Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth
of a Revolutionary New Music
(Melville House, 2015)
Future Days, David Stubbs’s excellent Krautrock compendium, confronts readers in the U.S. with two distinctly foreign qualities. The principal of these is the place that serves as the book’s backdrop, West Germany from the late 1960s to the 1980s, a country enjoying unexpected economic prosperity in the wake of the catastrophe of the second World War while also confronting the legacy of its Nazi past, caught between the older generation’s silence and conservatism and the growing awareness and rebellion of the younger generation. Out of this volatile mix arose the music of Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Amon Düül, and many others, which Stubbs chronicles here in rich and considered detail.
There is a second foreign aspect, however, and that is the perspective that Stubbs himself brings as an English music journalist writing from the strange half-remove of the United Kingdom, at once a part of, and yet still not fully integrated into, the Europe that he hears embodied in this music.
Perspective is key when discussing Krautrock, of course. As Stubbs is quick to point out, the term is an anglophone invention that many of the musicians interviewed in the book understandably reject—you could imagine similar objections from Serge Gainsbourg or Françoise Hardy if we’d started calling their music “Frog Rock.” It’s more than a question of nomenclature, however, for, as Stubbs argues, the Krautrock sound was developed as an intentional departure from the Anglo-American beat music being imported into Germany, music that German musicians playing to audiences of American GIs were expected to replicate. The various strains of Krautrock—and there are too many to tidily summarize; Stubbs deserves praise for the sheer expanse of his project—emerged as a distinctly German, homegrown sound, an artistically rich alternative to the kitschy Schlager hits that otherwise made up native German music. Given the fraught nature of German national identity, it seems fitting in a way that Krautrock should bear an English name and enjoy popularity mostly outside of Germany.
The book’s prologue offers an in-depth social and cultural portrait of West Germany from the end of World War II on through the growing unrest of the 1950s and 1960s. From there, Stubbs devotes a chapter each to the most prominent Krautrock bands. The structure is similar to that of Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life (2001), with Stubbs relating the history of each group’s inception and later career and devoting space to a discussion of its major albums.
In fact there are more than a few parallels to Azerrad’s book. The music that Azerrad chronicles came in part as a response to the stifling conservatism of Reagan’s 1980s; as Stubbs reports, long-haired bands like Can and Faust were reacting in a similar way to their own straitjacketed environs. What’s more, just as bands like Sonic Youth were welcomed in Europe and could tour there in relative comfort while in the U.S. they were still sleeping on floors, so do Krautrock bands seem to enjoy their greatest success outside of their home country, whether in the U.S., France, or the U.K. Stubbs cites a number of examples: black audiences in the U.S. embracing Kraftwerk; Faust being dropped from their German label only to land on Richard Branson’s Virgin Records; and even recently, reissues of Neu!’s back catalog getting re-released in the U.K., but not in Germany.
For all Stubbs’s attention to the cultural environment, however, there is little sense of a music scene, at least in a way similar to the U.S. of the ’80s. Save for the chapter “The Berlin School” and its discussion of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab venue (plus a few mentions of concerts here and there), the impression is that this was music constructed on tape and listened to on record. Bands like Can and Faust retreated to rural near-isolation to make their albums, and producers like Conny Plank were responsible for much of the music’s revolutionary sound.
And of course it’s primarily through the records that listeners outside of Germany would have encountered the music. This added layer of remove brings a degree of exoticism that Stubbs acknowledges. In an odd, winning moment in the book’s introduction, he attributes his early fascination with German culture to the sound of West German soccer matches. Unlike the “collective boorish roar” of crowd noise in the UK, German matches offered “a sea of air horns, an abstract wall of klaxons, an incessant, aerosol-fuelled drone…I’m convinced that it was a love of those drones, as well as their association with Europe, which associated in my mind the ideas of Europe, alternative music, and noise—and superiority.”
Such exoticism, though tempered throughout by Stubbs’s diligent research and interviews, creates a distance that can’t be other than problematic. A look at the bibliography turns up only a few non-U.K. or U.S. sources, and it’s not clear whether this reveals the limits of Stubbs’s anglophone perspective or is just another instance of the continued lack of attention paid to the music in Germany—perhaps there just aren’t that many German sources to draw from. Stubbs’s book makes a solid claim for itself as the definitive account of Krautrock, but begs the question: is it possible for such an account to be written outside of Germany? I’d argue at least that the portrait won’t be complete until we can read more about the music from a German perspective—but until then, Stubbs offers as captivating and authoritative a perspective as we can hope for.
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.