Last week Vinyl Connection introduced the self-titled debut album by the highly influential German band Neu!. The story continues…
For an unknown band releasing a first album, Neu! achieved significant success. It helped that highly respected and influential radio disc jockey John Peel was a big fan, resulting in solid sales in Great Britain (or at least London).
The band went on the road, as bands do, and also released a single unattached to the album. Both sides were strong, with “Neuschnee” being a fine example of the Neu! groove and “Super” having a fabulously jagged punky bite. Two great songs on a 7” platter but, as singles sometimes do, this one sank without a trace.
Meanwhile the record company had detected a spurt of success and, as record companies do, they applied pressure. And pressure, as is so often the case, staunched the creative flow.
Labouring in the studio on the new Neu! album, Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger were focussed but slow. When the hourglass of studio time emptied they had one complete side comprising a classic extended Neu! groove-fest (opener “Für Immer”, the art-school cousin of “Hallogallo” from the first album) and three more experimental pieces. “Spitzenqualität” and “Gedenkminute” are both formless and largely rudderless. More sketches than canvases, more vague forms than figures. “Lila Engel” closes out the side with a pleasingly strident Dinger vocal and plenty of energy, yet for all the punk momentum that builds up during this track it remains a scaffold rather than a building. Like the massive echo on the drums, this is music lost in space. And now there was no more time.
The idea emerged of placing the two songs from the single on side two. A fine plan, as no-one bought the single anyway, but that’s only 7 minutes. Then, in what Julian Cope generously describes as “a moment of artistic vision cut with dubious clarity” (p.43) they decided to fill the rest of the side with manipulated versions of the singles.
Remember on Tubular Bells, that section with the growly voice? Well “Super 16” sounds like Mike Oldfield’s Piltdown Man stomping round a cellar drunk out of his skull. It’s the song “Super” slowed down to 16 RPM, you see.
Guess what “Neuschnee 78” is. Go on, I dare you. Yep, it’s “Neuschnee” played at 78 RPM. The Chipmunks do Krautrock.
The entirely deserved respect in which Neu! are held means that writers often gloss over this shabby confidence trick. But that’s just what it is: the Emperor’s New Clothes. Maybe he’s not entirely naked, but his arse is certainly feeling the breeze. Don’t get me wrong, there are three mighty pieces of Neu!werk here, but that is just not enough to warrant veneration.
History tells us that Rother and Dinger parted company after this album; one can surmise they were unsatisfied too.
Michael Rother found a positive creative connection with the musicians of Cluster, Hans-Joachim Rödelius and Dieter Möbius. The collaboration produced the album Musik von Harmonia in 1974, a gold-plated five-star LP that fans of the genre should acquire. You can read about it in this excellent 1537 post.
Klaus Dinger was active too, laying the groundwork for his own peerless band, La Dusseldorf. But the independent music scene in Germany was small and interconnected: Klaus and Michael met up and decided that they didn’t want Neu! to end with the ultimately unsatisfying curate’s egg of Neu! 2. They decided on one last ‘Hurrah!’ and entered the studio together in December 1974.
The result was Neu! 75, released on the Brain label (United Artists in the UK) in Spring 1975. Mr Cope calls it ‘a classic’ but ‘not a great album’, and here I diverge from the Archdrude. For this writer, Neu! 75 is the crowning glory of the Rother/Dinger collaboration.
And collaborate they did, while remaining distinct entities. Close but not too close; certainly not fused. Here are two complete and perfect sides that do not so much join as shake hands across the fence.
Side 1 is richly Rother: gorgeous guitar lines, wistful wisps of melody, rhythms as gently repetitive as the ocean. Piano adds to the tonal palette on opener “Isi”, where guitars and fluttering synths motor along over Dinger’s trademark foundation drumming. “Seeland” unfolds slowly with a melancholy melody that still evokes tension and a yearning that is utterly romantic, ending with falling rain and distant thunder. Final song “Leb Wohl” is even more sparse, a breathy vocal by Klaus Dinger showing that gentleness is worth straining for as waves wash in… to wash away the past. It’s almost as though the music on the first side stretches to recapture a lost innocence or a fading, summer-hued dream. An impossible task, a fool’s quest, yet the effort is rewarded by the capture of something rare and precious: a confluence of innocence and experience that touches the heart.
It is therefore a shock, a wake-up call of bellowing insistency, when Side 2 smashes open the door with “Hero”. Listen to this or to the ranting, slavering closer “After Eight” and tell me the Sex Pistols weren’t Neu! fans. Cope calls it “Ur-punk” which is good enough for me.
“Klaus Dinger sings like a man possessed (though not possessed with a singing voice) over banked Steve Jones massed guitars and the double drumming of life.” (p. 127)
Here is Dinger in excelsis, thrashing and wailing over a break-neck attack that teeters on the edge of collapse. It’s utterly thrilling. And if that’s not enough, in between these two rock ravers we have another A+ slab of Neu! autobahn magic in the ten minute epic “E-Musik”.
Beauty and power, loss and rage. It’s a potent combination and a timeless statement that earns Neu! 75 a place in Vinyl Connection Valhalla.
Finally, a word about the aesthetic of Neu!, a combination of stark utilitarianism and DIY anti-style attitude. At the time, when the multi-hued fantasies of Roger Dean and Mati Klarwein were so much in vogue, these covers were astonishing. I think they still are. The extension of this style into the La Dusseldorf catalogue suggests this was primarily the work of Klaus Dinger. Just brilliant.
Julian Cope “Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik” Head Heritage, UK, 1996 (2nd Ed.)