Krautrock is rather an offensive term. It certainly isn’t one that any of the bands that emerged out of the West German 1968 generation would use to describe themselves.
The term came from the British music press, which greeted the avant-garde groups with headlines such as “Can: They Have Ways of Making You Listen” and “Kraftwerk: The Final Solution to the Music Problem?”
But the long, slow fallout from the Nazi period is precisely the situation which generated a radical new cultural scene.
This was a generation which, though born during or after the war, still had to live with the accusations.
John Weinzierl of the group Amon Düül recalls going on holiday to Yugoslavia in the mid-1950s aged five: “People would come up to me and say, ‘You killed sixty million people’.”
Their parents had played a role in the Third Reich but would not talk about it. There was a sense of cultural and moral paralysis. Popular culture was drenched in British and American imports, along with twee German nostalgia.
But manufacturing was booming and the economic miracle produced a sense that anything was possible.
Those growing up with the Beatles, free jazz and Jimi Hendrix began to feel they could make something of their own, which neither harked back to the old Germany nor copied other cultures.
As Ralf Hütter of Kraftwerk put it, “Our generation reintroduced consciousness and a social conscience into Germany. Music didn’t exist and we had to make it up.”
New groups emerged from the student movements and countercultural communes of West Germany’s cities, who had to face the prejudices of a conservative society.
One “longhair” from Amon Düül was detained as a terror suspect on the basis that he’d left his unwashed car parked in the town centre.
Even one of Kraftwerk, the impeccably smart godfathers of electro pop, began his musical life in an angry hippy rock collective called PISSOFF.
There is no one musical style that ties the groups together, but they share the call for “No Führers!”
These were musical and artistic collectives, who developed their sounds by playing together and getting into a rhythm.
Common to many of the bands is repetition, often to a near trance-like state — in contrast to the three-minute pop song.
Stubbs shows how repetition produces an ironic, alienating effect, which satirises the banality of modern consumer life. Driving on the Autobahn is not the liberating act it is in American rock.
The band Can were inspired by Andy Warhol’s prints, which took everyday objects and images and repeated them until they became something else. Another band, Neu!, took its name and imagery from advertising.
These artists learned from rock, jazz, North African music and experimental modernist classical, among others, and used them to develop their own styles.
They operated with a seriousness that reflected the world they grew up in — and it shows in the quality of their music.
The Krautrock bands enjoyed varying degrees of success. No one quite knew what to make of them — Kraftwerk’s first appearance on British TV was on Tomorrow’s World, the future science show that was on before Top of the Pops. But their legacy is undoubted.
They shaped the work of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, largely invented electro and foreshadowed dance music and DJing, and provided the tone of post-punk.
David Stubbs has done justice to a movement by thoroughly investigating the world that produced it.