Sunday, September 30, 2012

Why Neu! is the Rosetta Stone of alternative music

Warning: everything in this post contains hyperbole, exaggeration and unverifiable opinion, but is nonetheless all, in a mysterious and even mystical way, true.

Everything of value in modern, alternative music was invented by two guys in Germany called Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger between 1972 and 1975 (see disclaimer above). Recording as NEU! (New!), they made three albums that effectively defined the direction of modern music for at least the next two decades. Although everything they did has its parallels in what other bands were doing at the time, only Neu! did it all. Neu! is the Rosetta Stone of modern music.

Click on the little widget on the right to hear the evidence: Rother and Dinger mapped the origins of:
  • Trance
  • Techno
  • Electronica
  • Trip-hop
  • Ambient
  • New age
  • Industrial
  • Punk
What's more:
  • They invented a rhythm that has its own name in the annals of music history ("motorik").
  • Their covers took pop-art simplicity and turned it into social commentary, aping and mocking consumerism in a way that wouldn't become fashionable till the end of the decade. 
  • They also invented the remix. 
Eno and Bowie came to Germany to meet them and learn their secrets, while John Lydon did a distance-learning course in How To Sing Like Klaus Dinger. The punks, the electronic bands, the new-wavers, the ravers, the Madchesters and the alt-rock-hipsters copied them like mad, while the likes of Primal Scream, Stereolab, Radiohead and even Kasabian leave offerings at their altar. And they had a slogan, articulated in the sleeve notes of their first album:
"After having practised music for a long time, we now make NEU! music for mind and pants"
New music for mind and pants, or "half-digested Pink Floyd pastoral, atrociously aped" as the reviewer for International Times grumbled when the first album came out. Julian Cope heard it differently. In his book Krautrocksampler, he recalled how he heard Hallogallo on John Peel's show in 1972 "and had my attitude to ALL music changed".

Klaus Dinger: the most energetic man ever to play in Kraftwerk
Neukraft: a great lost band
The Neu! story actually starts in Kraftwerk - a band that should need no introduction. Kraftwerk came together in 1970, when electro pioneers Ralf Hütter (organ, synthesisers) and Florian Schneider (flute, synthesisers) abandoned a group called Organisation. Halfway through recording the first Kraftwerk album, they sacked their drummer and brought in Klaus Dinger. The album completed, Hütter took a six-month sabbatical to finish his studies while Schneider, instead of recruiting another keyboard player, accepted Dinger's suggestion of a guitarist he knew called Michael Rother.

For six months in early 1971, Schneider, Dinger and Rother toured West Germany with new tunes that were never recorded in the studio but exist in a bootlegged radio show and a few preserved recordings from the legendary TV show Beat Club (a German halfway house between Top Of The Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test).

The band seen here playing Köln II looks and sounds nothing like the familiar static automatons standing in a line performing Autobahn and The Model. Dinger plays with an energy that would rival Bonzo or Keith Moon: his glasses fly off after about 30 seconds and he later knocks one of his cymbals over. God knows what Ralf thought when he saw what Florian had done to his band. Combine this with a couple more Beat Club appearances, Kakteen, Wüste, Sonne (a sort of Kraftwerk meets Fairport Convention) and a Bremen radio show (Kraftwerk meets Black Sabbath) and there's enough Neukraft material to make a proper CD that sounds nothing like Kraftwerk and only a little like Neu!.

Hütter returned in the summer of ’71 just as Dinger and Rother decided to go it alone; their legacy the motorik beat that Kraftwerk would soon use in their conquest of the world. In November 1971, the pair decamped to a studio with legendary producer Conny Plank to record a world-changing musical statement. It took them all of four days.

Four Neu! genres in four days
Like someone defaced 'The White Album'…
Dinger had been living in a commune with some advertising types and had even set up his own advertising agency that "existed entirely on paper", so the band name and the album cover came naturally. In the economic miracle of West Germany, everything was shiny and NEW! What better way to subvert consumer obsessions than by adopting their language?

Nothing looked anything like it in 1972. Cover art was usually four unshaven, denim-clad musicians trying to look hard, or fantasy science fiction bullshit of mystical worlds where virginal maidens were enslaved by evil necromancers. Neu! were firmly earthbound, but they were already on a different planet. Apart from the simple, three-letter name and a propensity to go on playing for ten minutes or more, Neu! couldn't have been more different from Yes. It's a nice coincidence that one of Dinger's early bands was called No.

