The Germans invented electronic dance music, just as surely as German engineers, working between the wars, had invented magnetic tape. And, at the same time, groups like Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, Cluster, and Neu! were playing songs that seeped much more softly into the atmosphere. It took Brian Eno to coin the phrase “ambient music,” but it’s worth remembering that he did so after playing with German musicians, and after collaborating with David Bowie on “Low”—an album (the first in Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy) that might be heard as an homage to Krautrock and, at its worst, becomes Krautrock pastiche.
Harmonia was a sort of supergroup, composed of Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Dieter Moebius, and Michael Rother, a guitarist who had played in Neu! and an early incarnation of Kraftwerk. The trio made two albums: “Musik von Harmonia,” in 1974, and “Deluxe,” in 1975. They played to audiences that were indifferent or hostile. “Harmonia was completely ignored or hated,” Rother told me, over Skype, recently. “Ignored would have been the better thing. People did not understand it, did not want our music.”
The idea, Rother told me, was to scrape clean the musical palate. “By that time,” he said, in lightly accented English, “I had left behind the idea of being a guitar hero, of trying to impress people by playing fast melodies. So I went back to one note. One guitar string. It was quite a primitive music, really.” What this meant, in practice, is that Rother—who’d grown up covering Cream, the Stones, and the Beatles—had subtracted the blues (if not the funk) from his playing. Eventually, he’d simplified chord progressions, or removed them entirely, playing single-note runs against a tight matrix set up by his partner in Neu! and Kraftwerk, the drummer Klaus Dinger. The resulting songs, most of them instrumental, could sound like a stream or a flood; either way, the effect was one of constant, cleansing forward motion.