The Essential: Krautrock
The deluge of truly experimental music that came out of Germany in the early 70s gave the sonic envelope a good pushing like never before…
The name krautrock is an umbrella term given to the broad genre of music created by a multitude of German bands in the early 70s. Reportedly, the faintly pejorative phrase was doled out by one of the hacks working in the UK music press at the time: it is what is, and it stuck. Needless to say, at the time, the musicians in these groups certainly didn’t think of themselves as being in a krautrock band creating krautrock music. Ultimately, krautrock was always far more an attitude than it ever was a style.
An alternative name often used is ‘kosmische musik’ (cosmic music) and the bands involved were uncompromisingly committed to expanding the existing frontiers of art and music. West Germany was still in the aftershock of World War II and the younger generation were searching for sonic innovation and unique sounds of their own. The one path these bands knew they didn’t want to tread was the song-based rock ’n’ roll formula of their British and American counterparts. To this end, many of the German bands were in thrall of electronics, early synthesisers, tape collages and sound manipulation.
There was an emphasis on epically extended instrumentals with minimal, hypnotic motifs; there were no sub-three-minute pop songs being manufactured here. Similarly, their inspiration wasn’t gained from cars and girls, but from exotic sources such as Eastern mysticism, science fiction, the mechanics of industry and, of course, mind-bending hallucinogens.
But we mustn’t get into the business of homogenising these groups under one banner, as the spirit of krautrock helped develop many different musical strands and scenes under the one banner. From cosmic synthscapes to brain-frying space rock, categorisation is futile.
The most fruitful years of the krautrock scene cover a short period, and you’ll find many releases in our list dating from 1970 to 1975. Lots of the albums we look at didn’t receive a UK release, as the music took some time to permeate the senses over here; in fact, it’s still permeating, so where stated, we look at the first presses in Germany, many on legendary labels such as Brain and Ohr.
Each band is limited to one entry, which when you examine the fêted discographies of legendary acts such as Can, Neu!, Faust, Amun Düül and Ash Ra Tempel is a difficult trick, but is done because we want to introduce you to as many artists as possible…
Holger Czukay (1979)
Can’s bass player studied under the tutelage of avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and his first solo album after departing the group is as exploratory as you would expect. With extended prog-rock jams textured with samples from film, television and short-wave radio, you could file next to Byrne and Eno’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, if you were so inclined.
Rarest 1979 EMI £20
Latest 2016 Groenland Records £15
Lord Krishna Von Goloka
Sergius Golowin (1973)
Maverick producer Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser is the man responsible for this classic krautrock curiosity, as he persuaded the new-age guru Sergius Golowin to record an album about Krishna. Backed by Klaus Schulze and assorted members of Wallenstein, the resultant record is as experimental and far, far out there as you might expect.
Rarest 1973 Die Kosmischen Kuriere £150/£175
Latest 2013 Ohr Today £20
Munich musical collective Embryo were never ones for ghostly synth soundscapes, but were content to plough an improvised free-jazz furrow. With added layers of space rock and elements of world music, the impressive debut Opal is the band at its most trippy and psychedelic. Jazz legend Miles Davis was listening closely: “They are good musicians, just playing good shit!”
Rarest 1970 Ohr (import) £175
Latest 2010 Wah Wah Records £25
Trip. Flip Out. Meditation
Many of the albums on this krautrock How To Buy list are a challenging listen, that’s the nature of the beast, but none more so than Zweistein’s singularly ambitious triple Trip. Flip Out. Meditation. Spectacularly experimental, almost to the point of being unlistenable, its disturbing manipulated sounds and primitive experimentations are like no other.
Rarest 1970 Philips (import) £200/£250
Latest 2017 Wah-Wah (Spanish import) £50
Cluster’s Dieter Moebius got together with a couple of members of jazz-rockers Kraan, plus others, and along with ubiquitous producer Conny Plank delivered an ambient album of note. In the relentless spirit of experimentation, the familiar synth soundscapes are fused with a diverse range of instrumentation that adds both warmth and colour to this rewarding side-project.
Rarest 1978 Brain £35/£40
Latest Out of press
Initially known as The Lovely People, Mythos emerged from Berlin’s underground scene in the late 60s and signed to the legendary Ohr label. As well as being housed in a quintessentially freaky-deaky sleeve, the self-titled debut was a mystical, atmospheric affair that floated in and out between trippy space rock and acoustic folk.
