Amon Düül II - Biography
Amon Düül II was one of a handful of bands that defined German rock music in the early 1970s and helped to shape the genre now commonly known as Krautrock. Their musical style, especially on their early releases, was influential to the progressive rock bands that followed and the band became a touchstone of fans of adventurous music for years to come.
Amon (from the Egyptian sun god) Düül (a character from Turkish fiction), was a revolutionary musical and political commune set up in the later part of the 1960s by a loose group of bohemian German intellectuals in West Berlin. The commune, part of the international anti-war movement, was created with the goals of protesting, living an alternative lifestyle, and playing experimental music. The original Amon Düül I was an informal group that got together and jammed on seemingly endless percussion-heavy psychedelic freak-outs. Several albums were released by this group, most culled from a single recording session in 1969. A few members of the commune had higher aspirations for their music and had the musical skills to carry them off. Rather than forming a band with a different name, it was decided that the new band would be called Amon Düül II, signaling their connection with the commune and the original group. Founding members of the new band included multi-instrumentalist Chris Karrer, guitarist and vocalist John Weinzierl, vocalist Renate Knaup-Kroetenschwanz, keyboardist Falk Rogner, and drummer/percussionist Peter Leopold.
In 1969, the new band released their first album, Phallus Dei (Repertoire Records), which, along with Can’s early output, signaled a new era and style in German rock that is now usually termed Krautrock. The title of the album literally means “God’s Penis” in Latin, a move surely meant to be controversial and provocative. The album is a psychedelic stew of long, jamming songs with weird vocalizing, rumbling bass, echoed-out guitars, organs, and Mellotrons riding over the top of standard percussion work. For the time, the album must have seemed like a revolutionary break from the schlocky German retreads of popular English and American trends, or the overly poppy post-oom-pah-pah music.
Amon Düül II continued their exploration of psychedelia and wide-screen space rock with their next album, 1970’s Yeti (Liberty Records), an album many fans of Krautrock and kosmische musik (German space rock) consider to be one of the band’s crowning achievements. Yeti was released as a double album; the first record shows the band to be adept at relatively shorter structured progressive rock songs and the second album highlights the band’s roots in improvisational space jams. In fact, the whole first side of the original vinyl issue of the second record of Yeti was a long, continuous improvisation clocking in at over 18 minutes! The album shows the band’s versatility, veering from blues-derived grooves to acoustic medieval-sounding instrumentation to a stab at merging opera with rock. Yeti has an epic, almost gothic feel that Phallus Dei is missing, an sound helped by the emergence of the distinctive vocals of Knaup-Kroetenschwanz as an integral part of the band’s sound.
The group stayed on a highly creative arc and released another double album in 1971, Tanz der Lemminge (United Artists), or “Dance of the Lemmings” in English. The album is similar to Yeti in that the band devotes the first record in the set to more composed rock songs, while the second record is given over to longer, more drawn-out compositions. However, Tanz shows less reliance on the electric guitar, a move that allows different instrumentation — such as percussion, acoustic instruments, synthesizers, and Indian instruments — to color the sound and make the band’s palette richer. Tanz also differs from Yeti in that Knaup-Kroetenschwanz was not involved with the project, leaving vocal duties to Karrer and Weinzierl.
1972 brought more activity and another album, this time a standard single album called Carnival in Babylon (United Artists), which again featured Knaup-Kroetenschwanz on vocals. The album is more straight-ahead than the previous releases, possibly due to the shorter length, and the reliance on guitar is more pronounced than on Tanz. However, the band was still at the forefront of space-rock bands and Carnival in Babylon kept the heavy, nearly gothic driving feel of their earlier efforts. Following Carnival In Babylon, Amon Düül II released Wolf City (1972 United Artists) later that same year. The band continued in the path carved by Carnival in Babylon, seeming to want to appeal its growing audience in the English-speaking countries of Great Britain and the United States where the band was becoming legendary in the underground for its driving psychedelic/progressive sound, warped song titles, and sense of humor (a trait noticeably missing from most of its progressive rock brethren). The band continued using its wide palette of influences, including adding Indian musicians to the track “Wie der Wind am Ende Einer Strasse.”