During their 90s feud, Dinger sneered that Rother was "very conventional" and that all Neu!'s radical ideas were his. There's a bit of truth in that, but Rother had a punk, Year Zero attitude of his own. He even used the German term stunde null (hour zero) and claimed to have stopped listening to other guitarists in order to concentrate on creating his own sound. By producing an album sleeve that looked like The Beatles' White Album defaced with the underlined word NEW!, both Dinger and Rother were drawing a line under everything from Hitler to Pink Floyd.

Hallogallo is the first track and takes ten minutes to go precisely nowhere. It's the first time you hear the simple 4/4 rhythm that Dinger called lange gerade, endlose gerade (long or endless straight) or Apache-beat, but that music historians call motorik. The Düsseldorf bands were entranced by Germany's long roads (Kraftwerk's 1974 breakthrough album was called Autobahn), but there's something seductively liquid about Hallogallo. Who hasn't sat by a river and been entranced by its flow? Dinger's rhythm is the current: unending and unstoppable; while Rother's guitar is the swirling eddy: held by the current yet independent of it. Iggy Pop marvelled at what Dinger was doing:
"The guy had somehow managed to free himself of the tyranny of stupid blues-rock; of all conventions I had ever heard."
Blues and blues/rock grab you by the heart and balls and slam you into the wall if necessary. But motorik lifts you to a higher plane where you see the world laid out before you. The krautrockers were children of Nazis who lived in a country run by ex- (and not so ex-) Nazis: their music reflected a rejection of structure as a way of breaking away from the past. If the music was endless, that was deliberate: the future has no end. Blues – like disco, rock and every other Anglo-American genre – is constrained by structure. Blues is slavery. Motorik is liberation.

Sonderangebot and Im Glück are frightening, formless exercises in quiet chaos, the latter of which Rush plundered almost wholesale for the opening to Xanadu; Weissensee is gently ambient but motorik returns with a vengeance on Negativland, as a pneumatic drill ushers in a punishing bassline overlaid by screeching guitar that speeds to a frenzy before a sudden halt. In the ensuing silence, you can just hear Steve Albini and the members of PiL, New Order and every industrial band ever whispering, "We must continue to make this noise."

Four days in the studio and four musical genres invented. What could Klaus and Michael invent next?

Neu! Wave
1977, four years early
Punk rock, as it happens, not to mention sampling (albeit self-sampling) and the remix. There was even something punky about the cover of Neu!2, with the artwork of the first album greyed out and an enormous 2 crudely sprayed over it in lurid pink. Having defaced the White Album, they were now defacing themselves.

At first, Neu!2 followed the template of its predecessor, with the lengthy motorik groove of Für Immer echoing Hallogallo but with a harder guitar and varying intensity, topped by the big, echoey drums of Spitzenqualitat as a coda instead of the cymbal symphony of Sonderangebot that had followed Hallogallo. But Lila Engel has a definite punk feel about it: heavy drums and a single, repeated guitar chord under a shouted, wordless vocal.

Then Neu! ran out of cash.

With the record company refusing to add to its advance, Dinger and Rother took two tracks they had recorded for a single and ripped them apart, speeding them up, slowing them down and resampling them to make short, bizarre mutations of themselves. They topped it all off with Super, which sounds like the template for every punk record from the summer of hate four years later, while the frankly scary Super 16, a slowed-down variation of Super, found its way onto the Kill Bill soundtrack (both tracks had been used in Master of the Flying Guillotine).

Their few fans were naturally horrified. Rother too seemed bruised and a little shocked – the discordant howl of Super, Lila Engel and Hallo Excentrico! sounded like reflections of Dinger's increasingly confrontational personality – so he fled to a remote country house with electronic noodlers Cluster to record what became a pioneering album in the ambient and electronic genres: Musik von Harmonia. Brian Eno, fresh from leaving Roxy Music, declared Harmonia "the most important band in the world", before leaping on a plane to Germany to learn what he could from the makers of these beautiful sounds. But before he got there Rother and Dinger had some unfinished business.

