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Why Write About Krautrock?

On today’s blog, Marshall Gu shares why he decided to write about krautrock for his addition to the 33 1/3 Genre series. Take it away, Marshall!

In the 1970s, German rock musicians were creating a new sound that was unlike any of rock music coming out of America or Britain. In the culture void created by Adolf Hitler’s specific art tastes, and the subsequent allied occupation of Germany, these musicians were looking at sources as disparate as psych rock, free jazz, and modern classical for inspiration. Many bands, especially those in Berlin, were early adopters of the synthesizer in a rock context, while bands like Can were testing using synthetic drums in combination with organic ones. Non-German audiences quickly disparaged this sound, calling it ‘krautrock,’ named after the derogatory term ‘kraut’ derived from the popular German dish sauerkraut, but the genre quickly found champions in musicians like David Bowie, Pavement, Radiohead, and Portishead.

Why I chose to write about krautrock is because the genre has no limitations. Across Germany, bands were inventing their own musical language by experimenting with the so-called motorik drum beat, drum machines, synthesizers, noise, ambient, and using the studio as an instrument. Hence, no two krautrock bands sound similar, especially if you compare bands from Düsseldorf in the northwest to those in Berlin in the southeast. There was a freedom of expression coming out of German’s recent dictatorship and post-war depression, which has led to experimentation equal parts brilliance and insanity. You’ll never see a genre like krautrock again because the circumstances that led to its creation are so specific.

Looking back, I wish I was able to interview more krautrock musicians. I am thankful for the opportunities to have spoken to Marja Burchard (of Embryo) and Lutz Ulbrich (of Agitation Free), and that Ax Genrich (of Guru Guru) was kind enough to answer my questions over email when our skype connection went on the fritz. But I deliberated about reaching out to Ash Ra Tempel’s Manuel Göttsching, and I really wish I had because the musician passed away on December 4, 2022, shortly before my first draft was completed. Many of the first generation of krautrock musicians are no longer with us, while others are now in their eighties, and based on my interview with Lutz Ulbrich, still have stories to tell from that transformative era.

In the year that followed me completing my book and submitting it to Bloomsbury, American indie rock band Yo La Tengo released a heavily krautrock-inspired album, This Stupid World, to critical acclaim. Agitation Free released a new studio album, their first in almost 25 years. Surviving Can member Irmin Schmidt has been editing live Can tapes and releasing them to ravenous fans, including Live in Paris 1973 for release in February 2024. In my book, I wrote that krautrock effectively came to an end by the late-70s, but 50 years later, it’s abundantly clear that the genre’s experimental spirit still resonates with new fans today.

Marshall Gu

is a music writer and has written for Pitchfork, Tone Glow, Bandcamp, and Resident Advisor. He lives in Toronto.

Krautrock is available to buy in bookshops and online, including at Bloomsbury.com

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