It seems as if the group sensed it was burning a creative candle that would snuff out at some point. The pace of their recorded output in their first years seems feverish. By 1973, the band, having been together only four years, released their sixth album, Vive la Trance (Mantra). The album continues with shorter, more concise songs, though no less quirky or stylistically diverse. Karrer’s saxophone and violin playing are especially featured amongst the now-usual stew of guitar, bass, percussion, vocals, and keyboards. Also in 1973, several members of Amon Düül II contributed to an album put together by band members Olaf Kubler and Lothar Meid called Utopia (Gestrichen). Originally released under the group name Utopia, the album was re-released under the name Amon Düül II in subsequent years. The feel of the album is similar to Wolf City, showing a great deal of the band’s diverse sound, but the songs are trimmed down into shorter, more easily digestible lengths.
By 1974’s Hijack (Castle), Amon Düül II had transformed into a slicker, more polished progressive rock band, shedding a lot of the uniqueness they had been known for. Hijack does have a few highlights however, including a cover of the Ornette Coleman composition “Lonely Woman,” done in a tango style with Knaup-Kroetenschwanz vocals atop Latin rhythms accompanied by synthesizer and piano. 1974 also saw the release of a live album, Live in London (United Artists), which documents a performance in front of a highly enthusiastic crowd during December of 1972. Most of the material on the album is drawn from the albums Yeti and Tanz der Lemminge, and the band had definitely risen to the occasion of trying to blow away the British audience with a tight, energetic performance. The album also shows how much the band had changed in the intervening two years, arguably not for the better.
Amon Düül II’s next album, Made in Germany (SPV), was released in 1975. By this point, the band had pretty much left behind their original psychedelic, space rock sound and was making obvious moves to appeal to a wider audience. Made in Germany originally came out in two versions — a double album and an edited single disc version. The album is a mish-mash of AD II’s influences, including anything from tangos to straight-up guitar rock to folk-influenced tunes. The album’s concept deals with subjects uniquely German, from the cover art referencing Marlene Dietrich in her role from the film The Blue Angel to lyrics dealing with King Ludwig II of Bavaria. After the release of Made In Germany, line-up changes were made in the group. Singer Knaup-Kroetenschwanz departed and they acquired two new members, bassist/guitarist/singer Klaus Ebert and guitarist/keyboardist/singer Stefan Zauner. The new version of Amon Düül II recorded the next album, Pyragony X (Nova), released in 1976. The addition of the two new members did not give the band a shot in the arm, but rather pushed the band towards ever-more bland compositions that were clearly geared towards a more generic audience. The group seemed to be losing its original intent and soul. This lineup of the band, along with new vocalist Claudja Barry, recorded an ironically titled live album in 1977, Almost Alive...And Looking Fine (Nova), before moving on to record what would be the band’s swan song of their first era, 1978’s Only Human (Castle). By this time, Amon Düül II was flirting with straight-ahead middle-of-the-road rock, pop, and even disco in a vain attempt to find their footing as a group. Soon after the release of the album, Amon Düül II broke up.
Guitarist Weinzierl moved to Britain in the years after Amon Düül II and formed the side band Amon Düül UK with original AD II bassist Dave Anderson. The new group recorded two albums in the early 1980s before Wienzierl returned to Germany in 1981. Once back in Germany, he reunited with several of his AD II colleagues to record Vortex (1981 Castle). The album mines the style of Vive la Trance and was welcomed as a return to form by the band’s fans. The reformation, however, was short lived and the band broke up again.
Over the years, Amon Düül II became somewhat legendary, especially on the strength of their early material. Nothing was heard from the band until 1995, when many of the original members reunited and recorded the album Nada Moonshine (Mystic). The album was a definite throwback to the style the band had cultivated in their early 1970’s eclectic heyday, while absorbing the more modern influences of techno and Hip-Hop into their sound. The album is also a return to the concept album form the band had flirted with a few times, this time dealing with the writings of author Carlos Casteneda. Amon Düül II remained active for a couple more years, eventually releasing a live album of a performance in Tokyo from April of 1996 as Live In Tokyo (2007 Mystic). Soon after, Amon Düül II split and the intervening years have shown no signs of the band working together again.