A REPORT FROM GERMANY ON ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM IN ROCK MUSIC
By Duncan Fallowell
Published in: Phonograph Records Magazine, may 1972 (p.18-20). This is probably the first article in the English musical press, devoted to the german music scene. At the end a few lines are devoted to Popol Vuh.Complete article below.
'Whatever happened to Crazy Otto? I said. No one knew. ‘And Bert Kaempfert? and what´s-his-name? Horst Jankowski? Walk in the Black Forest, remember? No one did. Well, how about the Rattles?’
That´s better. A Hamburg group who toured with the Beatles and had a hit in England not too long ago with The Witch. And what else? Mmmm… In which case how do you explain some of these amazing albums set forth by major record companies these days? By German groups. And pretty amazing. These things don´t happen in a vacuum. Besides what about that other Crazy Otto - Otto Muehl? Banned from the National Film Theatre because he wanted to chop up live chickens on stage. And his films? Made the Wet Dream Festival seem like tea at the Ritz. Oh, he´s Austrian, I see, OK, Werner Schroter and Rosa von Praunheim instead. Mister Rosa and Sisters of the Revolution. Gay militants. And what about the Dusseldorf artists who scandalized and delighted the Edinburgh Festival in 1970? What do you know about them? Mmmm…. Obviously something´s afoot in ol´ Germany and I don´t mean jackboots. Shouldn´t someone go and look, Yes, me.
But somehow Germany doesn´t exist as a country and never really has. Which no doubt explains all that nebulous but inspiring chat about the Fatherland some time back. In the absence of a Hitler to invoke the Teutonic ghost, local loyalties pull stronger than national ones, something encouraged by the slicing the country in two with Berlin as an exotic haunting schizoid symbol of it all. Naturally enough the underground follows this federal pattern and only by visiting every city might one tap all that goes on. There is no absolute center of gravity in Germany, no one pivot point to concentrate its energies - apart, that is, from the Mighty Mark. Berlin should have become this but its situation is unique, a nervously energetic city doomed to exist in an iron lung. German groups love it and leave it - like fixing heroin, a mad exhilirating high one might well do without. But it does have some incredible bands: Ash Ra Temple, who play huge amplified urban ragas and manage to generate the most staggering noises from the simplest equipment; or Tangerine Dream, led by Edgar Froese, whose concert at the Kongresshalle was attended by ghosts of Kafka and Aleister Crowley - experimental rock at its most succulent and unnerving. Berlin is also the headquarters of the Ohr Record Company, Germany´s only independent progressive label, which puts out a lot of extraordinary stuff, much of it violently uncommercial.
This decentralization of activities in Germany does have some advantages. No one is uncomfortable about not being “where it´s at” since in Germany “it” is nowhere in particular. Unlike Britain where young bands feel inadequate or over-enthusiastically provincial (visions of the Troggs in Andover) if they don´t make it in the metropolis, Germany spreads its groups, agencies, studios and record companies ´round and about. Hamburg - sailors and sin and the most ingenious porno - used to be quite a place, but has lately been living off memories of the Beatles and the Star Club. With a new band, Frumpy, and the opening there of a joint agency by EMI, Kinney, CBS and God knows who else, it is apparently reviving. But Munich seems the liveliest spot at the moment, though this may be fortuitously due to the presence there of Germany´s biggest Group, Amon Duul II and their entourage. Or even the long lost Abi Ofarim who runs a promotional company in the town. Nurnberg claims Ihre Kinder and Improved Sound Limited, the most un-Germanic German Group I came across. They want to sound “American”, but since I don´t really know what that means I couldn´t tell them if they did. Dusseldorf has Annexus Quam. Cologne has the Can and Floh de Cologne. Bonn doesn´t have anything at all.
