This article, created by Adam Douglas, appeared on Reverb.com. Please note that all (c) are with Reverb and its authors. You can find the original article here.
Something incredible happened in Germany in the late 1960s. A generation of young people, equally determined to not follow in their parents’ fascist footsteps and not copy American and British styles of music, set about creating their own. This was not an organized movement like punk or rave, but kismet. Musicians all over the country simultaneously decided to forge something new from the cultural ashes of their country.
It wasn’t a unified movement: there were as many ways of going about this as there were bands doing it. Novel ways of playing, such as improvisation, were common, as were unusual tunings and rhythms. This embrace of the new went beyond how they played their instruments and encompassed the actual instruments themselves. Certainly there were bands playing standard instruments like guitar, bass and drums, but others gravitated towards the new electronics that were emerging, including nascent synthesizers, drum machines, and effects. There were no rules—if it could make a noise, it could get thrown into the mix.
It was also often a sound honed in the studio, away from prying ears. David Stubbs, the author of the excellent book on Krautrock music, Future Days, explained it to me like this when I reached out: “Attaining an independent studio space was of the utmost importance to early Krautrock bands including Faust, Can, Kraftwerk—a space in which they could operate independently of the mainstream, commercial rock/pop conveyor belt, construct their own sound, West German in origin, from scratch. Electronics naturally played a starring role in this initiative. (Producer Connie) Plank was of great assistance but also the likes of Kurt Graupner, who devised ‘black boxes’ for Faust at their Wümme studio in 1971-2, enabling them to ‘jam’ and splice together their sounds in unorthodox ways.”
Today, we celebrate the noises that the original Krautrock and kosmische bands made, as well as the instruments and devices they made them with. There isn’t space to include all of the groups active in the 1970s—that would take up an entire book—but I have chosen a representative six groups to shine a light on. Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments.
Kraftwerk: From Krautrock To Synth Pop
Arguably the most influential of the original crop of Krautrock bands (and certainly the most popular), Kraftwerk pioneered the idea of the all-synthesizer band and invented synthpop in the process. They started in a more experimental vein with a sound closer to contemporaries like Cluster (see below), but by their fourth album, Autobahn, they had evolved into the synth powerhouse that we all know today.
Recorded and released in 1974, a time when there weren’t that many synthesizers available, Kraftwerk made heavy use of two famous monosynths, the Moog Minimoog Model D and ARP Odyssey Mk I. Composed of founders Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider with percussion by Wolfgang Flür, the band used the new synths for both melodic and bass duties. You can hear the Minimoog most prominently in the title track, with the Odyssey handling a lot of the special effects sounds, especially on the experimental second half of the album. Melodic sounds were further rounded out with a polyphonic Farfisa Professional Piano. (Farfisa gear was especially popular with these bands, as we’ll see.)
One of the keys to the power of this era of Kraftwerk is its rhythms. Wolfgang Flür was a real drummer, and was able to play their beats live. Where most bands at this time relied on preset rhythms, Kraftwerk modified a Farfisa Rhythm 10 and Vox Percussion King, adding pads for Flür to strike. This freed them up from presets and gave their songs a funky boost.
Autobahn was the last album recorded with Krautrock super producer Connie Plank, and so it often sounds as much like him as it does Kraftwerk. You can hear this in the heavy use of phaser, which comes courtesy of two units: a Mu-tron Bi-phase and a Schulte Compact Phasing ‘A’, better known as the Krautrock phaser for its use on many like-minded records from the time.
Popol Vuh: The Spiritual Synthesizer
Kraftwerk may have popularized the synthesizer but they were far from the first German band to record one. That honor goes to Popol Vuh and its driving force, Florian Fricke. Fricke was one of the first to own a Moog Synthesizer III in Europe (it was the second, he claimed), and this 1969 purchase would go on to influence not just his own music, but that of a number of other artists as well.
First appearing on the Popol Vuh album, Affenstunde, in 1970, Fricke used the Moog Synthesizer III to add atmosphere to its eerie and meandering tracks. Avoiding the switched on cliches of the time, it’s extremely cosmic, even spiritual at times. This continued through the next album, 1971’s In Den Gärten Pharaos.
By 1972, Fricke was losing interest in his Synthesizer III. He would last use it on what would become the soundtrack for Werner Herzog’s film, Aguirre: The Wrath Of God. At this point, though, we have to leave the Moog behind and address the choir organ, the custom instrument that provided the cosmic choral voices throughout the soundtrack. Essentially a homemade Mellotron, it featured a number of tape loops “that were hooked together parallel on a turning axle that turned all tapes continuously,” according to Sanjin Đumišić Sanjindumusic.com. Fricke isn’t the only artist to record with the choir organ. It can also be heard on Amon Düül II’s albums, Tanz Der Lemminge and Wolf City, the latter of which also features Fricke’s Synthesizer III.
Fricke would soon devote himself almost entirely to the piano and take Popol Vuh in an acoustic direction. However, his Synthesizer III would eventually be bought by Klaus Schulze—but not before making an appearance on Zeit (1972) by Tangerine Dream.
