Review in Goldmine

by Dave Thompson, 30 June 2021
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One of the most exhilarating music books of the past few years was Tim Mohr’s Burning Down the Haus, a full-blooded examination of punk rock in East Germany during the late 1970s and 1980s. Embracing a scene that few, if any, western ears were even aware of (let alone had heard), it left a lot of readers hungry for more of the same – either, a complete history of the old DDR’s underground rock scene, or a similar examination of its West German counterpart’s equivalent.

Well, this comes close, and while punk consumes only a few pages of Jan Reetze’s mammoth (500+) page saga of West German rock, there can be no regrets as to the scope of the rest of the book. And that includes his deliberate omission of the East, in the belief that “their story should be told by somebody who lived [there] and can talk about the… conditions they had to work under.”

Well said.

Reetze is a great writer, with a terrific sense of humor. He writes as someone who is well aware that, to the majority of western rock fans, German rock is effectively summed up by Krautrock (however narrowly or broadly an individual listener pegs that), with the likes of the Rattles, Nena and the Scorpions as curious, atypical outliers.

Of course that’s wrong, like assuming all American rock sounds like the Eagles, or that the Bay City Rollers are the sum of all Scottish ambitions. So one can certainly forgive Reetze for his occasional shifts away from the music itself, to discuss non-German attitudes towards German music.

Forget the insulting connotations of the very term Krautrock (imagine calling British music “Limeyrock”); zero instead upon the UK music press’s need to continually referencing World War Two when discussing new Can albums. Or Frank Sinatra’s stubborn refusal to publicly acknowledge that two of his biggest hits were written by a German. Or the Swedish magazine review that described Kraftwerk as “the rhythmic trap of boots in the latest synthetic packaging.”

And so on. Even at the time, attitudes such as this were problematic. Today they appear positively obscene. And if Time & Sounds was devoted wholly to exploding cliches, it would already be an impressive book.

It is, however, so much more, a hefty hardback, well illustrated, and sufficiently encyclopedic that it negates more or less everything else you’ve read on the subject. Which probably isn’t much because, again, once past the exploits of a handful of early-mid 1970s experimental/electronic acts, German rock, pop, jazz and folk are a closed book to the Anglophone media, while German disco and metal – the two areas where the country’s musical contributions are noted – are generally just lumped in to the overall genre. Do you know your Boney M from your Baccara?

The scene is followed from pre-rock days in early chapters that fascinate simply for the amount of new-to-us material they hold. Key figures in its later development, most prominently James Last and Bert Kaempfert (author of the aforementioned Sinatra hits, “Strangers in the Night” and “The World We Knew”), are detailed for what they brought to German music, and not their reputations in the UK and US. We see Hamburg through eyes that are not infested with Beatles; and there are diversions into local television and radio, and the impact that they had, both as a showcase for visiting foreign acts, and for homegrown talent.

The Krautrock scene is detailed in depth, of course, with fresh interviews but, more importantly, fresh insights into both the musicians and their inspirations and intentions. There’s good coverage, too, of the eighties industrial sound of DAF, Einsturzende Neubauten et al).

Beyond that, however, we encounter local superstars whose names are scarcely whispered in the English language – Udo Lindenberg, whose fifty year career is responsible for some of the finest albums of the seventies and eighties whatever country you’re in; Atlantis (best remembered here for a couple of albums on the Vertigo swirl label); and vocalist Inga Rumpf’s earlier Frumpy.

Tomorrow’s Gift, one of the highlights of the 1970 Hamburg Pop & Blues Festival, are here, and a myriad more. Yet there are some surprising omissions; no mention for the excellent Sphinx Tush, whose demise was Frumpy’s good fortune, and none for Die Toten Hosen, the Dusseldorf punk band that launched in 1983 and are still going strong today.

Such complaints are churlish, however. No book beyond a telephone directory could name every band that operated in West Germany between 1945 and 1990, but this names enough to render it as good as complete.

It’s utter non-reliance on page-filling, crowd-pleasing Krautrock, meanwhile, is exemplified by the space given over to both the sixties and the eighties, and Reetze’s decision to end the book with German reunification at the end of that decade almost comes as a relief – not because the book’s too long, but because you’ll have run out of space on your “must-hear” list.