Monday, September 11, 2006

Sauerkraut and Rock and Roll

What do indie rock, experimental rock, post-rock, punk, post-punk, techno, and industrial music have in common? The German experimental/progressive rock movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s influenced all of these disparate genres. Sometimes affectionately known as “Krautrock,” the movement bore little resemblance to the U.S. and U.K. progressive rock movements of the same period. While Mozart, Beethoven, and Miles Davis influenced the U.S./U.K. progressive bands, the German bands derived their inspiration from John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and the Velvet Underground. Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt, founding members of Can, one of the first, and arguably the most influential, German bands, both studied with Stockhausen.

Although the term krautrock was originally intended as a derogatory term, the bands themselves embraced the label. Indeed, the band Faust included a song called “Krautrock” on their album Faust IV.

While each of the krautrock bands possessed a distinctive sound, they had much in common as well. German producer Conrad Plank worked with many of the bands, for instance, and his production work with Neu! on their three seminal 1970’s releases cemented his reputation as a producer for many years. Much of the music produced by the ensembles was instrumental, yet improvised solos were rare. The guitar solo, a staple of American progressive rock, was nowhere to be found. Most of the bands utilized a mix of traditional rock instruments and electronic synthesizers, incorporating elements from 20th century art music movements such as Musique Concrete and Minimalism.

Some of the distinctive elements separating the bands included space music (Cluster, Tangerine Dream), free improvisation (Amon Düül), Eastern instruments and sounds (Popul Vuh), hypnotic rhythms (Can, Neu!), and sound collage (Faust).
Can and Neu! were both anchored by powerful rhythm sections, while groups like Tangerine Dream and Cluster often dispensed with the rhythmic aspects in favor of ambient soundscapes. Kraftwerk developed an entirely electronic style of proto-techno, eventually incorporating dance rhythms from funk and disco, and adopting robotic, futuristic stage personas in the process.

Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream were the most commercially successful of the krautrock bands. Tangerine Dream, in particular, went on to forge a highly lucrative career scoring film soundtracks, and most of the “New Age” electronic music artists of the 1980’s owe them a debt. Kraftwerk influenced the techno and hiphop artists that sprang up in the 1980’s. Can, Neu!, and Faust did not enjoy similar commercial success, but they exerted a profound influence on the post-punk and industrial bands of the 1980’s, as well as the post-rock bands of the 1990’s.
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