Faust - Biography
In the 1970s, the experimental rock band was Faust. Rival groups Can and Neu! may have defined the signature motorik beat of Krautrock, but Faust embodied its spirit. Welding together a coarse pastiche of mechanized clangor, musique concrete, whimsical pop, and maximal and minimal rock, they were able, for a very long time, to exclusively claim a vast terrain of experimental music as their own. The entire 80s-era industrial genre owes them a debt, starting with Einsturzende Neubauten, yet few of the bands that followed them were able to duplicate Faust’s cavalier exuberance, conceptual aggression, dizzying breadth, or drug-soaked élan.
Add to that bushels and bushels of mystique. Their records were some of the best ever designed. Band photos were non-existent. Their formation was the stuff of avant-rock legend, and they didn’t break up so much as vanish. They were one of the most difficult, challenging groups of all time, yet their executive producer was Richard Branson. Yes, that Richard Branson. Due to mysterious legalities, those impeccably designed records were impossible to find. And, thanks to the heady nature of the late 60s and early 70s, even today the surviving members are unclear as to some of the more pertinent details.
Faust was formed in the spirit, if not the actual year, of 1968, and it retained an anarchic verve from beginning to end. We know this much: The band spent their days on a farm outside of a town called Wumme, in rural Germany. In the farmhouse, they had a relatively sophisticated recording studio, financed by a major record label, Polydor. They also had a house engineer, Kurt Graupner, and a somewhat famous producer, Uwe Nettlebeck. It was in this peculiar setting, surrounded also by girls, dogs, dope, wine, very little clothing, and even fewer rules, that Faust ran amok.
The original line-up: Werner “Zappi” Diermaier, drums; Hans-Joachim Irmler, organ; Arnulf Meifert, drums; Jean-Herve Peron, bass; Rudolf Sosna, guitar and keyboards; Gunter Wüsthoff, synthesizer and saxophone. It seems like the formation of the band was, in large part, the product of collusion between Nettlebeck and forces at the label. Nettlebeck went to his grave refusing to discuss the band, as did some members; others, still living, are also insistently mum. Nevertheless, if the label was looking to place a group of musicians in a creative ferment, then receive a far-out “hit” for the burgeoning freak market, one can only smile when imagining the response once the conceptually intoxicated masters were finally delivered.
But maybe the corporate folks loved it — they certainly spent a bunch of money on it. The thing that is immediately, instantaneously striking about Faust’s self-titled debut LP, Faust (1971 Polydor) is the design. It sets a standard for art direction and graphic design that is still impressive after nearly four decades. The record is entirely transparent: a clear vinyl disk; a clear 12” insert, with silk-screened text; a clear vinyl jacket is also silk-screened. It depicts, in black, the band’s name, and now-notorious logo — an x-ray image of a hand making a fist (“faust” in German). The design really does merit a paragraph of its own.
Then there’s the music. It starts with a blast of white noise, name-checks the Stones and Beatles — and then it gets really weird. It’s a record that is everywhere, all at once. First, in the track “Why Don’t You Eat Carrots,” they have a brass section, staggering, trying to keep up with a group chant that turns into a call and response, which, according to an Internet search (I can’t understand any of it, German or English) goes something like this:
Slow goes the goose
You see me shoes in your mirror mind
Quick goes the trick
I ask your sick sailing sailor’s blind
I travel into the tongue
Ready to drop
Ding-dong is handsome top
Okay. Then it all starts to compete with a slow, repetitive electronic strain that refuses to stop interrupting and vies for dominance. Elsewhere, “Meadow Meal” alternates between sheer atonal plink-plunk as the outside and inside of a piano are attacked simultaneously. Abruptly there are loud rattles and shakers. Just as abruptly, there is delicate, accomplished acoustic guitar work in what feels to be a song, until members bark instead of sing the words. What could be heavily distorted, reverb—soaked electric guitar enters at random. The entire record is like that. If Faust strikes one note, or mood, or texture, it immediately cancels it out with its diametric opposite, often at the same time.
A number of things make this, improbably, work. First, it’s not the lyrics, which are (1) better described as vocalizing, and (2) complete gibberish. The band has a great feel for texture. Rudolf Sosna was noted for building a variety of bizarre organs and homemade synthesizers, and these give Faust’s recordings a nice, prominent degree of electronic grit — and definitely place Faust head and shoulders above some of the lesser competition in the generally dubious free-form freak-out crowd.
Most crucial to this and subsequent Faust LPs is the editing. The first record has an ebb and flow within large washes of sound, more so than subsequent LPs, but beneath the crudity of individual tracks in the multi-track mix, as well as in the linear flow of the assembled music itself, there is a deft, self-accomplished hand at work. Each Faust record is, in many ways, an expertly assembled musique-concrete composition, flying beneath the radar by its use of rock instrumentation.
(This brings up a subject that has long been discussed in conspiratorial whispers. Namely, the reason incoherent source material was always rendered into such a coherent mix, is that the group functioned on two levels, i.e., the band recorded willy-nilly, but a single person assumed the responsibility of assembling, mixing, and editing the final product. Presumably that would have been Kurt Graupner, the recording engineer, but we’ll never know for certain.)
