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Middle of the Autobahn

By Milo Nesbitt

Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany

Uwe Schütte, Penguin, 2020

A Hidden Landscape Once a Week

Mark Sinker, Strange Attractor, 2019

It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track

Ian Penman, Fitzcarraldo, 2019

In the Coen brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski, one of the characters, Bunny Lebowski, is supposedly kidnapped by a gang of German ‘nihilists’, demanding ransom money and ‘no funny stuff’ in exchange for her safe return. In fact, Bunny is in on the plot, and the kidnappers are friends of hers; the deception is exposed when we, along with Jeff Bridges’ character, The Dude, recognise the kidnappers on the cover of an LP by a band called ‘Autobahn’. With the album cover’s austere symmetry and kitsch futurism, the band is instantly identifiable as a parodic tribute to the real-life German band Kraftwerk: both the name ‘Autobahn’ and one character’s dismissal of their music as ‘ugh, a kind of techno-pop’ come from real-life Kraftwerk albums from 1974 and 1986. The Coen brothers’ choice of Kraftwerk as a target for their satire is more than incidental; part of the joke is that their kind of music is obviously fitting for the collective persona adopted by the would-be kidnappers. In one scene, The Dude is accosted in the bath by the members of Autobahn, who flaunt their supposed ‘nihilism’ as a threat: ‘we believe in nothing, Lebowski, nothing.’

While I’m convinced that this Kraftwerk parody is playfully affectionate rather than spiteful, it is perhaps unfortunately revealing in terms of the psychic and cultural associations Kraftwerk have often conjured up since their emergence in the early 1970s. This is an issue Uwe Schütte seeks to address in his new book about the band, Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany. Taking as a starting point the persistence of ‘old stereotypes’ about ‘Germans and German culture’, Schütte explains that these often intrude into descriptions of Kraftwerk’s sound, which is often lazily conceptualised as ‘efficient’, ‘precise’, and ‘emotionally cold’. So far, so good: as long as this one-dimensional perception of Kraftwerk prevails, there will be space for a proper study of the band and their influence, recovering a more nuanced account from the image of them ingrained in the popular imagination.

What is surprising, then, is that Schütte doesn’t seem particularly interested in doing this. Over the course of 300-odd pages that take us through the different stages of Kraftwerk’s career, from their inception to a discussion of their legacy, Schütte explains how the band drew the lines along which later music, both popular and experimental, was to be made. He argues, in a more or less orthodox interpretation of the band’s influence, that their precocious understanding of the potential of the machine to interact with the human, and the subsequent translation of this encounter into a musical context, can be felt across genres from synthpop to techno. Schütte winds up by concluding that the key to this was Kraftwerk’s emphasis ‘on the non-authentic, the impersonal, the serial’. Their music was revolutionary because it made no attempt to simply replicate ‘the heat of rock’n’roll,’ but was instead characterised by ‘the coldness and the cool stemming from the use of machines’. There’s a problem here: having apparently set out to correct clichés about Kraftwerk whose dominance obscures a real understanding of the band’s music, Schütte only ends up repeating them.

Not that this comes about from a lack of knowledge. Schütte is an academic at Aston University and has a researcher’s eye for traces of Kraftwerk’s artistic influences, pointing out that the band’s formation in 1970 coincided with the first exhibition of conceptual art in New York. Kraftwerk’s aesthetics, Schütte convincingly argues, can be attributed both to their existence in a cultural moment alongside artists like Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, and to their identification with German predecessors such as the filmmaker Fritz Lang and the composer Richard Wagner, whose concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, ‘total work of art,’ is mirrored by Kraftwerk’s fusion of image and sound. Schütte is also persuasive when he discusses Kraftwerk’s treatment of, and place within, history. In his telling, Kraftwerk’s music is to some extent a project of historical recovery. The band adopted the aesthetics of the industrial Rhine-Ruhr region of Germany and returned to avant-garde movements ‘violently cut short by the Nazis’—such as Bauhaus or Lang’s futurist machine art—in order to put forward their vision of industrielle Volksmusik. Refusing to straightforwardly associate itself with historically tricky ideas of national pride, it nevertheless avoids what Schütte views as the self-limiting compromise of copying Anglo-American pop conventions.

Contrary to their Big Lebowski döppelgangers, then, Kraftwerk certainly believe in something. Still, as well-researched as the book is, it’s difficult to see how much it really adds to existing thinking about the band. It’s obvious from Schütte’s writing that he is a fan of Kraftwerk, which is unambiguously a good thing: the best music writing surely comes from love. But this only makes it more disappointing that there is so much that seems to be missing from what is, in the end, a fairly middle-of-the-autobahn reading of Kraftwerk’s output. Listening again to Kraftwerk’s Computer World, what struck me, contrary to the easy elision between ‘mechanical’ and ‘cold’ that Schütte makes, was the depth of emotion in the band’s sonic aesthetics. The synths on the title track are tender more than anything else; ‘Computer Love’ isn’t a song about loving computers but about feeling alienated by their supposed evocation of progress. If you wanted to place the band in a German artistic tradition, you’d probably get more mileage out of making a case for ‘romantic Kraftwerk’ rather than the tried-and-tested line about the ‘man-machine’ for which Schütte opts: Johann von Goethe, not Wernher von Braun. On ‘Pocket Calculator’, meanwhile, Kraftwerk show how funny they can be. As Ralf Hütter self-deprecatingly sings, ‘by pressing down a special key it plays a little melody’, ironising this new musical world even as his band is supposedly inventing it.

