Music for Socialism

The Kosmischer Läufer Con

During the decade since Edinburgh’s Unknown Capability Recordings began releasing analogue electronic music under the name Kosmischer Läufer, the label has assiduously maintained that these tracks were secretly made for the East German Olympic team between 1972 and 1983.

It sounds like it looks. Plauen, DDR.

Although the first Kosmischer Läufer album would have sounded great had Unknown Capability impresario Drew McFadyen released it under his own name, having this back story made it stand out amid the unprecedented glut of content made possible by inexpensive digital production tools.

Sure, the music sounded a little too good to have been created so long ago, especially in a nation where top-shelf technology was hard to come by. But it was fun to suspend disbelief.

The original press release tells the story of a pseudonymous Martin Zeichnete, a sound editor for the government’s DEFA film studio:

Like many young East Germans of the time he would listen furtively to West German radio at night and became infatuated with the Kosmische Musik or ‘Krautrock’ epitomised by the likes of Kraftwerk, Neu! and Cluster emerging from his neighbouring country. Martin, a keen runner, hit upon the idea of using this new music’s repetitive, motorik beats as a training aid for athletes.

That’s the basic conceit, which is expertly fleshed out with minutiae to impart the patina of authenticity.

After being given the improbable assignment of making this cutting-edge music on the state’s dime, Zeichnete asks for a Moog synthesiser but is refused. The government designation for his project – wryly acknowledging that even East Germans are still Germans – is State Plan 14.84L.

A statement by this fictional character seals the deal:

I lived in a time of fear and repression yet here I was given the chance to write this crazy, modern music for the very state which would never have granted me a license to play it anywhere else.

As subsequent releases appeared, Unknown Capability Recordings made sure to supplement the original press release with videos that combined actual footage from the East German archives with the music of Kosmischer Läufer.

The narrative transcends the status of mere Verarschung because of the label’s ironclad commitment to it.

Rather, it feels more like one of Jorge Luis Borges’ stories or Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.

Even if our head tells us that this delightful Krautronica must be an exercise in cleverly repackaged nostalgia for a time when German popular music was punching far above its weight, our heart prefers to imagine Zeichnete and his collaborators feverishly working on music designed not only to make us feel better but to make us be better as well, with experiments on the ideal number of beats per minute for different sports.

Imagining that Kosmischer Laüfer’s music helped fuel remarkable athletic achievements give it a gravitas that it would otherwise lack.

We all like to believe that culture can instruct as well as delight, that art can have a meaningful social impact.

Artists frequently hide behind masks. When that deception is historical in nature, however, it matters more.

Even when listeners knew that the stellar psychedelic rock of the Dukes of Stratosphear in the 1980s was actually made by the band XTC, the fact that they demonstrated the musical equivalent of method acting gave their side project added clout.

The difference between Kosmischer Läufer and fabricated bands like the Dukes of Stratosphear is that there was nothing behind the mask. The side project was all there was.

In the wake of the file-sharing revolution started by Napster in the late 1990s, both major and independent labels realised that it was frequently easier to sell fans the same albums a second or third time, with bonus material added to sweeten the offer, than it was to draw new listeners.

This eventually led to a reissue culture, in which novelty was defined less by when something was made than when it became available to purchase.

One laudable offshoot of this development was the establishment of labels, such as Seattle’s Light in the Attic Records, whose mandate was putting out important music that had gone out of print or which had never been properly released in the first place. Everything about Universal Capability Recordings, right down to its stylish font choices, apes labels like these.

In retrospect, it seems clear that McFadyen wanted to honour the music that had inspired his own band, The Magnificents, not by creating a tribute act but a tribute label.

Since the experimental rock and electronic pop made by West German artists in the 1970s had already been exhaustively documented, the only way to add to the historical record was to perform a thought experiment in which that music had been repurposed on the eastern side of the border.

While that explanation might seem sufficient, it does not account for the strange lure of Eastern Bloc culture in the Western imaginary.

The “Doomer” aesthetic popular among many young people today derives much of its energy from a perverse fixation on the bleakness of everyday life in Communist lands, which imbues it with an authenticity that contemporary consumer society lacks.

In the case of Kosmischer Läufer, the emphasis is not on what East Germany lacked but on what it was able to achieve in spite of those structural disadvantages.

Although the original press release begins by acknowledging the damage wrought on the nation’s Olympic athletes, who were assigned to gruelling training programs as children and forced to take steroids that permanently impacted their health, this sobering reality check gives way to wonder.

Even if we know that the methods used by the East German government were wrong, the fact that they brought such impressive results gives us hope that human beings can make quantitatively measurable progress in the absence of the capitalist system that subordinates each and every number to its inexorable logic.

Because Kosmischer Läufer purports to be an East German appropriation of musical innovations devised in the West, we are given the opportunity to speculate about how avant-popular culture might have been decoupled from the imperatives of the market.

We can listen to the heart of that dream beating strong in this music.

Photograph courtesy of Sludge G. Published under a Creative Commons license.