The word krautrock was originally a humorous one coined in the early 1970s by the UK music newspaper Melody Maker, in which experimental German bands found an early and enthusiastic following, and ironically retained by its practitioners. The term derives from the ethnic slur "kraut", and its use by the music press was inspired by a track from Amon Düül's Psychedelic Underground titled "Mama Düül und Ihre Sauerkrautband Spielt Auf" ('Mama Düül and her Sauerkrautband Strike Up'). As is often the case with musical genre labels, few of the bands wished to see themselves pigeon-holed and most tended to eschew the term. The term is problematic due to the considerable differences between artists so labelled.
Musicologist Julian Cope, in his book Krautrocksampler, says "Krautrock is a subjective British phenomenon," based on the way the music was received in the UK rather than on the actual West German music scene out of which it grew. For instance, while one of the main groups originally tagged as krautrock, Faust, recorded a seminal 12-minute track they titled "Krautrock", they would later distance themselves from the term, saying: "When the English people started talking about Krautrock, we thought they were just taking the piss... and when you hear the so-called 'Krautrock renaissance,' it makes me think everything we did was for nothing."
Krautrock is an eclectic and often very original mix of post-psychedelic jamming and moody progressive rock mixed with ideas from contemporary experimental classical music (especially composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, with whom, for example, Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay of Can had previously studied) and from the new experimental directions that emerged in jazz during the 1960s and 1970s (mainly the free jazz pieces by Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler). Moving away from the patterns of song structure and melody of much rock music in America and Britain, some in the movement also drove the music to a more mechanical and electronic sound (a group of 5 expatriate Americans, The Monks, who toured playing beat music clubs throughout Germany, were also exploring this industrial/mechanical sound, as evidenced on their 1966 German-only release LP "Black Monk Time"). The key component characterizing the groups gathered under the term is the synthesis of rock and roll rhythm and energy with a decided will to distance themselves from specifically American blues origins, but to draw on German or other sources instead. Jean-Hervé Peron of Faust says: "We were trying to put aside everything we had heard in rock 'n' roll, the three-chord pattern, the lyrics. We had the urge of saying something completely different."
Typical bands dubbed "krautrock" in the 1970s included Tangerine Dream, Faust, Can, Amon Düül II, Ash Ra Tempel and others associated with the celebrated Cologne-based producers and engineers Dieter Dierks and Conny Plank, such as Neu!, Kraftwerk and Cluster. Bands such as these were reacting against the post-World War II cultural vacuum in Germany and tending to reject Anglo-American popular culture in favour of creating their own more radical and experimental new German culture and identity, and to develop a radically new musical aesthetic. Many of these groups began their musical careers with little or no awareness of (or interest in) rock and roll: exposure to the increasingly radical and innovative music of the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, for example, led members of groups like Can and Kraftwerk to embrace popular music for the first time.
The signature sound of krautrock mixed rock music and "rock band" instrumentation (guitar, bass, drums) with electronic instrumentation and textures, often with what would now be described as an ambient music sensibility. A common rhythm featured in the music was a steady 4/4 beat, often called "motorik" in the anglophone music press. Krautrock was heavily influential on black hip-hop artists from the 1980s onwards, who frequently sampled bands such as Can and Kraftwerk because of their inherent funkiness. An example of this is Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force's 'Planet Rock', which conspicuously samples Kraftwerk's 'Trans-Europe Express.'