Krautrock

John Foxx talks about ‘Krautrock’ and the influence its had on his own work. This is the full transcript of Nick Watt’s interview for Record Collector.

1. What music were you listening to as a teenager in the mid 60s?

JF: ‘Oh, everything I could – Here’s an approximate list, mid to late 60’s:-

The Stones, Beatles, Kinks, The Action, The Plims, The Pretty Things, Them, Small Faces, The Who, The Move, Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, Cream, Roy Wood’s Blackberry Way – (a masterpiece of kitchen-sink pop psychedelia, at least equal to Penny Lane).

Love minus Zero and Tambourine Man – All Dylan’s stuff, up to and including Blonde on Blonde. That ramshackle New York energy and style he defined, was incorporated into The Velvets.

Marianne Faithfull, Sandie Shaw, Dusty Springfield – A startling revelation when she sang Something You’ve Got with Long John Baldry on tv one night. Aretha got well channeled.

Caroline Hester, Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, Jake Thackray.

Howling Wolf, Little Walter, Sugar Pie Desanto, Tommy Tucker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry.

Erik Satie, John Cage, Stockhausen, Varese, Pierre Henri’s Musique Concrete, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, – especially Nimrod.
Ravi Shankar, emergent psychedelia – Floyd, Beatles, Stones, even when they went wrong.

Sung Mass, Benediction and Requiems at St Mary’s R.C. church, Chorley.

John Barry film themes. Some of Bernstein’s music from West Side Story – Especially When You’re A Jet, and Play It Cool. Those angular melodic structures, derived from avant-garde New York Jazz of the period, are really original. The Modern Jazz Quartet, Jaques Loussier’s Play Bach,
Cast Your Fate to The Winds by Sounds Orchestral
Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Noel Coward
Gershwen’s Rhapsody in Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, Miles Davies Kind of Blue.
Well-Tempered Clavier by Glenn Gould.
Switched on Bach by Walter Carlos.
That Anton Karas zither theme from The Third Man.
The Missa Luba track from If by Lindsay Anderson.

Still haunted by memories of 1950’s B movie film themes and some ineradicable sounds – particularly terrified by the whispered name Laura – I think from the movie of the same name.’

2. What was the first experimental rock music to grab your attention?

JF: ‘The Who V1- feedback and living Pop Art– smashed guitars, ultra Mod clothes, a wildly exciting promise of a new neon future.

The Beatles and George Martin’s Tomorrow Never Knows – First drum loop, reversed tapes, random proto-sampling elements flown in, drones, chants, cut up lyrics, the lot – everything from the Futurists to Burroughs, Cage, Pierre Henri, Stockhausen etc. A complete kit for building the future.

The Pink Floyd – I saw the Floyd with Sid at the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream at Alexander Palace. Hitched down to London, stayed up for two days, then hitched back. Magnificent. Saw Un Chien Andalou, as well as Svankmajier’s and Lenica’s films.
We were all transfixed by Mark Boyle’s projections and momentary happenings, it all knocked my wee northern socks off.

That single event supplied a career’s worth of axioms, principles – and a fairly complete danger list. It also brought to life everything I’d been getting at Art School – the Surrealists, Dada and the Futurists, right to Fluxus and the New York bit.

Then the Floyd went intercontinental, leaving a vapour trail via Antonioni and the Acropolis.
I was hitching around in Europe every summer and noticed the transition – right from Paris to Munich – techno hippies began emerging everywhere – a psychedelic / intellectual / pop crossover with experimental music, art and culture. Over in New York, Warhol had already launched The Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the entire underground of Europe responded by changing shape.

These were the people that would recreate Germany – educated, revolutionary, young. They urgently needed to construct a new identity that declared their alliance to modern, international, intellectual life – and their complete rejection of everything connected to the unspeakable events of the war. Massive energies were at large.’

3. When did you first discover Krautrock? Which of the bands did you like
at the time?

JF: ‘You know, I never used that term. Still don’t.

For me, it was simply recognizing a certain spirit in music and wherever that emerged, I was interested.

I suppose the first was early Tangerine Dream, which made a clear connection to Brit Psychedelia via electronics. In Britain, that had all turned into Prog and died.

I heard the Tangs and thought “Oh, it’s gone over to Germany – that’s a surprise”. After that, I kept an ear out for other German stuff. Found it was far more interesting than what was happening here.
They really used synthesizers in an interesting way. We didn’t. Over here, it tended to be pomp and prog and imitation orchestras. All a bit panto.
Then Kraftwerk kicked off with synthesisers and drum machines only, and an entire new genre was born.

But it was Neu! who really chimed. I heard them quite late really, in 1975. It seemed minimal, beautiful and raw as the Velvets. At times you could also hear traces of that Detroit boy, Iggy the magnificent Pop. (Almost everyone in Germany at that time loved Iggy including Kraftwerk).

