Like a down-market department store for heads and hippies, Goesunder Flea Market in the heart of Melbourne’s retail district was the unlikely venue for an import record shop, yet that is where I first encountered Krautrock.
It was my first year at the university, a 15 minute walk north of the city centre. I was callow, confused and desperately earnest not to appear the first two. I knew no-one in the entire university and hadn’t made friends; the multitudinous clubs and societies spruiking their charms during “O-Week” were much too intimidating.
My regular afternoon route back down Swanston Street had led to an acquaintanceship with Space Age Books, specialising in science fiction and fantasy. Bookshops were (and are) one of the few retail spaces you are at liberty to browse unassailed by over-zealous staff. You can be alone and safe in a bookshop. The space next door to Space Age was, however, another universe entirely.
Through the wide portal was a large shadowy space whose air was redolent with the mysterious scents of incense and patchouli. Stalls swathed in sheets and shawls of strange design formed uneven rows like a gypsy marketplace. Kaftans rubbed shoulders with tie-dyed t-shirts; handmade leather sandals reclined next to hookahs; essential oils whispered heady secrets to psychedelic posters. And there was a record stall. I thought I knew a bit about music, having secured my first record store job the previous summer and endured eight years of piano lessons. But not one album did I recognise. All were strange, exotic, alluring, impenetrable and – for one of extremely constrained means – unattainable. Most weeks all I could do was leaf through them and devour the covers.
High School Deutsch classes were sufficient to reveal the origin of these exotic treasures but that was little help. Neither were the staff, whose alternative noses doubtless picked the smell of a tightly wound suburban boy as easily as clocking a virgin at an orgy. Or so I imagined. Maybe they were simply stoned out of their gourds. Certainly they did not seem fazed by my leisurely browsing and absence of purchases; Goesunder was like Space Age books but in a phantasmal underworld.
This shy courtship might have gone on forever had I not got a lead from Billy. These were the days when the only access to new music was radio. For those not drawn to the music mainstream, the Sunday night Album Show with Billy Pinnell on 3XY was compulsory listening. Late one evening he played a long instrumental piece that blew me away with its distorted guitar and hypnotic rhythms. It was a cosmic storm blowing in from another galaxy. Hell, the drums only came in over halfway through the 12 minute piece yet the groove was monumental. At its conclusion Billy’s nasal drawl announced it as “Krautrock” by Faust. It was the opening track on their fourth album, mischievously called IV, and the piece’s title was taking a poke at the English journalists who had coined this lazy descriptor. Billy even described the cover: empty music staves on a parchment coloured background with minimal print in a plain typewriter font. The simplicity took my breath away; I had a mission: find that album.
There was no chase, no excruciating search; I knew exactly where to go. A day later I marched into Goesunder with a new air of confidence and a fistful of Deutschmarks. Aussie dollars, actually, but I was pumped for Das Vaterland. This would be my triumphant entry into the mind-altering world of sinuous long-haired women and men who said “Man” a lot. No more Neil fucking Diamond or ultra-boring Allans Music stores. Brave new alternative world, here I come.
“Do you have Faust IV?”
Was this a sly comment on my interpersonal development?
I may have blushed at this point.
“Festival does Virgin. We don’t stock Australian pressings.”
Exit Goesunder, deflated. Pause for a calming cigarette.
Probably St Moritz, an expensively foul menthol concoction I had adopted to mark myself out from the tobacco pack, thus proving beyond doubt that you can be lonely and ignorant and still be a complete wanker.
Fortified with 667 deadly chemicals, I strode off to Allans muttering under my breath. Yet the setback failed to suppress a thrill of anticipation as the sales girl put my “local” copy of Faust IV into a bright yellow Allans carry bag.
The album did not disappoint then, nor does it as I listen now.
After the monolithic groove of the opening track comes the sly, disconcerting cod-reggae of “The Sad Skinhead”, complete with marimba. “Jennifer” is a pretty tune floating on top of an echoing wobbly pulse of a bass line; the melody wavers, the is vocal compressed and understated; guitar lines drift in like tendrils of mist then drift away as a coda of disjointed bar-room piano staggers out the door.
“Just a Second (Starts Like That)” opens Side Two with another crunching Germanic riff before getting lost in space. It’s vaguely reminiscent of “Interstellar Overdrive”. “Picnic on a Frozen River” follows quickly, an undulating playground vocal giving way to an instrumental section with jazzy improvised sax over a lurching 6/8 beat until the final section emerges with another melodic snippet, this time on a cheap keyboard; distorted guitar churns and darts underneath until it all stops very suddenly indeed. I would later discover that this piece most closely evokes the cut-ups and startling fragmentation of the first Faust album.
“Giggly Smile” is a pretty folk-tinged piece, hand-clap rhythm and reedy keyboard over a picked acoustic guitar. A ticking clock intrudes, but peace is restored in a pastoral ending. The quiet interlude continues with “Lauft…” which begins with gentle electronic sounds that evoke countrymen Tangerine Dream in a laid-back mood, only for the circular-saw buzz of a treated guitar note to disturb the reverie. A similar sound invades the final song “It’s a bit of a pain” which is otherwise another gentle, bucolic ramble in the countryside that finishes off the album in a very different world to the thunderous industrial-belt of the opening track.
Faust IV evokes awe and wistfulness, pain and longing, humour and alienation. It is a progressive classic.
PS. I did eventually buy a record from Goesunder, but that’s another story.