Rarest 1972 Ohr £60/£65
Latest 2008 Ohr £15
Günter Schickert (1979)
A guitar virtuoso comparable to the mighty Manuel Göttsching, Günter Schickert was an active member of Berlin’s free-jazz scene in the 60s. The atmospheric Überfällig was his second album, originally issued in 1979 on the Sky label and the follow-up to his 1974 Brain debut Samtvogel. The title knowingly translates as ‘overdue’.
Rarest 1979 Sky (import) £50
Latest 2012 Bureau B (import) £20
GAM is an acronym for the band members’ first names, Günter Schickert, Axel Struck and Michael Leske. Eiszeit was recorded in 1978 but never saw the light of day until 2005 (on CD only) after the hapless producer misplaced the master tapes. Despite the wait, with its pulsating circular guitar riffs, the album sits comfortably beside its space-rock contemporaries of the day.
Latest 2015 Dirty Knobby (US import) £25
German Oak (1972)
In 1972 German Oak recorded their debut in a former air-raid shelter turned recording studio in Düsseldorf. The controversial narrative of the album attempts to deal with the anger of the younger generation towards the Third Reich. It was shunned by the critics on release, but this atmospheric, dark instrumental work has since undergone a favourable reappraisal.
Rarest 1972 Bunker Records (import) £550/£600
Latest 2017 Now-Again Records (retitled Down In The Bunker) £30
Klaus Schulze (1972)
An original member of Tangerine Dream, Schulze is inarguably one of the founding fathers of electronic music. His debut album is a bleak symphonic work that consists of hypnotically extended drones. Surprisingly, the sounds on Irrlicht weren’t coaxed out of a synthesiser, his future weapon of choice, but were assembled painstakingly from an electronic organ, oscillators and manipulated orchestral recordings.
Rarest 1972 Ohr (import) £65
Latest 2017 Brain £24
The band were originally named Blitzkrieg and were all set to release their first album when another group of the same name were uncovered. The adaptable Rhinelanders kept the Blitzkreig title for the album and opted for the less provocative Wallenstein for their name. This dynamic debut is the most overtly krautrock of all their releases, as the band gradually morphed into symphonic prog rockers.
Rarest 1972 Pilz (import, gatefold) £40
Latest 2013 Ohr £20
As with many of their peers, Gila emerged as a multimedia project from an underground commune. The band’s original name of Gila Fuck didn’t go down too well with the authorities and was shortened. Subtitled Free Electric Sound, the classic debut album starts in the psychedelic rock territory of early-era Pink Floyd before floating away into far stranger lands.
Rarest 1971 BASF (import) £200/£250
Latest 2008 Second Battle £30
Many krautrock albums are sonically ‘out there’, but little can prepare you for the insanity of Brainticket’s debut album. Drop your needle on Brainticket, an extended acid freak-out that features a locked keyboard groove and all sorts of lysergic lunacy laid over the top of it. The inner sleeve warns: “Only listen to this once a day. Your brain might be destroyed!” You’ll get no argument here.
Rarest 1971 Hallelujah (Italy import) £75
Latest 2017 Lillith (US import) £20
The Cosmic Jokers
The Cosmic Jokers (1974)
The Cosmic Jokers are the greatest krautrock supergroup that never was. The album was created from space-rock jam sessions arranged by studio owner Dieter Dierks, where the musicians played free in exchange for as many drugs as they could ingest. It just so happened that the participants included genre godheads Manuel Göttsching and Klaus Schulze (who failed to see the funny side and sued).
Rarest 1974 Kosmische Musik (import) £95
Latest 2016 Klimt (French import) £16
Michael Rother (1977)
While the familiar guitar sounds and motorik rhythms are still present (Can’s Jaki Leibezeit sits in on drums), Michael Rother’s debut solo album, Flammende Herzen (Flaming Heart), is a transcendent and pastoral delight. Breaking free of the edgy pretensions of his previous band, the former Neu! man’s melodic touch brings a spaced-out lightness to the party. The ubiquitous Conny Plank was on production duty.
Rarest 1977 Sky Records (import) £15
Latest 2010 4 Men With Beards £15
Durch Die Wüste
The first full-length solo album of krautrock’s prolific synth wizard was pieced together studiously at Conny Plank’s Cologne studio. The title is German for ‘Through The Desert’ and is a blissfully reflective collection that possesses a warmer, more organic feel than his work with Cluster. In recent times, Roedelius has collaborated with former head Commotion, Lloyd Cole.
