Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and Its Legacy

Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and Its Legacy
Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and Its Legacy by Nikos Kotsopoulos

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Krautrock is one of the most neglected yet important genres in popular music. Without it, 70s rock would have been doomed to keep aping the blues with ever-diminishing marginal returns while everyone else went off to have fun with disco or get stoned to reggae (or, worse, watch as pop music degenerated from 60s Beatles majesty to 70s Brotherhood Of Man irrelevance). The Ramones get the credit for English punk, but Neu! and Can were just as important, and were even more important when it comes to 80s alternative music.

Now, CD re-issues have made Krautrock available to everyone who wondered what Julian Cope, Stereolab, John Lydon, Radiohead and countless others were wittering on about, so the renewed interest makes a definitive book essential. Sadly, this isn't that book.

Content is important, but no reviewer can ignore the glaring flaws in production. Other reviewers have complimented it, but such claims are madness. This book was made by amateurs. I have read praise for the photography, but most of the pictures are mundane and some are unquestionably poor. West Germany in the 1970s wasn't some distant age where photography was unknown; there are far better pictures available than the fuzzy, out-of-focus images that occur too often here, usually with inadequate captions. The main photo of Can has been laid out such that Damo Suzuki is lost in the centre fold; even Klaus Dinger of Neu! suffers the same fate, and Neu! only had two members. Other pictures lose their captions in the same gutter. Clearly whoever was in charge of layout either didn't know that this would be a large, perfect-bound paperback, or simply didn't care. No designer is ignorant of where the centre of the page is. There's no excuse for such sloppiness.

Worse, the font seems to be Courier (or something similar). I'm sure this was chosen to reflect the forward-looking modernism of the music, because this font was designed for computer screens. It's small, faint and not intended for printed narrative, so it's no surprise that I CAN'T READ IT. Even with the main light on, my bedside light on and my glasses on, I CAN'T READ IT. Can I offer a bit of advice to the whizzo - sorry, amateur - designer who chose that font? Mate, you would have done a better job using Comic Sans. This is the worst insult you can pay to a designer, but here it's justified.

Oh, sorry, the content. Since I was given this book as a present towards the end of summer, there were enough bright, sunny days left for me to read it. The biographies of the bands and the main producers, which make up three-quarters of the book, are pretty solid. Some are excellent (Can, Faust, Popol Vuh, both Amon Düüls), although others are so cursory that we learn very little from them (Anima is particularly poor). All of the main bands are there, as well as several more minor luminaries. Even La Dusseldorf, who are probably as much Neue Deutsch Welle as Krautrock, get a look in, but the main interest lies in the first quarter of the book where the contibutors discuss the origins and context of Krautrock.

These are fascinating and are what (for me) earn the book its stars. David Stubbs writes a fine essay on the origins of the genre, ably supported by Ken Hollings and Michael Faber. Stubbs examines the socio-political background; Hollings delves into the history of the avant-garde with important references to Sockhausen; Faber talks about why Germans are baffled by the reverence paid by foreigners to what they see as a minor blip in their country's musical development. He cites Grobschnitt as a typically popular non-Krautrock band, likening them to both Spinal Tap and The Mothers of Invention. This I have to hear.

There are only two let-downs here: one is Stubbs' reference to "the murder of Benno Ohnesorg", which is even worth a photo but is unexplained other than the fact that it was important and it happened in 1967. The other is the the sprawling and irrelevant piece by Erik Davis - his only contribution to the book, even though he seems to get top billing among the contributors - who dribbles on about the cosmic without suggesting any awareness of what the book was about and whose only interesting points were made much better by Hollings. He also doesn't know the difference between 'pare' and 'pair' or 'pore' and 'pour'. Maybe he's a big star, or perhaps there's another reason why his writing was considered not only worthy of inclusion but too important to merit the attentions of an editor who can actually write in English.

I'm aware that I've concentrated on the negative here, but the faults are too glaring to ignore. Nevertheless, this is an interesting book that curates much of the knowledge about a hugely important musical movement. But it could have been so much better.

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