TV: Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany

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.

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3 responses to “TV: Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany

  1. Yes, I agree. Strange to have to wait almost forty years for a decent documentary on the subject. Considering they only had an hour they managed to cram a lot in. I too could have done with a few minutes of Ash Ra and the Kosmische bunch, derivative though they often were (indeed, the programme was curiously unwilling to concede UK/US influences – many German bands were obviously steeped in Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground, to name only the two most obvious models. And any suggestion that Eno owed his success to Cluster is doomed. Sure, he pricked up his ears for Zuckerzeit, but look what he went on to achieve.)

  2. Great write up. I was going to do one for my own blog at some point as I was disappointed by the doc. Lots of people missing and a far too brief outline of the scenes history.
    Can only getting a brief mention with Jaki, Holger and Damo but where was Irmin Schmidt? or mention of Malcolm Mooney? Schmidt arguably formed the band yet Holger version was that he and Micheal Karoli put it together.
    Amon Duul II part was really interesting but they never mentioned that these guys were influenced in part by not only some of the more psychedelic English bands but also west coast American acts like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

    We all know Eno took a lot of these influences but as Michael Nutt says he did do something pretty impressive with it. Arguably you could say he and Bowie brought attention to the music as no one in Germany was into it. No mention of Neu! founders later group La Dusseldorf which Bowie really did rip off!

    Nice try but they could have made a series, not the poorly provided one hour. I mean its got to be one of the most influential music scenes ever.

  3. I agree with both of you on most of the points – particularly re: Eno and the influences of bands like Floyd and Jefferson Airplane.

    I think the problems of omission and simplification were simply due to trying to cram everything into an hour, and make the program accessible for people with little or no knowledge of the subject. An in depth three part series would have been nice, but I’m just glad something was made at all that doesn’t fit into the standard Rolling Stone approved official rock history where the only important bands of the era were the usual suspects who grace Uncut’s cover every frigging month.

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