But Neu! also had this joyous lyrical edge with glorious hinted melodies, using synths and piano, which really made me sit up. I realized they’d integrated these instruments around their own functional beat, without losing that essential raw minimal rock feel. They’d created a new mode, a new immersive genre, looser and with less irony and knowingness than Kraftwerk. Much warmer and more connected, with its own sort of modest grandeur.

I think it was this mix that made Neu! into the real proto-punk/electronic/ new wave proposition. It was 1975 and that was their third album. They were way ahead of their time. Beauty and rawness. They represented a new starting point – and a touchstone.’

4. Did you get to see any of the Krautrock bands live? Were they different from other bands you’d seen?

JF: ‘No – I never saw any of those bands at the time. Just heard the reports. It’s interesting now to watch what I missed on Youtube.’

5. When did you first start making music yourself?

JF: ‘I’d started writing songs at school, when I was around 12-13 years old. Secretly wrote poetry first. Never told anyone – you’d be killed.

At 14 I was going to the all-nighters at the Twisted Wheel in Brazenose street. Saw all the blues greats close up as well as the Yardbirds and Spencer Davies and others. Then I got a piano from my Auntie Elsie – marvellous woman. Later, a souped up Burns guitar and Vox AC30, to investigate feedback sonics. Didn’t go down too well in a northern terrace, I can tell you.’

6. I remember buying the Ultravox! album in early 1977 with the money from my first saturday job. It seems that even then you were making post-punk music before anyone else.

JF: ‘I think we’d begun to make a sort of post-punk/New Wave before much punk got released – I only recently realized that I Want To Be A Machine, with its Mensch-Machine lines, also predated Kraftwerk’s Man Machine by a year or so.

We released the first album in January 1977. It had been recorded the previous year – it was finished in September 1976 – I remember, because it was my birthday. I think only the Damned had a record out then. They were the first.

Then Island held it over until January to avoid the Christmas market. I was really frustrated, having to wait another three months or so.
The Pistols and Clash albums still came out well after it, though the Anarchy single arrived just before Christmas.

I was really involved in Punk – everyone wanted a new adventurous music. It supplied a much-needed year zero, then in Britain it bricked itself into a corner and died. All over by late ‘77.’

Whose idea was it to work with Eno on your debut album, how influential was he on how the first record sounded?

JF: ‘Brian was around the Island studios at Hammersmith. We’d just signed with them.

This was Summer 1976. Everyone in London felt something was in the air.
The New York Dolls and Iggy had been over, but they seemed recognizably descended from the Stones. Patti Smith had played the Roundhouse gig and I liked her art splice with Britrock, but the melodic content wasn’t there. Then the Pistols had kicked off and I’d seen them at the 100 club. Everyone around Elgin Avenue converted overnight to bleach, spit and safety pins.

It was tremendously exciting, but somehow disappointing at the same time. I wanted less America and more Europe – and more possibilities. The form of Punk seemed far too conformist in England. No imagination. Nowhere to go.

In the end, we felt more at home with Neu! The Velvets and a drop of Roxy. Roxy because Ferry had mated The Velvets with Odeon splendour, electronics and French chanson, A blinding combination. In the early seventies, he was the Heston Blumenthal of the kitchen. No rivals.

But that was already some time ago, and there was something insistently Euro/electro/psychedelic waiting in the wings.

As well as Neu! and Phaedra and a few other German things, I was also listening to Another Green World and Weather Report, and Tomorrow Never Knows was still haunting.
All these elements were beginning to make sense, somehow. Brian even name-checked Joe Zawinul on the record. All the connections seemed to be converging – and he was in the building.

Island’s Hammersmith Studio was a Regency Rasta social centre at that time, with recording and rehearsal spaces – plus a café where everyone would meet.
I met up with Brian there and asked him if he’d like to produce. He checked us out during rehearsals and recorded a few songs on his Dictaphone.
Then we were away. Also, by sheer coincidence, after we’d agreed to work together he did a version of Tomorrow Never Knows with Manzanera on 801 live. Everything seemed to be in place.

In that period, the biggest challenge was to devise some sort of notional space from which you could operate, outside of all the rigid categories – pop / rock / classical / folk were very tight zones and totally unforgiving if you didn’t fit.
Brian was entirely for that proposition. Carve out your territory, then grit your teeth and live it out – even if you meet 360 degree resistance. If you survive, you’ll have a life.

I guess the producer’s role is to give permission and encouragement. You know, take that weird thing to the park and let it off the leash, so it can glow, run up trees and hover. Then record everything.

We brought Steve Lillywhite along, he was one of the gang – we’d already recorded tracks with him, some of which we used for the album.
Steve was a solid engineer/producer already, around eighteen years old at the time. So he was the sane one – kept an eye on the controls while Brian piloted and we explored zero gravity.

Brian got the call from Bowie toward the end of the sessions and we were all pleased for him, he was clearly on his way.
It later turned out that Bowie wanted to rebrand through Germania, Art and Another Green World. We were quietly pleased to have got there before him.
Brian replicated that sane one at the controls insurance strategy, using Dan Lanois and Lillywhite, when he produced U2. So it all worked out for everyone.’

Did he bring any of his experience of working with both Cluster and Harmonia to your music and the recording?

JF: ‘I think that showed most in the recording of My Sex – Brian caught a nice loose but sequenced feel, and helped develop that floating piano and synth motif. It has a mood that chimes right in with some Harmonia / Cluster pieces. I think it’s one of the best tracks on that album. In a parallel universe we would have started again from there.’

Even the sleeve for “Dangerous Rhythm/My Sex” looked like something that Peter Saville would create for Joy Division or one of the Factory bands a few years later.

JF: ‘Well thanks – Peter told me later he’d been influenced by some of the graphics I’d done – especially the Systems cover. I thought he was very generous, because he’s one of the most creative designers around, I remember being particularly envious of that first OMD album sleeve. Best one of the entire era.’

7. Did NEU! influence your use of the exclamation mark for Ultravox! ?

JF: ‘Oh, absolutely. I wanted a sort of Neu!/Velvets for London. Ultravox was meant to sound like an electrical product, because that’s what we were. The Neu! reference completed it perfectly – or so I thought.’

What is your favourite Neu! track?

JF: ‘Isi, 1975. I think, with that beautiful minimal piano over their classic beat, the vibrating harmonic synth and those simple but massive chord shifts.
It had everything I loved at the time. It really lifts you. Some recordings just open out and carry their own time. You can live in there, the texture of the sound is so delicious.’

8 You worked with legendary Krautrock producer Conny Plank for Systems Of Romance, what did you hope he was going to bring to your music?

JF: ‘He was the only producer who knew precisely where psychedelia, sonic experimentalism, classicism, electronica, and innovative recording met. There was no-one else.

I believe he began by using borrowed equipment – two track, then four, and onwards.
He was the person who’d recorded that time and place, a particular set of marvelous musicians who were first able to measure themselves against their own recordings – then against recordings from everywhere else.
In this way they were able to develop and extend. Beautiful, sensitive, unique playing and writing by Michael Rother, Dinger, Rodelius, Moebius, Ralf, Florian, Czuckay, in all their various combinations.

Without Conny, I doubt if there would have been so much outside awareness of that scene, far less internal development, and certainly an incomplete record of the period.

Through his work a new sonic identity got mobilised – we could hear that thing back in Britain. Conny set everything in motion. Brian heard. We heard. A new generation became aware of something happening over in Europe. He made everything possible.’

What was he like to work with?

JF: ‘He always seemed dismissive of his own role. Never had much time for self-regard, just wanted to get the stuff down, so he could mix it and shape it – give it some sort of permanent life, in this new realm of recorded, luminous stuff he’d created.
I can still see him – rows of Space Echoes, tape loops going right around the control room on pencils stuck in the walls and tables – and all the other home-made sonic wonderboxes.
Every tool fully employed in moving these stereo pictures through everyone’s head – perfecting all the nuances, the scene changes and moments of wildness he could inject, then on to the next setup, like a director putting film scenes together.’

Were you pleased with results?

JF: ‘When I heard the mixes going through, I realized we’d begun to break new ground, but it had taken him to realize it so fully. His generosity, intuition and experience were indispensible.

As always, the true perspective is that we were a small part of a much bigger picture – Germany was succeeding in creating a new, broad, connective cultural identity through all the arts, an immense achievement.
It’s a literally a hell of a job to repair a destroyed nation – especially considering what horrors were in the wreckage.

But there was this tremendous wave of energy – a furious, no alternative sort of vigour, galvanising that immediate postwar generation – a vital need to somehow acknowledge, repair, resolve.
I realized that we had benefitted from all that energy by simply being there at that moment.’

9. When making Systems of Romance and then Metamatic were you aware of the synthie-pop that was coming out of Germany at the time, such as Deutsche Wertarbeit, Tyndall, Asmus Tietchens, Harald Grosskopf and Riechmann who were all on the Sky label?

JF: ‘I have vague memories of the Angel Flying track from DW, which I liked – those pop chords transformed by the synth and the build up, which would later be the format of so much dance music.
Then Wolfgang Reichmann’s Wunderbar – I remember that also strengthened a conviction that there was a strong connection between The Shadows and a lot of this kind of German Music. (Michael Rother acknowledges The Shadows as one of his own formative influences, for instance. Even the basic motoric beat we all love is called the Apache beat by him, after one of their records. In fact, Kraftwerk’s entire sound can be seen as an ironic evolution of The Shadow’s sonic palette).
Electronica seemed to be seeping back into pure pop, and you could see the beginnings of a new kind of hit – what Moroder, then Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and others developed later.’

10. I believe you worked with an old friend of mine, Virginia Astley, for her pastoral masterpiece From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. The album seems very reminiscent of Popul Vuh’s Hosianna Mantra. Were you aware of Popul Vuh’s music, and what happened to the music you recorded together?

JF: Oh great – I knew Kyrie from the early 70’s and a few other pieces – That beautiful Aguirre music, especially Lacrime. Loved their vocals and instrumentation (apart from the obligatory electric guitar in places).

I agree that Virginia’s album is a masterpiece. Still get great pleasure from playing it – and A Bao A Qu, the e.p. she made. Her time is still to come.

Even at the moment, she seems to fit right in as a precursor of that movement that Serafina Steer, Tunng and Hanna Peel are currently making. Particularly Serafina’s. Lovely, hand-made, slightly eccentric and very English.

I think you’re quite right – there is a valuable and mostly unrecognized strand of music here.
Perhaps it really begins with that pre-war BBC radio recording of Beatrice Harrison as a young girl, playing cello against a nightingale’s song in an Oxfordshire wood.
It also includes the Theme from Harry’s Game, Missa Luba in the If movie, Popol Vuh, and the theme to Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, by Anthony Burgeon – then via the Cocteaus, Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil.
At its best, I think it’s a modern, mystical sort of folk music, without any of the usual baggage.

She and her brother capture a lucid, eternal moment in Oxfordshire – I lived near there for a time and I still love the place. That record has always had an influence on my thinking. It’s perfectly honest, fully realized, beautiful – and deeply good, in an unshowy way.
It’s what the good children were doing while everyone else was being obediently bad. A true alternative music, with complete integrity.

I think Virginia’s music will always have a place, and it will be increasingly acknowledged. Her time will come.

 

11. Some of the more ambient tracks on your latest album DNA remind me of the atmosphere that both Rodelius and Klaus Schulze create in their music. Are you a fan of both artists?

Yes, I like both very much – I still have Schultze’s Timewind album from ’75 – He really built some fascinating textures. I particularly enjoy Roedelius and Moebius’s music. Benge and I played some pieces during our sessions before we recorded –sounded fresh, beautiful, delicate and enviably timeless.

12. Jean-Herve Peron from Faust complained to me that said “there is no “krautrock” anymore because there is no krautrock audience anymore. Now most of the people listen quietly to our rampage, no one gets naked, no one joins us to dance wildly on stage, no one agress us with words, even though we deliver a message. We don’t have to fight for attention anymore, but we cannot provoke anymore, no matter what we do”. Do you agree with Jean-Herve that even though the music is still a big influence today, but the spirit of Krautrock had been lost?

JF: ‘Well, I think it all meant something different here, and I think that is still intact and present – it’s got loads of subscribers, and they’re an interesting bunch – The Horrors, Portishead, LoneLady, Burial, Ghost Box, Chris Cunningham, Aphex, Radiohead, Ladytron, Franz Ferdinand, Robin Guthrie, Adult, The Knife, Lowfish. The current minimal Synth movement in New York and Detroit, for instance, and there are many others.

In Britain, Art schools in the 1960’s were places where people who didn’t fit anywhere else could go. They were encouraged to be stylish, meet their own generation and collude in impossible adventures.
Later, right across the world, generations of people responded to what was devised in those places by the likes of Lennon, Hockney, Keith Richards, Ferry, Bowie, Eno, even on to Radiohead and Blur and Franz Ferdinand. Every band during the 60s and 70s had someone who’d been to Art School and contracted that elusive poise and daft cheek.

Those Art Schools have gone now. But that spirit still exists, it’s even stronger now, and I believe it’s precisely the same spirit as informed that marvelous period in Germany during the 1970’s.

It simply went to live there after the late 60’s, when the 14 – Hour Technicolour Dream, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable and all the optimism of British and American Psychedelia had been wrecked, by Manson, Leary, Hearst, Kennedy’s assassination, the shootings at Kent State and other end-of-era events.

But this spirit is a persistent little bastard, completely unlike the rest of popular music – constantly evolving, totally disobedient, it emerges in the most unlikely places and doesn’t think in straight lines – so it’s the absolute, diametric opposite of Cowell’s miserable version of music.

I think it’s around permanently, just waiting until conditions are right. Then, when it’s truly needed – and the right generation gets hold of it – a series of unexpected and magnificent things always seems to happen.’

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 MEDIA