Things became slightly more conventional on the band’s follow-up, So Far (1972 Polydor). Songs are peeking through the conceptual fog, although “vignettes” might be more appropriate. The immediate standout is “It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl,” which is arguably the band’s most famous — or rather, notorious — track. The beat, while brisk, is completely metronomic. There. Is. No. Vari-ation. Guitars join in, keeping the same rhythm, but playing a single note, over and over and over. More guitars pile on. Saxophone and organ. Still just a single note. Through it all, the band happily (really — they sound cheery) sings:
It’s a rainy day
It’s a rainy day
It’s a rainy day
It’s a rainy day
The next track, “On the Way to Abumae,” starts with a blast of dissonant synth, before unexpectedly introducing classically-tinged guitar in lightly repeating themes; it is eventually joined by what sounds like a flute. So Far really shows Faust at their best with “Mamie Is Blue.” Those nasty homemade keys of Sosna come in loud and vicious, sounding like an amplified, 40-foot warthog, before the track grinds its way to damaged, distorted guitar solos. “Picnic on a Frozen River” has noodly horn improvisations. All told, it’s a more focused record than Faust, although the packaging is again lovely: black on black this time, with a folio of art prints.
The focus narrows even more on the next LP, their biggest seller by far, The Faust Tapes (1973 Virgin). Richard Branson, owner of Virgin, the band’s new label, decided to try a novel approach to promote the band: He wrapped the LP in Faust-themed newsprint and sold it for 50 pence, the price of a single (about a dollar). It worked, sort of — the LP reportedly sold 100,000 copies, but only broke even financially. Still, it was the UK public’s introduction to the band, and a flood of other German bands soon filled the record shops. British music journalists coined the term “Krautrock,” and it stuck.
It was also good timing: The Faust Tapes is the band’s most accessible and arguably best record. Good, aggressive, rock-ist gestures are in abundance; most of the songs are untitled and very short, allowing Faust to hit on a good idea, then not wear out its welcome. One exception is “J'ai Mal Aux Dents” (also often known as “Schempal Buddah”). Clocking in at 7:14, it has a great, looped beat by Zappi, and squealing, distorto fretwork that would fit right in on anything by the great punk/Sci-Fi band Chrome. Which is to say, Faust was, as always, ahead of its time.
Also around this time, members of the band backed Tony Conrad on his first LP, Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973 Virgin). Primarily Conrad’s record, Peron, Zappi, and Sosna’s efforts deserve a mention. The rhythm section kept a ruthlessly steady beat for Conrad, and Sosna’s swirling, mesmerizing keyboards are a wonderful addition, especially on the bonus tracks made available when the disk was released on CD in the 2000s. The original LP was completely ignored in the 70s, but is now considered a classic.
Faust’s final “official” record is Faust IV (1974 Virgin). As usual, the cover is arch — nothing but blank tablature. The record is, again, consistently excellent, and tracks like “Jennifer” blend a mature combination of fine songwriting (the lyrics have finally started to come around) and avant bluster.
Then the band broke up, and seemed to evaporate into history. A number of LPs of overlapping outtakes were released, and in the late 70s and early 80s the Faust torch was carried single-handedly by Chris Cutler (of Henry Cow fame), whose label Recommended Records did its modest, socialistic best to keep old titles in print, whenever possible.
In the early 1990s, the reunion bug bit — well, it bit the rhythm section, at least. Jean-Herve Peron and Werner “Zappi” Diermaier reformed the band and started playing shows as Faust, initially to much excitement. Some mediocre live CDs were released, Faust Concerts Vols. I & II (1993 Table of the Elements), and the two toured the US for the first time, backed by guitarist Stephen Wray Lobdell, and supported on the bills by Japan’s Keiji Haino, and Gate, a.k.a. New Zealand’s Michael Morley.
This led to the first new studio CD in 20 years. One of the first CDs produced by future Grammy winner Jim O’Rourke, Rien (1995 Table of the Elements) showed promise and received critical gush from the likes of Rolling Stone, Spin, and The New York Times, but much of that may be attributable to O’Rourke’s behind-the-scenes studio machinations.
The group then welcomed Hans-Joachim Irmler back into the fold, but any expectations that he would bolster the “Faustness” of the new band soon disintegrated. The band promptly split into two factions — Peron on one side, Irmler on the other, with Diermaier switching allegiances between the two — both bands performing under the diminished moniker of “Faust,” with a fluctuating array of collaborators.
Both versions of Faust continue to tour, and combined they have released dozens of home-cooked CDs and DVDs. Meanwhile, the original records remain elusive. Chris Cutler, as dutifully devoted as ever, did the band’s legacy an immeasurably profound service by producing and releasing Faust: The Wümme Years (2000 ReR Megacorp). It’s a lovingly assembled boxed set, containing the first three original records, plus scads of relevant bonus material, including some outstanding sessions for the BBC.
Sadly, you can probably guess the punchline: The Wümme Years, too, is now out of print. So, soldier on, go out, and search for it anyway. Heck, look for the original vinyl while you’re at it. If you find it, buy it and you’ll be glad. An awful lot of today’s “cutting edge” acts can’t hold a candle to the Kleig light of Faust.