Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Krautrock: The Cosmic Jokers, The Cosmic Jokers (1974)

The Krautrock genre is an eclectic one, covering such a wide range of styles it’s really misleading to consider it a homogeneous category. That said, there was a lot of collaboration between individuals and groups to whom the label has been applied, including among those appearing on Julian Cope’s list of “50 Kosmische Classics.”

The high frequency of such get-togethers predictably led to some blending of styles and influences among the category’s members. It also makes those Krautrock “family tree” diagrams such as this one pretty damned complicated.

Probably the most famous example of such collaboration was the Cosmic Jokers, a Krautrock “supergroup” comprised of...

  • Klaus Schulze (Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, solo) -- electronics, synths
  • Harald Grosskopf (Ash Ra Tempel, Witthüser & Westrupp, Walter Wegmüller, Klaus Schulze) -- drums, percussion
  • Manuel Gōttsching (Ash Ra Tempel, solo) -- guitars
  • Jürgen Dollase (Witthüser & Westrupp, Walter Wegmüller, Klaus Schulze) -- keyboards
  • Dieter Derks -- bass

    Derks produced and/or engineereed a lot of Krautrock bands, including Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, Witthüser & Westrupp, and Popol Vuh. (Later on he famously produced the Scorpions and Twisted Sister as well.)

    The story goes that another famous producer of Krautrock acts, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser (founder of the Ohr label on which many such acts appeared), and his girlfriend-partner Gille Lettmann staged a series of “acid parties” at Derks’s studio during early 1973, giving the musicians free drugs and inviting them to jam while recording everything.

    From these sessions came many hours of recordings, eventually edited down and produced as five LPs all released during 1974 (and all of which are included on Cope’s “50 Kosmische Classics”). The records’ release was met by varying degrees of animosity by those involved, none of whom had given permission for the music to be made public. All of it ended badly in lawsuits, fights over unpaid royalties, and eventually Kaiser and Lettmann ignominiously disappearing from the Krautrock scene altogether.

    All of which is to say, the “band” Cosmic Jokers was never really a band per se. Even if the musicians weren’t generally pleased with the Jokers’ recorded output, the LPs have grown to be regarded as important contributions to prog rock, with their reputations each enhanced somewhat by their participation.

    The self-titled debut consists of two side-long jams, the first suitably titled “Galactic Joke.” The side is divided into three parts separated by whooshy effects that give the impression of floating in space.

    The first part is an earnest, forward-looking rocker highlighted by Göttsching’s inspired soloing. The second part starts out with a slower, more sinister vibe, then eventually builds into a sparse, rhythmic pulsation. The third part also begins gently then picks up momentum, keyboard riffs and pounding percussion eventually pushing the collective forward as though marching through the credits of some obscure ‘70s sci-fi flick.

    The second side -- called “Cosmic Joy” -- is split into two parts and is more meditative on the whole, the musicians separately floating in and out of Schulze’s quivering synths as though sending signals across the universe in the hopes of establishing some sort of interstellar contact.

    Though obviously improvised, the editing and production lends a very studious, polished quality to the proceedings, making for an enjoyable session of listening that’s more controlled than chaotic -- not at all like the less disciplined Timothy Leary-Ash Ra Tempel joint venture Seven Up in which the lysergic search for inspiration yielded less satisfying results for those of us listening in.