BERLIN (Reuters) - Few scenes in rock history have won such fame abroad yet been so overlooked at home as the wave of music West Germany spawned in the late 1960s known as Krautrock. Four decades on, that is changing.
As the maverick rockers enter their 60s and 70s, interest in the bands is reviving in Germany: new documentaries are being made, and a book hailed as the first comprehensive overview in German hit stores this summer.
Devotees of British rockers Oasis are also receiving a dose: guitarist Noel Gallagher said recently his band’s new single had a Krautrock sound.
“We’re more accepted now,” said Mani Neumeier, 67, a leading light of the era and drummer of underground stalwarts Guru Guru.
“We’re doing more gigs than we have in 20 years. It’s partly due to our 40th anniversary, but also because Krautrock has become more fashionable again in the last three to four years.”
Nearly two decades since reunification, growing political self-confidence has helped nurture interest in Germany’s postwar musical legacy, said Henning Dedekind, author of “Krautrock,” the 300-page German cultural history of the scene.
“For years Germans had an awkward relationship with their cultural past, but it’s changing,” he said. “Plus we know all about Elvis and the Beatles already, but not the German bands.”
The myriad output that at times defied categorization often struggled for acceptance, even though the student protests of 1968 and the hippy era were catalysts for major change.
“The prophet is sometimes a nobody at home,” said Lutz Ulbrich, guitarist of Agitation Free, one of a handful of bands then holed up in West Berlin, right up against the Iron Curtain.
Elsewhere in Europe, the new gospel spread quickly with the backing of DJs like John Peel. Generations of punk, indie, synth-pop and techno acts have hailed the German sounds that were by turns unhinged and rigidly disciplined.
Julian Cope, who revived interest in the music with his 1995 book “Krautrocksampler,” said it was unique on the continent.
“I can think of no other single musical time that sustained such a high-achieving experimental scene,” he said. “It was perhaps because of their collective need to dance themselves out of the Hitlerian malaise rather than wallow in self-pity.”
From Amon Düül II’s thundering psychedelic garage to Cluster’s hypnotic electronica and the jagged sound collages of Faust, Krautrock’s impact has been cited on acts as diverse as David Bowie, Aphex Twin and Queens of the Stone Age.
Contemporaries like Hawkwind were among the first to catch the bug: the Teutonic grooves remain infectious today.
“A big influence,” Steve Terebecki, bassist of Texan trio White Denim, said of Krautrock. “I’m not sure who the superfan is, but I’m always pushing Kraut on the other two.”
Though Krautrock has become a byword for musical excellence among fans, few of its architects relish the label, which began life as a “pejorative remark from some British journalist” according to Amon Düül II guitarist John Weinzierl.
The unique approach adopted by the bands — and the home audience’s misgivings about their music — were both part of the country’s postwar search for identity, said author Dedekind.
“The public wanted to see themselves as international citizens to distance themselves from being German,” he said.
Bands were also anxious to direct their amps and fuzz boxes against the political establishment, which in 1968 still contained many Nazi-era officials, said Guru Guru’s Neumeier.
“There was a thick layer of dust everywhere left by Uncle Adolf, and we wanted to really blow it away,” he said.
Anglo-American domination of the record industry was a further obstacle to German acts, which needed time to find their own voice in the Cold War aftermath of the Nazis’ defeat.
“After the war, we had no self-confidence to put down roots on our own turf, musically or otherwise,” said Holger Czukay, bassist for Cologne-based Can. “It only really began in 1968.”
By the time the new dawn broke, German acts had absorbed the impact of everything from free jazz, rock’n’roll, psychedelia, and British beat to avant garde composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen. And they were determined to sound different.
“Everything I learnt from Hendrix and Clapton was out,” said Michael Rother, guitarist of Duesseldorf duo Neu!, whose Motorik beats became a hallmark of the period. “Blues was forbidden. That wasn’t me. Mozart and Chopin: that was European music.”
The iconography of the musical rebirth that followed took on a superhuman flavor in early albums.
Guru Guru’s debut urges mankind to prepare for the arrival of UFOs. An image of comic book supervillain Galactus “The Devourer of Worlds” emblazons the cover of Can’s first LP. Amon Düül II named their opener “Phallus Dei” (God’s Penis).
Resting chiefly on about 100 albums issued by the late ‘70s, the international reputation of Krautrock has cast a long shadow over later acts at home, many of whom have recently leant more toward the domestic, German language market.
Eight Krautrock LPs featured in a recent “100 top albums of the 1970s” list by U.S. online music site Pitchfork Media. Four German albums in total made the site’s ‘80s and ‘90s lists.
The spirit which fired bands 40 years ago is now all too often absent among their successors, said Guru Guru’s Neumeier.
“A lot of bands just want a hit, so they don’t take many risks,” he said. “We need to see a bit more idealism.”
Many German musicians of the era blame money for corrupting modern music, and some, such as Amon Düül II’s Weinzierl, believe capitalism has brought society full circle since 1968.
“It’s like Monopoly. Near the end of the game when one person owns everything, the rest get up, flip the board over and shout ‘kiss my ass!’” he said. “I see parallels to back then, only this time I fear it will be much more violent.”
Editing by Mike Collett-White and Sara Ledwith