I’ve finally finished wading through David Stubbs’ Future Days book on Krautrock, having bought it in September. It’s quite a good read, and I’m beginning to regret not making the time to see him talking about it at Psychfest. His profiles of Can and Neu! are particularly worth reading and the back stories behind each band are genuinely interesting. There are some great stories of the time (if you pick it up, and envisage not making it through to the end, do at least search out the chapter about the less-than-successful attempts by the head of Ohr records, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser, to get Timothy Leary to record an album, whilst on the run from the CIA). He also refers to a pretty remarkable YouTube clip, involving Kaiser and a particularly radical musician called, Nikel Pallat, who loses it spectacularly during a televised arts discussion about the overthrow of capitalism:
The desk stands up remarkably well, no? (Some metaphors write themselves…)
Stubbs’ passages about specific songs and particularly about the kosmische bands all get a bit NME at times, but I can forgive him this – writing about actual music is a tricky business (the last seven years of PP have at least taught us this…) – dancing about architecture, for sure…
It’s got me going back through Can again and if anything enjoying the first two Neu! records even more than before. I’ve “discovered” the splendid, ragged sprawl that is the first Guru Guru LP, I’ve been giving some of the more “difficult” Faust tracks another go and I’ve even gained a grudging respect (if not affection) for Kraftwerk. But what’s taken me a little by surprise is the extent that I’m also starting to enjoy some of the more ambient elements of the period.
I’ve tended to associate “Krautrock” (a term with which Stubbs, and most of the musicians of the time are pretty unhappy btw) with the noisier, experimental guitar bands, and above all with the “Dingerbeat”, the relentless, locomotive rhythm patterns, propelled by Neu!’s Klaus Dinger. To be honest, I’ve always felt that ambient sounds are, well, a tiny bit dull and just a tad pretentious. I remember a friend of mine, “back in the day”, telling me, without a trace of irony, that Tangerine Dream would help him sleep at night… Hmmm…
Re-listening to this however, and I may be on the turn (so to speak).
Harmonia were the first supergroup of Krautrock, formed when Dieter Möbius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Kluster/Cluster started collaborating with the other half of Neu!, Michael Rother. They released three albums, which I’m yet to get to grips with, before drifting apart to work on solo projects. The moment Brian Eno rocked up at the band’s remote farmhouse was the moment when Harmonia turned into Harmonia ’76, and therefore, if I persevere with my glib supergroup metaphor, this would be the moment when der Kream turned into der Blind Faith. Except with better music (and cups of tea).
Eno had already pronounced Harmonia “the world’s most important rock band” so a collaboration was, I guess, always on the cards but I’m not sure the ensuing sessions were ever envisaged as an album in the making. Stubbs reckons it’s “music about making music” – buggered if I know what that means but there’s certainly a comfortableness and a relaxed quality about the tracks they recorded which suggests that the four men were just having a fine old time together. The picture later used as the album cover, depicts the four in their element, I think it’s fair to say, mugs of tea in hand, sitting around grinning amiably, surrounded by tapes, leads and guitars. In the event, the tapes were buried for many years and only released as “Tracks and Traces” in 1997 (indeed a reissue in 2009 unearthed a few extra tracks and there’s talk of still further material in Rother’s possession…).
Giving them a proper listen now, you can hear that there’s some motoric in there, some Kraftwerk plinking too, but to my mind the centre pieces of the session are a few tracks of ambient soundscapes that sound modern still, today, and in 1976 must’ve been really out there…
Now, this sort of ethereal, formless fare is not really my sort of thing at all but I can’t help but find myself returning again and again to it and , well, this track, really – “Sometimes in Autumn”
If you’ve persevered throughout the fifteen minutes (I know, but believe me, if this butterfly-brain can do it, you can – and you’ll be rewarded for it…), you’ll have heard a veritable (though fluffy) barrage of Eno-style effects and electronics, which come from a very different place than the jarring recklessness of Can or Faust. The track starts with something of a fanfare of not-really-going-anywhere noodling, but gradually settles down to the measured repetition of a two-note motif that seems to travel through reed beds of echoes and synthesised wails. A helicopter appears to pass over a couple of times, tides seem to come and go, winds envelope you periodically. It’s a funny, old, not entirely-satisfying journey across (I’m imagining) some sort of murky lake with no real destination or feeling that you’ve arrived.
That’s pretty much as far as I’m going to try and go describing it (architects, dancing, remember…) apart from to say that there’s something intriguing and remarkably compelling about it as a piece of music. It’s one of those “can you see what it is, yet?” pieces, except that I’d imagine that those in the know would probably scoff at the notion of being able to hammer it into your own shape or metaphor. On the other hand, my narcoleptic Tangerine Dream fan of days yore would possibly stroke his beard and suggest that whatever interpretation you give it is … cool. Having given him the smack around the face he would so richly deserve, I’d probably have to concede (privately) that he might actually be right.
Do with it what you will… but do enjoy it.