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-- Radiohead's Thom Yorke on Neu!
Among fans of Krautrock -- that overused but perfectly descriptive term referring to the wide-open species of German psychedelia/Prog/proto-electronica from the late '60s to the mid-'70s -- the Düsseldorf band Neu! (literally, "New!") is ranked alongside its homelanders Can, Kraftwerk and Faust as one of the most highly regarded German rock outfits ever.
Neu!'s so-called motorik vibe of repetitive, precision beats, fluid, angular guitar lines and rippling keyboards existed between 1971 and 1975, courtesy the investigations of drummer Klaus Dinger and guitarist Michael Rother. Along with the late producer Conny Plank serving as unofficial third member, the duo issued an astonishing triad of albums that subsequently influenced everyone from Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth to Stereolab and Labradford. Julian Cope sang Neu!'s praises in his hagiographic book on Krautrock, aptly titled Krautrocksampler. Cultural terrorists Negativland would take both their moniker and their record label name, Seeland, from Neu! song titles. Even David Bowie was so smitten by the group's sound that during sessions for 1977's Low he attempted (unsuccessfully) to convince Rother to record with him. That the albums have been out of print since the early '80s and never available on official discs -- those CDs fans have found were pirate editions copied from vinyl albums -- only enhanced their legendary status. Now, after several ill-fated attempts at proper reissues, all three are available from Astralwerks as officially sanctioned, remastered editions.
"Aural visionary minimalist icons in a wilderness of psychedelia and beyond inspired us with their heroic beats and flat-out grooves on the expressway to our collective skulls."
-- Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo
Dinger and Rother met around 1971 while both were in a transitional Kraftwerk lineup. Eager to explore different sounds together, the pair broke away, borrowed Kraftwerk producer Plank, and laid down the tracks for their debut. An exceptional one at that -- one minute there's a serene, melodic 10-minute chugathon of riffs and pulses ("Hallogallo"), the next an abrasive, paranoid slab of postmodern blues replete with jackhammer drills ("Negativland"). Neu! 2 was issued two years later, with the album's first side continuing in its predecessor's unique-for-its-time vein. Side 2, however, due to the duo's running out of money for studio time, was a bizarre, abstract collision of previously recorded music being looped, repeated, mangled, and played at incorrect speeds -- the first rock remix, perhaps, or an early example of plunderphonics.
Correcting a frequent mistaken impression of Neu! as a quasi-jamming band, Rother insists, "Our music did not result from improvisations. The normal procedure was that Klaus and I went into the recording room together to record the basic structure of a song. This was Klaus on the drums and me on guitar or bass guitar. Then, after we had agreed on the basic recordings, mostly only one of us at a time went into the recording room again to do overdubs. The two first albums were more or less created on-the-spot in the studio. It was a very spontaneous process."
Summarizes Dinger, "It developed from playing, not listening. Do something else, something nobody except yourself did before. Be yourself, unique, original."
Both men add that having producer Plank in the studio with them was key as well. Says Rother, "[Plank's] technical skills, his creative input in the recording process and the mixing of the Neu! albums . . . [without him] the question is whether they would have been made in the first place!" On a more metaphysical note, Dinger enthuses, "Conny helped in providing situations where magic moments could happen and make our musical dreams come true. He was the perfect mediator between fire and water, improvisation and 'komposition,' more-or-less and in-between, impossible and possible."
In fact, Neu! was so beholden to the recording-studio ambiance that performing live never became much of a priority -- or, as Rother puts it, the point.
"Neu!, being a duo, was necessarily always only a studio project. In 1972 we did try to recreate our sound of the first album on stage but we failed in our attempt. I was completely dissatisfied with our one-dimensional live sound. After all, in the studio I had played several guitar layers and other instruments on top of the basic structure which Klaus on drums and I on guitar had previously recorded. Looking for solutions for the problems we encountered I then used a tape recorder on which I had recorded some ambient or instrumental sounds and parts like bowed bass, etcetera, to accompany my live performances and the drumming by Klaus. But the audience back then was not used to that kind of performance, did not understand what was happening and was just as unhappy as I was with the result. Later we tested two other musicians but they just did not fit into our concept. After about seven shows Klaus and I realized that we were much more successful in the studio."