July 29, 2015
Why was the synthesizer so crucial to Krautrock?
by David Stubbs
This is an excerpt from Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music. Click here to purchase the book.
Crucial to Krautrock’s drive to lay new foundations was electronics, despite the sheer unfeasibility and cost of synthesizers in the sixties and seventies. The technology was there, in evidence on Walter Carlos’s Switched on Bach, on Who albums like Who’s Next, but as yet, synthesizers were too cumbersome and temperamental to be absolutely relied upon – they required patience and persistence. Klaus Mueller, publisher for Klaus Schulze, as well as working as a roadie in the 1970s, recalls the practical diffi culties of setting up the equipment back then. ‘At concert venues there was the problem that the equipment needed a steady temperature. Which meant that it had to be connected to the power and switched on at least three hours before the concert. Sometimes this was not possible. I remember the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, where Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic were still rehearsing onstage at seven o’clock in the evening, and [Klaus Schulze’s] concert on that same stage was announced for eight o’clock.’
In popular music, only Stevie Wonder, in the early seventies, made extensive use of ARP and Moog synthesizers, working with programmers Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. Totally blind, immersed without distraction in the world of sound, he had the will and motivation, as well as the creativity to spare, that enabled him to make what have come to be regarded as among the greatest records of the era, bestselling electric-blue masterpieces which altered the fabric of future R&B and went some way to undermining assumptions about the ‘soullessness’ and inexpressiveness of synthesizers. Equally tireless were the Krautrock generation. However, unlike Wonder, their very German-ness and the un acceptable oddity of their creations reinforced the old equation of electronics and inauthenticity in the minds of some.
For Krautrockers, it was the continued, imitative use of traditional instruments played in the received, traditional rock ’n’ roll manner that was most inauthentic. Hence their attraction to electronics, a carry-on from Stockhausen but also born out of a need to customize and modify. Synthesizers were actually a highly expensive rarity in West Germany at the time. And so, for the most part, the Krautrock groups had to make do with traditional instruments, onto which they would bolt on whatever devices they chose, from contact mikes to dynamic pedals designed to create echoes and delays, as well as sound effects and tape machines. So processed and filtered were the end results that they sounded like they’d been produced with banks of advanced technology, rather than improvised using cheap, makeshift gadgets. This was a music that originated in the here and now, rather than in the back then or the overseas.
David Stubbs is an author and music journalist. Alongside Simon Reynolds, he was one of the co-founders of the magazine Monitor before going on to join the staff at Melody Maker. He later worked for NME, Uncut, and Vox, as well as The Wire. His work has appeared in the Times of London, the Sunday Times, Spin, the Guardian, the Quietus, and GQ. He has written a number of books, including Fear of Music, a comparative study of twentieth-century avant-garde music and art, and Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music. He currently lives in London.