Neu! 2 (Astralwerks)
Neu! ’75 (Astralwerks)
The galloping drone of Stereolab, the dark futurism of David Bowie’s Station to Station, and the strangled vocals of Johnny Rotten all share a curious origin in the ’70s work of the German duo Neu! It’s safe to say, in fact, that Neu! are the most important band you’ve never heard. For decades their records have been out of print, reissued only in semi-legal form and even then nearly impossible to obtain. So it’s no less than an overdue blessing that Astralwerks, after protracted legal wrangling, has finally rereleased the seminal work of this almost comically obscure group.
Like any other sonic pioneers, Neu! (German for “new”) coalesced in a singularly unique point on the pop music continuum. The late ’60s were a time of rapid change for Germany, a period when the innovations of American groups like The Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention were falling on friendly ears in a country whose legacy had always been closely tied to the avant-garde. Unlike many of their contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, a new crop of exploratory musicians seemed able to expand upon the unlimited promises of psychedelia and modern recording technology without being submerged in the self-indulgence that both often brought about. While there was no real cohesion to this musical movement, it has forever been embedded into the hipster conscience as “Krautrock,” a sort of ultramodern version of psychedelia that found equal time for acid rock, electronic experimentation, jazz, and cerebral grooves.
Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, two precocious musicians from Dusseldorf, were at the forefront of this new movement. Both played in an early version of Kraftwerk, those kings of clinical electro-pop, but after a short while broke off from the core duo of Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider to form a new group, Neu! Recorded in a period of only four days with Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank (sort of the Brian Eno of Krautrock, he also helped mastermind Faust), the duo’s debut was a wondrous collection of ambient soundscapes set against Dinger’s robotic, four-on-the-floor drumbeat, dubbed “motorik.”
Thirty years later, it’s remarkable how forward-reaching Dinger and Rother were. With the glorious exception of Can, many of Neu!’s contemporaries from the Krautrock camp sound rather dated. The encyclopedic experimentation of Faust is still spellbinding, but often a little too clever (à la Zappa), and the sort of sub-prog hard rock espoused by Amon Düül II and Guru Guru is downright comical in hindsight. Somehow Neu! avoided all these indulgences; the simple, hypnotic pulse of their music would find little rivalry until the dawn of electronica. In fact, much of their self-titled debut is far removed from anything resembling the conventional rock idiom: The echoes of electronic composers like Stockhausen and Xenakis collide with the dark, gothic shadows cast by the early Velvets to form washes of sound that can be alluring, as on “Hallogallo,” or downright foreboding, as on “Negativland.” On the latter track, Dinger and Rother seem to anticipate the coming of industrial and the boundless noise of Sonic Youth: A primitive bass/drum pattern anchors a dark wall of feedback, sound effects, and general sonic unrest.
Perhaps most importantly was Neu!’s embrace of simplicity. Their music seems ageless because of its sparseness“less is more” was an aesthetic to be embraced by punk rockers and ambient minimalists in years to come, but wasn’t fashionable in the early ’70s. The Cro-Magnon version of post-modern rock ’n’ roll envisioned by The Stooges and The Velvet Underground was taken one step further. Gone entirely were the blues guitar figures and syncopation that were the foundations of rock. Neu! and their brethren were creating a new music, something that didn’t “rock” or “roll,” yet was still completely entrancing.
For their second album, Neu! 2, the duo did something unprecedented. Having recorded only 20 minutes’ worth of new material before their budget ran out, Dinger and Rother came up with an unlikely solution: They simply sped up or slowed down the existing songs, thereby creating another side of a record. While perhaps the experiment was better in theory, Neu! nevertheless were the first to utilize what would someday become an essential component of modern music: the remix. And while flawed, Neu! 2 does boast some memorable moments. The simple, wiry guitar patterns and lush keyboards of “Für Immer” prefigure the sort of pastoral indie rock that groups like The Sea and Cake would embrace in decades to come. In stark contrast, the album’s closer, “Super,” points the way to another future; it’s robotic garage punk, sounding like something left off of Devo’s debut album.
After Neu! 2, Dinger and Rother split up, only to reunite two years later for a final record, Neu! ’75. The most apparent aspect of this release is the contrasting musical paths of the two members. Vintage Neu! is in effect on the opener, “Isi,” a shimmering moment of tranquility, while “Seeland” approaches New Age ambience, with distant guitars collapsing into the sound of a rain shower. But Dinger’s abrasiveness has never been more overt than on the album’s second side. It’s been said many times, but truly, “Hero” is straight-up punk, one year early. Dinger’s shouted vocals sound uncannily like the sort of demonic wail that Johnny Rotten would embrace with The Sex Pistols. I also hear a distinct similarity in the monotone holler of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, perhaps punk rock’s other great vocalist. The record’s closer, “After Eight,” sounds like the coda of Pere Ubu’s “Final Solution” sped up and channeled through the Autobahn.
One has to ponder how two musicians could anticipate in such a sublime fashion what was to follow in the years to come. While many bands, both in America and in England, had expounded upon the trash-rock attitude, certainly paving the way for punk (New York Dolls, The Stooges, glam-rockers like Bowie), they were still married to a pre-psychedelic vision of rock as a filthy, liberating, primeval sludge that hadn’t really progressed past Lou Reed. What Neu! and others like Pere Ubu and Suicide were doing was totally revolutionary: They were anticipating not only punk, but also what was to follow after punk, before punk had even happened.
Listening to these seemingly timeless records, I can’t help but speculate on what sort of musical epiphany might occur if these newly unearthed albums struck a chord with the wider population. Would there be a Krautrock revival, something akin to the garage revival we’ve seen rekindled thanks to the Nuggets reissues? It was always said that everyone who heard The Velvet Underground for the first time wanted to form a band. I think everyone who hears Neu! for the first time wants to form a band like Neu!; their limitless horizons point to an aural future-world as yet not fully explored, and still just as alluring now as they were so many years ago.
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