Schütte aims for an ‘introduction’ to Kraftwerk that is ‘accessible’, so perhaps it would be asking too much for him to let his critical gaze wander a bit. But one thing that’s really striking is the absence of other bands in the book; reading it, you could be forgiven for thinking that Kraftwerk were the only band with an involvement in the visual arts. We learn that Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider were the beneficiaries of an active, forward-thinking art scene in Düsseldorf. We also get a brief mention of the Velvet Underground, on the basis that Andy Warhol’s artwork for their 1967 debut album was mimicked by the traffic cone on the cover of Kraftwerk’s own self-titled debut. But, as true as this explanation of Kraftwerk’s ‘Warholian strategy’ might be, it still feels like a missed opportunity; aren’t the bands almost total opposites, the ‘Kraftwerkian ideal’ of ‘speed’ a completely different thing to the Velvet Underground’s amphetamine blur? Schütte’s explanation of Kraftwerk’s uniqueness, of which he is rightly convinced, would be strengthened if he unbuttoned his argument a little bit and allowed it to take on a more comparative quality. There is a final chapter dealing with Kraftwerk’s ‘legacy’, in which their influence on early electro and its subsequent techno mutations features heavily, starting with Afrika Bambaataa’s sampling of ‘Numbers’. By Schütte’s own admission, ‘[t]his wondrous story has often been told (and re-told)’. If that is the case, then what’s the point of another rehashing that adds little by way of explanation? ‘Here comes yet another mythical Kraftwerk tale’ is how Schütte has introduced this section. At this point, it only feels disappointing that Schütte was not willing to engage in a little more myth-busting.

Part of the problem here, I suspect, arises from pre-emptive worries about marketability. Presumably anticipating that readers might be turned off by the idea of an ‘academic’ book about a product of popular culture, Schütte prioritises accessibility and decides to keep references to existing work about the band ‘to a minimum’ in order to make the book ‘as readable as possible’. As such, he will go on, for example, to describe Kraftwerk’s use of everyday sounds in their music as ‘what academics call indexical’. Why write like this? Schütte is an academic and he is the one calling it indexical; this reining in of his own critical ambition feels symptomatic of the book’s shortcomings. This would be understandable if the book sat at the other end of the generic scale, but Schütte simultaneously rejects a more biographical approach, taking ‘only a very limited interest in gossip regarding personal quarrels, biographical issues and tales of human shortcomings’. The result is that, sitting uneasily between the two modes, unwilling to embrace its status as an ‘academic’ work, the reading experience of the book is actually downgraded: Schütte’s analysis is frequently suggestive, but stops short of saying something provocative or novel.

Schütte, ultimately, seems caught in the middle of a question about how intellectual music writing can really be. Another way to put this would be to say that he is unwilling to ‘write about what the music’s about’ instead of simply ‘writ[ing] about the music’. I’m using Charles Shaar Murray’s phrasing from an interview with Mark Sinker, the editor of A Hidden Landscape Once a Week. (It’s also quite a good principle for reviewing books.) Subtitled ‘the unruly curiosity of the UK music press from the 1960s-80s, in the words of those who were there’, A Hidden Landscape is a collection of interviews, essays, and panel discussions with people who wrote about music at a level below the mainstream, centring around magazines such as the NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, Smash Hits, and Black Music. If Schütte’s book appears suspended between its author’s wavering convictions about how seriously to take music, then this was not an issue for writers like Paul Morley, who recounts how he relished the prospect of writing for a publication like the NME, which existed ‘in a world that treated music as a matter of life or death’.

The picture of the music press painted in A Hidden Landscape is a genuinely fascinating one. Writers like Nick Kent and his doing-heroin-with-Keith-Richards schtick thankfully do not seem to be not of interest to Sinker (or perhaps he just passed up the chance to contribute). Also conspicuously not involved are the likes of Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, who were hired at the NME after answering an ad calling for ‘hip young gunslingers’ and whose latter-day careers as reactionaries for hire are a cautionary tale against breathlessly mythologising the sub rosa elements of the scene. A welcome reminder against such excessive mythologising comes in a closing essay from Paul Gilroy, who mocks the concept of a ‘bromantic ethnography of the NME office’; this book is much more than that. The inter-publication rivalries and sub-generational sea changes in the social world of the music press will be of interest to those for whom names like Sinker, Murray, Morley, Gilroy, Jon Savage, Jonh Ingham, Val Wilmer and Simon Frith are already familiar. The broader purpose served by the book is an investigation into how and why this section of the press displayed the relentless intellectual curiosity and courage to take its subject seriously at the time it did, operating always within the implicit understanding that this is not the case for the majority of music writing produced, broadly, since the late 1980s.