Tangerine Dream: Birth Of The Berlin School
Where Kraftwerk used synthesizers to create a new kind of pop, Tangerine Dream went in another direction, using similar technology to pioneer a much more linear cosmic music. It was on their fifth album, Phaedra, in 1974 that their musical experiments really came together, galvanized by the introduction of a new and key piece of music technology: the sequencer.
Members Christopher Franke and Edgar Froese clearly remembered their time recording with Fricke’s Moog Synthesizer III. With the advance they received from new label Virgin Records for Phaedra, they went and bought a Synthesizer III from Hansa Studio in 1973. To this they paired a Moog Sequencer 960, which allowed them to compose and perform sequenced basslines to run under their trademark soupy morass of kosmische sounds.
Other instruments used on Phaedra include the EMS VCS 3, a popular synth for space rock. To this they added traditional bass, guitar and organ, and their other trademark sound from the era, a Mellotron played through a Schulte Compact Phasing ‘A’ phaser.
Tangerine Dream would go on to add more synths and sequencers as time went on, and they’re still continuing to this day, although without Franke or Froese.
Manuel Göttsching: New Age Of Music
In 1976, Manuel Göttsching took an about turn. After a number of albums released with his band, Ash Ra Tempel, and one solo, Inventions For Electric Guitar, released under his own name, he got into synthesizers in a big way. “He felt that he had done enough with the guitar for the moment, and he was attracted by the new dimension of composing his music with keyboards and synthesizers,” explains his website. With a new label, a new studio recently built, and a new approach, he renamed himself Ashra and released New Age Of Earth.
Sometimes languid, sometimes propulsive, it’s an album that is both kosmische in atmosphere and melodic in nature. To achieve his album, Göttsching used a variety of synths, including an ARP Odyssey. Unlike Kraftwerk, who employed the Odyssey to create proto-synth pop, Göttsching instead used it to provide proto-New Age melodies (although he has rejected this term). The album also features an EMS Synthi A and a Farfisa Syntorchestra, a polyphonic string machine with a two-VCO monophonic synth section. This provides the swirly and angelic string sounds on the album.
The last piece of gear worth noting on the album is the EKO ComputeRhythm. The 1972 drum machine was special in that it was programmable, allowing users to get away from presets. This was used to spectacular effect by Göttsching a few years later on his landmark 1984 album, E2-E4.
Can And The Alpha 77
Cologne band Can is, for many, the pinnacle of Krautrock. Over the course of their career, they developed a powerful sound, forged from improvisation and tempered by incredible musicianship. You usually don’t think of them in terms of their gear, as they relied on more traditional rock band instrumentation, with guitar, bass and drums at the core—but then was Irmin Schmidt.
Their keyboardist, Schmidt worked mainly with a Farfisa Organ Professional and Farfisa Electric Piano. As synthesizers became more widely available, he tried them out, but opted to stay with what he knew best. However, listen to their records and you’ll occasionally hear some distinctively psychedelic sounds happening with his keys. This is the work of the Alpha 77.
A custom-built contraption, the Alpha 77 was a modular effects unit. Each module was a separate effects box, and these included a ring modulator, tape delay, spring reverb, chorus, pitch‑shifter, high‑ and low‑pass filters, resonant filters and, according to Jono Podmore, who oversaw the recent album reissues, and as told to , “a weird, pitch harmonic shifter thing.” It had multiple through lines, one for each instrument, so Schmidt could affect them independently. “The whole lot basically goes to a row of two‑pole switches,” explained Podmore, “then there’s this bunch of switches in a little mixer where you could effect the individual organ and piano signal paths.”
Cluster: Pastoral Synthesists
While many bands from this period went through various phases, none was more pronounced than the changeover from Kluster to Cluster. Starting as a proto-industrial trio, the Berlin-based Kluster used improvisational noise to challenge the musical status quo. After member Conrad Schnitzler left, the remaining two, Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, rechristened themselves Cluster and gradually morphed into a more melodic project.
Theirs was an exceptional sound, one born from their move to a farmhouse in Forst in the German countryside. There, they made use of all manner of electronic instruments and effects. Looking at pictures from the time, it’s striking how modern they look sitting behind keyboards and banks of processing equipment. Their music, however, is out of time, all loping drum machine rhythms, unique sound design and hypnotic melodies.
Another defining factor in their musical evolution was their introduction to producer Connie Plank. A towering figure in Krautrock, although one who chose to operate largely behind the scenes, Connie casts a loving shadow across many bands from this era.“Cluster … benefitted from the advice of a young Connie Plank,” David Stubbs told me, “who used his connections to arrange them free studio time and was able to guide them as to the possibilities of the studio as a musical instrument.”
To get their mid-‘70s sound, Cluster used a Farfisa VIP 600 dual manual combo organ and Farfisa Professional Piano. As with Manuel Göttsching, they also had a Farfisa Syntorchestra. (Klaus Schulze was a user as well.) Rounding out their keyboards was a Davoli Davolisint, Italy’s first synthesizer and arguably a key contributor to their unique sound. Rhythms came courtesy of an Elka Drummer One, which was rebadged as the Echolette in West Germany.
Each of their personal keyboard stations had a West German-made Echolette Panorama Mixer, with bass, treble and panning controls for each channel plus a built-in spring reverb. To this they added a number of other effects, including an Echolette E51 Tube Echo, a tape delay with additional spring reverb.