A Liminal Feature – The 40-year sturm und drang: Tago Mago and the endless appeal of Krautrock

The recent fortieth anniversary reissue of Cologne giants Can’s seminal Tago Mago album is timely in so many ways. Then again, it probably would be at any time in the last 20 years, or in the coming 50. Because, for a nebulous and almost intangible scene/genre that existed 35 to 40 years ago, the appeal and influence of what became known as krautrock remains singularly undiminished. It’s almost unique.

And yet it is so nebulous. Comparing Can to Amon Duul II or Yatha Sidhra, or Cluster to Faust is almost pointless, such is the diversity on show, not to mention the fact that some were based in isolated Berlin, others in scenic Bavaria and yet more still in the war-ravaged Ruhr valley. And yet, all the bands that came to be known as “krautrock” (or “kosmische”) remain inescapably relevant, and somehow interconnected. The fact is that none of them could realistically been born anywhere else than post-World War II Germany. Like the similar -and more under-appreciated- scene that blossomed in the same 1968-1975 period in Japan, the unique socio-political and cultural context in Germany at the time was an unlikely, yet retrospectively obvious, climate for the remarkable musical exploration that ensued.

Consider the facts. In the mid- to late-sixties, a generation of German youth born during or just after the War was coming of age and having to deal with the trauma of what their forbears had done in their name, and this understandably led to a radicalisation of German youth politics towards the left, with a willful and overt desire to eradicate fascism from the nation’s psyche (at its most destructive, this led to criminal atrocities such as those committed by the Baader-Meinhof gang, but that’s another, more political, story). At the same time, a new, commercial, imperialism was being foisted upon young music-lovers, as British and American mega-bands started to dominate the airwaves and fashion. Indeed, it has often been noted that, whilst krautrock bands toiled in the relative shadows, much of German pop and rock culture was dominated by the likes of Santana, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd who, by the time the German scene hit its heyday (around 1971 or 1972), had long ago left behind their alternative roots to become money-spinning behemoths filling umpteen stadia. Like their Anglo-American counterparts, most German music-lovers would lap up such commercial fare, and yet somehow their own, more complex, bands managed to survive, gain their own fervent support, and prosper.

As such, the krautrock ethos was born out of a desire, even a need, to break from the disastrous recent past, but also to not comply with the capitalist present. Of course, you need only to listen to Amon Duul II or Gaila to acknowledge that the influence of British and American bands, especially the acid rock Californian ones, was key. Part of throwing off the shackles of a conservative/fascist past involved the wholesale embracing of mind-altering drugs, and acid looms heavy over a lot of the German musical output of the time. However, it is important to note that what the Germans honed in on was not the happy-clappy commercialisation of psych rock that would dominate the post-Woodstock years, but rather the intense, improvisatory, and slightly ambiguous lengths of Jefferson Airplane’s “Bear Melt”, Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, The Grateful Dead’s “Darkstar” and the snarling not-quite-psychedelia of The Velvet Underground (the proof was definitely in the pudding when Ash Ra Tempel recorded an album with none other than Timothy Leary!). If you’re going to trip out, make sure it means something. And make it challenging. It’s a key fact that, until Kraftwerk’s mid-seventies success, there was definitely very little commercially palatable about most krautrock.

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In this respect, another influence that cannot be avoided is Karlheinz Stockhausen. The great avant-garde composer was a key figure, along with the likes of John Cage and Morton Feldman, in the radical exploration of the possibilities of non-traditional music. And whilst in America or Britain the sheer volume of pop-rock music meant that such experimentation remained in the confines of “high” art, in Germany having one of their own gain such recognition and push back so many boundaries had a crucial impact on the minds of young, erudite Germans (let’s not forget the importance of the explosion of art and music courses on university campuses around the world in the liberal, post-War years, when anything seemed to be worthy of consideration). Stockhausen’s music was in no way connected to the ignominies and overbearing tradition of the 3rd Reich, it transcended nationalism to approach a theory of global musical language. For left-leaning German musicians looking to shake off the weight of previous generations, and find their own, egalitarian, voice, a work like Hymnen, which brought together, and expanded on, cultures, borders and commercial considerations, must have resounded like a beacon and opened up a myriad possibilities in terms of what could be done in music. The question was how to marry that experimentation to the seductive, ramshackle qualities of rock music. In a similar fashion, after so many years of Nazi-imposed navel-gazing, German youths became voracious in their quest to explore jazz or the blues, genres whose time signatures and modal structures went far beyond the relative simplicity of Anglo-American rock and pop.

