Julian Cope’s Album of the Month
AOTM #9, February 2001ce
Released 1972 on Witch & Warlock
Like many of the more obscure choices of Head Heritage's Album of the Month, this German Oak LP is currently available in two different formats. An American 12" vinyl LP, re-issued in its original configuration, can be bought via the Internet; whilst the CD version is a product of Witch & Warlock Records from Germany. The latter is endorsed by members of German Oak and contains three extra tracks. My review below is of the original 1972 LP, followed by a detailed description of those extra CD songs.
In the strange Olympic summer of 1972, the Dusseldorf instrumental group German Oak entered the Luftschutzbunker, or Air Raid Shelter, in order to record their eponymous first LP. Following in the footsteps of the percussive and organic Organisation and the remarkable Dom, German Oak had every reason to believe that this 3rd LP to be recorded by a Dusseldorf band would be warmly received. Unfortunately, German Oak were not only wrong in their assumptions that locals would embrace their music, but even local record shops rejected all the group's attempts to sell the albums in city outlets. Such was their lack of success that 202 of the original 213 copies were stored in the basement of the group's organist until the mid-1980s, when a thirst for undiscovered Krautrock finally brought German Oak back from the dead.
But what is the sound of a group that was so rejected during its time of recording? Well, imagine a brutally recorded, brazen and ultra-skeletal industrial white funk played with all the claw-handed crowbar technique of the Red Crayola recording their famous "Hurricane Fighter Plane," over which is superimposed the what-instrument-could-that-be rumblings of Gunther Schickert's G.A.M. meeting the Electronic Meditation incarnation of early-T. Dream. That is the sound of German Oak. Imagine Faust's reverb-y schoolroom in Wumme being party to a jam between Riot-period Sly Stone on itchy-scratchy bass and the pre-Kraftwerk ensemble Organisation (specifically "Milk Rock"), without their being formally introduced, and with all the hang-ups that this would entail. Again, this is the sound of German Oak.
It is a strangely skin-of-your-teeth genius. It is a toe-curlingly heartfelt method acting of the most in-your-face kind. In places it's a sort of gormless Gong, even a moronic Magma - a Teutonic tribe standing in the ruins of some Roman temple, playing barbarian riffs on classical instruments too sizes too small. Aerosmith's Joe Perry once said: "When all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." He must have been listening to German Oak.
With German Oak, what seems, after two minutes, to be a simplistic and worryingly trite riff, becomes, after 8 minutes, to be the only real-honest-riff-in-town. Like the legendary death-blues of Josephus' (also 16-minutes-plus) epic "Dead Man", this is music which does not hit you instantly in the face, but is an accumulative groove, building and building on the endless repetition of some bog-standard soul-type "Please Please Please" bass line or rhythm guitar sequence.1
There is a remarkable space within German Oak's music, which may have been caused by their ultra-rudimentary playing, or may have been because they just listened ultra-attentively to each other as each player struggled for the notes. But, whatever the reason, German Oak conjured up a mythical sound in the grand Krautrock tradition. And as a quintet without a lead singer, they were a rare five-piece who never got in each other's way. Throughout the music of German Oak, the bass and the lead guitar are frequently mistakable for each other, until the fuzzy lead will slowly claw itself out of the sonic mire of sound and drag itself arduously and inelegantly to the top of the heap. The drumming is often furious and even overplayed, yet it is often the single constant of the group.
Perhaps German Oak hit the nail on the head when they credited group members as the "Crew" and refused to give full names. Such was their sense of space that they often sounded like a trio and actually never like five people. Perhaps, like Can, they worked in pairs and recorded in parallel as opposed to one live performance. But somehow I doubt it. The recording quality and attention to sound separation is far too slack and haphazard. No, I'm sure the reason that the characterless "crew" credit sums up German Oak's attitude best, is because it conspires to make them all sound like the dwarves whose job it was to hold up the four corners of the Viking world-view. Separately they were nothing - together they were everything.
Wolfgang Franz Czaika, here known only as Caesar, is credited with "Lead- & Rhythmguitar". The busy flourishes of insistent drumming are by Ullrich Kallweit, here known only as Ulli "Drums/Percussion". His brother Harry Kallweit, just known as Harry, contributes "Electric bass/voice". This leaves the tail-gunners' places to be filled by the wonderfully-named Manfred Uhr AKA Warlock on "Organ/fuzz-organ/voice" and Norbert Luckas AKA Nobbi on "Guitar/A77/Noises". And, like the simple Amon Duul 1 credits, the friendly nick-names make the group appear even more mysterious and out-of-reach.