Rarest 1978 Sky Records (import) £30
Latest 2009 Bureau B (import) £15
Timothy Leary And Ash Ra Tempel (1978)
Having escaped from jail in California, LSD high priest Timothy Leary was exiled in Switzerland with time on his hands. What better way to spend it than hang out in the recording studio with Ash Ra Tempel. His input is negligible, but the band’s psychedelic blues is remarkable. The album’s title was thought up after the group had been given a bottle of 7 Up laced with LSD.
Rarest 1973 Die Kosmichen Kuriere £100
Latest Out of press
Alles Ist Gut
By the time 1981’s Alles Is Gut was released, Düsseldorf’s Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft had all but outgrown their initial krautrock roots and influences. If anything, with their rugged brand of sweaty post-punk electropop, Gabriel Delgado-López and Robert Görl were the calculated antithesis of Kraftwerk’s ultra-polished pop. The durable genius that is Conny Plank can be found on production duties.
Rarest 1981 Virgin £20
Latest 2018 Groenland (import) £15
Xhol Caravan (1969)
Formed in Wiesbaden, Xhol Caravan started life as Soul Caravan, a Motown covers band fronted by a couple of American GIs. Over time, they were swept away by the zeitgeist and transmuted into a freaked-out jazz-rock outfit. Electrip is one of the earliest krautrock albums, and its energetic and exploratory mix of improvised jazz and druggy prog is way ahead of its time.
Rarest 1969 Hansa £250 (import)
Latest Out of press
Achim Reichel & Machines (1972)
Achim Reichel (A.R) first found fame as a member of The Rattles, a Beatles-inspired combo that toured briefly with The Rolling Stones in the early 60s. Reichel’s solo career saw him tread a different sonic path, and second album Echo is an immersive collection of his trippy, psychedelic guitar workouts. It’s a hauntingly beautiful and expansive gem.
Rarest 1972 Polydor (import) £300
Latest Out of press
Outside The Dream Syndicate
Tony Conrad With Faust (1973)
Minimalist Conrad was a member of The Dream Syndicate with John Cale and La Monte Young. He is also the man who owned the paperback that gave The Velvet Underground their name. His contemplative collaboration with Faust was his first recorded output, as well as being a platform for his prolonged drone experimentations.
Rarest 1973 Caroline £80
Latest 2016 Superior Viaduct £30
Trips Und Träume
Witthüser & Westrupp (1971)
Songwriter Bernd Witthüser and multi-instrumentalist Walter Westrupp started out as an orthodox folk duo, but by the time they came to record their second release they’d turned on and tuned in to the kosmische scene. The mainly acoustic Trips Und Träume is a pastoral folk album with a distinctly acid-saturated edge.It’s worth owning for the freaky gatefold sleeve alone.
Rarest 1971 Ohr (import, gatefold) £40
Latest 2008 Ohr (import) £20
Kraftwerk’s main men Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter met at art school and bonded over a love of avant-garde music. This led to the formation of their first band and the subsequent release of Tone Float, a series of extended psychedelic jams not unlike early Pink Floyd. The band broke up soon after its release, but the couple had a number of electronic irons already in the fire.
Rarest 1970 RCA £300
Latest Out of press
After The Heat
Eno. Moebius. Roedelius (1978)
Following on from 1977’s Cluster & Eno, After The Heat is the second rewarding collaboration between post-Roxy Brian Eno and Cluster. While the former was an all-instrumental affair, its predecessor is predominantly song-based, with Eno assuming vocal duties on a number of tracks, albeit in backwards form on album closer Tzima N’Arki.
Rarest 1978 Sky (import) £25
Latest 2009 4 Men With Beards £22
Edge Of Time
The hauntingly dark Edge Of Time is one of krautrock’s deepest buried treasures and the only vinyl output of the short-lived cosmic folk group, Dom. The concept behind the album is the aural equivalent of a bad trip and the resulting sonic soundscapes are psychedelic, surreal and utterly hypnotic. It’s worth your while seeking out a copy but, be warned, they’re spectacularly hard to find.
Rarest 1972 Melocord £200/£250
Latest 2001 Second Battle £75
Walter Wegmüller (1973)
Non-musician Wegmüller was a Swiss painter and each of the 22 tracks on his monumentally sprawling double album represents a tarot card. What makes his only release a krautrock classic is the calibre of the musicians assembled to accompany him: Manuel Göttsching and Harmut Enke from Ash Ra Tempel, along with the ever-reliable Klaus Schulze creating an ethereal soundtrack.
