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50 Years of Krautrock



Mark Jenkins investigates a groundbreaking but still mysterious style of music

A lot of the pioneering work in using day’s music technology came from the area loosely known as “krautrock.”

The term might seem derisory (sauerkraut being the pickled cabbage popular in Germany), but it seems to have been invented by a German music promotion company in the early 1970s. And while some German artists strenuously rejected it, others have happily adopted it – Faust, for example, using the term to title a track on their classic “Faust IV” album.

But what exactly is krautrock? The loose definition is “experimental rock and pop music coming from Germany in the late 1960s and the 1970s.” But that experimentation came in many shades – from rock, jazz, and minimalism, to ambient, avant-garde, and highly abstract.

And in fact the movement gave birth to whole new styles of music that had never been heard before.

The background to the style derives from the second world war. Germany was occupied for a time by US Army troops (later hosting huge US Airforce bases) who brought with them their contemporary music – big band tracks, and later on Bill Haley or Buddy Holly. 

Local musicians often adopted these styles, many playing long sets of cover versions – and remember The Beatles were performing in Hamburg from as early as 1960, playing 106 times on their first visit alone.

German musicians who didn’t go along wholeheartedly with these musical trends (though often fitting in with them just to earn a living) looked around for other inspiration. But German culture had been left musically bankrupt, the classical music too strongly associated with the Nazi party and the popular schlager style (what you might call oompah music) sounding hopelessly old-fashioned.

Stockhausen (much later – this Wikipedia picture is from 1994)

A beacon of hope came from classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen who, working in Köln from the mid-1950s, began to use tape manipulation, electronic oscillators, filters, and ring modulation in his compositions. The results were huge sonic landscapes of ambient voices, twittering electronics, sharply percussive explosions of sound, and unidentifiable textures that Stockhausen said were part of a whole new musical language.

So imagine young German musicians playing rock and blues in the evening to earn a living, and listening to advanced avant-garde music on the radio in the daytime. Something unusual was bound to result.

In 1969 the Swiss-born Thomas Kessler was running an electronic music studio in Berlin, and many young musicians worked with him. Around the same time Dieter Moebius and Conrad Schnitzler ran the Zodiak Club, divided into a white painted room and a black painted room where musicians would rehearse and jam for hours.

From these influences came the krautrock scene. Edgar Froese had been playing rock, pop, and blues songs with a conventional band called The Ones. But after a visit to surrealist painter Salvador Dali in Spain, he was determined to rip up the rule book and improvise.

Forming Tangerine Dream, using a name taken from an album by the American psychedelic band Kaleidoscope, he took influences from Pink Floyd’s 1967 track “Interstellar Overdrive.” Backed by drums or bass, sax, and flute, he thrashed his guitar in long improvisations that included found sounds like pieces of wood or metal crashed together.

The first Tangerine Dream album “Electronic Meditation” from 1970 consists of edited down improvisations by a five-piece rock lineup that included Klaus Schulze as drummer. 

Schulze then went off to help form Ash Ra Tempel, an Eastern influenced, psychedelic successor to the Steeplechase Blues Band run by guitarist Manuel Göttsching. Ash Ra Tempel released several albums of lengthy improvisations, many of which are still popular today.

Credit: Virgin Archives

But by the mid-1970s (the renamed) Ashra as well as Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze had gone off in a strange new direction of so-called Berlin School music, strongly based on synthesizers and sequencers. Their prominent use of instruments, first from Moog and EMS then from ARP, Oberheim, Sequential, Akai, and other companies, helped drive the technological development of sequencers, samplers, and high-tech recording techniques.

Tangerine Dream’s early stable lineup of Baumann-Froese-Franke transitioned from “krautrock” into something completely new and previously unheard. While Popol Vuh had started in similar areas, the band’s Florian Fricke first loaned then sold his Moog Modular to Tangerine Dream, taking his own band into folk and liturgically influenced music, often for Werner Herzog’s movies like “Aguirre: Wrath of God.” 

Meanwhile the Stockhausen influence had also reached two of his students in Köln, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and bassist Holger Czukay. Their band (The) Can probably represents the peak of krautrock achievement – fusing contemporary classical, pop, rock, ambient, musique concrete, world music, reggae and many other styles over their career.

Their much loved early album “Tago Mago” shows Jaki Liebezeit, the band’s consistent drummer widely acclaimed as one of the finest in rock music, along with improvising vocalist Damo Suzuki. Each had a Farfisa Sferasound module used to amplify and process their sounds. Schmidt and Suzuki, both still active, are the only band members still living.

A third strand of krautrock emerged from Düsseldorf. Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider came from well-off families and were both classically educated, on keyboards and flute respectively.

