Neu! - Biography
Assessing Neu!’s music at this point in the band’s history seems both daunting and redundant; redundant to again use the words “visionary” or “legendary,” though they are both totally appropriate; and daunting to tackle the enormously vast degree of influence Neu!’s art has come to have on so much music made after. Indeed truly visionary, the work of guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger moved in its own unique direction, far away from the trends of art-rock or prog-rock at the time. In doing so it predated several genres worth of music that immediately followed the band’s existence, and continues to inform today’s artists. In fact, the cultural tremors made by Neu! have gone so deep the shock of the influence is almost subliminal.
“Neu! was born in a royal shitstorm, live on German TV, on a bizarre night in August 1971.” Julian Cope goes on to say, in his book Krautrocksampler, how appropriately weird it is that the very first Neu! songs were played for a TV audience under the name of Kraftwerk. Before becoming the towering computerized man-machine Kraftwerk is now known as, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider made experimental rock music. After recording the excellent Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2 in the early 1970’s, the duo was trying to morph into the next stage of the band. Before that happened Hutter and Schneider asked Rother and Dinger to join up. The new members immediately hijacked the show. Rother and Dinger pushed the sound into a totally new and raw direction that the Kraftwerk duo had not intended. The story goes that the live TV spot was already booked and the band had to perform. Hutter was so against it that he didn’t even show up. So although the group name for the TV session was Kraftwerk, the band is essentially the as yet unnamed Neu! with Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider jamming along.
Rother and Dinger immediately split from Kraftwerk and righteously christened themselves Neu! (“new” in German). They were soon in a Hamburg studio in the company of legendary producer Conrad Plank, who has worked with almost every star in the German art-rock scene of the 70’s, from Kraftwerk to Can to Ash Ra Tempel. Neu! immediately set to work, making the record in a mere four days. Self-titled and brandishing a shockingly simple pop art sleeve, Neu! (1972 Brain; reissued 2001 Astralwerks) is still a revelation. Taking cues from the early John Cale-led Velvet Underground records, the duo forged a chugging minimal groove that took “Sister Ray” out of the New York gutter and shot her head first into the stratosphere.
Neu! begins with the band’s signature track, “Hallogallo.” The sound is instantly new and totally confident in its aesthetic intent. A simple motorik beat, steadily no-frills and almost completely devoid of variation, sets the pace with a chugging wah-wah stomp and a simple guitar melody. Rother’s soaring lead lines hover over the rhythm, with distorted blasts of feedback pushing the song along. It's absolutely hypnotic, a supreme blending of avant-garde dissonance and minimalism with pure garage rock catchiness. And that is the formula for Neu!’s utter brilliance. The band would explore every angle of this combination during its short career, setting the standard for the accessible art-rock band for decades to come.
“Hallogallo” fades into the eerie ambience of “Sonderangebot.” Warped cymbal drones, far away falsetto vocals, tape hiss and random sound effects make the rock groove of the opening track seem like a forgotten memory. It's as avant-garde as anything, but taken in the whole of the record makes perfect sense and serves as a bridge into the slow throb of “Weissensee.” On this track another super-simple drum part serves as the bedrock for some of Rother’s best guitar playing. “Im Gluck” follows with recordings of swishing water, a bowed bass drone, and a blissfully loose guitar melody. Brian Eno must have spent some time listening to this track before recording his ambient classic, On Land.
Obviously fans of jarring juxtapositions, Neu! leave the droning bliss of “Im Gluck” for the album’s most aggressive track, “Negativland.” Opening with what sounds like a jackhammer followed by processed screaming vocals, the song soon descends into a bass driven proto-punk jam with a fierce Dinger drum part. Acidic mid-range guitar noise spews over the top, panning in all directions at once. It ebbs and rises several times before simply cutting dead out. It’s so punk rock, and in 1972, years before that game had even started.
The album ends with yet another surprise. “Lieber Honig” begins with a simple and sweet clean guitar progression. Nothing too shocking, but then the most crazed vocal enters. Not crazed loud, but so soft and close-miked you can hear Dinger’s lips smack. His voice is so out of tune, so raspy and cracking and so forward in the mix its' like he’s drooling on your shoulder. It’s amazing, completely disarming, totally wrong and absolutely beautiful. Drones and more gurgling water sounds bubble underneath before fading into quiet field recordings. Neu! is arguably the best record the band ever made, just blindingly better than any of the bloated prog-rock pomp being made at the time. The sound is so simple, weaving dissonant noise into pure groove and melodic beauty. It’s an outstanding record, a true classic.
