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Reflections on making Synth Britannia & Krautrock

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Ben Whalley | 15:41 UK time, Friday, 16 October 2009

When asked about their influences, nearly every contributor in Synth Britannia enthused about German electronic music of the mid 70s. Bands such as Neu!, Faust, Cluster, Tangerine Dream and, of course, Kraftwerk were their primary inspiration.

faust_large.jpgFaust

Once Synth Britannia was in the can the same team was lucky enough to embark on the production of a film about this German music- unsympathetically labelled 'Krautrock' by the 70s music press in Britain.

As I write, the finishing touches to Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany are being applied in post-production. The films form two halves of a larger whole and it is fascinating to follow the tracks and traces between them.

In both films the music is intimately connected to the outside world. For the German generation, older than the Brits, it's a wilful stance. Electronic music meant being a non-musician, opting out of imported Anglo-American pop culture and seeking to transcend the country's Nazi past - traces of which were still prevalent in the west-German establishment of the late 60s/early 70s. A way out.

Whilst the Germans used electronics to articulate a sonic utopia, many of the Brits saw electronic music as a way to interrogate reality. Arguably their music soundtracked great industrial cities in economic decline, rent asunder by brutal, Ballardian skyscapes.

Taken as a whole the two films are a 20 year journey condensed into two and a half hours. It is both ironic and inevitable that something that started as an anti-bourgeois idea in the German counter-culture gets co-opted by the mainstream - with spectacular results in 80s Britain. I am not offering a value judgement, I loved the whole ride and am privileged to have been on it over the last six months.

I have many postcard memories of Synth Britannia and Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany. Vince Clarke's incredible synth collection in frozen Maine; shockingly bad German cuisine - for a vegetarian; how recent urban 'development' has homogenised British cities; my suitcase happily sitting on the tarmac outside Tegel airport for a couple of hours; having to share a room with assitant producer Sam Bridger in Austria and witnessing his morning 'yogic splits'.

It all blurs into one.

Related Posts
Synth Britannia & JG Ballard
My Krautrock Adventures on the Autobahn


Synth Britannia premieres on BBC Four on Friday 16 October at 9pm. Krautrock will be shown at the same time on Friday 23 October.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I enjoyed Synth Britannia. All the more so, as EMI Records' then international A&R manager, for Wolfgang Flur's crediting me with persuading them to put 'The Model' on the 'B'-side of 'Computer World'. It seemed a more organic and democratic process at the time. I'm now looking forward to 'Krautrock'; in particular - beyond more on the band I most enjoyed working with in the decade-and-a-half I spent in the music industry - your interview with Holger Czukay. His 'Cool in the Pool' is another fond memory, and I still feel a sense of outrage that EMI didn't get sufficiently behind it to make it the UK hit it deserved to be. And will the programme pick up on the younger wave of German artists who were around at that time - eg, Gina X Performance, whose 'Nice Mover' was an influential track on the dance floors of Heaven and other leading clubs at the forefront of the burgeoning gay scene?

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Ben - I enjoyed Synth Britannia very much.
    I was left with one burning question however: was the complete omission of Bowie's hugely influential 'Low' album something that was given consideration at all?
    If you get chance to answer this I'd be ineterested to hear your response. Thanks

  • Comment number 3.

    Who is the band playing with Damo Suzuki?, sounds V cool

  • Comment number 4.

    I was somewhat disappointed at the lack of footage of two of the most seminal artists ever to to come out of post war germany's revival being no less than Edgar Froese influence and more importantly, that of Klaus Schulze.

    we got a sampling of a dvd of allegedly TD at Coventry Cathedral - we all know the gig is a film of a TD gig with Phaedra excerpts dumped on it...the rheims concert would have been much better !!!

    Klaus Schulze is still performing today, as no doubt the others mentioned are.Klaus has stuck to his original beliefs where as the likes of TD have succummed to the dollar signs gleefully waved at then as a result of "Risky Business" etcetera...sorry Edgar........you had the chance to wow the world with your abilities but you decided........

    naaaaaaawwwlets try anuvver soundrack?

