After last week’s generally fascinating, if slightly flawed, Synth Britannia (no mention at all of Suicide, and some of the chronology seemed a bit iffy to me), BBC Four’s music documentary series moved on to look at some of the biggest influences on both the synth-pop movement, and indeed all post-punk and electronica music that’s happened since, from Acid Mothers Temple to Alva Noto and all points in between.
Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany is rather a grand title, and it immediately apologised for the term. Krautrock was coined by anglocentric British journalists and has unfortunately stuck ever since to the various amusement / irritation of the musicians themselves. But at least their music was accepted here – in their homeland they remained, by and large, obscure. I remember when I first met my German friend Olly in the early nineties, I breathlessly waxed lyrical about all the German bands that I was a big fan of, and was astonished that he’d never heard of half of them. I’d simply assumed that acts like Cluster, Faust, Neu! etc would all be household names in Germany, something that turned out to be far from the truth.
The programme offered 1968 as year zero for the movement, suggesting that everything before then was Schlager and classical music. Although that’s certainly true for the electronic and experimental bands that followed, surely things weren’t that simple. After all, many British bands cut their musical teeth in Hamburg at the start of the sixties, and other ex-pat acts like the Monks were pretty successful in their adopted land. There must have been some indigenous equivalent, surely.
That question aside, this was an hour stuffed with great anecdotes and superb archive footage. Those interviewed were a great bunch of characters with intelligent, dry humour and none of the rock star pomposity of their Anglo-American prog-rock equivalents. The central theme was that this wasn’t a scene as such, but a bunch of disparate groups from all over the country whose music was equally eclectic, but whose philosophy was strikingly similar – to create a new art music for Germany untainted by the past and yet specifically German rather than a poor facsimile of the dominant Anglo-American forms. And to challenge the West German establishment, something still riddled with relics of the Nazi era. They succeeded, and collectively became a massive influence on much of the interesting music made in the last thirty years. Indeed, most are probably far more widely known today than they ever were in their heyday.
Nearly all of the big players were present and correct – Amon Düül, Popol Vuh, Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Neu!, Harmonia, Can, Faust and, of course, Kraftwerk. The only serious omission was Ash Ra Tempel. There were some great stories – Amon Düül’s uncomfortable association with Andreas Baader and Ulriche Meinhof; Faust being sold to Polydor as the German Beatles (?!); Damo Suzuki’s bizarrely spontaneous induction into Can; Klaus Schulze’s admission that he still had no idea how to properly work his first synth that he’s had for nearly forty years. And also some superb archive footage, including the pre-electronic Kraftwerk. Implied, but not explicitly said, was the contention that Eno was little more than a thieving magpie, appropriating ideas from his collaborations with Cluster and using them in his work with Bowie, that archetypal chameleon.
Cramming all this into an hour inevitably felt a bit rushed. But it was great that somebody had the foresight to step outside the usual Anglo-American axis and tell the stories of the makers of some of the twentieth century’s most forward-looking and influential music.
For UK residents, it’s on the iPlayer.