Krautrock – Cosmic Rock And Its Legacy (Black Dog Publishing)

SH | The rise and rise of Krautrock, attested to by mainstream television documentaries on the subject, club nights and compilations, means that its otherness risks being drained, and Neu! records suddenly become ‘classics’.

It isn’t quite the case that capitalism has tamed space with time here, but that time has tamed culture for capitalism.

This process is inevitable, resistance is hypocritical, and this book is part of that inevitability. The process itself has a history. During and after Punk, English Progressive Rock couldn’t be touched – it was so heavily stigmatized – and so German Progressive Rock records suddenly became commodities from the same era, which were fetishizable again, at the same time as they provided an extra dimension of otherness. Bands such as Joy Division took this on, discovering new sounds, but also importing Kraftwerk into their music, and the hybrid cultural conversation which followed that little gesture was Hegelian in its span.

Those outriders, scouring Düsseldorf record shops on tour, have now been followed by a mass of Fopp shoppers into the exotic sounds of post-WW2 German rock music and electronic experiment. This may well be the same thing as saying ‘I was into this before you, hands off’, the sociological dimension of the commodity fetish in these cultural processes. Perhaps there is a little of that leaking out of the ol’ unconscious here, having bought the pre-Cope guides – ‘Eurock’ did the rounds in bootleg form when I were a lad – and then the Freeman Brothers’ outstanding ‘Crack In The Cosmic Egg’ arrived, which the cover of this title seems to mirror.

But no, this book is an improvement on the Freeman Brothers’ work, it would be churlish to deny it. It is a different thing in many ways, it isn’t as encyclopedic, but the writers are intelligent and thoughtful, and much more widely culturally attuned.

The differences between the two books seems to illuminate the two main ‘types’ of record collector friends I have had over the years. One is of the ‘bus timetable’ variety, he – and it is invariably a he – has books filled with the serial numbers of Kinks records, imported from Japan at great expense, and the other is of the ‘cultural mist’ variety, who sees heavy cultural ramifications in the slightest diversion from a standard chord progression, revelations often illusory to everyone else.

I’d like to think that I have always lived somewhere between the two camps, but guiltily understand that I err on the side of the latter. But the great thing this book does is to straddle those two psychologies. It gives just enough detail about what is out there, the ‘stuff’, and the right amount of cultural background and gravitas, although the Ken Hollings essay here is brilliant as ever, taking us much further than required, linking Kant with the science used by the scene. This is the best ‘primer’, actually, I have seen on the subject, and the images are lush. So any collector-boy resentment about the rest of the world swallowing this period of pop, which may or may not be going on out there, is pathetic, frankly. Ultimately, having interviewed Damo Suzuki in his Cologne flat, having trawled hand photocopied safari guides to some seriously weird vinyl, having tracked down the Kalacakra reissue, I know – know – that there is serious pleasure to be had here, and that everyone else should have some.

But I also know – know – that the CD edition of ‘Second Smile’ by Brainstorm wasn’t ever worth the hard-earned. I strongly suspect that German rock obscurities from the 70s such as these are being excused their lack of formal innovation, where their English Prog counterparts would be ridiculed. There’s a kind of hip-kid inversion of Daily Express logic in this. Brainstorm aren’t featured here, thankfully, and in that sense this book is well-curated. But it also unconsciously provides a map of taste – a guide to the ‘cosmopolitan’ re-editing of a genre – and I want to conclude here as an enemy of taste.

Why? Firstly, Vivienne Westwood appeared on the television recently, outside Buckingham Palace, proclaiming her admiration for the Royal Family and the forthcoming Jubilee Celebrations, describing the queen as ‘social cement’. It was interesting to think of the way cement and concrete once figured in punk iconography, alongside our current total lack of social mobility for young people, the real ‘social cement’, surely. This is what ‘taste’ does, it re-edits things so that more people might consume them, dumping any inconvenient politics along the way. In light of this, I would like to see the arbitrary ‘year zero’ put in place by punk removed, finally and officially. This is not a pedantic, obscure or irrelevant point, if my advocacy were carried out – and it could be – the way we view both Krautrock and Punk would have to alter radically. In fact, the barrier was weak all along. When I interviewed Faust, their story was a Proppian template for the rise of the Sex Pistols, right down to recording in The Manor, getting up Branson’s nose, and his secretaries. Then of course there’s Lydon’s love of Peter Hammill and Tim Buckley.

I would also like to see the nationalisms of Progressive Rock kicked away, like so many redundant fragments of Berlin Wall, although I am guilty of keeping the walls up, in some ways. I refuse to employ the term ‘Krautrock’, but I file under ‘European Progressive’, a section next to ‘English Progressive’, which contains all the usual suspects, which itself is next to ‘American Progressive’, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and the like. So here are the other arbitrary, national borderlines. Damo Suzuki told me he used to hang out with English Progressive Rockers, Hawkwind particularly, and I would like to see ‘Cosmic Music’ as a whole assessed via entirely different sets of epistemological paradigms than national ones.

This book is a welcome addition to a widening literature though, it gives a great deal of pleasure, and it is more than worth its cover price. It is wonderful, in fact. But I would like to write the book which argues that both ‘Lieber Herr Deutschland’ by Faust and ‘Aisle Of Plenty’ by Genesis were more ‘punk’ than everything John Lydon created after 1980, and more seditionary in our current Jubilee moment than anything made in 2012. Now there’s a thought to leave you with.

This entry was posted in Books, Krautrock, Progressive Rock, Punk, Steve Hanson. Bookmark the permalink.

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