The Kaiser Gets Umlauts of Trouble (a.k.a. The Time a German Producer Gave His Buddies Acid and Made a Classic Krautrock Record Without Telling Them)


What happens when a leading Krautrock producer gets his favorite musicians together, doses them with acid, and rolls tape?

The answer to that question is the Cosmic Jokers. The Cosmic Jokers are at once a supergroup and a group that never was—a collection of luminaries from the early 70s heyday of Krautrock plied by drugs and unwittingly repackaged into a record bearing their names and faces.

To say the least, the unsuspecting participants were displeased by the proceedings—some were even moved to legal action. We’ll get to all of that, but first—

What the hell is Krautrock?

In the late 60s and early 70s, West Germany was perhaps one of the most artistically fertile places in the world. As Eastern Europe descended into a colorless Soviet fog, psychedelic drugs proliferated on the sunny side of the Iron Curtain. Still, Germany’s dark and tortured history remained close in the rearview.

These sounds of freedom and torment merged with provocative results in the West German music scene, producing a surge of incredible and highly experimental psych and prog rock called Krautrock. 

[Sidenote: Isn’t the term “Krautrock” offensive? 

It turns out it’s actually not. The term was originally coined by German music festival organizers as a somewhat cheeky way of pulling together the various strands of their increasingly bold, daring, and progressive independent music scene. When the British and American music press picked up on the phrase, they largely used it to heap praise on the bands under its umbrella. In fact, “Krautrock” was the name of the first song on German band Faust’s 1973 album–Faust IV. So it’s totally ok to say “Krautrock,” even if it feels kind of weird.]

So yeah…the premier Krautrock bands—Can, Faust and Amon Duul II—gained high critical regard, even finding fringe audiences in the U.S. and U.K.

Much of the activity also revolved around key producers and studio spaces. Conny Plank’s work with Neu! and most especially Kraftwerk, probed new space at the intersection of electronic, avant garde, and popular music. Producer Dieter Dierks expanded the dialect of ambient progressive rock, providing the studio space for the boundary-pushing work of Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream.

How Come Everybody Wanna Keep It Like the Kaiser?

Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser was another pivotal figure in the flowering West German rock scene. He began his career as an author, releasing a book in 1967 featuring interviews with American folk musicians like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. But by 1968, he was at the center of a burgeoning new experimental movement.

In 1968, he led the organization of an event called the International Essen Songtang. The four day festival featured leading German artists like Tangerine Dream and Amon Duul alongside American experimental icons like Frank Zappa and the Fugs. The festival is widely seen as the birthplace of the German independent music scene. 

So Kaiser carried a tremendous amount of influence into his first label—Ohr (German for ear). 

Ohr released seminal Krautrock albums by Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, Klaus Schulze, Guru Guru, Amon Düül and more. Kaiser found early success—and developed a growing appetite for psychedelic drugs. In 1971, Kaiser combined these two interests to create a second label called Pilz (German for mushroom). With Pilz, Kaiser indulged his growing personal interest in “cosmic folk,” recording albums by Popol Vuh, Wallenstein, and Grinder. 

(Ok. I know Wallenstein is not exactly a household name these days. But back in Germany in the late ‘60s…well, they also weren’t household names. But they were highly influential among hippies, intellectuals, and Bohemians living west of the Wall.)

Kraut of Touch

By 1972, Kaiser was very much on own psychedelic voyage, so much so that he and girlfriend Gille Lettmann sojourned to Switzerland to commune with acid guru, prison escapee, and American in exile—Timothy Leary. 

President Richard Nixon once described the former Harvard professor as the most dangerous man in America. He would certainly have a profound influence on Kaiser and Lettmann.

Leary often described himself as a cosmic messenger, dispatched to share with the world the profound benefits of LSD. Kaiser received the message loud and clear, even bringing Timothy Leary and Ash Ra Tempel together for a Swiss recording session—later released as Seven Up (1973).

But not everybody shared Kaiser’s growing enthusiasm for psychedelics. In fact, his label’s A&R team actually found his behavior somewhat alarming. His top two executives resigned and left to form Brain Records. They took most of Ohr’s bands with them. 