They ran what was more or less a jamming/improvising group Organisation, but stripped this down to launch a duo called Kraftwerk. Their early albums used tapes, echoes, flutes, percussion, and keyboards.

Conrad “Conny” Schnitzler was their studio engineer/producer early on, and his name and that of his studio went on to symbolize the finest of krautrock recordings, before he moved on to work with more mainstream acts like Eurythmics.

But very soon after, Kraftwerk built their own studio, called Klingklang. The iconic rear sleeve of their third album “Ralf & Florian” showed the compact space crammed with keyboards, effects units, synthesizers, wind and string instruments, and an early custom-built vocoder. 

In the early days of Kraftwerk, guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger were members until they went off to form NEU!, while the later history of Kraftwerk is very well known.

From the band’s fourth album “Autobahn” they were really creating a completely new form of music that came to be known as techno-pop.

Meanwhile NEU! on their first album in 1972 more or less defined the generic krautrock sound (which is why we can reasonably talk this year about 50 years of krautrock) with epic pieces like “Hallogallo,” featuring guitar loops, backwards tapes, filters, and effects. It also featured a steady 4/4 drum beat that came to be known as “motorik.” The style influenced many bands such as Stereolab, Camera, and more recently Still Corners.

David Bowie visited many of the krautrock musicians. The results were his “Berlin” albums, including “Low” and “Heroes. Brian Eno actually recorded with some of them, on albums like “Cluster & Eno” from 1977.

But there was also a strong thread of more conventional rock bands in Germany. Scorpions was the most commercial, Amon Düül (on albums such as “Yeti”) and Faust were the most experimental, Floh De Cologne the most political.

Eloy, Jane, Novalis, and others tended towards the progressive rock of Pink Floyd (and mostly used vocals in English, with wildly varying levels of success).

Meanwhile saxophonist Klaus Doldinger with his band Passport, and other groups such as Frumpy and Xhol Caravan (originally “Soul Caravan”), mixed a strong jazz and blues element into their krautrock.

Like many other styles of music, krautrock was rather swept away at the end of the 1970s by punk, and in Germany in particular by the Neue Deutsche Welle, the “German New Wave” inhabited by Nena, Ideal, Spliff, D.A.F. and Trio.

While Virgin Records for example had released and popularized Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Ashra, and others from the krautrock scene, the label now concentrated on pop and punk – though the new electro-pop bands on the label such as The Human League still paid a clear tribute to Kraftwerk.

Happily the vast majority of original krautrock period albums have been picked up for CD release, while the more obscure ones can often be found on YouTube.

But can krautrock still be made today? Well, yes, bands are often quoted as having a krautrock influence, though the most predominant persisting style is the Berlin School of sequencer-based music made by many solo artists, duos, and trios around the world, and mostly these days released through Bandcamp.

Meanwhile Michael Rother is celebrating 50 years of Neu! with a massive boxed set of albums, and concert dates – some of which, perhaps unexpectedly, include on the bill Paul Weller (from The Jam/Style Council) – which just goes to show how quietly influential krautrock has been for all these years.

Krautrock bands to look out for – 

NEU! – motorik beat and ambient/experimental 

CAN – experimental rock often with improvised vocals

AMON DÜÜL – psychedelic rock

FAUST – experimental rock

AGITATION FREE – experimental rock improvisation


ORGANISATION – ambient rock, precursor to Kraftwerk

LA DÜSSELDORF – motorik beat and ambient/experimental





Psychedelic “kosmische” rock early on, but then all 

moving to “Berlin School” synthesizer and sequencer music


Two ambient synth albums, then off into 

soundtracks and folk/acoustic territory

PIC 9 Popol Vuh

KRAFTWERK – Motorik beat/ambient minimalist

for three albums, then off into techno-pop


Experimental ambient electronics





Related lineups – all producing short, melodic 

instrumentals on keyboards and other instruments

JANE – prog rock

NOVALIS – prog rock

ELOY – prog rock

FRUMPY – blues rock

WALLENSTEIN – classically influenced rock

GURU GURU – experimental and some jazz rock

GROBSCHNITT – psychedelic prog rock

SCORPIONS – hard rock

PASSPORT – jazz rock

KRAAN – jazz rock


WITTHÜSER & WESTRUPP – psychedelic folk

BRAINTICKET – psychedelic, jazz, rock opera

XHOL CARAVAN free jazz, rock, psychedelic

BIRTH CONTROL – progressive hard rock

FLOH DE COLOGNE – rock opera, political

EMBRYO – progressive, jazz, world music

MYTHOS – first metal rock, later a solo synth project

STREETMARK – prog rock and synth instrumentals

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