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David Stubbs – Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany

Faber and Faber

David Stubbs - Future DaysBack in 1986, some real waves were made by the publication of The Audit of War, a bitter and excoriating account of Britain’s strategic socio-economic decision-making during the first ten years after World War Two. The work was written by revisionist (military) historian Correlli Barnett, who critiqued – unfavourably and controversially – the ethos that guided Britain through its immediate decade of post-war reconstruction.

Barnett’s narrative unflinchingly took apart many of the myths that the UK wrapped around itself in the aftermath of its victoryi, and which subsequently became a blindfold that prevented it from seeing itself as it truly was in the mirror and doing something about the more urgent and unattractive parts of the reflection. The book itself was a polarising affair, a real Marmite or Guinness tome, dividing critical opinion into adoring Barnett-ites and equally fanatical counter-Correlli reactionaries. Contrasting Britain’s unwillingness and/or inability to take the right strategic decisions for the future (a product of its victory papering over the cracks of a harsh truth) with Germany’s absolute imperative to act for the future (a product of its loss making a harsh truth unavoidable), he starts the book with a quotation from a British army colonel on the Ruhr in May 1945:

I am almost frightened by the vitality these Germans show after what they’ve undergone. I believe, once they’ve been given the word GO, they’ll have a bridge over the Rhine in three months, and that in a short time their output of steel will be huge.

And lo it came to pass.

Being a Jew myself, and having visited Holocaust sites across Europe from the Wannsee Villa to the ovens at Auschwitz, I think I understand a little of the irony of the phrase “what they’ve undergone” when used in connection the wartime German generation. Yet also having become a serious Germanophile (see Camera reviews passim), something which surprised no-one more than myself, I’ve tried hard to understand the German trauma from that period, and the effect that it had on the country’s later generations and their cultural high points of the 1970s, ones I came to truly love, whether they were the music of Can and NEU!, the New German Cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog or the political Weltanschaung of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. Hell, you don’t put yourself through five years of German language adult night school without some deep inner resonance, and on the premise that “It takes one to know one,” I can recognise that same inner resonance at work in David Stubbs.

And it is doubtless in the furtherance of this feeling, and the exploration thereof, that Stubbs has taken on the unenviably massive and daunting task of writing the story of Krautrock. Now, I am not going to spill any more ink about whether using the problematic term Krautrock is “appropriate” in 2014 – I read Warlord comics in the 1970s, I know that it carries hugely pejorative undertones – as Stubbs does that himself. And personally I don’t much care for the term motorik, bandied about with gay abandon as it is these days to describe any dullard clubber who thinks that bashing out a no-frills 4-4 beat makes him Klaus Dinger. No, Stubbs covers discussion over such labels in probably as much detail as needs be, even if the M word does rear its head a few too many times.

There is no doubting – or denying – either that Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler, though viewed by many (including Cope himself) as deeply flawed, had a massive impact in re-igniting interest in the genre. Again, Stubbs duly lays a small floral tribute at the book’s shrine, and commendably doesn’t seem over-awed or intimidated by its lengthy shadow or the need to struggle out from its inky depths. He knows what he wants to say and goes right ahead and says it.

So, what does that amount to? Well, he begins with the frightening prospect of summarising Germany’s economic, political and social developments between the end of the war and the dawning of the 1970s and the Krautrock era. Yikes. Not something that one should take on lightly within the confines of a manageably-sized book designed primarily for music-heads. He makes a pretty fine go of it though, and it’s no mean feat to have synthesised all that information down into a chapter that won’t bore the arse off a bloke desperate to just cut to the chase and read about where Kraftwerk shot the cover for The Man Machine. Condensing down the rich narratives that appear elsewhere in such weighty tomes such as Hitler’s Children and Germania into a critical overview that adequately sets the backdrop for the music that flowed freely like clear Mineralwasser from German springs is a really, really difficult task. To cover the social rebuilding, the Wirtschaftswunder, the hurricane of 1960s social change, the Auβerparlamentarische Opposition, Baader-Meinhof and Deutschland im Herbst, and the sheer scale of the gigantic, pitch-black and all-encompassing shadow of guilt hanging over the post-war Germans merits a hats off before Stubbs has even begun to examine the music that forms the actual subject of the book. Sheesh.

Does this part of the book covers everything? No. Is the emphasis always right? No. But could anyone could have done it any better? No. Whether you’re completely new to the history of Germany in the latter part of the 20th century, whether you need your memory refreshed, whether you want to learn more or not, this is a pretty darned good curtain raiser for works of the musical maniacs that took on the job of reinventing German music, erasing the stain of the Third Reich and returning the country to a place of musical invention and excellence. And let us not forget that prior to its disastrous descent into the Fascist period, Germany had some serious prior form in this department.

