What is Krautrock anyway? The film tentatively attempts to pose this question near the beginning, though it doesn’t come much closer than saying that it’s music that comes from Germany. And yet that can’t be quite right. Before the end, we’re introduced to the music of Wume, a US-American duo named after a German recording studio. And non-Germans, like Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki of Can, made important contributions.
And clearly Krautrock does not include all music performed by Germans. There are no Scorpions here, or Nena, or Lotte Lenya. Nor should there be, but I think this exposes one of the weaknesses of the film – it is a fan piece for insiders, so if you don’t have a rough understanding of Krautrock already, you may struggle to keep up with what is going on.
This is despite a clear and informative opening. We learn about the foundation of Can when “proper musicians” and Stockhausen pupils Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay got themselves a jazz drummer and a singer who’d previously been mainly listening to soul music, and formed a band. Can produced new and distinctive music – maybe there’s something in that Krautrock label after all?
Through a series of interviews and archive performances, we are told about bands which made it (Kraftwerk, er, Neu!) and quite a few of whom I’ve never heard. And this is where the film starts to fall apart a little. There is little to explain what all these bands have to do with each other. And parts of the film consist of little more than long lists of musicians who joined or left a particular band.
There is a great early performance by Kraftwerk when they had guitars and proper drums and stuff and a potted history explained by percussionist Wolfgang Flür, who wryly explains how the group has mutated into Ralf Hütter and three technicians. Flür suggests that the logical conclusion would be for Hütter to leave the band, and leave performances entirely in the hands of robots.
We could have also done with a little more context. This is the second music documentary in a week which talks of its protagonists “playing punk music before there was punk music” (the previous one was on Suzi Quatro). I’m not sure such comparisons are very useful, unless there’s more background information about the relationship between this music of the early 1970s and that which was about to follow.
We are treated to tempting glimpses of the Krautrock musicians engaging with the real world. Mooney is a black US-American, who left the US in 1968 “because I didn’t want to be killed” (presumably in the Vietnam war). He arrived first in a Paris rocked by student struggles and then in a Germany experiencing a similar wave.
Similarly, there is an engaging interview with Jean-Hervé Péron, the affable bassist of Faust. He explains that they chose the name because of its double meaning – first Dr Faustus, taking on Mephistopheles as they were taking on the rapacious record companies, and also as the German for fist, the symbol of resistance.
So, at least some of the musicians involved were certainly socially engaged, but their music is shown extracted from its social context. Which means that we see some exciting performances, but get little understanding of why this was happening at this particular time in this particular place.
Not that Germany is a single homogenous place in any case. Musicians from Düsseldorf explain how difficult it was to put on a concert – there were just no venues. Whereas those from Hamburg had regular gigs at the bars which had been putting on concerts by international artists, at the very least since the Beatles. Again, the similarities and differences are mentioned in passing but not explained.
There is much to enjoy in the film, and I’m a sucker for old concert footage – even if the film itself says that most of it is available on youtube. I just think it could be improved with a little critical distance. Let’s see how they get on with volume 2.