Germanic street preachers: The psychology of Krautrock
Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I describe myself as a music obsessive with an eclectic taste ranging from Iggy Pop and Adam Ant through to the Velvet Underground and Throbbing Gristle. Another genre of music that I have more than a passing interest is that of ‘Krautrock’ (see my previous blog on Kraftwerk and their alleged addiction to cycling). Krautrock (as you can probably guess) is a somewhat derogatory term – believed to have been coined by the renowned music journalist Ian MacDonald – to describe a number of German bands that came to the fore in the British music scene in the early 1970s (most notably Amon Düül, Faust, Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Kluster, Cluster, Harmonia, Popol Vuh, Ash Ra Tempel, and Tangerine Dream).
Krautrock (as defined by the British media) has traditionally been viewed as electronic in nature (although many of the compositions in the late 1960s were far from electronica and utilized ‘found sounds’ from whatever was to hand) with an emphasis on improvisation and somewhat minimalistic arrangements. The Wikipedia entry on Krautrock also notes that:
“The term is a result of the English-speaking world’s reception of the music at the time and not a reference to any one particular scene, style, or movement, as many Krautrock artists were not familiar with one another…Largely divorced from the traditional blues and rock and roll influences of British and American rock music up to that time, the period contributed to the evolution of electronic music and ambient music as well as the birth of post-punt, alternative rock, and new-age music”.
Given my profession, it won’t surprise you to know that as much as I love music itself, I am also interested in the psychology of the musicians too. When it comes to Krautrock, I have argued for the best part of 20 years (to anyone that would listen) that the psychology of the archetypal Krautrocker in the late 1960s was likely to be influenced by being raised in post-second world war Germany. It was only over the holiday period that my thoughts were confirmed by the artists themselves (in interviews with journalists and musicologists).
More specifically, I read two excellent books on different aspects of ‘extreme music’ over the Christmas period – Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany (by David Stubbs), and Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music (by S. Alexander Reed). Alongside this, I also watched the wonderful three-hour documentary DVD Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution, the BBC 4 documentary, Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany, and the 2008 film The Baader Meinhof Complex (about the Red Army Faction, left-wing German militant group and based on the 1985 non-fiction book of the same name by Stefan Aust).
These books and films all made reference to the cultural, political, and psychological climate in post-war West Germany. There were a number of repeated themes that I couldn’t fail to notice. Firstly, many of the middle classes holding a lot of the important jobs (mayors, town leaders, judges, professors, teachers) were still Nazi sympathizers. Secondly, children born after 1945 were generally not told about their history by either their parents or their schoolteachers. Thirdly, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, teenagers said they experienced feelings of guilt but didn’t know what for. On the musical front, West Germany’s pre- and post-war musical legacy was “Schlager” music (described by music journalist Adam Sweeting as “a genre unpleasantly redolent of the sentimental slop with which Josef Goebbels had saturated the Third Reich”). As Wikipedia notes that:
“Schlager music (German: Schlager, synonym of “hit-songs” or “hits”), also known in the United States as entertainer music or German hit mix, is a style of popular or electronic music…Typical schlager tracks are either sweet, highly sentimental ballads with a simple, catchy melody or light pop tunes. Lyrics typically center on love, relationships and feelings”.
By the late 1960s, many older teenagers and students were united in their politics (the most high profile touch point arguably being the student protests across Europe in 1968). They were also united in their dislike of schlager music except they didn’t really know they were united. Pockets of underground music sprouted up across a number of towns and cities across Germany. Key bands in the history of Krautrock were formed in Dusseldorf (Neu!, Kraftwerk), Cologne (Can), Berlin (Kluster, Tangerine Dream), Munich (Amon Düül), and Wumme (Faust). Bands playing in one city had no idea that bands were forming in other parts of Germany with similar ideological, political and psychological roots. More bizarre was that none of these bands – at least initially – had no following in Germany itself. Most fans of these bands were in the UK rather than their homeland. It was the British music press (NME, Sounds) and DJs (most notably John Peel) that were waving the German flag.
Arguably, the most overtly political of the emerging Krautrock bands was Munich’s Amon Düül. Their band members lived in a radical West German commune including the gang that formed the Red Army Faction (RAF) in 1970 (the so-called Baader-Meinhof Group (or Baader-Meinhof Gang including Andreas Baader, and Ulrike Meinhof). The members of Amon Düül quickly dissociated themselves from the RAF saying that their comrades were going too far in making their political presence known. In fact, the band members ended up falling out with themselves leading to different versions of the band with the second incarnation (Amon Düül 2) becoming the most revered.
Another important hotbed of anti-schlager musical development was the formation of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab (also known as the Zodiak Club) by experimental musician Conny Schnitzler in West Berlin. The Zodiak Club provided a hub where anyone could come and play whatever they wanted amongst like-minded people pushing the boundaries of music with whatever was at hand. Schnitzler himself was an early member of Tangerine Dream as well as the founding member of later Krautrock bands such as Kluster and Eruption. The other important figure in West Berlin’s burgeoning Krautrock scene was Hans-Joachim Roedelius who played with Schnitzler in Kluster but then went on to form Cluster with Deiter Moebius (another key player in the Krautrock movement) but without Schnitzler.
