I've had as hard a time on some of the bigger countries as the smaller ones so far: angle of approach is always a tough call, and sometimes the sheer volume of music is so great. With England I copped out, and for the US I'm taking suggestions from now for 'American'-sounding American songs; but for Germany, there really is a wealth of music that I just don't know anything about, and that's what caused the problems.
There's a lot to laugh at in the German mainstream: this is a country where laughter classes are commonplace and the non-ironic mullet is both acceptable and aspired to. Guess which was the one country where David Hasselhoff continues a pop career? Guess where the Scorpions, of 'Wind Of Change' are from? And yet, alongside this, there's a fairly unique approach to other disciplines - electronica today is heavily influenced by what Kraftwerk and their peers were doing almost thirty years ago. Both Bowie's and Iggy's Berlin years were amongst the most creative of their careers.
However, if you were going to put forward one genre as the epitome of German ingeniuity, Julian Cope would jump down your throat if you didn't say krautrock. And yet what is krautrock? Well, it beats me. I've heard little, if any, actual music by Can, Faust, Amon Duul (either incarnation) or anything like that. So, I say, what better than to both educate and entertain in one go, by singling out a krautrock band to look at in greater depth. The most educational thing I've done all weekend, therefore, is read Calum's excellent essay on Mocking Music and the excellently named Was Ist Das?
I picked Popol Vuh for several reasons. One, as far as I knew they ended up in the more electronic end of the spectrum compared to the arc-welding antics of Can; two, there's a lovely song named after them by the wonderful Tarantel (more here), and a couple of others named Popol Vuh; three, they have a great name.
Tarantel - Popol Vuh
Flying Saucer Attack - Popol Vuh
Alog - Popol Vuh
The next step was explore t'interweb and t'blog world, and it got me some examples and learned me some lessons.
- Popol Vuh were formed in 1970 by Florian Fricke.
- They were named after an ancient Mayan sacred text.
- Their first couple of albums were largely electronic, and from listening to examples, highly interesting: synths not sounding so synthy (for the time), ethnic-y percussion, soundscapes which don't lead anywhere... This sounds like something I could like.
- From about 1972, electronics were abandoned in favour of pursuing ethnic and religious themes with more traditional instrumentation. As Klaus Schulze puts it, "transforming the thought patterns of electronic music into the language of acoustic ethno music."
- Although not one of the biggest krautrock acts at the time, they've gone on to be considered pioneers in the world music, ambient and new age genres. Not bad for a bunch of krauts (kidding...).
- The one I find maybe most interesting is the Vuh's film soundtrack work, most notably for Werner Herzog...
I could listen to endless stories about Herzog. They're clearly both bonkers: Herzog threatens to kill Klaus Kinski, native Indians on set offer to do it for him, Kinski has a massive diva-ish tantrum, rinse, cycle, repeat; Herzog eats his own shoe; Herzog rescues Joaquin Phoenix; and so on. It's not until you see his films, such as Fitzcarraldo, or Aguirre, The Wrath Of God that you understand how such madness goes into making art. Both of Herzog's most admired films feature a Popol Vuh soundtrack - the films are both from the post-krautrock, ethno-ambient era of Popol Vuh and therefore are more geared to film music, albeit like none you've ever heard.
The krautrock era Popol Vuh (i.e., 1970-72) was among the more ambient of the movement: we're talking swathes of delicate synth and even this early, almost tribal percussion. Check out this fine YouTube selection, which I discovered on the ace FUNTIME OK.
This seems to be typical of the band in their earlier days: Florian Fricke is concerned, very seriously as is the German way, with Art. Although the scene ran concurrently with psychedelia and the rise of prog rock, Popol Vuh in particular are less self-indulgent, less pretentious (relatively speaking...) and more concerned with the sound than the look. Kraftwerk, peers and contemporaries and one of the first bands to try and fully deny an image, at least had their robot suits - Popol Vuh just paid no heed to their image: sound is all important and all consuming. In many ways it's an admirable stance, and one that wouldn't hurt a few bands around today. It's certainly impressed me - they're one of the few bands I've uncovered doing this that I'll look into further. But, for now, some Herzog soundtracks: Mantra, from 1978's Nosferatu, and Aguirre, from the film of the same name, 1974.
CIA Factbook: Germany