Renowned music documentary makers Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder return with the fifth instalment of their “Progressive music saga”, and the second trawl through that fascinating European experience, loosely collected within the borders of what was West Germany under the banner Krautrock.
Where the first volume concentrated on the head, and the esoteric and intellectual likes of Can, Kraftwerk, and the admittedly more visceral Faust, the second tranche goes mostly for the heart, where feel is often more important than technique. The bands in part one hailed mainly from the Cologne-Düsseldorf area, and in part two we focus mainly on Southern Germany. Maybe it was something in the water! The film commences with a long section on the mighty Amon Düül II, whose singer Renate Knaup is full of life and great stories, with a twinkle in her eye. The history of the band is given a full dissection, via interviews with Renate, and the more studious Chris Karrer.
The key releases and the history of the genre as a whole is woven through the process by Leicester’s Freeman brothers, the men behind Krautrock temple and record shop Ultima Thule, and the essential Krautrock encyclopaedia A Crack in the Cosmic Egg, which is the weighty counterpart you need to read after Julian Cope’s essential primer Krautrocksampler.
The scene came together naturally, as bands of a like mind appeared at Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser’s Essen Song Tage festival, a gathering of radical underground groovy people and bands that started in the late ’60s and still runs. Bills featuring AD II, Tangerine Dream, Xhol Caravan, etc got noticed by Western journalists and ended up being called “Krautrock” by them, a term that could be derogatory, but was quickly owned by its perpetrators. The always humorous Faust even recorded a song of that name, so alles ist gut!
You may not have heard of the aforementioned Xhol Caravan, a personal favourite of mine. This troupe of German and American hippies started out as a ’60s stoned soul band playing US air bases, called, you guessed it, Soul Caravan, took loads of mind-altering substances, and became the psychedelic space rock supremos Xhol Caravan. Their story is told by their effusive and engaging drummer Skip van Wyck, another survivor of the era with all his marbles still rolling. One of their albums has the enduring title Motherfuckers GmbH, which tells you all you need to know about their anti-Establishment credentials.
Next up is a section on Kosmische folk music, headed here by Witthüser & Westrupp, who were a folk duo who fused ethnic folk and Dylan-like storytelling, with a Kosmische sensibility that almost transcends the fact that their wordy and no doubt absorbing song tales were sung exclusively in German. They were a sort of Germanic parallel to the Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer. The duo were also part of Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser’s (yep, him again) Cosmic Couriers set up, along with Manuel Gottschning, Wallenstein, and others, a loose group of musicians who backed various projects including Walter Wegmuller’s ambitious Tarot concept, and made albums of dubious provenance under the collective name, culled from long druggy sessions. They even backed Timothy Leary on one album.
A long section on Guru Guru follows, a band formed by the irrepressible drummer Mani Neumeier, who, at around the age of 80, still leads a version of the band with the energy of someone half his age. Mani was one of the first frontmen to wear masks and costumes on stage, alongside Arthur Brown. Evolving from a rock take on free jazz – their first album UFO stands alongside Ash Ra Tempel’s eponymous debut as prime examples of what Julian Cope refers to as “ur-rock”, a music far removed from American and British bands’ basis in the blues – Guru Guru became exponents of a kind of worldly fusion with a deep and infectious groove. Mani proves a good interviewee, whose enthusiasm is as infectious as his shirt is dazzling.
Popol Vuh, essentially classically trained pianist Florian Fricke and whoever he teamed up with at the time, were perhaps the ultimate Kosmische band, making elegiac and crystalline music of vast scope and in contrast, high fragility. Mixing electronic music with ethnic strands, the sound they made was quite unique and beautiful. Fricke owned one of the first Moog synthesisers, and being the son of a rich industrialist meant he had the funds to buy the thing, a mass of wires, knobs, and sockets the size of two large suitcases. He later left electronic music behind, giving his Moog to Klaus Schulze – yet another Krautrock drummer who got out from behind his kit – thereby kickstarting another important Krautrock musician’s solo career. The introductory spoken section by Fricke is in German, as is the interview with one of Fricke’s musical partners, the highly animated Daniel Fichelscher, which runs through the section, but my review streaming lacks subtitles, so I can’t tell you what insights are offered. It looks like it might be quite revealing, even so!
We end with Kraan, a far more conventional rock-fusion band, in the USA/UK sense, but the clips from a recent Essen festival, where the band are down to a tightly interlocked trio, shows that their improvisational musical skills are something to behold. However it is a slightly atypical way to end what has been an entertaining film.
The documentary aspect of the film is interspersed with old and new concert footage, and with archival clips from TV appearances that makes for a highly interesting couple of hours, and a satisfying way to fill a tiny chunk of those never-ending lockdown days. To accompany this film is a special features DVD entitled Got Krautrock 2?, sold separately, featuring contemporary performances of the current formations of Amon Düül II, Guru Guru, and Kraan, as well as extended interview sequences from the interviewees of the main documentary film. The final part of the Krautrock trilogy of films is pencilled in for 2023, and I for one await it with anticipation.
Record Label: Zeitgeist Media
Year of Release: 2021