[4 March 2008]
There are few things that turn on one’s inner music geek than lost sounds from faraway lands. Brazilian post-punk, Tuvan throat singing, and Cuban folk are just a handful of the exotic scenes receiving recognition through compilations. Germany has been a major player in house music for decades, so it makes sense that there would be a market for a chronicle of the nation’s early dance roots. Thus we’re presented with Achtung! German Dance Grooves, a collection of early to mid-‘70s disco and funk instrumentals.
Shortly after these songs were recorded, Kraftwerk and their contemporaries turned German pop on its head. Until then, German dance music aped American styles with a paint-by-numbers efficiency. This unadventurous spirit is precisely what prevents this compilation from rising above kitsch. There’s no regional weirdness or personalization of these tunes—you wouldn’t even recognize the music as German.
“Chariots of the Gods”, by the Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra, sounds like a rejected Star Trek theme, while Ady Zehnpfenig’s “Erster Afternoon” could provide a backdrop for a Jetsons lounge party. A handful of these tracks could have easily been used for a ‘70s cop show. That these songs bring television imagery to mind is a telling pattern. Achtung! almost sounds like it was manufactured by a marketing team. All the parts are there: busy bass lines, grandiose string accompaniment, springy synth. Yet the songs lack youthful zeal and adventure, leaving them to sound calculated and utilitarian.
Just a few years after the recording of these songs, Kraftwerk dropped the pretence of soul and embraced their Teutonic precision, crafting sublime machine-like pop. This kick-started a thriving krautrock scene that would eventually find its way stateside and into the hands of three young Chicago kids, who then retrofitted the astral sounds, developing what would come to be known as house music. This new dance floor sound eventually returned to Germany, turning several of its cities into focal points of European dance music. This ping-ponging relationship between American and European sounds has pushed the evolution of pop music forward, but it requires its participants to reinterpret what they receive.
The problem here is that there’s no building, no evolution—just imitation. Achtung! is good for a laugh, but just barely worth listening to for kitsch value. Collectors looking for exotic sounds should look elsewhere. Achtung! is stiff and contrived—it seems a crime to even call the artists “funk”, forcing James Brown and Sly Stone to share the moniker with these squares. It’s rejected Austin Powers theme music. It’s Lawrence Welk’s after party. It’s mom and dad pretending they’re still 23. It’s the soundtrack for your fraternity’s ‘70s-themed keg party.