In relation to the psychology of Krautrock, Michael Rother (an early member of Kraftwerk, co-founder of Neu!, and later in ‘supergroup’ Harmonia) was interviewed by David Stubbs in his book Future Days. Rother had actually studied psychology and that as a German he strived for an alternative identity, and a new personality almost:
“Studies into psychology also assisted Rother in realizing that as a young man coming of age in Germany in the late 1960s, he could not be impervious to the cultural, social and political forces ranging at that time, all of which would have a profound impact on his musical identity. He rejected out of hand the burgeoning violence and ‘lunacy’ of terrorist movements such as the Baader-Meinhof group, whom he regarded as on the wrong road altogether. At the same time, the horrors of the Vietnam War acted as a jolting reminder of the need to wrench oneself away from Anglo-American hegemony, to create oneself as a personality anew”.
Rother’s perceptions and psychological insights appear to have been shared by many other individuals forming bands across West Germany in the late 1960s. The complete silence by parents and teachers towards children about the actions of Hitler and the Nazis (most notably the genocide of the Jewish people living in Germany) left post-war adolescents psychologically ill at ease about their national and cultural identities. They needed to create something unique, something identifiably German, and something they would feel proud of. The new music of Krautrock met such criteria. But was the music really that new? Some (including myself) would argue that much of the burgeoning music in Munich, Dusseldorf, Cologne and Berlin had its’ roots in ‘musique concrète’ (“concrete music”) and the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Developed by French composer Pierre Schaeffer at the Studio d’Essai (“Experimental Studio”) of the French radio system, musique concrète is a form of electroacoustic music. It comprises an experimental technique of musical composition that uses recorded sounds as raw material to create a montage of sound (often referred to as ‘found sounds’ but can include recordings of voice and musical instruments). Musique concrète compositions don’t follow any conventional musical rules of melody, rhythm or harmony. Many musicologists view musique concrete as a precursor to electronica. Furthermore, many groups from Throbbing Gristle to Depeche Mode have sampled ‘found sounds’ in their musical output as well as many of the earlier pioneers in Krautrock.
The roots of Krautrock can also be traced back to one of Germany’s musical giants, Karlheinz Stockhausen. I’ve been aware of Stockhausen’s work through his influence on the Beatles (Stockhausen is one of the figures on their 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP cover). Although in the public’s mind it was John Lennon that was associated with the more avant-garde recordings by the Beatles (‘Revolution 9’ and ‘What’s The New Mary Jane’) and his first solo albums with second wife Yoko Ono (Two Virgins, Life With The Lions, and Wedding Album), it was actually Paul McCartney who first developed an interest in avant-garde composers such as Stockhausen. (In fact, prior to his relationship with Ono, Lennon was famously quoted as saying “Avant-garde is French for bullshit”). Evidence for McCartney’s interest in Stockhausen and the avant-garde is the still unreleased Beatles composition ‘The Carnival of Light’ recorded in January 1967 for The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave held at the Roundhouse Theatre).
Stockhausen is seen by many as one of the greatest musical innovators and visionaries of the twentieth century. His electronic compositions were way ahead of his time, and had a large influence on many more modern day recording artists including Frank Zappa, Pete Townsend (The Who), Roger Waters (Pink Floyd), and Björk. In relation to Krautrock, two members of Can (Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay) were actually tutored by Stockhausen at the Cologne Courses for New Music, and Kraftwerk claim they also studied under him.
In terms of Krautrock’s influence on modern music, it doesn’t matter whether it was genuinely new. It was genuinely (West) German and grew largely from individuals’ psychological and/or political reaction to their experiences of growing up in post-war Germany following the fall of Nazism. The content of the output may not have been psychologically-based, but the attitude and spirit in making such music arguably was. We are all products of our genetics and our environment, and post-war teenagers born after 1945 in Germany experienced a culture and an immediate history that most can never ever experience. The Krautrockers fighting (artistically, culturally and literally) against the ‘establishment’ in late 1960s brought about some of the greatest music ever produced, and I for one, am eternally grateful for the pleasure it has brought in my own life.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Blaney, J. (2005). John Lennon: Listen to this Book. Guildford: Paper Jukebox, Biddles Ltd.
Buckley, D. (2012). Kraftwerk Publication. London: Omnibus.
Cope, J. (1996). Krautrocksampler (Second Edition). Head Heritage.
Reed, S.A. (2013). Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stubbs, D. (2014). Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany. London: Faber & Faber.
Wikipedia (2014). Krautrock. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krautrock
Wikipedia (2014). Musique concrète. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musique_concrète
Posted on December 30, 2014, in Case Studies, Culture Bound Syndromes, Fame, Mania, Obsession, Popular Culture, Work and tagged 1968 student protests, Adolf Hitler, Amon Düül, Andreas Baader, Ash Ra Tempel, Baader-Meinhof, Can (German band), Carnival of Light (The Beatles), Cluster (German bad), Conrad Schnitzler, Deiter Moebius, Eruption (German band), Faust, German electronica, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Harmonia (German band), Ian MacDonald (music journalist), Jewish genocide, John Lennon, Kluster (German band), Kraftwerk, Krautrock, Michael Rother, Music obsession, Musique concrète, Nazism, Neu!, Paul McCartney, Pierre Schaeffer, Popol Vuh, Post-war Germany, Red Army Faction, Schlager, Stockhausen, Tangerine Dream, The Beatles, Ulrike Meinhof, Yoko Ono, Zodiak Club (Berlin), Zodiak Free Arts Lab. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.