I cannot remember the date, but I recall the exact location where I took delivery of Julian Cope’s slim but influential paperback Krautrocksampler in Autumn 1996. There was a palpable thrill in opening the mail box near the front door at Langentalstraße 6 and finding a small parcel addressed to me. Not to Herr Schmidt in #1 nor Fraulein Thomas on the top floor, but to Mr Connection, an Aussie in Mainz.
Perched on the broad windowsill of the first floor apartment, leaning out the window for a glimpse of the mighty Rhine and an occasional cigarette (“Kein Rauchen im Wohnzimmer, danke!”), I devoured this enthusiastic hymn to German independent rock music of the 70s. Occasionally bursting with outrage at Julian’s pronouncements – he’s very confident of his own opinions – but more often shouting a fist-pumping ‘Yea, Comrade!”, I made short work of the book and doubtless bored my partner rigid with my own opinions at every opportunity.
Since arriving in Germany I had managed to expand my collection of so-called krautrock (a term coined by lazy UK journalists still in thrall to wartime jingoism) by a substantial number of titles. Indeed, I had even been interviewed by the Wiesbaden Gazette about teaching English in Germany and my love of this largely non-commercial music. My Deutsch having remained stubbornly limited, I had insufficient skills to tackle the article when it appeared but as my students managed – with great delicacy and politeness – to imply that the piece portrayed your correspondent as an absolute plonker, I’ve never been motivated to tangle with Google Translate.
Being a long-term fan of the various streams and tributaries of this music, I’d brought with me the Freeman brothers essential reference tome. Living in vivo, as it were, surely I would snare some gems? Of course original albums of progressive rock are amongst the most sought out by collectors – particularly those artists from their own country – so it was deflating but not surprising to find that vinyl LPs were scarce and invariably priced well beyond my meagre budget. I did OK on the CD front, however, as Mainz boasted three dedicated music shops in addition to several other outlets with a limited selection.
The smallest music shop in Mainz was nestled in behind the Cathedral on a winding cobbled street and it was here, in the second-hand section, that I picked up a copy of the first Neu! album on the dubious Germanofon label. Having only had a home-recorded cassette of the first two albums up to this point, this ‘unofficial’ CD of dodgy provenance was a step up. Even the small plastic-cased CD cover grabbed attention with its simplicity and directness. New! it yelled in day-glo letters. Take me home! And I did.
The beginning of the Neu! story is part of the early Kraftwerk story. Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger were invited to join Kraftwerk founders and fellow Düsseldorf natives Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter as the latter pair were exploring new directions for their experimental combo. A scheduled TV appearance on the German rock program Beat Club in June 1971 was billed as Kraftwerk yet when it came time to record, Hütter was AWOL. Based on head count it would be just as reasonable to call the resulting performance Neu! with Schneider as Kraftwerk with Rother and Dinger. Certainly if you listen, the improvised beginning of the 11 minute piece evokes the Kraftwerk recordings of the time but then morphs into something much more identifiable as Neu!.
Later that year, Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger teamed up with lynchpin producer Conny Plank and recorded the self-titled album. Some sources say that the album was released in December 1971 but I cannot find any evidence for this. The more likely date for this early Brain label release was early 1972. [Freeman & Freeman, Cope, Wikipedia, Mojo]
The Freeman Brothers say…
“Rother’s multi-layered, fuzzed, wailing and shrieking guitars, spurred on by Dinger’s metronomic drums and abstract percussives.”
“International recognition of Neu! spread rapidly, and the UK release of their eponymous debut sported cover notes by Mr Hawkwind Dave Brock no less!”
[“The Crack in the Cosmic Egg”, p. 137]
St Julian says…
“The sound that replaced the hectic stop/start of the Kraftwerk trip was an ambient bass-less White-light Pop-rock mantra that steadied itself between the two extremes of Bubblegum music and the extreme German experimental music.”
“Neu! was the epitome of Krautrock.” [“Krautrocksampler”, p. 41-2]
“While all around was stoner indulgence, Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother minted a sound that stripped the rock template to it merest essentials, depended on an almost autistic love of repetition, threw in a mass of experimentalism and occasionally sailed to the limits of pile-driving volume.” [“Eine kleine trancemuzik” in Mojo #91, p.122]
David Bowie says…
“I thought the first Neu! album was gigantically wonderful. Having the choice of what the future was going to bring, looking at that against punk, I had no doubt where the future of music was going, and it was coming out of Germany. I was completely seduced by the setting of the aggressive guitar-drone against the almost-but-not-quite robotic/machine drumming of Dinger. You can hear a little of their influence on the track Station to Station.” [cited in Mojo #91, p.52]
Vinyl Connection says…
The shape shifting between driving rhythmic repetition, heart-piercingly beautiful melodic wisps and uncomfortable experimentalism ultimately fragments the cohesion of the album. The result is a flawed masterpiece that remains fresh and engrossing over forty years on, not least because of those flaws.
Neu!? It’s all there in the opening track “Hallogallo”.
The rest of the album…
“Sonderangebot” (Special Offer) So much space you get lost in it. Something absent; waiting maybe.
“Weissensee” (White Lake) There’s an unresolved sadness in the descending melody. Like gazing out a rain-smeared window, sheltered but alone.
“Im Glück” (Happiness) A slow drifting dance on an electronic lake.
“Negativland” (just add an ‘e’) Aliens using jack-hammers give way to guitar squall… then the slow bass-led groove kicks in. The guitars swoop and shriek above. Capricious tempo changes confuse… this is “Hallogallo” for the criminally disturbed.
“Lieber Hönig” (Rather honey) A skeletal guitar melody overlaid with a laryngitis vocal. Effective drone. The watery oars from “Im Glück” return. A rather limp finish to a ground-breaking album.
Part 2 of the Neu! special.
For those into early Kraftwerk and Neu!, you will certainly enjoy the Beat Club clip. Newcomers might find the extended experimental improvisation of the first section a bit off-putting.
Julian Cope “Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik” Head Heritage, UK, 1996 (2nd Ed.)
Steven Freeman & Alan Freeman “The Crack in the Cosmic Egg”. Audion Publications, UK, 1996.
Andy Gill “Die Neu! Artikal” in Mojo: The Music Magazine, #91, June 2001
John Harris “Eine kleine trancemuzik” in Mojo: The Music Magazine, #91, June 2001