Neu!: Riding through the night (and stopping in Chicago this evening)

September 8, 2010

 

Though his percussive partner Klaus Dinger died in March 2008, Neu! co-founder and guitarist Michael Rother is touring in an ensemble called Hallogallo 2010 with Steve Shelly of Sonic Youth and Aaron Mullan of Tall Firs, performing the music of that pioneering Krautrock duo as well as some of his solo material at Lincoln Hall tonight. (Tickets are $20, and the mighty fine Disappears open at 9 p.m.) This comes on the heels of a thorough and well-done new series of reissues of the group's extraordinary recordings.

In honor of these auspicious events, here is my sub-chapter on the band from my history of psychedelic rock, Turn on Your Mind.

Theirs is music for the present -- alive, urgent, bursting with energy, and demanding to be played. Neu! are as relevant today as they were a decade ago. -- David Elliott, liner notes to Black Forest Gateu, 1982

In Germany, there is no speed limit. The most culturally myopic American knows this but tends to envision futuristic superhighways criss-crossing the country. In fact, the autobahns were built by Hitler to provide a system for quick and easy troop transport, and they have only two lanes running in either direction. They are simple but efficient blacktops cutting through the countryside, unobtrusive intrusions of modernity in the rolling green hillsides. Neu! is the sound of driving late at night on these quiet, empty roads. The white lines move toward the headlights with mechanical regularity, in time to the steady speed of the car. They are the only thing you see, but the Fatherland is out there in the darkness. You can feel it.

The roots of Neu! are intertwined with those of another great German band, Kraftwerk. Ralf Hƒ¼tter and Florian Schneider would prefer people to think that they surfaced in 1974 as fully formed electronic-pop pioneers, but in fact, the two met at the Dƒ¼sseldorf Conservatory in the late '60s. In 1968 they formed a group called Organisation to play improvised music with organ, flute, and electronics at art galleries and happenings. At one of these gigs, they met Conny Plank, a jazz musician and recording engineer who had started his career doing sound for Marlene Dietrich and Duke Ellington. In the late '60s he became fascinated with the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, and Jamaican dub producer Lee "Scratch" Perry, and he was intrigued by the possibility of working with a rock group that had a distinctive European sound and identity.

Plank recorded Organisation's first album, 1970's Tone Float, in a studio set up in a former oil refinery. He released the album on his own Rainbow label in Germany and secured a deal with RCA in England, but the meandering electronic sounds were a flop. Hƒ¼tter and Schneider regrouped. Inspired by Can, they set up their own studio, located then as now in a rented loft in the center of Dƒ¼sseldorf. Rather than the cosmic monikers of many krautrock groups, the two wanted a name that evoked images of industry to compliment a new industrial edge in their music, and they chose as their name the German word for "power plant." Once again recorded by Plank, the self-titled Kraftwerk is starker and more rhythmic than the Organisation album, thanks in part to drummers Andreas Hohman and Klaus Dinger. The album received favorable reviews, but the group's progress was soon interrupted by a series of personnel shifts. At one point, Hƒ¼tter quit. The lineup of Schneider, Dinger, and guitarist Michael Rother recorded thirty-five minutes of music at Plank's studio, including an eleven-minute piece called "Truckstop Gondolero." Before it could be released, Hƒ¼tter rejoined and Dinger and Rother left due to what Rother told biographer Pascal Bussy was "a question of temperament, of character."

Rother and Dinger emerged from Kraftwerk frustrated and unfulfilled, but soon started a new project called, quite literally, Neu!, or New! One suspects that they had been "too rock" for Hƒ¼tter, or Hƒ¼tter had been too staid for them. In any event, they were determined to make improvised electronic music that retained the rhythmic drive and harsh edge of the best rock 'n' roll. They recorded with Plank, who had just moved his studio to a farmhouse near Hamburg. The recording room was in the old pigsty, and the mixing desk was in a former stable. The trio finished Neu!'s self-titled debut in just four days. Dinger handled drums, synthesizers, some guitar, and the album's one vocal, while Rother was responsible for the majority of guitar, piano, bass, and tape manipulations. The two played with a rare empathy, and their improvisations were uncommonly structured and immediate.

