Listen to this article
It is unusual for a writer to denigrate the subject of their book in its opening pages but that’s exactly what David Stubbs does in Future Days when he admits that “there are those who object to the absurdly catch-all and offensive term of ‘Krautrock’ ”.
The name was created by the British music press in the early 1970s to describe the emergence of a loosely linked series of West German bands: Can, Neu!, Faust, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream. The coinage comes from an era of kneejerk Germanophobia, a time when a 1974 NME interview with Can, a band composed of musicians trained by Karlheinz Stockhausen, could carry the headline “They Have Ways of Making You Listen”. But the K-word has stuck. It is a back-handed compliment, a rare non-Anglophone entry in rock’s canon: the Germanic equivalent of Britpop or Chicago blues.
In Future Days, Stubbs, a British music journalist who cut his teeth at Melody Maker in the 1980s, recounts the rise of Krautrock. The story begins in the late 1960s, when West German musicians progressed from copying British and American bands, as with Beatles soundalikes the Rattles (sample song: “Hurra Die Rattles Kommen!”), to creating their own idiom out of psychedelic rock and experimental electronic music.
The first Krautrock bands such as Amon Düül and Can grew out of hippy counter-culture. The backdrop was that of anti-Vietnam protests, communes, the student movement, sexual revolution, drugs – the same agitation that was happening in Paris or London, but with an extra insurrectionary twist. Young people in West Germany were in revolt against their parents’ perceived complicity in Nazism and the nation’s failure to face up to its wartime crimes. The result, was a generation driven, as Stubbs puts it, by “a burning desire for untrammelled self-expression”.
There was no single centre for Krautrock: its bands came from all over West Germany. The music varied considerably too, from Faust’s brutal musique concrète with cement mixers and drills, to Kraftwerk’s superbly poised electronic pop. What united them, in Stubbs’s telling, was a “year-zero” mentality, the sense of starting afresh. Neu! were known for their “motorik” beat, a metronomic pulse “thrumming with assurance and optimism for what lies beyond the horizon”, while Kraftwerk’s first hit was their 1974 ode to a motorway journey, “Autobahn”, a European riposte to American hymns of the highway.
Krautrock’s bands were less hierarchical than the typical Anglo-American outfit with its feudal ordering of frontman, lead guitarist and rhythm section. “We’re not musicians, we’re universal dilettantes,” said Can’s Holger Czukay in 1972. Yet the lack of explicit political engagement in Krautrock was looked on disapprovingly by counter-cultural activists, “many of whom were sceptical about rock music’s role as a medium for social change rather than a hedonistic distraction”.
The point is interesting, one of many such asides, but it isn’t properly developed. The book’s structure militates against doing so, with Stubbs choosing to cover the various Krautrock bands episodically, chapter by chapter. A broader approach, drawing together the different strands, might have been more illuminating.
The chapters based on new interviews, such as Can’s drummer Jaki Liebezeit, are the best. In contrast, Kraftwerk’s potted history is told without direct input from its enigmatic leader Ralf Hütter, other than in the cut-and-pasted form of previously published interviews. His reticence is shared by other Krautrockers. Even Liebezeit, born in 1938, refuses to talk in detail about his childhood. “I sense a very heavy experience,” says a bandmate; Stubbs does not pry.
He is good on the music, tracing its evolution and legacy, although the connections can get a bit wearying – the rock equivalent of genealogy. I would have liked a more cogent grasp of the context in which the music was made.
The biggest gap in the story is the cold war, an elision summed up when Stubbs, without troubling to inquire why, casually lets slip that Krautrock bands rarely mentioned the Berlin Wall. Meanwhile the term itself remains imprecise. “The convulsive vacillation in Krautrock between the axes of noise and beauty, metal and nature speaks about trauma and healing, destruction and rebirth, but at a subliminal, unspoken level,” he writes. Was the modern Germany of the book’s subtitle really built on such airy foundations?
Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany, by David Stubbs, Faber, RRP£20, 512 pages
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop music critic
Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published