And then there’s the music itself. The major players in the saga (Can, Faust, Kraftwerk, NEU!) each have a chapter to themselves; others share chapter space with kindred spirits from the “scene” they sprang from (Tangerine Dream and the Berlin School), whilst others composite the bonkers chronology of those that rotated around a shared orbit (Ash Ra Tempel, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser and Timothy Leary). And what a glorious, chaotic, infuriating and inspiring mess it is. The chapter on Faust alone is worth the price of admission. With 20-20 historical vision, the proposition that they were pieced together and presented to the industry as a “new Beatles” is just jaw-droppingly brilliant, like the prospect of Throbbing Gristle playing at a school assembly or Drunks with Guns appearing in the Super Bowl halftime showii.

And that is really one of the wonderful fugue refrains of the book: that in an age before the corporations really took an iron grip on the music industry, squeezing the life blood out of it in the process, there was a brief window when (to paraphrase William Goldman talking about Hollywood), “No-one knew anything.” These bands might be successful! As several indeed were. These bands might make us a fortune! Fewer did. But Can might be on Tops of the Pops!!! Can you imagine Can on TOTP now? Can you imagine TOTP now? Like Faust (Goethe’s, not Wümme’s), Future Days can summon such spirits and for a moment allow us to revel in their exploits like a hairy Teutonic magic lantern show. And that is, as far as I am concerned, absolutely bloody marvellous. That’s not to say that there are not things I find problematic or troublesome about the book.

Throughout the historical context section that comprises the start of the book, characters such as Fritz Teufel, Dieter Kunzelmann and Michael ‘Bommi’ Baumann make peripheral appearances, whilst Rainer Langhans is omitted altogether; space perhaps precluded a more in-depth examination of their role in the political and social change of the times, and that is really fair enough. Yet Rudi Dutschke, by far the more important figure in the new youth culture of the era and the Establishment’s (mis)understanding of it, rates only a brief mention, when he surely demands more. Dutschke famously advocated for what he called a “long march through the institutions” of power to create radical change from within government and society by becoming an integral part of the machinery. What was Krautrock if not a musical analogue of this same clarion call?

Perhaps more troublingly, though, is the shadow of death. Throughout the book the Holocaust hovers in the background like some vile black spectre, undiscussed in any real detail, unresolved in terms of emotions or attitudes. Now it is not for Stubbs to have to tackle this vast, unfathomable blot in the human copybook within a few short pages – indeed the very half-hidden, unresolved, unspoken nature of it within the text acts as an effective reflecting surface for how it felt for the Krautrock generation to grow up with it always looming over their shoulder, a barely-comprehended nightmare about which they could never question their parents and elders.

What shouldn’t be dodged, however, what should have been tackled absolutely head on, is Munich. The murders at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games happened right slap bang within the high watermark period of Krautrock and there’s no escaping that only thirty years after the Shoah, Jews were once again dying on German soil. It is true that Germans themselves did not perpetrate the outrage, but it was the terrible place for it to happen given recent history and the German authorities’ lamentable reaction to the events (both during and after) looked to some external observers dangerously like not really giving as much of a damn as should have been given. It was a catastrophe for the “new Germany”, and yet the whole event warrants only a brief mention on page 77. Throughout the book Stubbs makes repeated reference to the Krautrock mission directive of “reinventing Germany for the future,” yet whilst that was in high gear, here was that same nation backsliding into the past in the worst possible way, the whole ghastly debacle potentially delivering an almost terminal blow to Krautrock’s stated objectives. Yet this goes unremarked upon and unexamined.

Musically, too, there are some rather questionable truncations and omissions. One can’t help shake the feeling that Stubbs attempts to play up the sui generis origins of Krautrock by rather talking down the alternatives and pulling something of a sleight of hand in order to make it seem as though everything happening elsewhere – or even previously – was dismissible, lumpen Anglo-American blues rock, or Prog. That’s a formulation that is hard to take seriously.Little Richard had in fact beaten NEU! to the alchemical formula of motorik by almost half a decade – just get onto YouTube and listen to his 1967 single “I Don’t Wanna Discuss It.” Given the Krautrock generation’s finely attuned collective ear for black American music, this wouldn’t have been news to them. Even within Germany’s own borders, the MonksBlack Monk Time appeared in 1966 and is – by almost any angle of the modern consensus – a proto-Krautrock milestone.

The most serious omission, though, is that Krautrock’s true John the Baptist, its real fountainhead – Simeon Coxe, an American – appears only at the end of the book listed merely as a performer at the Kosmische Club with his band Silver Apples. From this, one could be forgiven for interpreting that Silver Apples were merely a modern revivalist incarnation of Krautrock, when in reality, across two albums between 1968 and 1969, they fulfilled every part Krautrock’s Holy Commandments (short of actually being German or singing in that language) whilst its actual exponents were still struggling to slough off the ersatz German Beat music that was their pupa.

And not only did Silver Apples do it first, they did it in glorious, ten-mile-high flashing neon letters. Whilst Ralf and Florian were still students at music conservatory tinkering with flutes and pianos, Coxe and drummer Danny Thompsoniii, had built their own electronic instruments from scratch, invented looped drumming, incorporated found radio sound into their music and produced tracks (for example, “Velvet Cave”) which sounded like Techno all before the Sixties were even out. Stubbs makes play in the early part of the book that sales volume and popularity are not key metrics when examining the Krautrock canon, that its true majesty and importance only emerged in retrospect. If that is true – that it is the quality and timing of the music rather than its contemporary popularity or commercial success that are the proper arbiters – then the omission of Silver Apples as progenitors, or at least forerunning outliers, is a most grievous one.

And why are Ton Steine Scherben seemingly so relatively disparaged by the text? Nektar are considered important enough to deserve some analysis, yet it was Ton Steine Scherben’s singer, Rio Reiser, who became the first to sing in his native language as a key musical and ideological statement. The band even released their albums – and other people’s – on their own David Volksmund Produktion record label, something that took reinventing German music into territory that, for all their musical daring do, Can and Faust didn’t venture. It was the kind of thing that Crass did later to great acclaim and respect, and Ton Steine Scherben deserve more praise for that than Stubbs seems willing to grant them. Why too does the narrative seem to leap from the end of the Neue Deutsche Welle straight to Camera, and bypass significant modern acts such as Blumfeld (guitar-based admittedly, but who re-reinvented German music by bringing the native language back in play after the deadeningly ‘Antikrautock’ era of late 1980s), Mouse on Mars or Kreidler (whose founder member Andreas Reihse even worked with Saint Klaus as part of la!NEU?).

Curious too is the chapter sequence which, not needing to be restricted by the confines of a purely chronological timeline, nevertheless elects to pack in Can, Kraftwerk, Faust and NEU! in quick succession at the start before proceeding on to Popul Vuh and Ash Ra Tempel later. Whilst the latter two bands released some truly magnificent albums (and Stubbs feels like a much-needed voice in the wilderness crying out in support of Popol Vuh’s magnificent Hosianna Mantra), in the main their biographies are not quite the stuff of legend. It rather leaves one feeling like having started a World Cup by seeing Germany demolish Brazil 7-1 as the opening game, only to later have to watch Iran against Switzerland as the final. Man, don’t give away all your trump cards right at the start; leave the reader panting for more. Perhaps though, the fault was mine – I was too linear in my reading, too much a slave to the lange gerade, and should have tackled the chapters in a different sequence.

The Munich Olympics and Silver Apples aside, though, these are comparatively minor points of order in what is a wonderful and necessary journey through both a most fascinating period in German history and an equally incredible musical snowball that continues to roll downhill and gather momentum with every passing year.

-David Solomons-

i There remains no more potent symbol of Britain’s bulldog spirit and innovative flair than the Spitfire, even now some 75 years later. The disturbing reality, though, was that this peerless British battle-winner could only be made on imported foreign machine tools so clapped out was Britain’s engineering industry, and that much of its weaponry and instrumentation were in fact foreign-designed and manufactured.

ii The former actually happened in March 1980 when TG caused a near If… style incident following their performance at the Oundle public school for boys (a handful of the boys jumped on stage and screamed into the microphone before carrying Genesis P-Orridge around the school on their shoulders). It is surely only a matter of time before the latter also comes to pass.

iii The Velvet Underground’s “Foggy Notion,” dating from 1969, is sometimes credited with being the wellspring of motorik, but it was Silver Apples who inspired the VU, not the other way around – “[The Velvet Underground] used to come to Max’s Kansas City to hear us play, especially Moe Tucker. She thought Danny was just the most amazing thing she’d ever seen. She would come in and just sit in rapt attention, staring at Danny playing the drums.”

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