Thursday, 16 July 2015

Give me More and More and More: Future Days - Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany by David Stubbs

At this age you become more aware of the limits of your knowledge - ah for the arrogance of youth.  But every now and then a book like this comes along and shows you there is stuff you didn't know you didn't know.  This is especially enlightening when it is an area that you think you should know about it - the history of pop music, electronica and er post war European politics.

The phrase Krautrock until reading this for me was only really of resonance as a point of reference for other musicians I listened to or as a paradigm of experimentalism.  I knew Julian Cope wrote a book about it. Mark E Smith was heavily influenced by it and sang a song called I am Damo Suzuki - a singer from Krautrock pioneers Can. I also was a bit disconcerted with the vaguely racist 70s Stan Boardman like name itself.  But the actual sounds themiselves ?  I had heard a bit of Kraftwerk but that is as far as it went.

The curse/wonder of music writing now as I have observed before is that every tune or track is now instantly available to anyone with internet access - 40% of the world's population at last count.  It means that a writer does not really have to worry about being wilfully obscure - which is a real possibility in this area. Further the points you make about the music can be pretty specific as the reader can listen to the song almost simultaneously.  

This modern phenomena is ironic in this context as a common theme in the book is the passing around of influential vinyl albums in the 1970s and 80s amongst wannabe musicians and music journos as they were so difficult to find. For example obstructive publishers and poor human relationships meant the albums of Neu! (more on them later) didn't get released in any mass way until the mid 90s.

The downside of this immediate access to source materials is it can lead to lazy writing.  Hey everybody listen to this and this then this isn't it great.  It can have a breathless superficial flavour.  This never happens in the comprehensive and confident writing of David Stubbs who clearly has a deep knowledge and passion to act as a curator.

In fact one of the intriguing aspects of the work is that it actually takes a while to mention music at all but rather explains the political and economic setting of post war and post Nazi Germany.  Most of the leading musicians were born during or in the immediate aftermath of the war - and the peak period for this music was from 1968-76 as they matured.  This context meant that musicians wanted to have a year zero approach - a literally new sound.  Popular music in Germany post war took the form of Schlager - pretty horrific easy listening music which played on Germanic folkloric imagery.

Even British bands - despite the Beatles learning their trade in Hamburg in the early 1960s - received short shrift.  Horrified by this cultural wasteland the musicians wanted to do something completely different.  That also included rejecting the rhythm and blues influenced Anglo- American sound. There were parallels with modern classical music where survivors of the brutal wars of the 20th century like Stockhausen experimented with everything (including primitive electronics) to challenge the traditional structure of the classical form.

What Stubbs does excellently is intertwine the musical developments with the politics, economics and geography of  Germany.  The political analogy is stark with the first bands explored Amon Duul and Amon Duul 2 who emerged from the commune movement in Munich in the 1960s.  To such an extent that to call them a formal band would be pushing it.  However they moved in the same circles and to some extent lived in the same houses as the Baader Meinhoff Group - the RAF.  The link (albeit pretty tenuous) was living in the sub-culture of a re-born capitalist Germany where many older people were coy about their role in the War and the whole history of Nazism was buried.

The Munich communes though were only one of a number of distinct areas that this new unusual music emerged from.  The vast geography of Germany is explained well by Stubbs and the ubiquity of transport being used in Krautrock tracks seems very appropriate.  The way the work is structured it largely focuses on a band per chapter but these were generally based in different places - Can from Cologne, Faust from Hamburg, Kraftwerk and Neu! from Dusseldorf and the electronic isolation of  the  experimental individuals emerging from Berlin. A veritable Bundesliga (the hipster's football league of choice) of bands.

The distinct nature of these bands is reflected in their music which remained stubbornly in the fringes of German popular culture.  They all were struggling to find new sounds but came at it in different ways - whether radical forms of studio recording (Can), state of the art electronic equipment (Kraftwerk - although not initially) having sprawling fun in chaotic settings (Faust).   As you dip into the music  you  see how different all these sounds were- a lengthy task because the musical form for these guys was the long player - not really the 45 single.  Although there were exceptions to this - Can even appeared on Top of the Pops.

One of the worries I had was the relationship with Progressive Rock - not singing about goblins and trolls like in England but lengthy sitar solos etc.  The early material has a bit of an overlap with that - particularly Amon Duul but the focus on musical innovation, collaboration and weird electronic sounds put paid to that as time passed.  Another  original (though some would say ridiculous) aspect is the complete lack of reverence of vocal ability - singers where they float in and out of the music are definitely way down the pecking order.  Much of it is instrumental but all of the bands used vocalists at some point.  I can imagine old Morrissey being aghast at some of the wailings that emerge from the  best Krautrock albums.  However have a listen to Dinger from Neu! for echoes of Rotten's vocals from the Pistols and Pil - Suzuki from Can has obviously been studied not only by Mark E Smith but Shaun Ryder as well.

The cliched phrase I kept saying when I was listening to work mentioned in the book was "this is decades before its time".  To be honest Stubbs makes this point several times as well.  It is not simply because of the electronics - bands like Can and Faust only utilised synthesisers latterly- but the arrangements and the rhythyms which predate 80s dance.  The relationship between German economic development and the electronic equipment used by Kraftwerk and some of the Berlin bands like  Cluster  is interesting, The main protagonists in Kraftwerk came from very wealthy backgrounds that allowed them to buy prohibitively expensive electronic equipment.  A problem that English groups who essentially were initially Kraftwerk tribute bands like the Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark found in their early days even several years later. Bands that couldn't afford it but were heavily influenced tried to replicate the sound in different ways - for example Joy Division.

The ultimate tribute/plagiarism of the experimental thinkers of Krautrock and who indirectly influence modern Western music even more was Bowie  who notoriously set up shop in Berlin in the 1970s and made some of his best work.   A lot of it with  Brian Eno who also had worked directly with a lot of the Berlin School people and Rother from Neu!  I think the claims of direct plagiarism are a bit unfair as Bowie put his own stamp on it - as did Iggy Pop and Lou Reed who were all equally influenced.  But it is a bit shadowy Neu's song Hero recorded a couple of years before Bowie's album and Rother was contacted to work on Bowie's albums and then unceremoniously dumped.

But the wonders of this book for me was the world of sounds it opened me up to that I really didn't have a clue about it.  The silliness of Faust, the breadth and depth of Can's (most of them ex-students of Stockhausen)work, the brilliant electronic work of Cluster and the completely lost albums of Gunther Schickert.

One criticism would be that Stubbs crams in loads of bands  vaguely linked to German  Experimental music - some of which seem pretty weak and don't have much work behind them.  I think there was a desire to provide a completely comprehensive guide but I am not sure this works particularly when some of the work doesn't seem to merit comparison with the others.   This is particularly true of the later material  and the very early 70s stuff.  But this is minor criticism - for me this book was a key to new worlds of music and that don't happen too often!