Krautrock: Cosmic Music and the Search for a New Germany
Krautrock: Cosmic Music and the Search for a New Germany by Alexander Deley
Largely unknown in the United States, Krautrock is an improvisation-heavy and futuristic progressive rock form that sprung from West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite its relative obscurity, it is one of the most culturally significant and forward reaching psychedelic music forms.
Krautrock emerged as a result of a unique twist in history thanks to a rare total cultural reset. The collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 and the occupation of Germany by the combined Allied military forces laid bare for the German public the great folly of Nazi-ism. Germany, once a formidable industrial and military power lay fully devastated: a bombed-out husk of a once great empire that had seemed, a mere five years earlier, on the cusp of world domination. Rising from the ruins of World War II, Krautrock was part of a model for a new, brighter Germany that embraced multiculturalism and rejected nationalistic dogma. From the seeds of destruction came the flowering of a totally new artistic movement and sensibility.
This new path was widely influenced by two important factors: a belief in a brighter future powered by new technology and an Eastern philosophy-influenced sense of introspection. The result: a form of optimistic spiritual futurism that meant a rejection of the norms of the World War II generation and an emphasis on looking within. This new ideology sought to turn-away from the old imperialist impulses that had led Germany astray. Of course, music was an important part of this transformation.
German music certainly doesn’t seem to be "psychedelic” on the surface. For most people, the music that came out of West Germany in the ‘60s and ‘70s involved the country’s bubbly, camp, dance-forward Eurovision entries or the icy synths and electronic beats of early German synth pop. Modern German music meanwhile is mostly club fare, the “funky beats” that continue to light-up dancefloors from the Rhineland to Bavaria. Aficionados of the German counterculture, and especially of the Krautrock movement, know better. Krautrock is a wildly cosmic force of unrelenting psychedelia. The better-known electro pop and club beats barely scratch the surface of the wider German musical scene.
Krautrock truly began in art schools and in the radical student co-operative movements taking place throughout West Germany, centered on the cities of Berlin, Düsseldorf and Cologne. Krautrock was built upon the psychedelic sonic experiments of the Beatles and the wild sounds coming out of America. These influences were quickly combined with the motorik - a motorized-sounding drumbeat that mimicked the sound of cars on the autobahn - and with German, Turkish and Indian ethnic folk music forms. The result was a uniquely German, highly improvisational and acid-drenched space rock. Soon, experiments with electronics and electronic instruments would complete the picture, emphasizing the urge towards the new and providing a means of reaching towards ever more “far out” sounds.
Interestingly, the term “Krautrock” began as a pejorative. It was a label concocted by the British music press to denigrate the otherworldly music that came from Germany in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Ironically, the label was warmly embraced by the creators of this music and worn as a badge of honor.
This gets to another important feature of Krautrock: its sense of humor. While many people associate Germans with a certain hyper-literal po-faced stoicism, Krautrock is filled with oddball comedy and musical gags. While those involved in making Krautrock were serious about wanting a new society, they also wanted one with a lighter touch. Humor, often deadpan but sometimes slapstick, is an important feature that runs throughout the movement and helps it further transcend its influences.
Two important figures who feature in the Krautrock movement are Eberhard Kranemann and Harald Grosskopf. Together, the pair and their eventual allegiance through their new shared musical project, Krautwerk, help to tell the story of Krautrock.
Eberhard Kranemann began his journey into music at the Dortmund Conservatory, where he studied classical double bass. He played works by Bach, Mozart and Telemann-orchestral music as well as jazz. This training provided him formidable formal and improvisational musical chops. From there, he went to Düsseldorf to study painting at the city’s storied Arts Academy.
While experimenting with colors and painting abstract art, Kranemann also began to experiment with sounds. He started first to explore what he could do with cello, clarinet and tenor saxophone but gradually stretched out to include electric guitar, Hawaiian guitar and finally, early electronic instruments.
In 1967, alongside other art students, he founded the experimental music group Pissoff. This group included both Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter and would eventually morph into the pioneering electronic group, Kraftwerk. Kranemann played on several early psychedelic Kraftwerk recordings as a sideman, working alongside both Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, (both subsequently of Neu!), before venturing off on his own. In the mid ‘70s he took-on the persona of Fritz Mueller, and released a solo record called Fritz Mueller Rock, produced by the legendary and enigmatic German producer, Conny Plank.
At the same time, Harald Grosskopf was making a name for himself in Berlin as a drummer with the psychedelic group Ash Ra Tempel (later Ashra) helmed by Manuel Göttsching. He also worked extensively with drummer and keyboardist Klaus Schulze, who subsequently become a key creative force behind Tangerine Dream. Grosskopf released his own solo debut record in 1980. This album, The Synthesist, quietly went on to become an important cult classic in the electronic music scene.
The two disparate backgrounds of Kranemann and Grosskopf are representative of the regional divisions that emerged with Krautrock and later within the German electronic music scene. Kranemann was a product of the expansive Düsseldorf-school, which emphasized wilder experiments, while Grosskopf was a product of the more austere Berlin-school.
The Krautrock scene featured a lot of crossover between musicians and cities over the years. Despite this crossover, and both musicians playing in some of the biggest bands in the genre, Kranemann and Grosskopf, did not meet until the summer of 2016 when they were both performing at a festival in Sulingen, Germany.
While the pair have different musical sensibilities and approaches, they discovered a certain kinship and shared set of ideals. Kranemann remains a wild experimenter, keen on bending the rules. Grosskopf remains a formalist, innovating by working within the rules. Together, they manage a spellbinding merger of the of Düsseldorf and Berlin schools. The duo possesses a certain Yin-Yang creative tension that perfectly embodies the competing sensibilities at play within Krautrock, and indeed, within German society.
Kranemann and Grosskopf transmit their cosmic sonic visions of today, tomorrow and beyond though their lively self-titled debut album and their ongoing live performances. One of these performances, taken from the 2017 Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia, is featured on the new episode of the series Translove Airwaves, entitled “Krautwerk Urmarmt Liverpool”. The program’s host, Matt Levin also interviews the pair about the ongoing cultural relevance of the Krautrock movement.
Through their innovative collaboration, Kranemann and Grosskopf keep the dream of the Krautrock movement alive alongside their shared vision for a better Germany and world.