Virgin's 40th Anniversary: The Krautrock Years I 3

Virgin’s 40th Anniversary: The Krautrock Years I

Virgin 40th anniversary

The Virgin label recently began celebrating its 40th anniversary under the auspicious banner of ‘40 years of disruptions’ (see fellow GIITTV writer David Edwards piece here Continuing over the next few months, a series of special gigs, exhibitions, books and events will take place in London to celebrate.

From burgeoning backroom mail order specialists with a sole record shop in Notting Hill to major player in the music industry, the Virgin record label – later to manifest into an myriad of businesses for one of its chief progenitors, Richard Branson – grew off the back of their first punt, Mike Oldfield and his grand opus, Tubular Bells.

Mining the progressive and Krautrock scenes for untapped nuggets of inspiration, the labels quartet of instigators (Branson, Nik Powell, Simon Draper and Tom Newman) learnt their trade as they merrily went along. For these long-haired ‘heads’, the moniker that stuck and seemed the most appropriate was Virgin.

However, lack of experience didn’t stop them from success, in part due to the charismatic Branson, and the labels often ridiculed, but entirely unique way of promoting their omnivorous roster – they managed, remarkably, to get both Tangerine Dream and Faust into the charts.

Of course that vegan, beanbag hippie image began to fade as the years passed by, with Virgin branching out into punk, new wave, reggae, dance and indie music with enthusiastic aplomb. But it’s especially those early Krautrock releases that I wish to celebrate, beginning with the antagonistic fist of sonic rage, Faust and their most synonymous album, The Faust Tapes. In a five-part series I delve back into my own archive of features/ reviews to bring you the history and lowdown on Virgin’s Teutonic wonders.

Roger Dean Virgin Records Logo

Faust The Faust Tapes (Virgin) 1973

Background/ Review


Virgin records began life in 1972, the brainchild of Richard Branson, Nik Powell, Simon Draper, and Tom Newman, whose humble beginnings started with a shop in Notting Hill gate and a back room mail order business – known as Virgin Records and Tapes. The company name reflected their in-experience and self-confessed, but enthusiastic, naivety towards business.

Starting out at first to sell other labels material and to unearth those hard to forage underground releases, these three rather ‘green’ long-haired upstarts quickly transgressed to setting up a label of their own. Specializing in import records especially, Virgin relied upon a dedicated customer base of like-minded ‘heads’, who would inform them of what was currently worth checking out – which included the trios introduction to the burgeoning Krautrock scene of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Requests began to roll in for obscure German bands, so many in fact that Draper contacted the infamous Krautrock emporium of delights, Ohr label. Soon a rich bundle of over thirty titles arrived on Draper’s desk, comprising mostly of ‘Utter rubbish’ – Draper’s words – and a few highlights, which included Tangerine Dream and Faust.

Virgin had already made an early play and calculated risky move by signing up the proto-spiritual ambient pioneer Mike Oldfield, whose behemoth selling Tubular Bells would become the first official release on the label. Paying dividends and bankrolling the whole enterprise, it allowed the label to gamble on the ‘krazy kosmiche’ sounds emanating from Deutschland.


Uwe Nettlebeck and his band of crazed, freewheeling insurgents, Faust, had finally over-stayed their welcome with their previous label Polydor; testing the patience of the boardroom just a little too far. The last album, So Far, failed to toe the party line and become more commercially viable, continuing instead to follow a maniacal antagonistic agenda set down in the bands original deconstructive, revolutionary manifesto – a move that drew many celebrated reactionary pats on the back, but did little to shift copies of their albums.

Cast adrift, Faust now welcomed the attention of Virgin, deciding to sign a deal, though Uwe had no intention of making life easy for them, insisting that the first release must be sold for free to the public. Uwe then handed over a collection of cutting room floor ideas and musical experimental excerpts, left over from the previous albums recording sessions, giving the content away to Virgin for a nominal fee of ‘zero’. This set of 26 unique snippets, sound collages and cutaways would be bundled together under the reticent The Faust Tapes, and end up being priced at the staggeringly reduced token rate of 49p – at the time the price of a single – to cover expenses. Virgin to this day insists they never lost any money on the deal.

From the mere glancing explorations in piano, drums and voices to encouraging moments of startling produced promising songs, chaos rains down with pitched intergalactic warfare breaking out amongst the spillage from an industrial accident, to make this bundle of tracks far from boring or uninspired. God only knows what the public would make of this LP, with its Bridget Riley Op-Art black and white cover and reputation scaremongering press clippings on the back, to the missing track list and controversial price tag. Well the first week of release alone, they shifted 50,000 copies, doubling sales not soon after and putting the band in the charts – for the first and only time – at number 12, though they would be removed on the grounds of the cover price. The heads and public seemed to go into a sort of feeding frenzy, buying into this relatively unheard of act from the fatherland, as if it were a competition. A large number of people hated the record once they actually got it home, as a consequence the follow up record at the end of the year, Faust IV sold quite poorly in comparison. Branson, carried away in the initial overnight success, was convinced that they’d created a new ingenuous business model with which to break new bands – he would quite rapidly rethink that strategy.