The German Oak LP consisted of two very long Krautgrooves, one on either side, with a short organ themed instrumental intro and outro at the beginning and end. Side One begins like a crusty hunt led by hunt saboteurs, as the one minute and fifty seconds of "Airalert" fades in from the mists of time with a hopeful and entirely amateurly recorded organ. Side One is then given over to the enormous eighteen-minutes of "Down in the Bunker", where feedback whistles and screams and factory interior-sized organ roars, whilst relentless hammering on metal suggests that the workers are in there building something over the din. Portentous manically-bowed cello-style film theme bass guitar and scraping cymbals rise out of the maelstrom to prepare the listener for the onslaught to come. Sonically, it is pure sound, like the primal intro beauty of G.A.M.'s 1976 album, or the pure sound of Guru Gurus's UFO, and the opening section of Ash Ra Tempel's "Amboss".
As though recorded in a deep river gorge from beyond time with dozens of old fridges and cookers strewn across its banks, this proto-industrial sound truly invokes the ancestors. And it is perfectly understandable that German Oak's sleeve notes read: "As we played down there in the old bunker, suddenly a strange atmosphere began to work. The ghosts of the passed whispered." Far from being deluded, German Oak's crew are understating - for this track is alive with the dead, awash with a flood of ur-spirits from the recent past and the days of Yore. Banshee-like glissando guitars and Mani Neumaier-like voices creep up the north side of the track, mount the battlements and howl at us and the members of the group.
Side Two begins with the reverb'd minor key horseback charge of "Raid Over Dusseldorf". The whole bulk of side two is taken up by this furious and rudimentary psychedelic ride, reminiscent of the Chocolate Watchband. Indeed, my friend and Brain Donor guitar cohort Doggen has suggested that it is the rhythm of the horse which heavy rock most often emulates. I would tend to agree with this assertion, as this rhythm can be found everywhere in rock, from the central spine of the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" to the middle of David Bowie's "Width of a Circle". And I would even cite Robert Browning's 19th Century poem "How they brought the good news from Aix to Ghent" as an example of how pre-rock'n'roll this rhythm really is.
The final track of the album is the 2-minutes short "1945 - Out of the Ashes", which returns to the organ-led hunting sound of the opening "Airalert" before cross-fading into the tolling of a lone bell.
Though I am rarely a fan of extra tracks being added to CD reissues, we must count ourselves lucky in this case to have been handed the three superb pre-LP German Oak workouts located herein. The five-minute "Swastika Rising" sounds like the Plastic Ono Band meeting both Faust and Organisation; all rudimentary organ, splatter drums and a barely coherent and wandering psychedelic fuzz guitar. Following this, the ten-minute "The Third Reich" starts with a Hitler Rally speech, before slipping inside yet another hypnotic and insistently mesmerising teen Funkadelic groove with scything and Scythian psychedelic guitar. A brazen disabled lead guitar mindlessly scatters seedling riffs across an infertile field of unidirectional bass riffing and extremely formulaic drum fills, played relentlessly and robotically. The final extra track, "Shadows of War", is like an overladen Chinook helicopter struggling to lift off from its pad; the organ chords seemingly weighted down by the reverb'd wodges of clawed bass. Then another Hitler Rally cut-up sends us into a collage of over hasty milk delivery as an obligatory Stuka raid finally cuts us down in a single all-terminal bomb blast.2
I noted in Krautrocksampler that the German postwar youth scene was trying to work itself free of its recent Holocaust history, and German Oak in particular seem to have wrestled with these demons for longer than most. Their sleeve-note dedication seems all-the-more poignant and moving for its bathos and poor translation:
"We dedicate this record to our parents which had a bad time in World War 2."
- Armand Schaubroeck's double-LP LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD INN has this same thug atmosphere, in which songs such as "King of the Streets" and "Streetwalker" are played so brutally fiercely that they sound like a hack houseband playing perfunctory versions of classics. In many ways, this makes the songs sound great, and gives the illusion that, were they to be played subtley, they would perhaps be even better. A lie… but a smart move!
- I must note that this album in its Witch & Warlock CD reissue guise strangely presents the extra three tracks BEFORE the actual LP itself. If this is the version which you find, make sure that you begin your listen with "Airalert" first!