Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Krautrock
Why it’s daunting: Krautrock is German—no surprise there—but a lot of it wanders pretty far from any conventional notion of “rock.” That’s a big part of its allure: Few musical genres (even loosely demarcated ones tagged with dubious ethnic slurs) range as freely or as fruitfully, and even fewer isolated groupings of bands went on to influence as many different kinds of movements after the fact: hip-hop, electro, techno, and more. The gist of krautrock is simple: It was Germany’s answer to the musical upheaval at play all across the planet in the late 1960s and ’70s, when rock did double-duty as revolutionary art-music and strived to be newly psychedelic and free. As befits countless German stereotypes, though, krautrock’s roots grew as much from early avant-garde electronic musicians like Karlheinz Stockhausen as from, say, The Beatles and The Velvet Underground. From those electronic roots grew all sorts of unusual modes, noises, and textures, which in turn proved influential in the evolution of later electronic sounds like ambient and techno (and, in less rewarding instances, that nasty bugaboo known as new-age).
Possible gateway: Can’s Tago Mago
Why: Can was the band that drew most righteously from all of krautrock’s different systems of thought. Two of the group’s founders, Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt, studied with Stockhausen, and the array of sounds they sideswiped—starkly insistent funk, noodly jam-rock, propulsive jazz—played as all the more out-there thanks to frequent electronic processing and tape-edit techniques. 1971’s Tago Mago is an aggressive, mystical masterpiece, with caterwauling vocal moans from frontman Damo Suzuki and frayed rock jams that flirt with streamlining and steering into controlled skids. Where so many jam bands from the era eased back and surfed the wave of a groove, Can pushed forward and sought to do the math for how those waves ultimately rise and fall. When the beat takes off in “Paperhouse,” you can practically hear the rhythm leave Jaki Liebezeit’s drumming and fly off into an ethereal netherworld where formalism holds out its own just rewards.
Likewise in “Halleluhwah,” which sounds maybe a little too short in its extremely digressive running time of 18:33. Tago Mago is definitely strange and challenging in places, but so was all of krautrock.
Next steps: Up there with Can was Faust, which helped broadcast the idea of krautrock to the wider world by way of an early label deal with Polydor Records. The group’s self-titled first album, from 1971, wouldn’t qualify as anybody’s idea of a flush commercial investment. As a disorientingly playful collage of psychedelic rock and bad-dream aural drama, however, it’s a masterwork among Faust’s many others. (See also: The Faust Tapes, So Far.)
Crucial to certain kinds of krautrock was the idea of the “motorik” rhythm, which the band Neu! nailed on its self-titled debut from 1972. After getting over the shock of just how much it sounds like what Stereolab pioneered decades later, Neu! offers a lot to hear in the driving groove of “Hallogallo,” which finds a steady, simple beat and sticks to it—for 10 minutes and counting.
Where not to start: Kraftwerk is an elephant in the room when talk turns to krautrock, but the Kraftwerk of “We Are The Robots” popular lore was a long way from the early Kraftwerk that slots more instructively into krautrock proper. The formative early material, available on bootlegs with colored street-cone covers, dates back to 1970, and sounds a lot more rustle-y and weird. The locked-groove synth funk of later Kraftwerk is part of the krautrock story to be sure (especially the parts that portend much of hip-hop and techno), but it’s better to arrive at that stiffness than to start with it—to better understand how the very idea of “stiffness” was a red herring in the end.