Apart from the next two albums I'm going to review in this article, Deluxe is quite possible the greatest Krautrock album of them all..
The Back Catalogue (and story) of Neu! Harmonia, La Düsseldorf, Michael Rother, bits of Cluster, La! Neu?
Before I start, may I make a suggestion? If you want to read more about this very inspiring group of bands, please make the effort to check out Cope's book Krautrocksampler, or the websites devoted to this period and genre, especially the home sites of Michael Rother, Klaus Dinger and Cluster. My article is really concerned with the releases, and because of this there are times when I skip through the (admittedly tangled) history of these artists a tad flippantly. I apologise in advance.
I must also admit that I don't really do early Cluster justice, as they enter this story in 1973 as established and inspiring avant garde artists. I'd check out their entire output if I were you...
An introduction, pre Neu!.. enter Kraftwerk.
A leper's squint of the formative Neu! sound can be found in snatches on the first two Kraftwerk albums. Klaus Dinger plays drums and Michael Rother plays guitar (tho' he's not credited) on K1 and K2, and I always think that the spirit of Stratovarius on K1 is re-invoked on Sonderangebot on Neu! 1. If you can get hold of the CD version of the pre-Kraftwerk Organisation LP, Tonefloat (1970) you will notice an extra track, Vor dem Blauen Bock, a live piece from May 1971 which is almost a Neu! demo. No wonder Ralph Hutter felt that the Kraftwerk blueprint was being ripped up before his eyes. Soon after playing Truckstop Gondolero on German TV, (without Hutter) Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother left to form Neu!. Hutter and Schneider had, in any case, broke away from the old Kraftwerk line up to re-ignite their "remedial" vision with Ralph and Florian (but that's a different story).
Act the First - Neu!
Still, all these glimpses don't really prepare you for the fantastic debut that is Neu! 1. I might be pushing it, but I can't think of a more influential set of music than this album. And I mean that. I can give you a list of bands spawning at least 25 years, from (to give a brief and exemplary list) the Fall, PiL, through Simple Minds and Happy Mondays, through to Blur, Stereolab and Tortoise, who have all "benefited" from listening to this album. Sonic Youth even recorded a song entitled Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu! Nuff said. That dry, upfront, sparse beat pounding on and on... There is still, to my mind, nothing as shocking in yer face and sexy as the opening track, HalloGallo.
Exit Neu!, stage left.
You know that old line about necessity being the mother of invention? Well you have the perfect example in Neu! 2. The story goes that Dinger and Rother tried hard to follow up the success of Neu! 1 by working long and hard in the studio, hoping to give the new LP a lush, even more expansive sound. However, halfway through the album, Dinger and Rother were told that their recording budget was totally used up. With the pressure well and truly on, the pair decided to use two of their tracks, Neuschnee and Super to create a pop-art sound collage for the record's flip side. The results are not an easy listen, with the songs speeding up and slowing down at random. Still, it's weirdly addictive. And very brave.
Neu! split soon after the release.
End of Act One. A brief interlude.
Act the Second; Scene One. Enter Cluster, and the formation of Harmonia.
Pretty freaked out after the Neu!2 debacle, Rother sought solace with pro-ambient artists Cluster, who had, by 1973, made three forward looking and shocking electronic albums, but were themselves looking for a change artistically. The three got on really well, and decided to record together, just as a try out. The initial studio results were so extraordinary, they decided to name their project band after the sound they had made, Harmonia...
Act the Second; Scene Two. Noises in Düsseldorf.
Klaus Dinger, meanwhile, got together what was to be a proto glam-punk band with his brother Thomas and the studio tape op from Neu! Hans Lampe. The band was to be called after his fave place, La Düsseldorf....
End of Act Two. A brief interlude.
Act the Third, Scene One, Harmonia. Musik von Harmonia (1973)
God how I love this album. I can remember exactly where I first heard it, especially the extraordinary opening track, Watussi, so powerful was the impression it made on me. The real killer track is the aptly titled Sehr Kosmisch, a fading, ever pulsating other world of a track, hinting at a world of beauty and fable. Possibly the first true ambient pop album? Very possibly.
