I’m going to claim ignorance here, as we all get older and wiser(well, some of us anyways.) Growing up there was only a select few German bands I thought of in regards to rock and roll. Two of the main ones were Scorpions and Accept, with Krokus occasionally popping up on my radar thanks to that cover of “Ballroom Blitz”. Scorpions were always the premier German rock band. Who didn’t love Blackout, Love At First Sting, and all those other records from the 70s with those mildly-to-severely inappropriate album covers(I’m looking at you Lovedrive, Animal Magnetism, Virgin Killer, and Taken By Force.) My parents spun Blackout on their Pioneer turntable throughout my youth, while I ended up really getting into them around middle school. Love At First Sting was my first purchase, then eventually snagging Savage Amusement when it came out.
In regards to Accept, well “Balls To The Wall” just sort of disturbed me more than anything else. I wasn’t really a fan.
So yeah, Scorpions was pretty much it for me as far as German rock went until well into my 30s. Then around 2007 I started to give Kraftwerk a second glance. I’d always been aware of Kraftwerk, but I just saw them as these weird Germans that looked like department store dummies playing music on old IBM computers. What was cool about that? For some reason I’d decided to buy Trans Europe Express on a whim and found it rather intriguing. It wasn’t what I’d call rock and roll, but it was engaging, dark, and mysterious nonetheless(coincidentally, I bought Wire’s 154 during the same trip to Borders, an album that wouldn’t stick for another 5 years.)
Terms like Krautrock, Berlin School, Motorik, and Komische weren’t in my vocabulary. Deep diving into the German experimental and art rock scene wasn’t something I had thought of doing, ever. I was always more a melodies and lyrics guy. My formative years were filled with Lennon and McCartney harmonies, the Brothers’ Davies, and anything with a riff that stuck to your ribs. There was the 80s and hair metal, glam rock, and synth-heavy pop tracks thrown in there as well, but by the time I was 19 I’d been playing guitar for 7 years, had bought a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder, and started down the path of a songwriter(it was years before anything I wrote would be worthy to share.) The idea of making noise with instruments and it not being under 3 minutes with a hook, a bridge, and lyrics about loss and regret seemed ridiculous.
But then 2007 and Trans-Europe Express hit and Krautrock became a thing for me. Kraftwerk led to Neu!, which led to Can which led to Tangerine Dream and suddenly I was downstairs recording longform instrumental improvs with looped guitar lines and trying to do my best Jaki Liebezeit(even my best was pretty subpar.) Despite my lack of skills, I had completely fallen for the spirit of experimental German music from the late 60s and 70s. There was this adventurous spirit that I couldn’t believe I was just now getting into. It was this melding of art rock, funk, freeform jazz, ambient and pure rock and roll where everything counted and nothing was out of the question. It was a cross between buzzing riffs and synth excursions; classical composers turned mad scientists and it was glorious. They borrowed from the essence of rock and roll’s beginnings, but turned the formula on its head.
It seemed as if these German bands were their own pocket of counter-culture music activists. When you saw bands like Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, Can, Cluster, Kollektiv, and Faust they looked as if they should be living on some commune outside Cologne chanting around a massive bonfire and planning “ban the bomb” protests. But these weren’t your typical Weather Underground anti-government hippies making plans to overrun city hall. These were German musical wizards reshaping reality thru extended jams and mind-altering synth explorations. I think in some way, the German electronic/experimental music scene of the 60s and 70s was fighting to not be associated with the generation that came before them and the massive dark cloud of WWII. Maybe in some way this music scene they created was their way of transcending what happened in their parents generation.
Or maybe it was just some really good acid.
Either way, the German music scene was sort of this window I had yet to open and explore and once I had I couldn’t believe I’d waited so long to bask in its strange and funky beauty. A couple months ago I came across a record from Soul Jazz Records called Deutsche Elektronische Musik – Experimental German Rock and Electronic Music 1972-83. This was Volume One. It had some names I recognized, plus a few I didn’t. I had picked up Soul Jazz Records Space, Energy, and Light comp a few months before and it was a solid collection of experimental electronic music from 1961 thru 1988. I felt like this Deutsche Elektronische Musik would be an equally righteous purchase, and I was not wrong in that assessment.
So the names I did recognize:
Can get cosmically funky with “A Spectacle”. I hadn’t gone much past Future Days, so hearing this was a nice surprise. Given that this came out in 1979 it seems the Cologne crew kept things tight and far out well after the reign of Damo Suzuki. I love Harmonia. Next to Neu! they define the motorik drive of Krautrock. The track “Dino” keeps that motorik heartbeat going beautifully. La Düsseldorf also drives us along the Autobahn at a quick pace with “Rheinita”. There’s something very uplifting about the band; beautifully bright synths and piano collide with the big drums. It’s a glorious sound.
Now the names new to me:
Between’s “Devotion” is total cosmic mind melt. I imagine a commune of hairy and greasy Germans on some far off planet eating whole grain acid and THC-laced martian spring water as this totally vibe-y track plays on. Gila’s “This Morning” keeps the sunrise and cowboy coffee vibe going. It’s like Yes woke up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, but that’s good for you and I. Crisp acoustics and big vocal harmonies take you from the Autobahn and drop you off in some hilltop forest for some getting back to nature time. One of my favorite tracks here is Kollectiv’s “Rambo Zambo”. This one is so hard to describe. It starts out with some space flutes and then melds into a rocking jam that you never want to end. I was reminded of The Move’s “Feel Too Good” with that upfront bass line and groove-heavy drum part. This song is just an absolute joy to get lost in. Michael Bundt’s “La Chasse Aux Microbes” is pure Komische bliss. Heavy synths cascade like a wave of circuital language down on your pretty head. Conrad Schnitzler’s “Auf Dem Schwarzen Kanal” puts me in mind of Cliff Martinez’ work on the Drive S/T, but if maybe Kraftwerk stopped in to lay some robotic vocals over top. NEIN! Conrad. NEIN!! I’ve tried for years to find an in with Popol Vuh but to no avail. What I’ve heard is all a little too soft rock on acid for me. Here with “Morgengruss” things stay that pace. It sounds fine, but I just haven’t found what I’m looking for, sayeth U2. Honestly, I prefer hearing Causa Sui work their Popol Vuh influence into their sound. That’s as close to Popol Vuh as I can get I think(any suggestions on gateway records, drop me a line.) Faust’s “It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl” is cool as hell. Seems like one of those tracks that should’ve been used in a Quentin Tarantino film by now to great effect. The simplicity to the song is what makes it. Like Velvet Underground or the Ramones, it’s not how many chords you know, but how you use the ones you do.
Okay, you’ve heard enough from me. Get this comp. Deutsche Elektronische Musik – Experimental German Rock and Electronic Music 1972-83 VOL 1 is a keeper. It’s this fine Germanic sampler platter of the best of the best to come out of Deutschland in the late 60s and 70s. What was happening musically in Germany at that time is nothing short of monumental creatively and artistically. These bands were engaging with the world and beyond. They were expanding minds, both the listeners and their own.
So much more so than Balls To The Wall ever did.