This particularism is reinforced by local television which goes out at peak viewing time (8-10) and local radio which features local bands. The groups are attached to their home grounds almost like football clubs. AD II say Cologne is ´a gloomy city´ and for the Can, Munich is ´one huge boutique´. Rarely does one German band praise another. Chris Karrer of AD II says that the groups have a lot to learn from each other but rarely come together. This lack of a collective identity raises problems. In any society there are only a certain number of people with the flair and elan to get new ideas across and if they are spread too widely their work is, of necessity, enervated. Maybe this is why AD II and the Can have taken so long in becoming known beyond Germany. Both groups were founded in 1968 but because they are apparently so elusive, agencies abroad don´t push them as much as they might. This is exacerbated by a German law which effectively prohibits managers and although the big recording units can circumvent this prohibition, new groups have to struggle along organizing contracts, bookings and publicity themselves. Not only are they often temperamentally unsuited to such tasks but it draws off time and energy from their main work - music. AD II are lucky in having in addition to the sleek UA machine based in Munich, someone like Olaf Kubler to play father to them. An ex-musician himself, he is also one of the best producers of ‘progressive sound’ in Germany and seems to thrive on it. Nonetheless two British tours planned for Amon Duul II have collapsed because of weak organization, although it seems likely that the Can will play in England this summer.
Germany has one big TV pop show, “Beat Club”, which everyone watches but, until recently heavily relied on Anglo-American acts. A for magazines there is nothing to compare to, say, Oz. Melody Maker is widely read but it arrives a week late which frustrates impatient spirits. The best (in fact the only) progressive music paper is Sounds (no relation to the abysmal English tag of the same name). Again it is mostly full of English and American news. Rolling Stone can be ordered from London but it is not sold on the streets. Because of the lack of an underground press as we know it many people seem to know more about what is happening over the water than in their own country. The underground papers which do exist are put out by student or worker communities or by school kids and serve only local catchment areas. The schools (13 to 19 years) are a particular surprise, though. They are building up their own underground institutions and people take notice. Some bands prefer school children as audiences, not in a teenybopper sense, but because they seem naturally turned on. Like kids everywhere they are beginning to take for granted attitudes which the 20-30 generation have had to evolve into over the past decade. In Germany they are especially articulate. Maybe having Herman Hesse as a standard school text helps.
It was useful from my point of vies to find them so knowledgeable in English affairs. I only knew one German word, istigkeit, which is handy in discussing Huxley but has a rather lugubrious effect if repeated to often. Anyway they all spoke English embarrassingly well and despite smoking a hell of a lot, they are very clear-headed and almost stereotypically thorough in their ideas. Several English groups - Man, Megaton, Nectar - could not survive without Germany and a good many more play there regularly. On the other hand, The Stones´ and Led Zeppelin tours some time ago failed to create the expected frenzies, perhaps because they were launched with a certain patronizing attitude.
My own curiosity about the new German Music was originally aroused by Can´s MONSTER MOVIE album, released in England in 1970. After AD II, they are Germany´s biggest band and most competent. They used to be considered a studio group, since they spent much of their first two years away in a castle, Schloss Norvenich, familiarizing themselves thoroughly with their sound and with each other. Now, with their new double album behind them, TAGO MAGO, they are concentrating on live rock shows. To me they are the archetypal German rock band: fierce, strange, extremely intelligent, and just plain heavy. In an age of heavy bands they are the heaviest I´ve come across, not like Cream or Led Zeppelin but in their own way which is difficult to describe. The Stooges on a trip? The Velvet underground in Valhalla? King Crimson minus the schmalz (my other German word, I forgot)? Pink Floyd in black leather? Yes, sort of. But not really. Listen to MONSTER MOVIE or TAGO MAGO a few times. It´s really a totally new rock experience. And since a great many people obviously need a totally new rock experience one wonders why they´ve been so lazy.
The Can includes Damo Suzuki (voice), Jacki Liebezeit (drums), Michael Karoli ( guitar), Irmin Schmidt (organ) , Holger Czukay (bass). Damo is not the voice on MONSTER MOVIE. That was a Black American called Malcolm Mooney who got rough and was shipped back to New York. A series of auditions followed but all singers were too good. Then they found Damo - who´s Japanese, speaks little English and no German - singing strange things in a Munich street. He turned out to be perfect.
