My Krautrock adventures: Faust's albums were the greatest recordings ever made by anybody -- how could I keep them to myself?

When I first played Faust for my classmates they reacted with laughter -- then anger that such music even existed

Published July 24, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

Kraftwerk   (Reuters/Denis Balibouse)
Kraftwerk (Reuters/Denis Balibouse)

Excerpted from “Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music”

My relationship to Germany and the Germans was conventional enough as a very small boy. Like many others in the late sixties and very early seventies I was reared on Second World War movies and comics like Warlord. At the very moment students were rising up in campuses across West Germany, or Can were assembling in a rehearsal room with a view to playing rock music as if they were the first group of musicians ever to do so, I was doubtless in a back room in a small village outside Leeds blackening a piece of paper with a pencil worn to the nub, depicting British Spitfires blasting oncoming Luftwaffe planes into plumes of smoke, sending them in a descending spiral into the English Channel, their pilots screaming ‘Hilfe!’ in that high-pitched, fretful manner I understood from TV’s Corporal Jones to be common to all German servicemen in distress.

To grow up at that time was to be assailed in everyday popular culture with stereotypes served up as if they were as harmless as mashed potatoes for lunch. The vanquished and risible ‘Krauts’ were especially fair game. I did know one German fellow, as it happened – he had been a paratrooper, captured and sent to work on one of the local farms, who settled in the village after the war and become one of its little cast of characters. He never spoke about Mr Hitler or the Nazis, merely complained that he had been denied his war pension, his case lost in the postwar transition. He was too genial to be a ‘real’ German, however. Real Germans spat the word ‘Achtung’ at regular intervals, or spoke in the clipped tones of Philip Madoc in Dad’s Army adding Private Pike’s name to his list, or like Dennis Waterman’s visiting German ‘Franz Wasserman’ in a Man About the House episode entitled ‘Did You Ever Meet Rommel?’. When asked if he enjoyed the TV series The World at War, he replies, ‘I enjoyed zer beginning but not so much zer ending,’ to gales of studio laughter.

Concurrent with all of this, however, was a burgeoning fascination with West Germany. It probably began with football, the first great passion of my young life. Michael Rother of Neu! has suggested that one of the inspirations for the regular, functional motorik beat was the experience of playing football with members of Kraftwerk (who despite their prim, anti-manly image were in fact a very physical, sporty bunch).

Watching European Cup games on midweek school nights was an extra-special treat. Satellite link-ups had only been introduced a few years earlier but there was still a certain graininess, a glow and fuzz around the edges of the players as images were transmitted onto our black-and-white televisions from the continent. British fans liked to bask in the long-discredited idea that our football teams were the best in the world, but watching teams like Ajax of Amsterdam and Bayern Munich win the European Cup in successive years was a chastening, albeit infrequent reminder of superior forces abroad. The wonderful sense of distance between the living-room TV set and the events on screen was enhanced by the fact that the commentaries back then sounded like they were being conveyed over a special transcontinental telephone line.

The biggest difference of all, however, was in the crowd noise. In the UK, this was a collective boorish roar, punctuated by handclaps, chants based on pop songs and an underlying nastiness of the sort that you wouldn’t want to hear coming in your direction if you were alone in a railway station. It didn’t stop me from loving the game but it seemed also to speak about English maleness, about bonding, frustration and violence. Watch a game involving Bayern Munich, however, crowned European Cup winners three times between 1974 and 1976, or West Germany, European Champions in 1972 and World Cup winners in 1974, and the noise was very different. It was a sea of air horns, an abstract wall of klaxons, an incessant, aerosol-fuelled drone, occasionally receding before crescendoing at particularly exciting moments in the game. It was a constant reminder that this was foreign football you were watching and, frankly, an experience of a different and more advanced order.

I’m convinced that it was a love of those drones, as well as their association with Europe, which associated in my mind the ideas of Europe, alternative music and noise – and superiority. It would be nice to record that it was a precocious perusal of the novels of Günter Grass which proved formative, but that would come later. The air horns of German football fans blasted a neural pathway in my mind. Retrospectively, I believe it was a pathway that cut through the dismal churlishness of England in the 1970s, though I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time, or make those connections. It was a pathway down which would later proceed Stockhausen, a TV documentary about whom I recorded onto a mono cassette machine and listened to over and over. I acquired records of his from Leeds Record Library, borrowing three or four at a time and recording them onto blank C90 cassettes, whose covers I would decorate with little abstract collages cut out from old magazines and travel brochures, à la Kurt Schwitters. It was from Leeds City Library that I acquired my first Krautrock record – a battered vinyl edition whose very scratches I learned to love along with the rest of the album after I taped it.