 

The key track on Neu!'s first album is the psychedelic opener, "Hallogallo" ("Hullabaloo"). The long, hypnotic instrumental is built around Rother's backwards, echoplexed, or heavily reverbed guitars; simple five- or six-note keyboard patterns, and Dinger's metronomic drumming. The 4/4 rhythm is Neu!'s secret. Dubbed motorik, the beat is unrelenting, straightforward, and entrancing -- the sound of the white line. Even the fills are dedicated to propelling the song rather than decorating the spartan beat. When I spoke to Rother in 1998, he recalled that the recording had been dominated by a spirit of carefree experimentation. "It's hard to look back twenty-five years, but I think we weren't so very worried about history and the future and being recognized a hundred years after our death," he said. "It was that you did the work you felt like doing and you enjoyed yourself. Basically, when I'm recording, when I'm happy with it, I always expect other people to like it as well."

The rest of the first album -- and, indeed, of Neu!'s career -- offers subtle variations on the same basic, entrancing hullabaloo. Released in late 1971 on Brain, Neu! was a respectable hit in Germany, selling more than thirty-five thousand copies. It was issued in the U.S. on the Chicago label Billingsgate, but aside from influencing a few pockets of freaky music fans -- including a fellow in Cleveland named David Thomas -- its impact was minimal. "The record is only the beginning," Dinger said in the liner notes. "We are looking for a third member of the group to dig deeper into the trends we introduced in our first album." Neu! recruited Uli Trepte of Guru Guru on bass and played a handful of unsatisfying gigs. The group's true home, it seemed, was the recording studio.

The band returned to Plank's barn, but this time, the musicians spent way too much time obsessing over the characteristically Neu! instrumentals on side one. "Fƒ¼r Immer," "Spitzenqualitƒ¤t," and the other songs on the first half of the album are as strong as anything on the debut, but with the budget exhausted, Dinger and Rother simply took both sides of their earlier single, "Super" b/w "Neuschnee," and filled side two with versions at 33, 45, and 78 r.p.m. (With a similarly perverse sense of humor, the covers and titles of all three albums were identical, featuring the word "Neu!" scrawled against different colored backgrounds.)

 

A few months later, the band was temporarily shelved as Rother joined Moebius and Roedelius of Cluster to record as Harmonia, while Dinger worked with his brother, Thomas, and Hans Lampe. Only Harmonia produced vinyl. The debut, Musik Von Harmonia, and a followup, Deluxe, were both released on Brain. Harmonia's music is more expansive and much less direct than Neu!'s, and it lacks the driving beat. The group disbanded in 1975 because of poor album sales, and Rother rejoined Dinger in Neu!. The pair recorded the first half of their third and final album as a duo, while side two was done as a quartet featuring Lampe and Thomas Dinger. Neu! 75 predated the punk explosion by a year, but its most exciting tracks have the raw, primal power of the Sex Pistols or Ramones. "Hero" features the basic Neu! instrumental augmented by Klaus Dinger's frantic shouted vocals. Obscured by the mix, bad diction, or both, the words and even the language are unintelligible, though the English phrase "riding through the night" seems to jump out. Given the intensity of "Hero" and "After Eight," you might assume that Dinger intended the stoned moaning on the lulling "Leb' Wohl" as a joke. Pictured on the album's inner sleeve wearing black clothes, white boots, sunglasses, spiked hair, and a sneer, he could pass for Sid Vicious. In sharp contrast, the bearded, pony-tailed Rother is depicted against a fluffy white background, the model of hippie tranquility.

Perhaps the clash in styles finally proved to be too much. Neu! broke up for good shortly after the release of its third album; the two key members remain estranged, and Dinger has built a reputation as something of a derailed genius along the lines of Arthur Lee. "He's very distant from reality sometimes," Rother told me. "I hesitate to give too much intimate detail about Klaus Dinger, although he's really treated me very badly." After Neu!, the Dinger brothers and Lampe formed La Dƒ¼sseldorf, and Rother went the solo route, frequently working with Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit; these days, he is more interested in electronics than in playing the guitar. Both men's post-Neu! efforts have moments of inspiration, but the further you get from their collaboration, the less you hear of the rock-'n'-roll edge. The distinctive beat is overpowered by more formal European harmonies and melodies, the guitars and synthesizers grow more symphonic, and the grit of the highway is replaced by the gentle sounds of the idyllic countryside.

Late at night on the empty highway, they don't hold a candle to Neu! But then not much does.