WE MUST FORGIVE OTHERS for the terrible things they do, especially when love brings them to the brink. If you have never seen the first Neu! album, you might find yourself babbling about this music. “It’s so peaceful and lively, and it’s noisy, but in this benevolent way, and all these things happen, even if it’s mostly just drums and guitar,” and then you get so excited that you say, “This is Real Krautrock,” even though you’re not sure if you should use that phrase, but you’ve heard other people say it, and what exactly are you comparing it to? And then you call the drumming “motorik” because it’s so driving and stable and funny, like cars, because cars are funny. You are forgiven.
In December 1971, guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger continued the work they had begun together as members of Kraftwerk and recorded an album in Hamburg with producer Conny Plank. They followed in Windrose, a rental studio, and mixed in a studio of a publisher in Hamburg who got publishing rights in exchange for the trio’s time there. “It turned out that was a really good deal — for the publisher,” Rother told me.
What the three did on this album made for bits of Stereolab, Sonic Youth and the Fall, as well as different variations of ambient music. For years, however, writers have said a lot about the beat, which is usually referred to as motorik. The drumming is only one aspect of the music, but it is its own beast. Dinger’s beat is a constant pulse of eighth notes played on the kick, with the snares falling on the third and seventh beats: more kicks than you expect, but snares exactly where you want them. What you don’t expect is how little it changes and how comfortable it is. In Dinger’s hands and feet, this is a hard, repetitive motion that softens, more like the pulse of blood than like gears spinning. This music is slightly slower than disco and was faster than most rock released in 1972 when the first Neu! album came out in Germany.
Oscillators ring, guitars give feedback, machines chug along, people chug like machines.
“In the ’70s, we never gave names to the ideas behind our music,” Rother told me. “’Clouds’ were what Klaus and I called the melodies I recorded on top of our base recordings, like in ‘Hallogallo’. That was probably the only description we used in 1972. All other descriptions, such as ‘long Gerade‘ [long straight]— came up much later, probably in the ’90s, when Klaus was interviewed and used them to describe our idea of heading to the horizon.”
Those “clouds” can be guitar chords that repeat as steadily as the drums, but float without suggesting any particular direction. Other times, Rother creates a sustained tone, a kind of contrail that allows the guitar to mean “guitar,” although it’s close enough in timbre to a synthesizer to suggest a more complex electronic intervention. “I had very basic equipment,” Rother said. “I had a standard fuzz box, which I had for years before. I had a wah pedal and I had a speaker box. On the first album, those really long notes were feedback that I just processed.” Over the course of three albums, with a difficult fourth finally completed, Neu! made a kind of unrock that is both wired and soft, clear and upright in its logic, but loose and free in its execution. It’s a body of work that obliterates the idea of persona and rock stars – except, big footnote here, for “Hero,” where Klaus Dinger steps into the mic and almost invents punk rock in 1975. The number of ideas in the first three Neu! albums still has the ability to instill fear. The duo shattered after the Nah! 75 record, but still managed to record the fourth in 1986. After some illegitimate releases initiated by Dinger, Nah! ’86 was later restored by Rother for a box set released in 2010. Rother has refined the clouds again for As long as the lighta new collaboration album with Vittoria Maccabruni that nicely compresses the dream work.
Grönland has all the Neu! albums and a series of new tributes for a large fifty-year-old box set packaged in an orange-and-white version of the Neu! logo. That image, Dinger’s idea, was inspired by the most common sticker in German supermarkets, which read NEW. “I understand that the cover of Nah! was mainly an attempt to stand out from the covers of other bands in the shop windows,” Rother told me. “Klaus seems to have said sometime in the ’90s that he saw the cover design as a critique of consumerism.”
Dinger passed away in 2008, so we can’t ask him, but there’s a buzz with other things going on in Dusseldorf. In 1963, Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg organized their legendary “Living with Pop” in a furniture store in Düsseldorf. The performance involved placing items already in the store on white pedestals and then on benches (which were also on pedestals). in a art forum In an interview from 2014, gallery owner René Block described this as “a mirror of petit-bourgeois behaviour, but more as a kind of parody than an attack”. This ties in with the Neu! aesthetic, which seems hugely modern without being political in any particular sense.