Before that, I’d taken up German as an O-level option. To assist us with the rudiments of the language, the class was issued with standard textbooks in which we followed the adventures of Herr Körner, a middle-aged journalist who lived in Westphalia and could generally be found hunched over his Schreibsmaschine, or chatting with his landlady, a rather fetching widow by the name of Frau Schütze. I don’t know why the educational authorities had imagined that these characters were best suited to introduce the delights of the German language to British third-form pupils, but I for one was very taken with what seemed to be the idyllic life of Herr Körner, in his smartly appointed study, his domestic needs attended to by the widow Schütze. I decided I, too, would become a writer.

I read the NME passionately but was aware that even then, at the height of its powers, with writers like Paul Morley, Danny Baker, Ian Penman, Charles Shaar Murray, Andy Gill and Nick Kent holding sway, it wasn’t always absolutely to be trusted on more extreme music. They did an A–Z round-up of post-punk in which they cursorily disparaged This Heat as a group who ‘pushed sounds together to make noise’ – or was it ‘pushed noises together to make sounds’? Either way, they said it like it was a bad thing, and having saved up and acquired This Heat’s debut album, I knew that they were a very good thing.

And so I began buying records from Recommended Records, whose channels ran deeper than those of the NME, which was still a bit overloaded with Jam and Costello to fulfill all my needs. They extended my consciousness of European rock in general – Czechoslovakia’s dissident group Plastic People of the Universe, Italy’s Stormy Six, Sweden’s Samla Mammas Manna, France’s ZNR and Albert Marcœur, and from Belgium, Aqsak Maboul, and the Rock In Opposition axis. Recommended Records was run by Chris Cutler (it continues to this day as ReR), who had no time for punk or post-punk and for whom Recommended Records was a lonely, idiosyncratic furrow that led back to his days as drummer for the English avant-prog group Henry Cow. Only one Krautrock group intersected with his tastes – Faust, whose first two albums, their self-titled debut and the follow-up So Far, Recommended were reissuing in 1980. From his description of the group, one thing was clear – I had to have Faust. I extended my career as Yorkshire’s oldest paperboy in order to raise the funds for these releases, a limited run of six hundred (I would be number 58), and sent off my cheque. Due to a variety of complications at the supply end, however, the reissues didn’t emerge for many months. There were occasional postal updates assuring purchasers that these epochal albums, one of which would be issued on clear vinyl, were coming down the pipeline.

There being no YouTube or Spotify available, I began to dream about these albums, of which copies had apparently changed hands for hundreds of pounds among collectors since they were first released in 1971 and 1972. In several years of listening to John Peel, collecting music and reading avidly about music, I had never heard a single mention of Faust – and neither had many of my friends (of whom more later). Only rarely did I entertain the idea that I was the victim of a massive hoax, but given the established bona fides of Recommended, it seemed unlikely that their string of releases and catalogues hitherto were all the elaborate front for a scam in order to bilk an ageing paperboy out of three weeks of his wages.

I dreamed about these albums. I dreamed of faceless, über-radical hippies who, like the Residents, were systematically at odds with rock’s cult of personality, sublimating all their ego and energies into a collective beatnik rock noise, itself rocked by exploding, humanity-destroying Hindenbergs of inflated electronics, of music that was defiantly ugly and magnificently beautiful by turns, that was powered by the engines of West Germany and elevated by the greater European modern art movements stretching back to Futurism. A sustained, electric shock of noise that spanned all that was beautiful and tragic about the twentieth century.

Finally, the albums arrived. Of course, they couldn’t possibly live up to the fevered hyperbole of my imagination. And yet they did. Oh, my stars and worn-down styluses, they did. It was as if my ridiculous expectations had somehow enhanced these albums, as if they had colluded with my visions of them, as opposed to being a let-down. These were, and would remain in my estimation for a long while to come, the greatest recordings ever made by anybody. Prior to listening to them I’d been on a Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention binge, but suddenly albums like Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich sounded like snide, sterile exercises in instrumental virtuosity, lacking the gigantic, electric, emotional whoomph! of Faust.

