"To me they sound like joy. Like endless lines stretching on forever in parallel. Like being so out of breath you can't feel your hands. Like when the future looked bright and clean and we'd know what to do if there was a problem. Like all those electric cars I remember in children's books about the 21st century."
-- 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."
Following a break that found Rother and Dinger working separately (the former, with members of Cluster as Harmonia, which at one point included Brian Eno; the latter, establishing his Dingerland label and the band La Düsseldorf), Neu! reconvened in 1975 to record the far-reaching masterpiece titled, quite sensibly, Neu! '75. Its sonic delights have yet to pale with time, commencing with the chugging motorik groove and spangly keyboard/guitar melody of "Isi," then drifting across the lush, pastoral electronica vistas of "Seeland" and the ambient piano of "Leb Wohl." There's even a startling slab of fuzz guitar-fueled garage rock in "Hero"; Dinger's vocal snarl would be influential on a young Krautrock fan named John Lydon.
As many great rock albums over the years are by-products of their creators' creative and personal tensions, Neu! '75 also became the group's effective swan song. The pair got together one final time for sessions in '85 and '86, but the recorded results were tepid at best (although Dinger would issue them as Neu! 4 a decade later on Japan's Captain Trip label). Since then, both Rother and Dinger have enjoyed successful careers, Rother as a film scorer and solo artist, Dinger initially with La Düsseldorf, then with his freewheeling outfit provocatively called La! Neu?
The latter, in fact, became a major bone of contention between Dinger and Rother, both with differing temperaments (respectively, the short-attention span, LSD-loving extrovert and the reserved, laid-back thinker) and viewpoints regarding the Neu! legacy.
Explains Dinger, "My relationship with Michael is certainly a long and complicated chapter. Totally different people, worlds and characters. We always could only communicate making music. I always had the feeling he wanted to run away from me, my ideas, behavior, madness and craziness, but he also felt attracted by the results. I feel that he still can't understand the total importance of Neu!, which I always was sure about. Of course, my "semi-legal" releases of Neu! 4 and 72 Live (a lo-fi recording of an early Neu! rehearsal that Dinger also issued on Captain Trip), or the name La! Neu? didn't improve our relationship!"
For his part, Rother is mostly philosophical. "The actual mystery is how we were able to do the three albums together at all. Our opposing characters sometimes led to great friction, crazy struggles and contradictions in our music and this is what made Neu! so special, too, perhaps. But the discrepancies made it hard for us all the time to get along outside the studio. And it has not become better over the years.
"It was always clear that Neu! are Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother and if one of us is missing, the resulting music cannot bear the name Neu! This did not stop Klaus from starting La! Neu? in the mid '90s. [He also] released Neu! music without my knowledge and permission in Japan. He has recently apologized to me for these actions but there still are matters to resolve."
The Neu! reissues clearly represent the first step towards any such resolution. While both Dinger and Rother were approached numerous times over the years about remastering the original Neu! tapes -- at one point Mute Records, which had been instrumental in putting together an elaborate boxed set by fellow Krautrockers Can, was involved -- negotiations continually broke down (usually over money), leaving fans no choice but to get their Neu! fixes by purchasing pirated editions of the three albums. Complicating matters, too, was a protracted court case stemming from a lawsuit Dinger brought against Metronome Music -- in possession of the vinyl rights to the Neu! albums and long rumored to be behind the bootlegs -- in order to get the master tapes returned. The case was eventually settled in Neu!'s favor in '96.
"Purveyors of the black arts, of hidden knowledge. Of a metaphysical approach to 'the beat.' Of motion standing still on a conveyor-belt groove. Of elementalism. Rock and roll as barber pole. The super-it band."
Finally, in 1999, noted German actor/composer/singer Herbert Groenemeyer approached Dinger and Rother, wanting to include some Neu! songs on an eight-CD anthology of German music for his Groenland label; this ultimately led to the pair, along with Conny Plank's widow, signing an agreement in April of 2000 to properly reissue the Neu! records. (Groenland licensed them to Astralwerks for U.S. distribution.)
Rother: "Herbert, being an artist himself, was perfectly able to understand the problems between Klaus and me. With great enthusiasm and sincerity he convinced us to give it a try. In the past 11 years so much distrust had grown between Klaus and me so what we needed in the first place was someone we both trusted in a musical and -- even more -- in a personal way. And I think the results were absolutely wonderful. The mastering was done four times in two different studios until Klaus and I were totally satisfied with the results. I am very glad we are past that stage now."
Looking ahead, however, while a Neu! boxed set that would include remixes, a book and a DVD is tentatively being planned, don't necessarily expect a recording or performing reunion for Dinger and Rother.
Dinger, keeper of the Neu! name flame over the years, expresses his wish that "I'm sure Neu! will be forever -- maybe as 'Neu! Two,' and more and more, if not handled too badly. For quite some time my proposal [to Rother] has existed to find out how Neu! sounds today -- with new people we couldn't find in the early '70s."
Rother, however, while happy to finally have proper Neu! reissues on the street, is equally satisfied with his career as a solo artist, saying, "As much as I accept my musical history, the present is now and very interesting. I do not live in the past; I live today and the future lies ahead, hopefully with a lot of more music to create that will give other people and myself fascination and something lasting. Like Neu!"
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