Dinger had recruited his brother Thomas and Neu!2 engineer Hans Lampe as percussionists in a project soon to be known as La Düsseldorf. This freed him to play guitar and sing, opening the possibility of Neu! as a live band when he and Rother got back together. The live concept never really got going, but the quartet did manage to record a third album at the end of 1974.

Shock of the Neu!
A future-shaping moment of righteous vision
Neu!75 distilled everything Neu! had been doing in the previous three years into six tracks, each of which sounds like the template for a new genre. Julian Cope wrote that Neu!75 was "not a great album, like the Harmonia, Cluster or even the other Neu! albums were, but a classic. A future-shaping moment of righteous vision. Punk as eating the snot off your mate's face, spiritual as dawn on any clear day."

Side 1 is mostly Rother's ideas, with the motorik beat on Isi underpinning a synthesiser groove that foreshadows The Human League when they were still hip. Leb' Wohl and Seeland are chilled, almost frozen mood pieces.

Then Dinger lets rip on Side 2, at last adding words to his vocals on Hero, eerily foreshadowing Johnny Rotten as he sneers,
"Your only crime is music … Fuck the press, Fuck your progress, Fuck the company; Your only friend is money"
The song is driven by the double-rhythm of Thomas and Hans that must have sent a young Adam Ant into raptures. The key might change but the rhythm never lets up. E-Musik follows in a remorseless techno groove, while After Eight is post-punk before punk, albeit with a backwards nod to Roxy Music. Cope again: "You hear Hero and After Eight and suddenly British punk makes sense." Given the way it anticipates so many different styles of the next decade while still sounding unmistakably Neu!, Neu!75 is one of the more remarkable albums of a remarkable decade.

With that, Neu! split for good. The Dinger brothers and Lampe made La Dusseldorf a full-time (and highly successful) project, releasing three albums that sold millions in Germany and were called "the soundtrack of the 80s" by David Bowie. Rother recorded another album with Harmonia (Deluxe, 1975) and made some recordings with Harmonia and Brian Eno (which were eventually released in 1997 as Tracks and Traces), before embarking on a successful solo career.

Rother also discussed working with Bowie, but Bowie's management seemed worried that hanging around with all those decadent Germans would make the Thin White Duke even thinner and whiter. Whatever the reason, they rang Rother and told him Bowie had changed his mind, and then (as Rother discovered years later) rang Bowie to say that Rother had changed his mind. Rother points out that "Heroes" is named after the Neu! song, but more telling is the track Monza from Harmonia's Deluxe, which is almost a blueprint for Lodger and especially Red Sails.

Dinger and Rother did get together again in 1986, but abandoned a prospective fourth album. Dinger later released some of the recordings without Rother's permission as Neu!4, along with a "live" album (actually poorly taped rehearsals for their abortive live shows in 1972), which created a rift between the pair that was never properly healed before Dinger's sudden death in 2008.

With Dinger gone and interest growing in the band's work, Rother found himself the keeper of the flame. He curated all the band's work into a boxed set, with Neu!4 reworked into an official release now called Neu!86. He also does the occasional concert, playing Neu!'s music live for the first time in four decades.

Something old, something Neu!, something borrowed
Under every Neu! track on YouTube, you'll find comments explaining how the teaching of evolution in schools is proof of a Jewish world conspiracy fronted by that fag Bieber to turn America queer. That's YouTube for you. But you'll also find comments from under-40s shocked to find how the radical and progressive bands they loved in the 80s, 90s and 00s were actually plundering Neu! and other krautrockers.

It's not surprising. The punks of 1976-78 were the first generation of pop musicians who didn't remember the beginnings of rock'n'roll. While mainstream, straight society still regarded pop, rock, blues, soul and the rest as subversive and dangerous, to those born in the late 50s it was mainstream and conventional. The more adventurous souls were looking beyond Elvis and the Stones for inspiration, and the only underground genres truly on the boil in 1972 were reggae and krautrock (more politely known as "kosmische musik").

Eno is credited with saying, "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band," and something similar can be said of the krautrock greats Neu!, Faust and Can (and a Velvet Underground influence is clearly audible on Can's first album in 1969). Only Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream ever broke into the Anglo-American mainstream, but when the teenage heads of the early 70s formed their own bands in the late 70s and 80s, the music had the fingerprints of these obscure Germans all over it.

Too many bands are described as "ahead of their time". With Neu!, it might just be true.

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