The answer that emerges is, firstly, musical. In a fantastic introductory essay, Sinker names Jimi Hendrix as the ‘avatar of all-styles exploration’:

The future was to be a welcoming pluralist hubbub – actively utopian, spiritually woke, loved-up: black, brown, white as equals, as free to meet and flirt as jazz and classical and blues and rock’n’roll. That was what rock promised. This was what it was.

Mainstream music writing was ill-equipped to deal with this countercultural upsurge, and so it fell to the underground press to ‘liberate everyone to try and find new ways of describing the music’, as the Rock’s Backpages archivist Mark Pringle puts it. If the citation of Jimi Hendrix as, essentially, an intellectual (even if Sinker himself does not use this word) feels out of place, then what the book conveys is that it shouldn’t: music is not somehow resistant to the tools of analysis for which other parts of culture are fair game. This argument is fed into by the more directly literary influences of the ‘underground press’. The rise of the ‘New Journalism’, as practiced by Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson, shocked its impressionable young readers into a kind of confidence, a belief that writing about culture gave you licence for extended critical thinking and demanded stylistic excellence as a minimum. Murray’s claim that he would ‘rather lose a slow reader than talk down to a bright one’ is another affirming mantra here: the writing was an achievement in itself, no longer secondary to the music.

Throughout the book a mournful tone often emerges, lamenting the passing of this time and the values it placed on music writing. For the music critic Barney Hoskyns, ‘by the end of the 80s,’ a different climate for music writing had emerged, one in which ‘you just write your fucking 300-word review, tell the reader what the record is about and what it sounds like, and we don’t want to hear the word “I” in it.’ For many of the book’s contributors, in a post-Thatcher Britain it seemed like the ambitions of writing itself had had its wings clipped: culture, which is to say daily life, and critical analysis were seen to be incompatible. Intellectual curiosity, apparently, went from a prerequisite for music writing to a quality likely to get you blacklisted from most major music publications. This seems hard to refute: one of the most successful music journalists from the 1990s, John Harris, now writes articles for The Guardian in which he interviews authentically northern-accented people who just so happen to share his views about how the Labour Party has become too metropolitan and intellectual.

Perhaps this is how we’ve ended up with books like Schütte’s, which, despite its welcome ambition to critically interrogate music, feels so careful and cauterised. It is a credit to Sinker’s editorship, though, that he is careful not to let this view slide into bitter self-regard and poisonous nostalgia: ‘I enjoyed putting older writers on the spot by asking this: if the past was so great, how did the present end up bad?’. Certainly, the case of Ian Penman’s It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, published last year, is proof that music writing can always be as good as the music. The book is a collection of eight essays, originally published in the London Review of Books and City Journal, on acts like James Brown, Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra, Steely Dan, and Prince. In the James Brown piece, Penman writes ‘if you’ve always been baffled by just what it is a bass player does, play ‘Sex Machine’ and try tuning your ear to the sinuously pivotal bass line William ‘Bootsy’ Collins lays down’. In a similar vein, if you’ve ever wondered just what the point of music writing is, try reading Ian Penman (real name, by the way): using language like Sinatra does his voice, he ‘takes soiled £5 words and makes them glisten like mystic opals, his voice like spring light clarifying a dusty catacomb’.

If nothing else, the book generates its own near-perfect playlist. Penman’s adoration for the music he discusses is blatant without getting in the way of the seriousness he affords to his chosen artists. It Gets Me Home wears its academic leanings lightly – references to Walter Benjamin or Jacques Lacan feel like the most natural thing in the world when they’re being used to talk about Prince. If Penman sometimes seems motivated by the reviewer’s impulse to persuade people to listen to the music that’s worth the effort, then what also shines through is the belief, necessary for writing this affecting, that the writing itself is just as significant, following the music like the next note in a solo.

Writing about music is, according to Thelonious Monk, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello and a host of other musicians to whom the quote is dubiously attributed, like dancing about architecture. The point of the expression, of course, is that music is its own form, somehow untouchable: resistant to description or, worse, interpretation, and to attempt either is an error worthy of derision. But when it’s done like Penman does it, writing feels like the best possible way to experience music, and music appears the best possible subject for writing. Of Sinatra, he writes that ‘we are probably not far off a time when he will seem, to many young pop consumers, as singularly odd and inconceivable a figure as a long-ago scrivener or apothecary’. Let’s hope the same isn’t true of writers like Ian Penman.

MILO NESBITT reads English at St Peter's and will not be commenting any further.

Art by Ellen Sharman


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