A homogeneous plastic mass

When I was growing up, there was a thing called “Kraft Cheddar Cheese”. This revolting, yellow foodstuff was nothing remotely like cheddar. In fact, it did not have much to do with cheese, either. As kids, we called it “plastic cheese”, and we were actually close to the mark. The origins of Kraft Cheddar lie with either sacrilege or ingenuity – depends on your point of view. During the First World War, James L. Kraft, a Chicago cheese seller, began shredding all the husks and rinds and discards from the cheddar he sold, mixed in sodium phosphate as a preservative and – voila! – gave the world the wonder that is “American process cheese”. This is the stuff which, to this day, limply sags in the fast-food take-away hamburger.

kraft-singles-cheese-646

When it was first being produced, the people who made actual cheese went to court demanding that Kraft not be able to call this new substance “cheese”. They were half-successful. What came to be known as “American cheese” was defined as “a stable concoction of natural cheese bits mixed with emulsifying agents” which would form, in legal language “a homogeneous plastic mass”. (I am indebted to David Clark on Mental Floss for this background.)

All of which is completely irrelevant, except that when I first heard of the German experimental group Kraftwerk, I immediately thought of Kraft and plastic cheese. And in a strange way, the association is a good one. In the 1970s, Kraftwerk were pioneers in electronic music – pushing the new technologies of synthesised music into a deliberately machine-made minimalism. Their subject matter was, deliberately, the mundane products of modernity. Repetition, mechanical reproduction, the future: these were Kraftwerk’s themes.

And the amazing thing? It works! It takes a little getting into, but there is real art here, a jazz-like restraint amid minimalist self-parody. Kraftwerk takes “machine modern mundane”, takes Kraft singles (a plastic box of plastic cheese, each slice wrapped in plastic) and turns it into art.

No, I didn’t believe it could werk. But take the time to listen, more than once. This stuff is addictive, subtle, worth revisiting. Unlike Kraft Cheddar Cheese.

 

  • Artist: Kraftwerk
  • LP Title: The Man Machine
  • Side 1, Track 2: “Spacelab”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Capitol Records
  • Catalogue: ST-11728
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1979

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.

 

 

Show the bones

Back in the early 1980s, some seriously weird music came out of what was then West Germany. The spirit of surrealism, da-da and futurism thrived, especially in West Berlin, where rents were cheap and young men could dodge national service. So when you find a pop compilation record published in 1981, which has a cow on the cover, and the title Alles In Butter, you expect weird. And weird is what “Everything in Butter” (the title in English) delivers.

aib front covThe pickings are rich. Ina Deter Band, with “Ob Blond, Ob Braun, Ob Henna”? Recht Herzlich, and the majestic “Der Kleine Elefant”? Or someone called Markus, with the, err, incisive social commentary of “Ich Will Spaß” (I Want Fun)? But in the field of West German Weird, you can’t get past Trio.

Trio was into hyper-reductionist-minimalism. They took the name Trio, because there were three members. They argued that most popular songs were based on simple structures, and that this simplicity, usually concealed beneath ornate production, should be allowed to shine. Trio did for music was brutalism did for architecture: strip away artifice, lay bare the underlying structure. Show the bones. So, they kept it simple. During live shows, the drummer would keep the beat with one hand, while eating an apple held in the other.

Trio’s big hit was “Da da da, ich lieb dich nicht, du liebst mich nicht, aha aha aha”, better known as “Da da da”. But they were not a one-hyper-minimalist-hit wonder. They put out several LPs, and one of their tracks “Anna – Lassmichrein Lassmichraus” turns up on Alles in Butter. Subtle and elaborate? Not so much. But engagingly weird? Da.

  • Artist: Trio
  • LP Title: Alles In Butter (Various Artists)
  • Side 2, Track 2 “Anna – Lassmichrein Lassmichraus”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, stereo
  • Label: Polystar
  • Catalogue: 2475 572
  • Manufactured in: West Germany
  • Year: 1981

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.

 

A bratwurst wearing lederhosen

The Germans, it is said, have a word for everything. What we call a “Long Playing record”, for example, is a Langspielplatte. It is popular to scoff at the Germans for their long, compound words. According to the Guinness Book of Records the longest German word in common use is Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, “legal indemnity insurance companies”.

1039-cuHere on Planet Vinyl, we do not engage in such Brexit trash talk. If you love Veraltete Tontechnik (“obsolete sound engineering technology”) you quickly develop a great respect for German craftsmanship. Those Deutsche certainly knew how to make a Grammophon.

1039-disc-and-sleeveOne of the great things about music is its capacity to smash stereotypes. This is a recording by the pianist Helmut Rollof of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E Flat Major” (also known as the “Erioca Variations”). German composer; German pianist; German record label. As German, in short, as a bratwurst sausage wearing lederhosen, and as beautiful as a butterfly landing on a cherry blossom.

  • Artist: Helmut Roloff
  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
  • LP Title: 15 Variationen Mit Fuge In Es-dur Op. 35 (Erioca)
  • Side 2, Track 1: “Variation 14”
  • Format: 10” LP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • Catalogue: 16009 LP
  • Manufactured in: Germany
  • Year: 1952

Many of the records featured on this blog are for sale via Discogs

 

Sliding doors

Kurt Maier was born in Germany in 1911, and became a skilled pilot. He fought with the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, and rose to the rank of Major. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, for bravery and leadership. Perhaps surprisingly, Maier survived the war.

All the above is true, but that was another Kurt Maier.

The Kurt Maier who plays the piano on this record was a Jew.

He, too, was born in 1911, but in what was then Czechoslovakia. By the time the Nazis seized the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia in 1938, he was a successful musician. He escaped to the relative safety of Prague, but at the end of 1941 he and his mother were deported to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, and later to Auschwitz. His musical skills kept him alive: he played in the camp band. He was transferred to a slave labour camp, and then again to Buchanwald. Astonishingly, this Kurt Meier also survived the war.

Amazing the different paths a life can take.7069 Maier 1964 A CU

In 1946 Maier migrated to the United States, and became popular pianist in the night club scene. He took the classical works he had grown up on, and arranged them with a jazz-tinged up-tempo flavour. This could easily be gimmicky – a sort of early model Hook On Classics – but it actually works well.

Piano Favourites was released in 1964, though the recordings are almost certainly older. It was one of those EPs that people would stack up on the radiogram and play at parties. And played a lot it has clearly been – it is a bashed and battered old thing. But like Kurt Maier, it has survived, and it carries an astonishing and inspiring story.

The track here is Maier’s ragtime take on Antonín Dvorak’s “Humoresque”.

  • Artist: Kurt Maier
  • EP Title: Piano Favourites
  • Track: A3 “Humoresque” (Dvorak)
  • Format: 7” 45 rpm
  • Label: Bravo BR 332
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1964