The Faust Tapes was an enigma, with small mystifying scraps of info and those untitled vignettes; the album became something of a cult. John Peel added to the aloof campaign that went with the record, by announcing a list of mock titles for the as yet unnamed tracks, stirring up the listeners in anticipation to quickly grab a pen, as he would only read them out once. As it turned out old Peely was in on the act, swindling many fans including Julian Cope with a disdained gesture of ridicule.

Virgin decided to back up the over-whelming success of the 1973 album, by bringing the guys over for their first ever UK tour. Fair enough you might think, only Uwe and co. had other plans, like throwing some turbulent spanners into the faces of the label. The bands Hans-Joachim Irmler and Rudolf Sosna refused point blank to embark on the tour, unless a ridiculous advance sum of £500,000 was paid – half exuberant and half antagonistic, fully encouraged by Uwe.

A now apparent rift formed within the ranks, leading to Werner Diermaier, Jean- Hearvé Péron and Gunter Wüsthoff and a hastily recruited Peter Blegvad, of Slapp Happy, left to fulfill the live dates. In true rebellious style, Uwe conceived a sort of auto-destructive performance, with pneumatic drills, TV’s and a cement mixer acting as props, waiting to be interacted with or smashed to smithereens. If anyone in the band got bored, they could take a rest and play on the handy pinball machine, which would also bedeck the stage. All this was of course meant to test the audience’s patience, on top of the proceeding ear splitting, innards dislodging hailstorm of sound that would leave them feeling sick.

Borrowing a PA from none other then the world’s one time loudest band The Who, Faust upped the ante and went one louder, channelling the most insane industrial gut wrenching music through their engineer, Kurt Graupner’s, satanic black box of tricks, whilst chewing up the stage with the many building site strewn tools. This resulted in an often gob-smacked audience reacting in disbelief at the musical equivalent of having a bucket of pig shit poured over their heads. Even Blegvad remarked that it was the worst music he’d ever heard, and that it induced in him countless bouts of nose bleeding, leaving him with feelings of misery and nausea – and that’s one of their friends! He went on to describe witnessing one over-enthusiastic young man head butting the stage floor in unison to the bass drum’s incessant pounding, the resulting streaming blood worn like a badge of honour. Despite all this, their fans were quite forgiving and sympathetic to the cause, even happily lapping up the handed out manifestos of intent, though usually in that typical pleasant English manner of ours, which never really leads to acting on our convictions.

Background/ Review

Out of the eerie discourse of enigmatic sounding disturbances fades into view a rumbling low bass and ivory tinkling cramped run down, as various sets of hands feel up the grand piano for a knee-trembling thrill. The rumble turns into a drone over this short rift, like a squadron of B52’s flying overhead on their way to drop a payload on screaming millions.  Our opening exercise is over in under a minute, interrupted by the next, a call and response loop that features some garbled compressed drums and saxophone gargles. Sharp intersected snippets of screeching car brakes are dispersed throughout the track, as someone blares out an illegible cuckoo taunt in a fraught hysteria fashion.

‘Flashback Caruso’ gently flows in with some embracing wistful acoustic guitar picking and delicate artful strumming, in the manner of an English psychedelic folk number, with wry token impressions of a Germanic Syd Barrett singing of marshmallow sandwiches and Lewis Carroll garden parties. A leftover from the late 60s, this delightful foray even has the vocals bounce from speaker to speaker, as gentle waves of beautiful percussion and piano head towards ‘la la land’ – the first highlight of the album I might add!

Next up is a return back to the exercise labelling, with an otherworldly effects driven voices segue way. Elephant like trumpeting and disturbed bellowing is dripped in reverb, delay and echo to create an unsightly incident in the middle of a Marrakech bazaar, before swiftly leaving the scene and stumbling into the next track. ‘J’ai Mal Aux Dents’, that’s ‘I have toothache’, shambles in falling over a mix of proto-punk and staccato Stooges, conducted by a jittery guitar, whose erratic rhythmic workout is attacked by various thrown in sound effects and a rather obtuse saxophone. Disregard for conventional grooving gets under way as the song moves into uncharted territory, though it awkwardly has all the appearance of Them’s ‘Gloria’ being played by Devo or Dr. Feelgood, met with a torrent of situationist sloganeering.

Moving on, we eavesdrop onto an atmospheric recording of the band going about their daily routine, washing up, stacking bottles, listening to the radio and continuously stomping up and down a never-ending flight of wooden stairs. An answer machine unravels its un-translated message, which could imply something equally serious or banal.

Funky zip zapping break beat drumming announces the intro of ‘Arnulf and Zappi on drums’, an explosion of Silver Apples, UFO’s and hurried phasered sounds that interject over a glorious rhythm. Péron knocks up a soul shaking krautrock bass riff to get this party truly on the road.