The Cosmic Joke

Undeterred, Kaiser formed a new label and—in an explicit tip of the cap to Leary—called it Kosmische Kuriere (Cosmic Couriers). 

And that’s when things got kind of weird. 

The year was 1973. Krautrock was at something of an artistic high point. The early ‘70s saw a torrent of landmark releases for the genre—Amon Duul II/Yeti (1970); Can/Tago Mago (1971); Neu!/Neu! (1972); Faust/So Far (1972).

I wouldn’t recommend throwing any of these records on for a cocktail hour. But together, they are a study in post-war Germany—a strange alchemy of droning, twisted, industrial blight and kaleidoscopic, mind-expanding freedom. 

Sounds like a good time, right?

Well, that’s what Kaiser thought anyway. So he threw a bunch of acid parties in 1973, all at Dieter Dierks’ landmark studio in a village just outside of Cologne called Stommeln. He invited a few of the top musicians from his conglomeration of labels including Manuel Göttsching and Klaus Schulze of Ash Ra Tempel, Jürgen Dollase and Harald Grosskopf of Wallenstein, and Dierks himself.

Then, he paid the musicians in the form of psychedelic drugs to play as the house band for his parties. 

Then he recorded the results and packaged them as an album called Galactic Joke.

Then released it…entirely without the band’s knowledge. 

The result is unadulterated, lysergic authenticity—a pure slice of space exploration uninhibited by the threat of commercial release. 

And that’s the cool part.

The less cool part is that Kaiser totally did package it for commercial release. He dubbed the assembly the Cosmic Jokers, had the audacity to include photos of the band members on the back of the album, and released it on his own label in 1974. 

Surely, the cosmic joke was played on the band itself. Indeed, the band’s guitarist, Göttsching only learned of the album’s release when he heard it spinning in a Berlin record store. He asked the clerk what was playing and found out it was him.

Cosmic Slop

If this wasn’t bad enough, Kaiser spent the better part of the next year salvaging, packaging and repackaging various strands of those same sessions. He actually released a full five albums under the Cosmic Jokers name in 1974, including one called Gilles Zeitschiff, in which his aforementioned girlfriend Gille Lettmann provides spoken-word overdubs to remixed versions of the original songs.

Here’s the nicest thing I can say about Gilles Zeitschiff: If anybody ever breaks into your home, turn this up at full blast. It’ll scare the everloving crap out of ‘em. I’m actually listening to it right now, and I’m having a bit of a panic attack. It’s the perfect soundtrack for drowning slowly.

Anyway, it’s easy to see why Gilles Zeitschiff was the last straw for Klaus Schulze. The Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel drummer sued Kaiser for release from his contract. 

The German courts were not amused by Kaiser’s antics, nor by his affiliation with international fugitive Timothy Leary. All contracts were voided and Cosmic Couriers collapsed.

Kaiser and Lettmann retired to private lives, and were never heard from again…which is not to say that they mysteriously disappeared. This was just the end of their public affiliation with the German music scene.

Just about everybody else involved with Cosmic Jokers went on to have a long and fruitful career.

The Winds of Change

In particular, Dieter Dierks, just one year removed from the Cosmic Jokers debacle, would join forces with the Scorpions. Originally formed in 1965, the Scorpions toiled through a decade of lineup changes and mixed results.

It was only in 1975, when they signed with Dierks, that the Scorpions truly began their rise to fame. Dierks worked as the band’s producer for the next 13 years, driving their sales into the millions and establishing his own state-of-the-art studio as a destination for artists from all over the world. 

The memes of Tangerine Dream also enjoyed a long and illustrious career. They like

deserve a good share of credit and/or blame for proliferating the use of synthesizers in western music during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, most particularly through extensive workin the movie scoring business.

Klaus Schulz was remarkably prolific as well, probing electronic, ambient, trance and prog rock across more than 60 solo records. His final record was released in July of 2022, just months after his death at age 74.


It’s true—Krautrock can be dark, heavy and super serious. You probably don’t need a whole German history lesson to figure out why. 

But there is also an air of lightness, playfulness, and even funkiness in some of the best Krautrock out there. 

This playlist has a bit of both.