What’s more, the record sold well. But after its surprise success, the group was under intense pressure to produce a follow up. After a short tour and a single, Super/Neuschnee (1972 Brain), the band headed back into the studio with Plank to begin the second record. The story has it that while in the studio the group was told its budget had collapsed and it had to cut the studio time in half. The label was still demanding the record and the group had to scramble to finish and present something on time. They had only had time enough to record the first half. The duo came up with a solution to the problem; they would include the two tracks from the single, and use those tracks as the source material for an audio cut-up collage to complete the second half. Neu! 2 (1973 Brain; reissued 2001 Astralwerks) is an excellent record, but a little less great than Neu!’s debut.
Neu! 2 begins with “Fur Immer,” another classic Neu! groove riding on a one-chord pulse for eleven blissful minutes. It’s similar in feel to “Hallogallo” but with more variation in the tone and texture of the overdubbed guitar parts. The next several tracks focus on ambience and noise, with cavernous drums and disembodied voices floating to the surface. Then comes “Lila Engel,” another stupendous proto-punk romp featuring searing blasts of distortion from Rother and a totally caveman wordless vocal chant that’s as catchy as any pop tune. Then the record dives into tape manipulations of the single tracks, played at various speeds and looped and chopped into new forms. When the original recordings of “Neuschnee” and “Super” do appear, it’s a relief. Both are classic Neu! jams, and “Neuschnee” has one of the band’s most memorable melodies. Although an undeniable classic, the record leaves you wishing the band had more time to produce its vision in full.
So Neu! 2 was delivered on time and on budget, but the pressure proved too much for Rother and the duo split directly after. Both musicians wasted no time in starting new projects. In 1974 Rother was immediately in the studio with Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster, recording elegant ambient electro-rock under the name Harmonia. Dinger was also slowly making designs on what would become his new outlet, the amazingly brilliant minimal punk party that is La Düsseldorf. But that wouldn’t happen before Neu! had its short-lived reunion.
In December of 1974, Rother and Dinger lamented the way the recording sessions for Neu! 2 had turned out and decided to record one more album as Neu! Evidently the two never really saw eye to eye, arguing frequently over the band’s entire career. Neu! 75 (1975 Brain; reissued 2001 Astralwerks) is a testament to that claim. The record is squarely split in two halves. The first half belongs to Rother. “Isi” is possibly the most direct Neu! statement after “Hallogallo.” Driven by a classic motorik Dinger beat aided by pulsing rhythm guitar, Rother spins some of the most melodic music Neu! made. Haunting piano and a lead synth line slide the song into beautiful territory. “Seeland” and “Leb’ Wohl” follow, both standing as Neu!’s most confident slower music. A heavenly lead guitar, anchored by a repetitive bass melody and rising clouds of distortion, dominates “Seeland.” Recordings of rain give way to piano flourishes and the sounds of incoming tide introducing “Leb’ Wohl”’s quiet piano motif, clockwork woodblock and slurred vocal. The restrained beauty of these three songs mark the direction Rother would take on his solo records.
The door-blasting entrance of “Hero” comes as a total shock, announcing Dinger’s presence in no uncertain terms. The song begins with shuffling tom-tom heavy drums, ragged rhythm guitar and slobbering chanted vocals. And it sticks to that for a full seven minutes of protracted garage punk. “E-Musik,” with its slap delayed drums and shimmering electronics, sounds like an electronic version of punk, or maybe a punk version of Rother’s Harmonia. Then there’s the closer, “After Eight.” Shorter than “Hero” and with a more deranged vocal and even simpler guitar part, this song is pure punk rock at least two years ahead of time. The influence the latter half of Neu! 75 — and the three La Düsseldorf records to come — had on the Sex Pistols and British punk in general is absolutely irrefutable. Neu! was, as always, way ahead of its time.
And that was basically it for Neu! Rother made one more genius Harmonia album, Deluxe, and started a long solo career under his given name that continues today. Dinger started La Düsseldorf and inspired both David Bowie and Johnny Rotten in the late 70’s. Sadly, Klaus Dinger passed away due to heart failure on March 21, 2008.
Neu! in its prime sounded like nothing else. Rother’s brilliantly melodic guitar and Dinger’s super-economical yet extremely propulsive drumming combined with primitive electronics and noisy tape manipulation to create a singular sound. It was the sound of experimental musicians mutating the most basic elements of rock and roll, adding tripped out textures to a pre-punk garage pulse. This approach would go on to define the best German art-rock of the 70’s, and hugely influence the emergence of American and especially British punk rock, which changed the pop music landscape as we know it.