It would have been cruel to keep these records to myself. The only other feedback I had had was from my immediate family, specifically my father. Hearing the monotonous, thudding bass drum of ‘It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl’ from So Far reverberating from my bedroom, he had thundered up the stairs, spanner in hand, and headed straight for the airing cupboard, assuming the boiler to be malfunctioning. I needed to cast more widely among my peers. And so, fired up with missionary zeal, I took advantage of a ‘show and tell’–type section in the General Studies A-level course I was doing to play these albums to my schoolmates. It was a harsh and lifelong lesson in the chortling, turn-this-shit-off resistance which is the lot of avant-garde music, and the obdurate conservatism that’s characteristic of most music fans who consider themselves to be pretty cutting-edge, with their love of David Bowie and R.E.M. and what have you.

I began with side one of Faust’s debut album, and ‘Why Don’t You Eat Carrots?’. My announcement of the title alone set off a ripple of mirth among the assembled sixth-form lads, and raised my first suspicion that they weren’t disposed to take my educative efforts altogether seriously. This was pretty much confirmed within minutes as the track proceeded, with its swooping collage of faux-brass bands, spoken-word sections, Beethoven-esque descents and giddying eruptions of oily geyser-like electronic noise. Some of my classmates were sitting quite close to the record player and decided it would be a good idea to introduce a Dadaist element of chance of their own, by stomping their feet hard at key points, causing the needle to jump across the record. At which point, I gave up.

Even at the time a part of me could see how I deserved to be the butt of the joke. However, it went slightly beyond that. When the snickering had died down, it was replaced by a growing anger among some of my friends at what they’d been subjected to, that such music existed and that one of their own kind was listening to it and finding something in what just seemed like a random series of strange noises to them. These were grammar-school lads who were at an age where they were beginning to measure their self-esteem on the basis of their record collections. In 1980, for many, this still meant Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Genesis and Pink Floyd, advanced appreciation of which was a rite of passage into the sixth form and maturity. Another wing found a similar sense of self-importance in their ostentatious grasp of David Bowie and his acolytes. And now here was this ‘Faust’ thrown into the equation. At the end of the lesson the music teacher drily remarked on his surprise at the level of hostility my choice of record had managed to generate. Three years earlier, I had laughed along with everyone else when he had gamely but vainly attempted to introduce us to new music by putting on Frank Zappa’s ‘Help, I’m a Rock’.

An altercation in the common room along these lines, with a friend who considered Gary Numan to be the last word in extreme listening, was charged with indignation and, perhaps on his part, the suspicion that something was happening on this Faust album that he didn’t quite get. His protest that it was a fraud of some sort rang hollow even to himself. Now, I felt better – this was the sort of anger deliberately provoked by the Futurists in their theatrical events, which generally ended in rioting by the paying public. In the redness of a sixth-former’s face and the spittle in mine as he argued with me, I realised, with a spasm of quiet, insufferable smugness – gotcha. I was right. And some day . . .

Later years would bring myriad Krautrock adventures, as I returned again and again to the music that itself returned again and again to the vanguard of relevance, as, wave by wave, era by era, it seemed that more and more people were beginning to get it. My friend the late Neil Jones supplied me with cassette recordings of Neu!, Harmonia and early Kraftwerk in the years when these recordings were generally unavailable. There was Kraftwerk at Brixton Academy in 1991 and the ‘Robots’ encore, proof to me that humour and the sublime in music weren’t, as I sometimes argued, as incompatible as ice cream and gravy – that they could mix. Then there were the Can members, who appeared at a Barbican concert in 1999 under the banner Can-Solo-Projects, with Irmin Schmidt hinting at vast reserves of virtuosity as he went to work in the innards of a grand piano. There was the closest music has brought me to a moment of pure terror, on first hearing Popol Vuh. There was the beatific Hans-Joachim Roedelius live, Michael Rother and his pacific, oceanic guitar wowing a hallful of disciples, a Faust concert in which they took to the stage with cement mixers, another in which, in a strange reprise of the anger they had wrought when I first played them in the sixth form, an audience member was stabbed during an argument. Like Ralf Hütter, calling me on the phone just as I’d settled into a bath to clarify a point he’d made about musique concrète, the music itself kept calling you back. It’s everywhere and everywhen. Its day has come again and again since the day it died, and it will carry on coming, carry on surprising and revealing itself in its many lights, dark and light.

Excerpted from “Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music” by David Stubbs. Copyright 2015. Courtesy of Melville House.

By David Stubbs

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Books Faust Germany Kraftwerk Krautrock Music Popol Vuh