So Germany was looking for a new identity, both spiritually and culturally, and voraciously hungry to grasp at the myriad possibilities. For the powers at the top of the state, this meant embracing a social order straight out of the Republican American handbook (again, the tensions between radical leftist organisations like the RAF and the German government, mirrored in Japan and Italy, are worth considering, for they are almost unique to those post-fascist states, especially in their violence). For younger Germans, it also meant looking back well beyond the 20th century into Germany’s folk past. As a confluence of cultures and mythologies, Germany has a potent history, and the allure of its folk and traditional songs played an important part in the emergence of a musical (and indeed pan-artistic) culture that, apart from Japan, remained unique in the world at that time. And again, I cannot emphasise the egalitarian aspect enough: if the Beatles won most plaudits for embracing Indian music, you have to look to the German bands for a demonstration of how to do it properly. Perhaps shamed by their parents’ racist past, many German bands would unequivocally turn to Africa, the Middle East and Asia in search of inspiration. Or they would dream of a future where notions of nationality would no longer apply.

Finally, and this is rare for me, I have to acknowledge the role played by the major record companies, although their contribution was unintentional. Taken by surprise by the weird, yet hugely popular, music emanating from Britain and America, the German labels scrabbled around to find local equivalents in the hope of locating a “German Hendrix” or a “German Beatles”, without any idea of what they were putting out. This led to such oddities as Cluster’s self-titled debut coming out on Philips records. If you throw in the sure touch of maverick label-owners like Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser, who, as boss of Ohr and then Kosmische Musik, oversaw incredible musical explorations such as those of Ash Ra Tempel, early Tangerine Dream, Sergius Golowin and Walter Wegmuller, and you have a very potent cocktail of creativity indeed!

And so, out of the rubble of a humiliated and shamed nation, German music somehow found a unique voice, one that was so varied that, whilst you can always find connecting factors between the various acts that made up the krautrock scene (it should probably be noted that the term is English, coined by clued-up, if slightly jingoistic, DJs over here like John Peel, who embraced the “genre”, even as most Brits ignored it), each and every band could be the subject of a book. If rock music provided the “oomph”, the refusal of most of the seminal German bands of the time to limit themselves simply to aping the Led Zeps, Sabbaths and Stones of this world, and instead turn to the avant-garde, jazz, world cultures and their singular folk past, allowed them to elevate rock to heights it has rarely scaled since.

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And my goodness, the influence of the krautrock bands has never waned! I saw Cluster at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Minehead a year ago. Their melodic purity and the sheer bloody-minded commitment to exploring the vast horizon of musical possibilities has not changed even as their music has. Their pieces were long, ponderous, ever-shifting and abstract – and hundreds of British hipsters, none of whom was born when Zuckerzeit came out, lapped it up! In the seventies, John Peel was almost a lone voice in Britain, singing the virtues of Faust and Can to all who would listen. By the end of the decade, John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, was also citing the krautrock bands as a major influence, and indeed the music of Neu! -the edgy, proto-punk, drum-driven duo of Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother- in particular is indeed slapped all over Public Image Ltd, and many other post-punk bands, from Wire to This Heat, DNA to Tuxedomoon. And it endures! If Ash Ra Tempel lifted a lot from Hendrix, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground and the New York minimalism of Tony Conrad and LaMonte Young, their maximalist approach later funneled into the likes of Acid Mothers Temple (the name alone!) and SUNN O))). Equally, you could rather convincingly argue that there would be no Throbbing Gristle or Einsturzende Neubauten without Faust, and that ambient music as pioneered by Brian Eno owes an incalculable debt to Tangerine Dream, Manuel Gottsching (recently cover boy for The Wire, celebrating his seminal E2-E4 album) and Cluster. Meanwhile, as “world” music deservedly becomes commonplace, and populates all forms of popular music, from rock to pop to punk, consider the likes of Yatha Sidhra and Popol Vuh, who were distilling instruments and philosophies from around the world into their cosmic rock way back in the seventies.

And what of Tago Mago, and its much-celebrated reissue? Well, in an era that gave us so many albums I consider beyond essential (Amon Duul II’s Yeti; the first two masterpieces by Ash Ra Tempel; Neu!’s original trio of motorik genius, and their offshoots like La Dusseldorf and Harmonia’s Deluxe; Faust’s entire output between their debut and Faust IV; the incredible debuts by Cluster, Guru Guru and Yatha Sidhra; Tangerine Dream’s Electronic Meditation and Zeit; Klaus Schulze’s overwhelming Irrlicht and Cyborg; the obscure masterpieces by Eruption, Sand, German Oak and Sergius Golowin; Popol Vuh’s In den Garten Pharaos; and Kraftwerk’s peculiar early output, to name just a few), Tago Mago stands remarkably tall.