‘Dr. Schwitters’ whips up a mesmerising diagnosis of baroque electro synths, holy sounding melodies and futuristic brain food on this far too short and promising exquisite burst of ethereal bewitchment. The good doctor of the title certainly knows his pills, liberally dishing out some kaleidoscope inducing mind benders for the listener. Soon we are thrust into the melancholy, as the next vignette has dark moody shifting mangled soundscapes to chew on, ones that suffocate the listener in their vice like grip.

The next couple of excerpts also stray towards the shadows, comprising of short uncomfortable bursts of Trappist monks solemnly groaning or delayed soaked chainsaws from space, cutting through an incessant tribal esoteric led drum barrage. All the while choral accompaniments float in the background, alluding to some irrational spirit, let loose from the ether, with their stirring macabre spooky wallowing.

Our good doctor returns to duty with another charmed moment of grooving, though it doesn’t have any of the same identifying themes of its counterpart, this quick shot of falling apart drums and whirling dreamy organs sure taste good though. Side one finishes on a de-tuned untitled cacophony of cosmic slop, as chaotic forward rolling drums and alarming synthesizer currents of sparks bash away together in the primordial soup.

Side two opens with more untitled bouts of fun and trickery, as phasers, delay and echo conjugate round a shifting space age theme, before jumping head long into a menagerie of saxophones squeaking away in confused unison. These haunting animalistic sirens of sax sound like Sun Ra on a real downer, as they wallow away like a herd of brass wildebeest drifting across the Serengeti in pained expressions of woe.

Storms now gather overhead on our next stop, with curious metallic sounding strings, wrestled through a speed shifter grinder and taken on some oriental styled esoteric nightmare. A last departing gesture of Gothic evoking piano leaves its mark on this occult oddball.

Those low humming airplane drones are back on Sosna’s little suite of keyboard and guitar excursions; he is given a trio of tracks to bewilder the listener with. Firstly he builds up a Dune evocative sweeping veranda of humming bass and oscillating spirits, then lets loose on a promising piano score, played with alluring and poised composure, before ending on drip-dropping dabs of ghostly cosmic effects. These droplets work towards a rhythm and are accompanied by more over-head bombing raids and reverberating nonsense.

An old world calls from the mists on the following bundle of non-titled tracks, as an atmospheric caustic blowing soundscape is built up for a wandering set of drums and unobtrusive xylophone. This is dragged into an attention-starved moment of up-tempo tumbling rhythms, menaced with an onset of gongs, drills, rattles, scaffold tubes, all processed through heavy reverb. Then a twitchy guitar is let loose, pinging around and fiddling while the background burns away. Some light percussion and piano quietly go about their business, neither adding nor taking anything away from this aimless ditty.

We’re now into the final few furlongs, which are all more conventionally song based, though that’s a slight misleading description, as they’re anything but conventional. ‘Stretch Out Time’ starts with jangled guitars, bass and tambourine and Zappi’s cardboard box/tin pots sounding drum kit. The vocals ape the title and offer such poignant romantic reflections as –

‘Stretch out time, dive into my mind and sign/ Get answer and hold dime, But not into the coco smile/ Love is really so, Love is really true.’

Faust attempt to be loved by the listener.

‘Der Baum’, that’s ‘the tree’ to me and you my English speaking chums, is a lo-fi affair, which constantly stop/starts over its duration. Tight delay on the drums and emphasised cymbal shimmers, go all proto ‘Jennifer’ (from Faust IV) on this warmly felt ode. A descriptive analogy to the environment is used to express some memories of a failed love affair –

‘See her sitting on her chair, when she stops kissing I know she won’t care/ He opened the door, turned on the light/ And it hurt my eyes.’

They continue with a final regretful, but touching verse of –

‘Feeling like a tree today, and it’s a nice feeling, yeah/ The wind has come now, so the leaves, they’re gone/ Because the wind has come/ See her lying in her bed, must be a nice feeling for her head.’

The final song ‘Chère Chambre’ translates as ‘dear room’, though the colourful narrated French/German prose gives few types of clue as to whether the vocalist is spewing forth his thoughts from a lonely room, dictating an abundance of ideas to his secret friend or reading aloud from a dear John letter. Thankfully I found a transcribed translation that seems to describe a free-flowing uninterrupted spewing of motorway journeys, emotional well-being, questions and state of mind, all told in a story telling like rendition. A twee folksy guitar plays all the way through in an affable manner, whilst the narrator switches languages and continues to eloquently lay down genial tones.

The Faust Tapes act as a jump-off point for the next album, with startling insights and textural ideas it draws obvious comparisons to CAN’s Limited and Unlimited Edition LPs, which likewise dips into the psyche of the band, digging up promising snatches of pure gold. It differs from the Faust studio albums, which tend to follow a particular theme through to a conclusion, whereas this album hops quite erratically from one idea to the next. Generally an impressive futuristic and de-constructive collection of tracks, with touches of pulchritude and effulgent wonder that further enhances the reputation of Faust as trailblazing counter culture visionary misfits.

Back cover Faust Tapes

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.