Total Eclipse of Art

Does anyone remember laughter?" When human codpiece and supposed former infatuation junkie Robert Plant posed this rhetorical question to a roomful of drug-addled, glue-sniffing, Gremlin-driving, white-bread, chickenshit motherfuckers, what he really should have said was "You don't really take this stuff seriously, do you?" Which would have been more to the point, as most in attendance that night did little more than smoke tons of bad pot and laugh their asses off. But even given the fact that mid-'70s American youth knew how to party, they sure as heck did take Zep seriously.

Of course, rune-reading, lyric-deciphering, and generally taking rock'n'roll way too seriously didn't start with Zep. It started with the Beatles, drugs, social upheaval, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the plaster cast of Jimi Hendrix's penis. But as far as rock for art's sake goes, I'm just going to blame everything on the Velvet Underground. The Velvets were arty and weird, they hung out with exotic albinos, and their live shows featured one-note guitar-and-fiddle drones that lasted for fortnights.

This is where the trouble starts. Because in Germany at the end of the '60s, there was a seemingly endless number of engineering students looking to break into the music biz. Taking their cue from early VU and Pink Floyd, and serious as a heart attack when it came to psychedelic gnome worship, bands like Can, Faust, Amon Düül, and Ash Ra Tempel held rock'n'roll as alleged intellectual pursuit to its highest standard. Rolling jazz, classical, raga, electronic, folk, and sheer ear-splitting cosmic sloppery into one big Teutonic ball, the Krauts made music for really pissed-off hippies.

Beta Banditos
Michael Spencer Jones
Beta Banditos

If you could still hear an echo of Wa-Watusi backbeat in Lou Reed's VU output, the Germans made sure any such links to rock's golden years were wiped off their boots. Germany as a country was all about forgetting the past and not asking Daddy what he did during the war, so why not make noises that beforehand had only been heard in space and in Karlheinz Stockhausen's fever dreams?

Which brings us to why so many eggheads nowadays can't get over this roughly seven-year period ('68­'75) in Germany's musical history. Even though the post-music crowd is already, as I speak, mining other rich veins of lost treasure (Serge Gainsbourg, Lee Hazelwood, Italian vampire movie soundtracks, rare jug band 78s, King Diamond picture discs), Krautrock is still king for those who will not allow themselves to dance. To simplify matters further, I'm just going to blame Thurston Moore.

In the almost-30-year career of Sonic Youth, if Thurston only told two people a week to buy a Cluster or Achim Reichel LP, I figure that constitutes about half the U.S. sales of Krautrock to date. And if only half of those people formed bands, that would at least explain why Blur threw away their Ian Whitcomb albums and started experimenting with "sound."

But at least Blur have songs, which Thurston and his posse of E.S.P. and Actuel skronk fiends often neglect in their search for the ideal soundscape or whatever. Krautrock was more than just building walls of skree und sludge, and a lot of the people who feed off the Kraut korpus seem to be missing the joy of making stuff up that those original cosmic jokers had in spades. Instead, they ride their wave of feedback until we're all just a little bit seasick.

If you're into noise, atmosphere, and alien life-forms, though, I heartily recommend the new Faust CD, Ravvivando. Revived as an act like so many other indie totems over the last few years (Scott Walker, Tom Rapp, Silver Apples, Cher), Faust manage to sound current, if not as groundbreaking as they once were. Their records from the early '70s achieved some sort of apex of fucked-up guitar violence and off-the-cuff lunacy. On the new one, low-end fuzz, shortwave buzz, and psych-meltdown scuzz prove these oldheads ain't dead yet. The fact that they were making a racket like this when today's Syd Barrett grave robbers were in utero must say something about the restorative powers of LSD and sauerbraten.

On the other hand, if you're like me and view rock as serious fun and all of life as art, and also believe the greatest technical achievement in pop was the release of "Surfin' Bird," the British Empire (of all places) has just sent over two other new post-Kraut albums you reallygotta hear.

The first is from Scotland's Beta Band, who are by turns languid, goofy, dreamy, empty-headed, and a shambles. Their first full-length is a jungle of pomo Beckisms that include music-hall sing-alongs, human beatboxes, lo-fi geetar rave-ups, Casio abuse, hand clapping, bongos, steel drums, and a healthy irreverence for rap music. When you least expect it, though, the Spike Jones pennywhistles and Bonzo Dog Band sound effects give way to moments of true beauty and spacey as well as spacious harmonies. "The Hard One" even manages to be both a dramatic set piece and a loving tribute to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart"!

Some groups have the ability to come up with the right combination of sounds that almost instantaneously hit the pleasure center of your brain. Beta Band do this more often than not. Beck can do it too when he's not playing the po'boy. I've heard people call the Betas funky, but really, Santana were a lot funkier. Pilfered beats don't make you funky unless you steal good ones and use them right, or unless your feet stink. But they've still got a rare rhythmic sense— that mad Scottish flow, yo. (Maybe they grew up listening to Rufus Harley's jazz bagpipes.) You could remix their shit to death, which explains why they're more aligned to rave culture than to jam-band culture, their ideal fan a shag-adelic lad in an anorak with a tech-step Mogwai 12-inch under his arm. Not that the spotty and bearded Phish-head with Ozric Tentacles bumper stickers on his tent at the outdoor Hawkwind show couldn't dig the Betas' nature scene either. (By the way, I plead ignorance, but are any of those newfangled jam bands funky? I don't think you could get any un-funkier than the Dead. Maybe those two drummers confused each other.)

It's remarkable to me how fully realized Beta Band's sound has always been, from their 1997 debut EP until now. (Their early '99 compilation The Three E.P.'sis even better than the new album, and the new one's groovy like in the movies.) It's also remarkable to me how more people haven't managed to make their droniness and repetition at least a little more fun and worth following as Beta Band does. (Not everyone can be a master at it like Giorgio Moroder or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but it's worth a try.) Organic and folky even when working with beats and a full-time turntable twiddler, the Betas have cracked the Kraut code: having hipster leanings work hand in hand with idiot hippie charm.

But where Beta Band's new record is a variation on their past (happily pointless) themes, Add N To (X)'s second album is a huge improvement over their last London-based blast of Moog madness. Their first album, On the Wires of Our Nerves, got on my last one. They did come up with some pretty innovative ways to annoy me with analog electronics, though. Avant Hard, I'm happy to say, rocks harder than it avants, and I'm going to wait all night for tickets when they play the Garden. Majestic, loping, driving shit, I don't know— it's really cool, and loud. Powerchords with not a guitar in sight (although live human drummers) and with humor! (Best song titles: "Ann's Eveready Equestrian," "Machine Is Bored With Love.") These guys have made a great rock'n'roll album that could conceivably come from some form of the future. (The new Future World disc by Chicago thrill jockeys Trans Am tries this too, but sounds a little more like Jeff Beck if he had been born underwater and elected president of the Jonzun Crew fan club.)

Add N To (X) have learned to use their past algebraic abrasiveness for the greater good, and have more chance of ruling the world than actual Kraut white-noise fit-throwers Atari Teenage Riot. Galloping hoofbeats, Valkyrie vocals, military snares, vocoders, all united into happy, upbeat melodies: what's not to like? Even the worrywarts and math majors might get up and shake a leg when "Metal Fingers in My Body" hits the airwaves. Soon to be a smash— on Neptune, at least.

skotrok@earthlink.net

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