Ash Ra Tempel - Biography
One of the most defining bands of 1970’s German psychedelic music is also one of the more obscure. Not mentioned often enough in the hurried description of Krautrock along with the usual suspects of Can, Neu!, Faust and Kraftwerk, Ash Ra Tempel deserve to be listed in that deified few. Early recordings find Ash Ra Tempel disassembling the core elements of blues-based rock from the bottom up. Reconfiguring those elements into a roaring beam of liquid sound radiating out and up into the cosmos was the band’s reason for being. And Ash Ra Tempel did it better than almost any other band around.
Guitarist Manuel Göttsching grew up in Berlin listening to The Rolling Stones, Hendrix and The Who. He studied classical guitar from early childhood and when he was sixteen he took lessons in improvisation from Swiss avant-garde composer Thomas Kessler. Friends since they were children, Göttsching and bassist Harmut Enke formed their first band at age fifteen. Only later would the two realize they were on to something serious.
Ash Ra Tempel was founded in the early 70’s after the duo recruited drummer and electronics pioneer Klaus Schulze. The legend goes that the band bought Pink Floyd’s used equipment in London and immediately got to work. Their self-titled debut is a massive monster of a record. Consisting of two lengthy jams of swirling, roaring free-rock mayhem, Ash Ra Tempel (1971 Ohr; reissued 2004 Spalax Music) sounds like if Cream was actually a six piece and had ingested an elephant’s share of LSD, tape rolling. Julian Cope has described this record as “…the power-trio playing as meditational force.” It’s hard to say it any better. All three musicians are at the absolute top of their game on this record, playing with jet engine ferocity and utter abandon. The first track, “Amboss” leaves the rock song’s traditional structure decimated in its wake after dragging it through a cosmic ebb and flow of free-boogie mayhem that descends into blissful electronic feedback drones and back again. The second and final track, “Traummaschine” wallows in a pool of ambient noise, shapeshifting guitar patterns and far-away congas.
Göttsching’s searing blues-inflected leads never sound clichéd. Enke traverses the length of the bass neck, walking the groove with total elasticity. Schulze is in a league of his own on the drums. Sounding like a primitive Rashid Ali bashing tom-toms in a garage rock band playing free jazz, Schulze creates mesmerizingly loose polyrhythms heard very rarely in rock music. It’s a shame then that Schulze left Ash Ra Tempel immediately after the debut record; an even greater shame that he rarely returns to the drum kit, instead focusing on his career as an innovative composer of abstract electronic music. He was working hard on his solo debut, Irrlicht, while the remaining members of his former band wrote their second album.
Schwingungen (1972 Ohr; reissued 2004 Spalax Music) was another massive triumph for Ash Ra Tempel. Boasting thicker production and more electronic textures, the record reaches further into space than the debut. It’s also more varied in tone and structure. The first two tracks feature guest vocalist John L., fired from fellow German psych group Agitation Free for being “too weird.” His vocal delivery is shocking given the date of release. Freakish or visionary or both, his shrieking wail and out of tune slobber predates the obligatory punk vocalist stance by a good five years. It adds a devastating emotional angle to the layered cosmic freakout produced by the band, now augmented by Uil Pop and Wolfgang Muller on drums/percussion and Mathias Wehler on alto sax. Again driven by a loose free rock groove, Schwingungen employs more diverse instrumentation and ambient atmosphere than the debut. By now Ash Ra Tempel were melding minimalism, free jazz, ambience and acidic blues rock into a truly cosmic slop. Schwingungen stands as some of the band’s best music.
The next trajectory of Ash Ra Tempel’s story coincides with LSD-wizard and exiled American ex-pat, Dr. Timothy Leary. Leary had been sprung from jail in America a few years before and landed in Algiers with his wife as a guest/hostage of the Black Panthers. Eventually escaping Algiers with British poet Brian Barritt and his wife, Leary ended up in Switzerland. Befriending a local musician, Leary eventually wound up in Bern. Legendary German music producer Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser took the musicians of Ash Ram Tempel to see Leary in Switzerland. As expected, everyone holed up in a basement, dosed on 7Up-spiked LSD and made music. The result is Ash Ra Tempel’s third record, the amazing and brilliantly deranged Seven Up (1973 Kosmische Kuriere; reissued 1993 Spalax Music).
The new Ash Ra Tempel group, with Göttsching and Enke the core members, but adding two new drummers, an organ player and engineer Dieter Dirks on synthesizers, teamed up with Leary’s crew on vocals. Leary and Barritt take lead on the first long track, riffing on a Zen-idiot blues vamp. Göttsching and Enke followed suit, crafting a free blues boogie that constantly sounds on the verge of collapse. Dirk’s buzzing and gurgling synths and Göttsching’s mind-melting leads vault Leary’s idiot blues clichés into the realm of timeless art. On the second and last track, Göttsching and Enke recycle the chord progression from the best track on Schwingungen to make time stand totally still. Seven Up is one of the greatest psychedelic rock records ever made.
It's fitting that after the chaos of meeting Leary and recording in Switzerland the original lineup of Ash Ra Tempel would reform for one final record. Göttsching and Enke again team with Klaus Schulze for Join Inn (1973 Ohr; reissued 1993 Spalax Music). Again the record features two long tracks, and just like the debut with Schulze the first track is a raging jam and the second a meditational drift study. “Freak n’ Roll” is an amazing blues rhythm workout that sounds like the Velvet’s “Sister Ray” played by a seasoned blues band with no ego and nothing to prove. It's an endless wah-wah groove that would make Neu!’s Michael Rother proud. “Jenseits” rolls in with a claustrophobic Schulze synth drone. Ghostly chords emerge through the fog. Göttsching’s girlfriend Rosi Muller makes her first appearance narrating the story of Ash Ra Tempel meeting Leary. It’s a majestic piece and a fitting end to the last true Ash Ra Tempel record.
After Join Inn Schulze went back to producing spaced out synth records and Enke decided to quit music for good. Göttsching made another record of fairly traditional songs with Rosi Muller and produced solo work under the name Ash Ra Tempel before morphing it to Ashra in the late 70’s.
Although everyone that passed through Ash Ra Tempel could absolutely play, the band remained egoless and willing to work with the deconstruction of songform to achieve its psychedelic goals in the early 70’s. Fueled by a genuine yearning for creating cosmic art and a glowing sense of abandon, Ash Ra Tempel recorded some of the most inventive, spaced out rock of its time.