Rarest 1973 Ohr (double album) £800
Latest Out of press
La Düsseldorf (1976)
Klaus Dinger formed La Düsseldorf following Neu!’s split in 1975. Along with his brother Thomas and Hans Lampe, he dispensed with the arty pretensions of his previous band and added a stomping glam swagger to his driving motorik rhythms. The resultant debut album was a joyous slice of avant electro-pop that could have been hailed as a post-punk classic, aside from the fact that punk was still in its infancy.
Rarest 1976 Decca £30
Latest 2008 Men With Beards £20
Agitation Free (1973)
The story goes that the band chose the name ‘Agitation’ simply as a word picked at random from the dictionary and then added the ‘Free’ epithet a year later. The group’s bluntly titled sophomore album is a blissful space-rock treat with bluesy guitar jamming co-existing alongside passages of electronic experimentation. The standout opening track First Communication sets the mellow tone.
Rarest 1973 Vertigo (gatefold) £280
Latest 2012 HiD (import) £30
Guru Guru (1970)
They started life as free-jazz disciples The Guru Guru Groove, but under the psychedelic influence of Jimi Hendrix, the krautrock power trio dropped the ‘Groove’ and got heavier, looser and way more out there. Debut album UFO consists of five tripped out space-rock jams, including the crazed lysergic finale The LSD March, which descends spectacularly into utter sonic chaos.
Rarest 1971 Ohr (import) £150
Latest 2016 Ohr (import) £20
Autobahn – Click here to buy your copy
Autobahn is where it all starts to take off for Düsseldorf’s finest. In fact, such is the album’s seismic influence that it’s pretty much where it all starts for popular electronic music. The propulsive title track simulates a car journey on the A555 from Cologne to Bonn. The noise made by the ignition turning is also the sound of Kraftwerk driving away from the music of krautrock and towards the mainstream.
Rarest 1974 Vertigo £50
Latest 2015 Kling Klang £20
Brains, Mushrooms and Ears
Uncovering the legendary krautrock labels
The Ohr (Ear) record company was founded in 1969 by the charismatic, LSD proponent Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser and was to become one of krautrock’s most important labels. Early releases included albums by scene giants Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, Amon Düül, Klaus Schule and Guru Guru. Due to its success, Kaiser was given further funding to set up another label with its focus on cosmic-folk – it was called Pilz (Mushroom) and its roster included Popol Vuh and Wallenstein.
A third label, Komische Kuriere, followed – but for Kaiser, who by now was a fully-fledged disciple of Timothy Leary, things started to get a bit sketchy when he started to release vinyl under the name of the Cosmic Jokers, a mythical supergroup made up of musicians who didn’t realise their informal jams were being released as albums.
Brain was an influential krautrock record company formed by a couple of former Ohr employees (Bruno Wendel and Gunter Korber) alienated by Kaiser’s way of doing business. Based in Hamburg, they brought Guru Guru with them and immediately signed Cluster. The label continued to attract the cream of the German cosmic scene, with album releases from Neu!, Harmonia, Edgar Froese, Birth Control and even Scorpions. A number of British bands were also licensed to the label for the West German market, including Greenslade, Caravan, Gryphon and Atomic Rooster.
Zuckerzeit – Click here to buy your copy
On the band’s pivotal third album, the Cluster brains trust of Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius moved away from the freaked-out cosmic sonicspheres of the previous two releases and into the unchartered territory of experimental synth-pop. The music was more rhythmic, more structured, but every bit as thrilling and no less revolutionary. Somewhere in a studio in London, some fella called Brian Eno was listening and taking notes.
Rarest 1974 Brain £150
Latest 2009 Brain £20
Deluxe – Click here to buy your copy
Harmonia was formed by the addition of Neu! guitarist Michael Rother to the Cluster duo of Roedelius and Moebius. The krautrock supergroup’s melodic and enchanting second album was a collaborative triumph that brought shimmering pastoral warmth to its mechanical motorik rhythms and pulses. Shockingly, some of the music even contains vocals (of sorts).
Rarest 1975 Brain £100
Latest 2015 Groenland Records £18
Yeti – Click here to buy your copy
Amon Düül II (1970)
Amon Düül was originally an underground political art commune in Munich that split in two, with both divisions spawning a rock group. Switching from unholy heavy rock to extended passages of gentle improvisation, Amon Düül II’s searing double Yeti is progressive psych at its mind-frying best. Listen up closely, this is the sound of the sonic envelope being pushed to its limits.
