

That album (key tracks – Showroom Dummies, Hall Of Mirrors and Europe Endless) and 1978’s cyborg epic Man-Machine (key tracks – The Model, Neon Lights, The Robots) become the real beginnings of Kraftwerk’s musical power. That’s especially true in Britain where Gary Numan, Cabaret Voltaire, New Order, Ultravox, Visage, Depeche Mode and many others make their debt obvious. But as Blondie’s Heart Of Glass and various Grandmaster Flash tracks show, some Americans were taking note too.

But the pinnacle of their mechanistic android fantasies came with 1981’s Computer World (key tracks – Pocket Calculator, Computer Love, Numbers), all seemingly unemotional and cold but rhythmically sharp and precise. That’s taken a step further in their last album proper, 1986’s Electric Café (key tracks – Boing Boom Tshak, Techno Pop, Musique Non Stop), with human foibles supplanted by the serene, metronomic certainty of the machine mind. 

Though Kraftwerk are still with us, even touring in the late 90’s, there has been little new material available. Still, these six amazing albums are the band’s enduring legacy.

Neu! (meaning new) are another outfit whose albums are also being re-released. And they fit here because Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother split from Kraftwerk in 1971. Their three albums, Neu! (1971), Neu! 2 (1972) and Neu! 75 (1975) have also in their own way been highly influential, from the track Negativland providing the name for one of America’s more anarchic outfits, to bands like Sonic Youth, Stereolab and Radiohead paying homage. 

With a combination of motorik drum patterns, scratchy rhythms, spacey guitar runs and weird effects, their sound stretches from the mantric Hallogallo to the proto-punk of Hero. And they’re not above playing a few games, as the last half of Neu! 2 shows – two of the tracks, Neuschnee and Super, are repeated at different tape speeds. It means Neu!’s more elemental style is stranger and less approachable than Kraftwerk but their quirkiness is matched by an exploratory feel that still feels like a sense of discovery after all this time. A rare treat indeed.

With Can’s first five albums and one pivotal Faust album (both of which I’ll look at next time) also newly available, these releases are a boon both for those just catching up with the delights of Deutschland and for those who at last can replace their thrashed vinyl copies.