Friday, January 12, 2024

Uwe Schütte (ed.) - The Cambridge Companion to Krautrock (2023)

About nine years ago, I reviewed Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler (1995), and I complained quite a bit about it and suggested finding a different guide. Despite my own recommendation, I never did so myself. I suppose I’d already made the plunge, so reading another book about Krautrock and kosmische Musik felt unnecessary. Nonetheless, I was always curious if the perfect primer would eventually come around. David Stubbs’s Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany (2014) got good reviews, and Ulrich Adelt’s Krautrock: German Music in the Seventies (2016) also looked promising, and maybe someday I’ll try one or the other. But after enjoying the honesty and depth of Uwe Schütte’s Godstar: Die fünf Tode des Genesis P-Orridge (2022), I decided to check out The Cambridge Companion to Krautrock, which he edited and wrote the introduction and Kraftwerk section for.

[The Cambridge Companion to Krautrock.]

Schütte assembled a superb team of writers to fill out the text, including both Stubbs (on Neu!) and Adelt (on “Definitions, Concepts, [and] Context”). That each section is somewhat independent means that there is unfortunately some overlap, but that’s a minor inconvenience. The benefit is a wide variety of perspectives with unique specializations and interests. The book provides a great overview of the social, political, musical, and geographic background that gave rise to the genre (or “discursive formation”, as Adelt prefers to call it, since the movement isn’t really a cohesive unit), thorough deep-dives into some of the primary artists, and a well-considered selection of the subsequent genres and artists that have been influenced by Krautrock.

The tone is academic but approachable, which I preferred quite a bit to Cope’s excited mess, even if I missed some of the passion. The book is in English, despite that several authors (and the music itself) hail from Germany, which occasionally means there are some awkward phrases, like describing music as “spherical”. (In German, “sphärisch” can mean something like “atmospheric”, “celestial”, or “spacey”.) Thankfully, this is rarely distracting. I also appreciated the attention paid to detail and accuracy, again unlike Cope’s wild exaggerations and reliance on oft-repeated rumors. The only mistake I encountered was the claim that Klaus Dinger never appeared on a Kraftwerk album. (He is credited with playing drums on “Vom Himmel hoch” on their debut album.)

The breadth is quite wide and generally quite balanced, with practically none of the idiosyncratic bias of Cope’s tastes. I was initially surprised how little mention the folk, prog, and jazz sides of the genre received, but since those are the factions that were most similar to contemporaneous Anglo-American acts, it’s an understandable choice. (I also tend to be less interested in those bands.) I would’ve loved a section on Agitation Free, but otherwise the choice of highlighted bands is probably the same set that I would’ve picked, both in terms of notoriety and quality. However, my favorite chapter was Jens Balzer’s “The Flip Side of Krautrock”, which was full of pleasant surprises. He openly acknowledges some of the conservative or even counter-revolutionary aspects of the movement, such as the relative lack of women and immigrant voices in the canon, and discusses some notable acts from adjacent genres, like Die Dominas, Inga Rumpf of Frumpy, and Turkish-German bağlama player Ozan Ata Canani.

I also particularly enjoyed the third part on Krautrock’s legacy, which includes chapters on punk and Neue Deutsche Welle, post-punk, and electronic dance music. Several of my favorite artists from the late 70s and 80s are cited in their connection to Krautrock, including Einstürzende Neubauten, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Bauhaus, and of course David Bowie. The discussion and comparison with German punk is quite insightful, particularly in exploring the shared desire to reject oppressive, received, Anglo-American norms. The final chapter on “Krautrock Today” also covers a great selection of younger bands in the kosmische mold, including of course Stereolab.

This is the book I wish I could’ve read ten years ago. We can safely forget about Cope now. (Well, not his music!) It’s telling how far the movement has gone in public perception that it can now grace the prestiged printing presses of Cambridge. It’s no longer just the domain of obscure fanatics. The internet has thrown open the doors, and academia has finally caught up.

Score: A-

P.S.: Two links buried in the footnotes deserve calling out. First is a Detroit TV show clip featuring a bunch of people in 1991 dancing to Kraftwerk’s “Nummern” (“Numbers”). Second is a Facebook post by Adelt in the Krautrock group in which he spawns the most absurd debate about the boundaries of the genre I’ve ever seen, only to be hijacked by The Crack in the Cosmic Egg coauthor (and group moderator) Alan Freeman pressing Amon Düül II vocalist Renate Knaup for Melody Maker scans from the 70s!

No comments: