The 1970s rock bands who changed Germany’s image

Krautrock bands lived this ethos: in the early 70s, Can lived and recorded at a 15th-Century castle outside of Cologne; Faust spent the same period living in a commune in Wümme, near Hamburg. And thus, krautrock bands were political by dint of their actions rather than anything explicit: on one hand representing the idealistic vision of a new, alternative way of life, while their music’s disregard for tradition suggested the disruptiveness of protest and action.

Can’s socialist-like philosophy showed a way towards how society could be structured. “We never made any political statements,” Schmidt says. “Except for what we were. We were one organism. We had no hierarchy. And that’s a kind of anarchy. But there’s not one piece (of music) for us which has an author except Can”.

In Düsseldorf, Rother and his eventual Neu! bandmate, drummer Klaus Dinger, were in an early three-piece incarnation of Kraftwerk with Florian Schneider, Ralf Hutter briefly having left to study. While this version of Kraftwerk never released a record, Rother and Dinger fostered a proto-Neu! sound, as captured in a 1971 TV appearance. “I saw the people going nuts,” Rother says. “They were thrilled. And by the way, this was a younger audience. It was the beginning of something new for the crowd. That was clear.”

Rother and Dinger soon left Kraftwerk to form Neu!. An evolving Kraftwerk would release three never-since re-issued albums before its run of classic albums began with 1974’s Autobahn; they would go on to transcend the krautrock genre by becoming a pioneering electronic act and one of the best and most influential groups of all time. 

The era’s defining band

But initially, it was Neu! who were breaking new ground. In Dinger, Rother had found a kindred spirit (even if they didn’t always see eye-to-eye). “Without discussing or having to find an agreement, we had in common that we wanted to be unique – a very modest approach. And that made us steer away from the traditions and set out on this path of reinventing the wheel. I decided to drop all the clichés, the standards. I threw all that overboard and tried to come back to the most simple elements in music – one tone, one note, one chord, one rhythm.”

In his 1995 book Krautrocksampler, musician and artist Julian Cope calls Neu! “the epitome of krautrock, they have defined the term more clearly than any other group”. Their debut album Neu!, released in 1972, remains a landmark release in rock music, featuring Neu!’s – and indeed krautrock’s – defining sound: the pioneering motorik beat. Literally meaning “motor skill”, the motorik is a driving, constant, prolonged, propulsive 4-4 beat, best exemplified by brilliant Dinger performances in early Neu! tracks like Hallogallo and Negativland. With the help of visionary producer Conny Plank – krautrock’s answer to Sam Phillips – it was in-part inspired by Rother’s love of perpetual motion.

“I like driving down the highway. Not speeding, that is completely the wrong picture, but I like rushing forward, whether it’s on a surfboard in big waves or just the feeling of strong forward movement,” he says. It was also, surprisingly, part-inspired by his love of football, the success of the West German football team being one aspect of German culture that was untainted by the atrocities of war. “There is a connection. Because I still love the fast forward style in football, when they just rush and the ball goes forward with high quality technical skills, but also trying to gain territory trying to move the ball to the goal.”

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