For those who were there in 1971, the shock of seeing Faust‘s eponymous debut LP remains starkly etched in the mind’s eye. You could see right through it! Not only was the vinyl transparent, but it came packaged in a plastic representation of an X-Ray print of a hand.
The next brain warp came when the needle dropped onto the vinyl, unleashing an utterly bizarre, anarchic music that sounded like a collision of two cars carrying The Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd.
Those responsible weren’t from London, New York or San Francisco. They were Germans who’d played their first gig in Hamburg. To disillusioned hippies who felt that the 60s dream had died at Altamont, this LP – plus releases by Tangerine Dream from Berlin and Can (pictured below) from Cologne – seemed to suggest that the 1970s might finally be kicking into gear.
Kraütrock didn’t take off in the UK for a while. Although the nightclubs of Hamburg had been a proving ground for 60s British beat groups, Germany wasn’t really considered to be at the forefront of rock music until John Peel began playing lengthy ambient instrumental pieces from Tangerine Dream’s fourth album, Atem, in 1973. His patronage led to a Virgin Records deal and UK tours – and Kraütrock became a widely recognised genre.
In essence, there were two types of Kraütrock: Can, NEU! and Kraftwerk (pictured below) were in the metronomic beat vanguard, while Tangerine Dream, Ashra and others provided cosmic ambience, sometimes entirely free of beats.
In all cases, the music was a fusion based on similar elements – a mix of psychedelic rock with avant-garde electronics, symphonic aspirations, free jazz improvisation, funk grooves and ethnic flavours.
Or as Kraütrock spokesdruid Julian Cope wrote in his 1995 tome Kraütrocksampler, it was “a kind of Pagan freak-out LSD Explore-the-God-in-you-by-working-the-animal-in-you Gnostic Odyssey”. Got that?
The rewards of Kraütrock can be immense, but always remember that one listener’s masterpiece is another’s torture-hour of headache music or tedious long-hair jamming. Under no circumstances should you buy anything with Tangerine Dream’s Peter Baumann singing on it!
The other rule of thumb; if you like the more melodic stuff, avoid the early 70s. On the other hand, if you want to freak out, things were getting mellow by 1974.