Dinger had been recruited by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider for the first version of Kraftwerk in 1970, when the flute was as prominent as synthesizers and the band had not yet become robots. You can hear Dinger on the first album attributed to Kraftwerk, from 1970, on a song called ‘Von Himmel Hoch’. At the same time, Rother was serving in a psychiatric hospital and fulfilling his obligation as a conscientious objector to compulsory service in the Bundeswehr. After convincing a military tribunal that he did not want to use a weapon – “They pointed out that I could not convince them of my theories about peaceful international politics,” he added – Rother had chosen the psychiatric hospital near Düsseldorf because he was interested in psychology and wanted to stay close to home and his girlfriend. He served there for eighteen months.
“There was another objector who worked with me at the hospital,” Rother said. “He was also a guitarist, and he had an invitation to do some recordings, so he asked me to join him. I didn’t know the band, but luckily I decided to go to the Kraftwerk studio and ended up jamming with Ralf Hütter.” A version of Kraftwerk starring Schneider, Dinger and Rother – but not Hütter, who went back to school – lasted six months. About twenty minutes of music was recorded for a second album and then scrapped. “I have some memories of what we played and I may even have a cassette tape somewhere, but I’m pretty sure music history can do without those recordings,” Rother said.
The easiest to find document of this lineup is “Rückstossgondoliero”, a “spontaneous” composition recorded for the German TV show Beat Club in May 1971. Rother sits at a table with his guitar, where he is confronted by an amplifier, an echo unit, a small bell and a tuning fork, which he uses for ‘a sliding effect’. Schneider also sits and directs his flute and violin through various devices. Wearing a white tunic with dark sunglasses, Dinger rides off on the drums with occasional quiet forays into cymbal work. In contrast, Rother and Schneider produce cycling figures that never fall into the blues scale, nor do they attempt to create an obvious narrative flow.
If there’s one thing that set the “Krautrock” cohort apart, it was respect for machines as they are. Oscillators ring, guitars give feedback, machines chug along, people chug like machines. It wasn’t the machines to blame – it was humans who intervened in their unnatural natural flow. In New! music, sounds and machines are given all the space they need to simply be themselves without making concessions to singing form or language. It may seem “jammy” if you feel compelled to view improvisation as somehow contrary to form. Over time, this open approach has come to play a much more central role in music than the pop hits of the time.
“Klaus and I were almost 100 percent in agreement about music,” Rother said. “But our personalities were really very different from each other. A person like Klaus could never have been a friend, and we fought outside the studio, but never inside. When we were making music, I agreed with what Klaus was doing. . . . We both loved what the other was doing.”
In 1973, when Rother had already appeared in both Kraftwerk and Neu! he helped form Harmonia with Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius van Cluster. Their five albums, one recorded with Brian Eno, are another block of luminous detachment and played no small part in Eno’s own conception of ambient music. (Rother was also invited to play on Bowie’s “Heroes,” but the collaboration never materialized, apparently due to the interference of several managers.) After Harmonia broke up in the summer of 1976, Rother began recording solo albums. albums. The first four of these were made with Can’s drummer Jaki Liebezeit, who describes Rother (accurately) as a magician. Before the 1970s were over, Rother had worked with an unusual number of the most important people in German rock. He’s Krautrock’s Nile Rodgers – a term Rother didn’t like at first.
“It must have been in the ’90s,” Rother said, “when I was in Australia and New York and I thought, OK, this nasty term is applied to this large family of musicians, but it’s meant in a respectful way. This wasn’t quite clear at first, you know?” The combination of spaciousness and clear, deliberate frugality is why people are kissing over “Krautrock”, and it’s not least Neu!’s fault. Their music feels both necessary and much of what has been going on for years anyway. People want a vibe and they want a trustworthy, hard-won identity. You can spend some time with Neu! or listen to it like goddamn Sherlock Holmes. The choice is yours.
Sasha Frere Jones is a musician and writer living in the East Village. He recently completed earliera memoir.