A conspiracy of orphans

Future Days: Krautrock and the building of modern Germany, David Stubbs (496pp, £20, Faber)

Speaking in 2005 of the Kling Klang studio in which Kraftwerk created and refined their sound, band member Ralf Hutter also summarised the wider context in which the experimental German music that is commonly, and unfortunately, labelled 'Krautrock', was developed:

   We were in our studio, with the doors closed and there
   was silence. Now what is our music, what is our language,
   what is our sound? We realised we had to start from zero.
   It's an amazing opportunity... We didn't have to reject
   anything. It was an empty space. And that same feeling
    was everywhere.'

Whereas British progressive rock has received a relatively rough critical ride, the adventurous, experimental music that came out of West Germany at the same time has been eulogised. Bands like Can, Faust and Neu! are frequently name-checked and some regard Kraftwerk as the most influential band of the Seventies, possibly since the Beatles. Future Days is the most comprehensive attempt, as yet, to consider this music and, moreover, to relate it to the cultural, social and political context that produced it - the miraculous, yet problematic transformation of West Germany from the desolate Allied Sector of 1945 to a prosperous, advanced European nation in less than a generation.

David Stubbs is a couple of years younger than me, and evidently discovered this music at much the same time as I did. There's a generational aspect to this, in that many of us 'late boomers' found Europe - particularly Germany - as charismatic culturally as the 'early boomers' had found the USA (which, of course, had lost some of its lustre by the Seventies). So I can identify with the biographical aspects of this book - the frisson of watching 'continental' football live on TV, the effect of Bowie
's unexpected yet shrewd sojourn in Berlin, the lure of other name-checked European destinations and the doomed attempts to interest fellow sixth-formers in experimental music. However we differ in that, whereas I also maintained an interest in progressive rock his post-punk sensibility is essentially hostile to it. This appears to colour his judgement at times, as I will discuss later.

Future Days
has both an encyclopaedic sweep and a close attention to detail. It begins, as it must, by tackling the term 'Krautrock' itself which is clearly derived from an offensive racial stereotype. Would anyone have described Jimi Hendrix's music as 'Spaderock', Stubbs asks, whilst defending the use of the term on the grounds that it is now used, almost exclusively, in a positive sense (to the point of being carelessly cited, by up-and-coming bands and critics alike, on the flimsiest of pretexts). Whilst the term smacks of post-World War Two xenophobia and arrogance, there's no accepted alternative at Stubbs' disposal and, if he'd tried to invent one, the book might have sunk without trace. So the word (alas) is probably here to stay.

That stumbling block having been vaulted (just about), the book gets into its stride with a detailed, lucid and knowledgeable explanation of the context in which this music came into being. Simply put, estrangement and empowerment were the key factors. The generation that produced this music were the children of those Germans who had come to maturity during the Third Reich and who had settled down, once the horrors of 1945 had given way to the economic miracle of the Fifties and the Sixties, into a guilty affluence in which the past was seldom talked about and the pursuit of creature comforts was accompanied by the reassuring banalities of Schlager music.

These children revolted against the materialism of their parents as they grew up, perhaps more intensely than in other European countries due to these historical factors. After an initial attraction to American culture they also reacted, partly due to Vietnam, against both America and its musical hegemony. Doubly-estranged, they became cultural orphans who felt compelled to create their music (and art, film and literature) for themselves.

At the same time, this generation was empowered - as West German society was affluent, there was casual work and (presumably, as in the UK at that time), a relatively relaxed approach to benefits. The parents whose values they rejected were often able to support them in times of need, and record companies were throwing advances around wildly in order to discover the next
'supergroup' - for example the story of Faust, who were bizarrely and hilariously identified as the 'German Beatles' despite their counter-cultural lifestyle and uncompromising music, is told in this book. So, both estranged and empowered as they were, this generation followed through their inclinations - with the active or tacit support of the very society whose values they rejected - to create a music that would, of course, draw upon what had gone before but in an untrammelled and eclectic way.

Stubbs also covers the geographical factors. Unlike the UK then and now, West Germany was not dominated by a single urban centre - West Berlin was, of course, an isolated enclave at that time. Thus, he describes how specific cities gave rise to particular scenes and bands. That isn't the same as explaining things away, as if it were inevitable that Hamburg would produce Faust, Cologne Can, Berlin Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, Munich Amon Duul and Dusseldorf Neu! and Kraftwerk (and so on - although other major cities such as Frankfurt and Stuttgart made little contribution, it seems). However, Stubbs
' account of these factors is a convincing one.

Another strength is the way in which, at best, he can describe a piece of music in words - a 'dance about architecture' he has been performing, of course, for a very long time as an experienced music journalist. I was generally impressed by his descriptions of tracks I
've known for many years, and confident that they would introduce the music to readers who had never heard it. This, for example, is how he describes Kraftwerk's 'Kristallo' (from the early, relatively experimental album Rolf and Florian):

   'Kristallo', named after a local hotel, is spindly and
   metallic, a further hint of shapes to come, a hissing
   and spitting rhythm box at odds with the simulated
   harpsichord strains that hang over the mix like a

And here is his description of the third and fourth movements of Tangerine Dream's masterpiece Zeit (which, in its evocation of a universe that is, in his words 'vast and indifferent to human concerns, cold and neutral', might be ranked alongside similar works by Ligeti and Stockhausen if classical music wasn't such a closed shop):

   'Origin of Supernatural Probabilities' and the title
   track are similarly disquieting, hanging there like
   some vast, unstirred cosmological fact, their slow,
   worming drones and wheeling arcs going beautifully
   and obliviously about their business.