Rarest 1970 Liberty (2LP, gatefold) £200
Latest 2014 Purple Pyramid (US) £30
E2-E4 – Click here to buy your own copy
Manuel Göttsching (1984)
Inspired by the minimalism of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, the former Ash Ra Tempel guitarist recorded E2-E4 in one hour-long take, with his guitar played over sequenced synthesiser patterns. Inadvertently, the track’s persuasive repetitions had a vast influence on the development of house and techno in the late 80s. The album takes its name from the most popular opening move in chess.
Rarest 1984 Inteam (import) £200
Latest 2016 MGArt (import) £25
Einsjäger Und Siebenjäger
Popol Vuh (1974)
Under the leadership of visionary spearhead Florian Fricke, Popol Vuh’s music experienced many changes in direction, from ambient space prog to spiritual soundtracks for acclaimed director Werner Herzog. Moving away from the electronic soundsprawl of the early albums, Einsjäger Und Siebenjäger is a pared-down transcendent career peak, with Fricke’s glorious piano a tool of meditative wonder.
Rarest 1974 PDU (import) £60
Latest 2013 Wah Wah (import) £30
The Pioneering Genius of Conny Plank
Konrad ‘Conny’ Plank shaped the electronic music sound of Germany like no other. He was to krautrock what King Tubby was to dub reggae, what Martin Hannett was to post-punk; an inventive producer, sound engineer and collaborator who aided in the creation of the recorded output of the genre’s most important artists.
Bizarrely enough, he cut his studio teeth working with the iconic German actress Marlene Dietrich, but it was his pioneering work with Kraftwerk and Neu! (he was more or less the band’s third member) that quickly established his reputation as a multi-tracking maestro.
From then on, Plank was krautrock’s go-to guy and racked up a long list of production credits. Plank worked with Dieter Moebius on five Moebius & Plank studio albums, including Rastakraut Pasta, and is also credited as a musician on albums by Guru Guru, Kraan and Cluster.
By the late 1970s his standing meant production and engineering gigs were coming his way from further afield and Plank worked with Eno, Devo, Eurythmics, Killing Joke and Ultravox. Famously, he declined an offer of work with U2 because he didn’t think he could work with Bono.
Zeit – Click here to buy your copy
Tangerine Dream (1972)
The third album saw Peter Baumann join Edgar Froese and Christopher Franke to create a double album of dark, ambient space rock. Measured, unrelenting and atmospheric, Zeit resembles a work of classical music and, if you allow it, will soon immerse you in the deep space of its otherworldliness. Picturing a solar eclipse, the sleeve is one of the most iconic in krautrock.
Rarest 1972 Ohr (import) £50
Latest 2018 Ohr (RSD) £30
Faust IV – Click here to buy your copy
Faust’s stock-in-trade was to mutate standard rock sounds into something entirely different. Nowhere is this process served better than on the fourth album, which starts with an intense drone, archly titled Krautrock and ends with It’s A Bit Of A Pain, a gentle acoustic melody which is intermittently interrupted by shards of cranium-piercing white noise. The album’s commercial failure resulted in Virgin swiftly dropping them from the label.
Rarest 1973 Virgin £35
Latest 2011 Virgin (import) £25
Ash Ra Tempel – Click here to buy your copy
Ash Ra Tempel (1971)
Featuring the fabled trio of Harmut Enke, Klaus Schulze and Manuel Göttsching, Ash Ra Tempel summon up all of krautrock’s spirit and invention to deliver one of the genre’s most stunning and quintessential albums. Reminiscent of Meddle-era Floyd, their monumental cosmic debut is divided neatly into two halves, Amboss (an inspired noisy freak-out) and Traummaschine (a proto-ambient soundscape).
Rarest 1971 Ohr (import) £200
Latest 2010 Ohr (import) £45
Neu! – Click here to buy your copy
Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother spent time together in Kraftwerk before forming Neu!. With producer Conny Plank at the controls, their hypnotic motorik rhythm was established from the outset, with opening track Hallogallo driving the album thrillingly forwards. It was enough to make a fanboy of Brian Eno, who exclaimed: “There were three great beats in the 1970s: Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, James Brown’s funk and Klaus Dinger’s Neu! Beat.”
Rarest 1972 United Artists £80
Latest 2010 Groenland Records £15
Tago Mago – Click here to buy your copy
Tago Mago was recorded over several months in Schloss Nörvenich, a castle near Cologne. The spellbinding double was the result of extensive jamming with long-form experimental tracks, fusing avant-garde noise with tribal rhythms and improvised jazz to blistering effect. It’s the first studio album to feature Damo Suzuki, but, ultimately, it is funky drummer Jaki Liebezeit who steals the show. λ
Rarest 1971 United Artists £150
Latest 2015 Spoon £22
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