Irmin studied under Berio and Stockhausen and hung around the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Then he saw a different light and decided to form a rock band of his own kind. Although, in his attitudes, here has been a strong reaction against his bourgeois past, he has inherited much of the Stockhausen creed whose belief in chance, sublimation through sound, depersonalization of the composer through the freedom allotted performers. He also has the assurance of the classical musician who knows exactly how to use his tools to his own ends. Holger is also ex-Stockhausen and is exceptionally knowledgeable in Electronics. Jacki comes from jazz and Michael is a friend of Holger from his time at college. The Can as a whole are intensely meticulous, controlling their music absolutely at every stage and resenting interference. The group now has a permanent base in Cologne itself, a converted ciname leased for ten years and fitted out as a private studio. It has, says Holger, the clearest equipment in Germany.
Influences? They confess to no direct ones though admit they’ve been compared to the Velvet Underground. They are in fact utterly different. Thjey are particularly fanatical about Procol Harum and the Stones. Keith Richard is Holger’s favourite guitarist. Michael saw the Who in Torquay and was amazed. Bix Beiderbecke delights them, the Soft Machine and the Incredible String Band fascinate them KICK OUT HTE JAMS lies in the corner.
Much that has been said about the Can applies equally to Amon Dull II and if I don’t necessarily go through it all again it is bevause AD II are already comparatively well known outside their own country, especially in England. They are not so single-minded as the Can and their music is more diffuse in its effects. This doubtless has something to do with the frequent changes in their line-up over the last few years when they have drawn almost casually upon a pool of friends. The music is less urbane, more cinematic in its handling, closer to Pink Floyd in fact but way ahead. They have influenced the character of German rock more than any other band, not only in their free-ranging and colourful use of electronics but also in their life-style, growing as they did out of the commune scene. But since they had greater musical ambitions than just impromptu happenings with whomever happened to be at home they split from the original Amon Duul to become Amon Duul II (Duuls III and IV are around somewhere as well). The whole set-up began in 1969, the year of the student revolutions which sparked an indigenous rock scene all across Europe. Again, like most of the bigger German groups, they have done a lot of music for films (like ‘The Marilyn Monroe memorial Church’ from their recent double album, DANCE OF THE LEMMINGS). This album introduces some changes. Instead of the familiar Wagnerian wizardry there is now more variety in scale, less of the howling echo and more acoustic guitar. Dull gets tight. Their next album CARNIVAL IN BABYLON unlike the previous two, is not a double album of extended trips but as a compact simple record of songs, following a pattern which has been emerging for some time in America with bands like the Dead.
Munich would seem to be the place to make this sunnier German music. It has a Bavarian levity often lacking elsewhere. The best clubs are Blow Up, the PN and Big Apple and much of the excitement comes the feeling that things are just beginning, that one is on the ground floor and going up.
Embryo are another Munich group, a young group all living together in a comfortable mess. Soft Machine, Hendrix and King Crimson color the conversation like tokens of a rock utopia from which German bands until recently have felt isolated. Quite the opposite in many ways are Popol Vuh, organized by Florian and Bettina Fricke, a smart Antonioni-esque couple living in the suburbs. Bettina, from a baronial family, seems to have most of the money and recently acquired the first Moog in Germany for her husband. The result, with Holger Trulzsch on bongos, was an album which Bettina produced, AFFENSTUNDE. Florian is excited by it as by no other music except that of the Third Ear Band ( a much admired group in Germany). Irmin Schmidt calls it ‘pillow music’.
What didn’t I manage to see? Kraftwerk, heavily praised by all and sundry. But I think they have broken up. And Guru Guru, a sort of berserk Cream with terrifying yawning chasms of sound where the finesse might have been – music for the Palace of Ear. Amon Duuls I, III and IV. And I daresay plenty more. There is a great deal happening in Germany and it has a distinct personality of its own. Now by various devious routes it is beginning to spread across the English Channel and across the Atlantic. Listen. Duncan Fallowell