Sex and computers: post-war Germany’s strange affair with Krautrock

Kraftwerk in Tokyo, 1981
The sound of the future: krautrock band Kraftwerk in Tokyo, 1981 - Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

From rock ’n’ roll to jazz, blues and grunge, musical movements have often been born out of human conflict. The dev­a­station of the ­Second World War – more than 75 million dead; Coventry, Dresden and Warsaw reduced to rubble; ordinary people consigned to a lifetime of suffering with PTSD – was ­followed by an unprecedented ­cultural revolution.

In Britain and America, this meant teenage girls going wild for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, young people experimenting with drugs and finding their spiritual home in music by Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, and an explosion of filmmaking, visual art and literature.

But in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, a generation was being forced to face the horror of their history head-on. Teenagers were returning to bombed-out schools to find that their teachers still ­conformed to Nazi ideology; their parents and grandparents remained shackled by conservatism; those who had defied the Third Reich were either dead or coming home from prison camps, scarred and broken. The musician Günter Schickert, of the trio GAM, describes the situation in Neu Klang, Christoph Dallach’s “definitive” oral history of krautrock: “They took the survivors and asked them a quick couple of questions, and Bob’s your uncle, they were ­de-Nazified and they could go back to work.”

Infrastructure and generational harmony were not the only parts of German society that had been ­obliterated. Irmin Schmidt, the keyboardist of Can, says that ­deep-rooted feelings of shame, grief and betrayal meant that, in the 1950s and 1960s, “Germany had been destroyed, and its entire culture along with it.”

Young Germans grappling with their identity weren’t encouraged, later on, by the insistence of the British music journalists John Peel and Richard Williams (of Melody Maker) on labelling an emerging new genre from the country as “kraut­rock”. “Kraut” was a dirty word, spat out as an insult by Allied soldiers. According to pioneers such as Kraftwerk’s Michael Rother and Tangerine Dream’s Klaus Schulze, it showed a refusal from the West to accept that Germany’s teenagers were trying to be different. As Lutz Ludwig Kramer, of Agitation Free, puts it: “We broke with structures – how could they give us such a backward-looking name?”

Even the most apparently thoughtful of minds treated them as sinners. Achim Reichel, whose group the Rattles opened for the Beatles in 1966, watched John ­Lennon on stage at the Star-Club in Ham­burg, “completely naked, ­guitar in front of his parts, with a toilet seat around his neck”, miming a Hitler salute to the horror of his audience.

Influenced by free jazz, hippies, Leftist student politics and, eventually, the advent of computers, kraut­rock bands such as Tangerine Dream, Can, Faust and Kraftwerk have markedly different sounds but a shared inspiration: they were trying to reckon with being German. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to surmise that krautrock’s reliance on electronics was a direct retort to the old, bucolic lifestyle held up as an ideal under the Führer.

Neu Klang is laudably ambitious in scope, and it becomes evident early on that the study of krautrock (and music) itself plays second fiddle to sociology and politics. Thus, it becomes a complicated tale: a mammoth series of interviews with just about every musician from the scene you can think of – one not­able missing voice is that of the Tangerine Dream founder Edgar Froese, who died in 2015 – alongside chapters divided by theme.

There are sections on hair (the longer, the better), travelling (the African continent and India were very “in”) and celebrated clubs such as the Zodiac Free Arts Lab. We learn about the widespread use of LSD and hash, and where young people were taking them: mass squats such as West Berlin’s famed Kommune 1, filled with rich kids and models and wannabe guitarists obsessed with having orgies. And Dallach delves into the 1968 murder of the student Benno Ohnesorg by a police officer – which changed ­everything, uniting young and old in their revulsion.

It makes for a thorough but scattershot effect that isn’t helped by the author’s decision to forgo written-through prose in favour of short, choppy transcriptions. You must decipher the story yourself,  map out your own conclusions – a daunting task when faced with four decades of history and a genre so elusive. The interviews are consistently fascinating, but Dallach’s failure to analyse his findings makes Neu Klang seem incomplete.