By Dave Thompson
“Krautrock.” It’s a funny term, and many people regard it as a faintly pejorative one as well. But it is so firmly entrenched in the rock lexicon that even the bands involved have been unable to shrug it off — and what would specialist record stores do?
Well, they could line up the five albums featured and, secure in the knowledge that here are a few of the quintessential albums that illustrate this most individual of all rock’s most beloved genres, ask you to come up with a more all-encompassing term.
Just don’t tell them that Brainticket weren’t even German!
U.S. Release: Vertigo (VEL 2003), 1974
Current Value: $40
History has not recorded whose idea it was to edit the original, 22-minute title track to the fourth Kraftwerk album down to a snappy three minutes; nor does it recall the look on the faces of the sales reps who were handed advance copies of it and told to do their jobs. But, few records have ever seemed so unlikely, so unsuited, so unsingle-like as “Autobahn.” And few have turned all those presumptions so thoroughly on their heads, and done the complete and utter opposite.
Top 30 in America, Top 20 in the U.K., “Autobahn” (and in its wake, its parent album) became the surprise hit of the year, of the decade. There was simply nothing to relate it to. Nothing except — it really did sound like a roadtrip. Trucks race by, horns sound, there’s the windshield wipers and the splash through a puddle. If you really thought about it, it was almost frighteningly mundane. And as for the fact that it still sounded exciting… well, at no point on the record did Kraftwerk say what century they were driving through. Or what planet they were on.
2. Tangerine Dream
U.S. Release: Relativity (865618069), 1987
Current Value: $15
Tangerine Dream’s first album (originally released in Germany in 1971) with jazz percussionist Christopher Franke, “Alpha Centauri” is arguably the album that Pink Floyd had been threatening to make since they
recorded the title track to “A Saucerful of Secrets.”
Like that epic, “Alpha Centauri” took its direction from its title, with cover art (and a dedication — to “all people who feel obliged to space”) to match. It was not a record for listeners with a short attention span — the flute that wanders through the bleak soundscapes is often the loudest instrument on the record.
Neither was it recommended for the clumsy of hand. On a record so quiet, the slightest scratch resounded like meteorites striking the astral surface. With that basic flaw in mind, it seems somehow surprising that Alpha Centauri sold over 20,000 copies in Germany alone — unheard-of figures for an unknown experimental band.
3. Amon Düül
U.S. Release: Prophecy (PRS 1003), 1970
Current Value: $40
The original Amon Düül was essentially a German hippy collective that sundered after appearing, as an anarchic ensemble of bashing, crashing revelers at Essen’s 1968 Song Days Festival. Also on the bill were the Mothers of Invention and The Fugs, but far from unifying the disparate streams of musical and political consciousness that ran through the commune, the impact of the visitors was to shatter them. One half of the commune went on to form the musically-inclined Amon Düül II; the other half remained plain Amon Düül and this was the result.
Recorded during one mammoth 20-hour jam session (imagine Zappa’s “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet” with extra monsters. And magnets), “Psychedelic Underground” is sense-shattering, a monstrous free form bash that is highlighted not only by poor sound and musicianship, but also by the fact that the musicians didn’t actually seem to have a clue what they were doing.
Yet it is compulsive in its crashing delirium; so much so that the same jam session not only spawned two further albums (“Collapsing/Singvögel Rückwärts & Co.” and “Paradieswärts Düül”), but also a fourth, “Disaster/Lüüd Noma,” which was culled from out-takes and demos from the first three. Out-takes and demos? From a freak out?
U.S. Release: Spoon Records (XSPOON6/7), 2014
Current Value: $20
Released in Germany in 1971, “Tago Mago” remains Can’s most impressive album. Although Amon Düül remained the princes of percussion on the Krautrock scene, Can also appreciated the emotions that rhythm induced — a logical notion to an audience raised on rock ’n’ roll, of course, but less so to one whose grounding was in the avant-garde.
Named after a rock near Ibiza, itself associated with the great wizard Aleister Crowley, “Tago Mago“ combined one disc of relatively conventional song structures (the Jesus and Mary Chain even managed to cover one track, “Mushroom”), with another of utterly exhilarating free-form improvisation. Energies that still feel far removed from anything we might ordinarily label as Krautrock… which, of course, was what hallmarks all of the genre’s best music.
U.S. release: Cleopatra (CLP 7058), 2011
Current Value: $35
“Cottonwoodhill” (original German release, 1971) traveled the sonic cosmos, but it also set the tone for what would, in later years, be termed “world music” (“Places of Light” even featured a kalimba tuned on a minor scale). An epic contrast between heavy, electric rock and the soft moods of nature, it was also steeped in archaic instrumentation.
“I wanted to know what the music sounded like in Atlantis, ancient Africa, Egypt and Mesopotamia,” explained leader Joel Vandroogenbroeck, “stuff far behind our times. I always thought the vibration of a string, of a skin, of a wind instrument made one sometimes discover the vibration of the soul.”
None of which stopped the band’s label from taking one listen to the tapes, then releasing it with a warning to “only listen once a day to this record. Your brain might be destroyed,” before further cautioning, “after listening to this record your friends won’t know you anymore.”