    KS is in his 60's. has endured serious illnesses of which he's [hopefully] now well over, and has stormed parts of Europe with amazing gigs feat lisa gerrard.

    Sorry BEEB u had the chance to shout about great things in seqential
    music such as SCHULZE and Tangerine Dream {Pre 80's} and i'm afraid you did a SEQUENTIAL MOTORWAY PILE UP OF IT....

    The wait for this anticipated programme was equvalent to waiting for your voice to be heard on the present beeb... its out here as we know it....Bet KS will be kicking himelf with anger !

  • Comment number 5.

    Fascinating programme about a subject I knew little about. I guess there wasn't room to fit it into that programme but I'd love to hear how that generation of electronic artists influenced the next generation e.g. groups like Orbital, Underworld etc. It'd be great if a Rave (for want of a better single word describe the massive diversity of electronic music post '88/'89) Britannia could be made or, even better, a series something along the lines of the superb Seven Ages of Rock. Ben, is there any chance of this topic being looked at in the near future (it was looked at superficially in the last part of Dance Britannia a while back)?

    Cheers.

  • Comment number 6.

    Wonderful programme! I'm a relative new-comer to Krautrock (couple of CAN albums, the first Neu!), so I found this programme to be ideal in terms of showing what else there is to explore within the genre.
    I have request: can anyone tell me the song Cluster (I believe it was them) were playing over the end credits? It was wonderous, and the kind of track that turned me onto Krautrock in the first place.

  • Comment number 7.

    The band playing with Damo Suzuki was Perry Lane Sect, i should be a detective

  • Comment number 8.

    I've just finished watching the Synth Britannia programme, I really enjoyed it, but I've got a couple of comments:
    1. Why were Throbbing Gristle thrown in for 1979? TG came just before punk, in 1976 (in fact, their first show, at the ICA is regarded by some as the start of punk culture - http://brainwashed.com/tg/live/ica.htm ). Also, Industrial Records, TG's label, brought together a number of electronic acts from 1976 onwards, including TG themselves, SPK, Clock DVA (featuring Adi Newton from The Future) and more - so surely that was the first independent electronic label, not Daniel Miller's Mute, which came two years later.
    2. Why no mention of Suicide? The two-piece keyboardist and singer wasn't invented by Soft Cell & Yazoo, New York's Suicide had been doing it since 1971 and released the hugely influential "Suicide" with the seminal track 'Ghost Rider'. There's even a video of Soft Cell (with Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell) doing a cover of 'Ghost Rider' on the BBC in 1983 on Youtube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJ6_gQ8QGJ0
    3. It's a pity there was no mention of the incredibly influential, if not particularly commercially successful, Nitzer Ebb. Nitzer Ebb were an equally important part of the transition from synthpop to dance music as New Order.
    4. Finally, it's also a pity that there was no mention of the post-TG work by Chris & Cosey, Psychic TV and Coil - all of whom were also very important in the later development of electronic music.

  • Comment number 9.

    What wonderful series (serieses?) - I do hope Belgium's VRT or Arte or the VPRO or … will buy them and rebroadcast them!! A BBC1 or BBC2 broadcast would be fab too, obviously. Keep on producing this kind of essential historic knowledge please! Meanwhile, gave you a mention on http://uzine.posterous.com/uk-synth-krautrock-documentaries-bbc4

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    The comment by Donnacha DeLong above is right, why not Suicide? Why not also Bowie with Low and Heroes albums that really were the roots of all the program said (but none of the groups). Why not Tronics and Zarjaz? There were enough references to styles Zarjaz was the leader in. 2 of the featured acts were even wearing 2000ad tshirts.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi Ben, can I offer you my thanks for the most amazing documentaries. I loved the synth Britannia doc as well as the krautrock which I thought was quite well-edited considering how broad the whole thing really was. I am a huge huge huge music documentary fan and I think your documentaries are the best I have ever seen of the genre.
    I am writing to make a request for your consideration, since you are indeed the very very best. The Factory records, New Order, Joy Division have been covered already but no one has yet done a documentary on Martin Hannett and his influence. I am such a huge fan of his and his influence has sparked to many genres...please consider that for a future project. Thanks!!!

 

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