This book describes literally hundreds of tracks in this way, expertly conveying a sense of the music and its concerns. Overall, the range of the book is encyclopaedic and every band and solo artist that one would expect to be covered is present. However, there is a caveat and it is one that prevents the book from being
'the definitive book on the ultimate music' as Stubbs' associate Simon Reynolds rhapsodises on the (simply designed and beautiful) cover.

Although we may differ as to the exact dates, Stubbs and I seem to agree that there were essentially two phases to so-called
'Krautrock'. In the first, which started in around 1968 and ran until the mid-Seventies (I would personally argue for 1974, when both Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk broke through commercially in the UK and USA), the emphasis was on experiment and creativity rather than mass appeal. However, in the second phase - which lasted throughout the late Seventies and into the early Eighties - much of the music became melodic and upbeat and consequently less avant-garde.

The band I followed most closely during that second phase (or
'silver age'?) was Tangerine Dream, having been captivated with their earlier releases on hearing them in 1976 and 1977. However, it became a slightly dispiriting exercise when, with Cyclone in 1978, they introduced vocals for the first time. As each subsequent release came out, I hoped that somehow the 'old' Tangerine Dream of my five favourite albums - Alpha Centauri, Zeit, Atem, Phaedra and Rubycon - would re-appear, and as there were still hints that it might do so I kept on buying them - and even liking them up to a point - until I completely lost hope in the mid-Eighties (since then, taking no interest in their output).

Stubbs and I agree that Tangerine Dream
's best releases were the earlier ones - although for him the rot begins to set in considerably earlier, with Phaedra and its 'scampering sequencers' (he appears to have something of an aversion to sequencers). He is entirely dismissive of Tangerine Dream's second phase but he is also dismissive, more surprisingly, of La DŸsseldorf (formed by Klaus Dinger of Neu!, spoken of in the same breath as their fellow-DŸsseldorfers Kraftwerk in the late Seventies and even eulogised as a possible 'soundtrack of the Eighties' by David Bowie). La DŸsseldorf were clearly a more 'commercial' proposition than Neu!, but their music was accessible without insulting the intelligence and is harshly served by this book.

I baulk all the more at his dismissal of the work that Klaus Schulze released during that period. In highly-evocative and culturally-literate releases such as Mirage (1977), X (1978), Dune (1979), Live (1980) and Audentity (1983), Schulze mainly expresses the themes and concerns of an earlier tradition, that of German Romanticism, in electronic music that is often multi-hued, other-worldly and unsettling in the manner of a Trakl poem or a Friedrich painting. Indeed, Stubbs invokes the 'ethereal reaches of the New Age bracket' in the context of Schulze's later music which, in my view, amounts to a crude insult - especially as readers might not be acquainted with these albums.

But the accessible, commercially-successful music that Kraftwerk produced in 1977 and 1978 with Trans-Europe Express
and The Man-Machine? Well, that's different. And yes, on one level it is different, given the influence that Kraftwerk have had on the development of modern music, particularly dance music, since. However, as the development of Kraftwerk's music during the Seventies followed a similar trajectory to that of all the other key bands and solo artists covered, then why not recognise the overall trajectory consistently and fairly? It is as if the apotheosis of Kraftwerk, from the wonderfully innovative band they were at that time to a Band Who Can Do No Wrong, has led to a fundamental distortion.

This may be due to another factor at work, with regard to the later work of Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream in particular, which is Stubbs
' fundamental hostility to progressive rock. In stereotypical post-punk fashion, he caricatures this as 'topographical excursions and faux-mediaeval fantasias' and reacts against anything that reminds him of it. Reading this kind of criticism is like being time-warped back into the early Eighties - not only are these blanket generalisations inadequate to the richness of prog (King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator/Peter Hammill, Soft Machine and Henry Cow, to quote just four examples, can hardly be shoe-horned into this paradigm), but they are not even adequate to the total output of the bands that tend to receive maximum opprobrium (inevitably, and predictably, Yes, ELP and Genesis as if their periodic over-reaching somehow tainted the whole of prog). I respect his point-blank refusal to recognise anything positive in progressive rock, but I also believe that it hobbles him critically at times.

However, and despite these caveats, this is a readable and comprehensive guide to this vitally-influential (if scandalously misnamed) musical phenomenon. The only mistake would be to read it as definitive - it
's too rooted in a particular critical ethos for this to be the case. Rather, this is a book that covers much ground whilst leaving plenty of room for others. One of these, for example, might be an appraisal of the so-called 'Berlin School' of instrumental electronic music - of which Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze are of course the best-known exemplars - by someone who does not regard any trace of prog as suspect, and recognises the difference between this music and the soothing banalities of New Age music proper.

I also hope that Stubbs is at least a little bit wrong when he writes
'I don't believe there is any lost Atlantis on the Krautrock map... we basically know who was who and what was what'. In 1995, a series of three CDs collectively entitled Unknown Deutschland was released, featuring obscure recordings made between 1972 and 1974 in and around Cologne. I certainly wouldn't claim that any of the featured bands can be ranked for originality with the likes of Can and Faust. However, there's some decent material scattered across these CDs, some of which is highly experimental, and this suggests an even larger scene than this book describes. Maybe there are no more Atlantises (!), but further islets and skerries of this fascinating music will hopefully still be discovered.

     İ Norman Jope, 2014