Can weren’t really a rock band, though they rocked. Holger Czukay, the band’s bassist and main spokesman had studied under the aforementioned Karlheinz Stockhausen. Meanwhile, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt had spent time in New York, first studying at the feet of noted minimal experimentalists such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and LaMonte Young, before becoming enamoured by the strange mutant rock of The Velvet Underground. And drummer Jaki Liebezeit, surely the greatest skin-pounder that ever lived, was a veteran of Germany’s free jazz scene. By the time they founded Can in the late sixties, all three were experienced in music that went way beyond rock, but they were also drawn to that frenetic, crowd-pleasing genre. Adding teenage guitarist Michael Karoli, a student of Czukay’s, to their already prodigious line-up, Can emerged as one of the most singularly talented “rock” bands that has ever existed. Their open-mindedness allowed them to transcend their rigid jazz/experimental backgrounds, and again you have to wonder if they could have emerged from any other country than 1960s Germany, where there was equal space, at least in the minds of these cool cats, for both rock and something that went well beyond it.

However, if Can had the necessary musical and intellectual qualities to become a great band, they lacked one ingredient: a truly great singer. It would take a while (their first was American Vietnam veteran Malcolm Mooney, who delivered some amazing stuff on the band’s debut Monster Movie but left after suffering a nervous breakdown on stage), but in 1969, the band struck gold when they chanced upon a Japanese former Hair cast-member called Damo Suzuki. If the music on Tago Mago is incredible, the presence of Suzuki on vocals elevates it to the realms of the gods.

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There’s so much to say about Tago Mago, you could fill 700 pages. Jaki Liebezeit’s drumming is so forceful, yet measured like a metronome. It’s a relentless driving force, never abating, yet imbued with a typically jazz funkiness that makes each track surge forwards with almost sexual prowess. Holger Czukay once quipped that drum machines were invented to replace guys like Jaki Liebezeit, yet on listening to Tago Mago, you can only feel grateful that this guy is still going, and that his unbelievable melange of funk, jazz, minimalism and rock is with us to inspire future drummers to embrace such a forceful style.

“Funk” is almost an unusual word to use when talking about Can, when you consider the very cerebral backgrounds of most of the band’s members. And yet, if you listen to “Oh Yeah” or “Halleluwah”, these tracks are imbued with a slinky, seductive and rhythmic drive that is pure funk, before the genre had even properly established itself. Karoli’s guitar, which could be such a pyrotechnic weapon, such was the Bavarian’s skill, is instead used for almost impressionistic flourishes, a sort of explosion of colour that zig-zags across each track, equal parts brittle, noisy and melodic. Meanwhile, Czukay and Schmidt provide a mixture of solidity and invention that takes each track beyond its “rock” confines and into new, unexpectedly psychedelic realms. And then there’s Damo Suzuki. His lyrics, which meld German, Japanese and English, may not make a lot of sense, but the way he snaked his sultry, moody and expressive voice around the band’s insistent groove remains unique. Suzuki was not Can’s anchor or focal point, in the manner of a Jagger or a Morrison; instead, he deployed his urgent vocals like a weird preacher, letting them slide and dart around the rock-solid rhythms of Liebezeit, Czukay and Schmidt, before bursting forwards to take centre stage. And then jumping back to let the musicians (re-)build their singular groove.

The album’s original artwork, nicely restored for the reissue, features a great photo of Suzuki and Liebezeit on stage. Damo appears lost in a mad trance, shaking his long, long hair, whilst his ever-reliable drummer keeps things solid and powerful, ready to catch him when he returns from his vocal flights. This is acid rock with a brain, and ultimately it will take you far beyond anything dreamt by California’s psych crowds. Like a beautiful cobra, Tago Mago sways and dips; it’s almost hard to get a handle on it. Instead, you drift, serenaded uncomfortably by Damo Suzuki, as the four Germans build up something that is equal parts psych-rock, jazz, funk and minimalism. I have yet to hear any rock band properly accommodate so many varied and exploratory styles in the way Can did on Tago Mago.

I suppose I should mention that the remastered sound on this reissue sounds great, and that the three live bonus tracks are interesting, albeit unessential, additions to the repertoire of anyone that loves Can (and we’re a growing bunch!). But, to be honest Tago Mago would sound revelatory and unique no matter how it was mastered. It’s one of rock’s true masterpieces, a work that transcends genre and cultures. Perhaps only Germany in the sixties and seventies could have spawned Tago Mago, but its power and beauty goes way beyond any such considerations. I could -and have!- run up a list of krautrock/kosmische albums every music-loving individual should own, and Tago Mago would be at the very top. If you don’t own it already, you now have a better chance than ever, and to miss it would be an act of madness.

You can also read this, with videos, here

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