The cultural life of post-war West Germany was always subject to significant American influence, and though this may seem surprising on the surface it says a lot about American hegemony in this period and the means through which it was acheived. Julian Cope has quite rightly highlighted the presence of American service personnel as a agent for cultural change1
particularly with reference to rock 'n' roll radio and the allure of plenty for people living in austere times. But by the end of the 1960s -and in a reflection of international trends- musicians were offering takes on idioms of American music that were not only some distance removed from them in the evolutionary sense, but also more reflective of national -as opposed to nationalistic- spirit. Fraught with implications though such a term might be, in this case it's possible to attribute it to earlier forms of expression within the plastic arts.
In the late '60s and early '70s Peter Brotzmann produced a body of recordings which is not only reflective of the immediacy and adventure which underscored so much of the music of the time, but which also calls -albeit indirectly- upon precedents set decades earlier. The music frequently pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of being 'of the moment' -surely the inevitable by-product of improvisation both at its freest and otherwise?- while at the same time retaining spiritual links with the work of the Dadaists in that time of similarly intense German creativity in the Weimar Republic ended by Hitler's coming to power in 1933.
What in essence links Brotzmann's music from this time with Dada is the desire to provoke. Certainly nothing can compare the listener for the full-on assault of the aptly titled "Machine Gun" the second and third takes of which are included on the CD reissue. Such is the visceral thrill of the music that any concern over who's brandishing the weapon melt away, and if music can ever realistically be said to amount to some kind of socio-political challenge, then the impact here is sufficient to blow away any fragile post-war consensus, understandable though the desire to build such a thing might have been. Commenting on Hans Arp's description of an early Dada performance in his memoir Dadaland Jonathon Green refers to 'the overturning of established attitudes' as one of the primary motivations for the activity2 and in a way that transcends mere comparison Machine Gun is quintessentially Dada.
The desire to shock on subsequent releases took less confrontational forms -certainly titles like Balls and Nipples suggest a sensibility more intent on irking the easily shocked than working for the overthrow of western Capitalism. That said, the music's on a par with Albert Ayler's in the way that it can sound utterly contemporary at the same time as it draws upon historical precedents. In this respect the only thing separating the two lies in the world of difference between the precedents evoked, and although the likes of and Nipples don't carry the same weight, they do contain examples of music that for all of its comparative lack of confrontation still maps out distinctly European territory. This, coupled with sleeve graphics which have much in common with the values of punk rock about a decade before that staged one of its periodic resurgences, makes for documents that move further away from strictly American precedents at the same time as they draw upon late Coltrane as a developmental template. This is reflected in the squalling tenor saxophones of Brotzmann and Evan Parker on Nipples itself, in which the piano of the undervalued Fred Van Hove avoids the frequently pointless squall of Cecil Taylor at his least reflective.
Peter Brotzmann is still of course making worthwhile music, but it's true to say that in the period discussed here his music was reflective of the state of flux in which European societies seemed to be, and the fact that the passage of history has revealed the consequences to have amounted to so much less than might once have been imagined doesn't detract from the time itself. If nothinng else, the sheer shock of Brotzmann's music is symptomatic of this.
1 Krautrocksampler. One Head's Guide To The Great Kosmische Musik -1968 Onwards , p. 4, Julian Cope (1995)
2 All Dressed Up. The Sixties And The Counterculture , p. 122, Jonathon Green (1998)
Machine Gun , FMP 24
Nipples , Atavistic (Unheard Music Series) UMS/ALP 205
Balls , Atavistic (Unheard Music Series) UMS/ALP 233
Brotzmann/Van Hove/Bennink - As Nipples & Balls , Atavistic (Unheard Music Series) UMS/ALP244