MUSIC FROM A PARALLEL UNIVERSE – Faust sounds just as different today as it did 35 years ago (By Thomas Winkler)
In the 1970s, British music critics laughed off attempts by West German musicians to play rock music, dubbing it “Krautrock.” Today, the once unloved genre is the pride of German rock history.
One of the most absurd chapters in the history of pop music – and it has several such chapters to its name – began in 1973: A group from Hamburg, not particularly famous even in Germany, recorded a new album. The record opened with a 12-minute-long piece, which was given the title “Krautrock.”
The band never wanted their song to become a pop music genre. After all, in the 1970s Britons still used “Kraut” as a derogatory term for Germans. Krautrock was a sneering term from the British Isles, poking fun at German efforts to catch up with famed Anglo-American rock music.
Thirty-five years later, two marvels remain. First, the band is still together. And second, they now treat the epithet like a medal. The group, called Faust, releases its nineth studio album, titled “C’est com… com… compliqué” at the end of February, and their record company promotes them, guns blazing, as “one of Krautrock’s foremost protagonists.”
Indeed, Krautrock has developed in an astonishing manner. Bands such as Faust, Neu!, Amon Düül, Cluster and Ash Ra Tempel were only moderately successful in Germany during the 1970s or critics even tore them to shreds. But especially in England, they gained cult-like notoriety and are now considered classic rock groups.
Their music was frequently misunderstood at home – where it was seen as a mere copy of models such as Led Zeppelin or King Crimson. But only much later was the music recognized for what it really was: an avant-garde experiment, blazing a new trail for rock music that already then had become insufferably vain.
In the wake of the hippie movement, international rock bands were churning out drug-addled jam sessions, endless guitar solos and self-absorbed studio experiments. Krautrock bands, on the other hand, added progressive rhythms and influences from exotic music to the framework of rock music.
They also integrated the synthesizer for the first time and elements from modern music. Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay, for instance, formed the band Can, where they turned the knowledge they had acquired while studying with legendary composer Karlheinz Stockhausen into classic rock music arrangements; Tangerine Dream exclusively used the artificial sounds of the first synthesizers.
These bands had only one thing in common. They were like nothing you had ever heard before. But still, it would have never occurred to anyone in Germany to bring together these different bands and place them under one heading. While Krautrock was music played in Germany, the British tabloid press invented the term for the genre.
The German musicians themselves did not have the feeling that they belonged to a homogenous scene – let alone that they were taking part in a national project to develop a German kind of rock music. Faust, for instance, used French lyrics – they never clearly modeled themselves on the British archetype.
In Germany, Krautrock became almost more derogatory than it was in the UK. For one simple reason: No musician likes to be pigeonholed, let alone in such a negative-sounding category.
But strangely enough, Krautrock’s renaissance began where the swear word originated. Germans tended to suppress memories of the ponderous and frequently drawn-out works composed by largely long-forgotten bands. Of all things, it was a few Britons who rode to the rescue of the genre.
Legendary radio DJ John Peel, generally considered a punk propagandist, played songs by German rock bands from the 1970s. That helped the music become popular abroad. The successful musician Julian Cope, mastermind of post-punk band The Teardrop Explodes, published the book “Krautrock Sampler” in 1995, which remains the definitive work on the genre to this day. Since then bands such as The Fall, Radiohead and Tortoise have cited Krautrock as one of their influences.
Looking back, Cope describes Krautrock as “a subjective British phenomenon” but it is a genre with a surprising impact on the rest of the world. Krautrock musicians, who were frequently educated at conservatories, consciously rebelled against academic institutions. Such a radical approach to rock music was a rare occurrence back then – as it is today.
“There is no group more mythical than Faust,” wrote Cope in his book, describing their music as “a style which was fuzzy, funny and extremely non-commercial, yet busted out with weird hook lines and extraordinary sounds.” The band’s first album “sounded like music from some parallel universe suspended in time and played through the oldest radio,” he added.
Listening to Faust’s music today feels the same way. On their latest album, they refuse to go with the flow – and sound just as radically different as when they were founded 35 years ago. Krautrock, once the unwanted stepson, today the pride of German rock music, is as contemporary as ever.