Future Days: Krautrock And The Building Of Modern Germany by David Stubbs - book review


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West Germany, 1968. The shamed populace have knuckled down and created the Wirtschaftswunder, belatedly fulfilling Hitler’s promise of a Volkswagen for everyone, but not everyone is content. Rarely has the youthful dictum “don’t trust anyone over 30” been so apt, for this is a nation beset with collective historical amnesia. Protest ranges from direct action to a belief that German music can revive itself without copying the American saviours/occupiers. Surprisingly, an entirely original idiom was born which has influenced the world’s popular music ever since.

Not that many locals noticed. This was not so much a land ohne Musik as ohne Kritik – local media couldn’t compare to the vivid English-language rock press, who would casually slap a pejorative label on a wildly diverse scene. But Kraftwerk, Can, Neu!, Popol Vuh and a host of lesser-knowns left trails. Bands, labels, even record stores have been named after their works.

The music was frequently instrumental, and vocals, if they could be made out, were often in English. Yet this wasn’t rock music along the Anglo-American model. Atmospherics were valued over structure, from Can’s rhythmic fantasies to the noise improvisations of Conrad Schnitzler. The electronic experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Hans-Joachim Roedelius reflected their shared experiences of war’s horror. “No fuehrers!”, declared Can’s legendary drummer Jaki Liebezeit, defining the collaborative ethos. Musicians formed combinations and producers such as Conny Plank were equally lauded. 

Subtle wit abounded. The rowdy, ragged Faust trampled all over the (very German) rigorous work ethic and didactically intended humour of their obvious ancestor, Frank Zappa. Dusseldorf spawned both the hugely influential Neu!, who satirised consumerism, matching titles like “Special Offer” and “Top Quality” to seriously abstract music, and Kraftwerk, whose knowing Teutonic image amused foreigners and annoyed their compatriots.

By the time David Bowie and Brian Eno rolled up, K-rock was just, well, rock. Yet young musicians continue to “borrow” from the German masters. Stubbs never approaches the wild speculation that made Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler so enjoyable, and his book’s subtitle rather overstates its scope. But this clear-headed and sympathetic account of great things that happened in a temporary nation is as serious and entertaining as its subject.