Scene two, Harmonia. Deluxe (1975)
And if you thought Musik von Harmonia was good...
Apart from the next two albums I'm going to review in this article, Deluxe is quite possible the greatest Krautrock album of them all. Powerful, graceful, utterly ALL seeing, legendary. It bombed at the time though and is only now being seen as the masterpiece it is. Which is incredible, for Deluxe is about as timeless as music gets. You can't bracket this album as belonging to any time or genre. Tracks like Deluxe, Notre Dame and Kekse are incredibly beautiful. The proto punk of Monza gives a flavour of what was to come the following year.
End of Act Three. A brief interlude.
Act the Fourth, Scene One; the re-birth of Neu!
Sadly, Harmonia didn't sell, and Michael Rother, out on a limb, seems to have patched things up with Klaus Dinger. Certainly both men felt that the Neu! experience had created a lot of unfinished business that had to be attended to somehow. A reunion for a final blast was agreed upon, between prevailing La Düsseldorf and Harmonia recording business.
Scene two, Neu! 75 (1974/5)
I have to lie down, or I'll get palpitations if I'm not careful. Greatest LP of all time? No doubt. No argument. It makes me laugh so much when I hear Mojo, or some other rag claiming the moniker of greatest LP of all time for some 60s fashion LP (Piper, Peppers, Experienced). Bullshit, nothing artistically comes close to Neu! 75. As a piece of music it's up there with Beethoven's Pastoral, or Prokofiev's 4th Symphony. It's that good, and that hard to categorise. But I feel that a little categorisation wouldn't go amiss here, just so you get a clear indication of how good Neu! 75 is. On the one hand it's thee most rock and roll LP ever made, more rock and roll than Little Richard, or Jerry Lee. More beautiful, on the other hand, than, well, anything, ever. You have a hard heart if you don't cry at the beauty of Isi or Leb'Wohl. And you have to admit that it's more punk than any punk (because, lets admit again, Neu! created the punk blueprint in Heroes and After Eight)... Oh, and while we're about it, Neu! invented techno; yep, they did. No arguing. The blueprint is there in E-Musik. This LP is all conquering. Whilst I'm writing this, I'm listening to the ambient CD off Moby's Hotel. (It's good writing music). And I'm sorry Moby, but, good as you are, you have to admit that everything you've ever done, especially the laid back ambient stuff, pales into insignificance when compared to Seeland off Neu! 75.
Buy this album and throw everything else away.
End of Act Four. A brief interlude.
Act the fifth, Brian Eno comes a calling, and the dissolution of Harmonia.
Once Neu! 75 had been finished, Rother and Dinger fled to their respective Düsseldorf and Harmonia camps. In Harmonia's case, excitement was high, even though the band had just decided to split, for the respected British avant garde (and soon to be ambient) artist Brian Eno came a calling. Eno had claimed quite openly that he drew a great deal of inspiration from Cluster and Harmonia. Eno joined the camp and an album of sorts was commenced. It never saw the light of day till 1997, and was released as...
Harmonia 76, Tracks and Traces
I find this the least satisfactory of all the Harmonia albums as Eno's intellectual approach hampers the trademark Harmonia fluidity and playfulness. There are snatches of the sublime though, so it is worth getting, but compared with Deluxe, it's pretty dull. (Postscript yo this 2005 article: Tracks and Traces has been re-released in 2009, under a different name: with extra tracks - and boy do the additional musoic make the LP a much more satisfying listen.)
Eno went on to work with Cluster on the brilliant After the Heat album in 1978, so maybe it wasn't all his fault. Harmonia folded some time in 1976, and Michael Rother pursued a long and eventful solo career.
End of Act Five. A brief interlude.
Act the Sixth, La Düsseldorf; La Düsseldorf (1976)
Meanwhile, over in Dingerland, Klaus had honed La Düsseldorf's sound to perfection and the first La Düsseldorf LP (entitled, appropriately enough, La Düsseldorf) was released in 1976. Klaus Dinger had created the best answer to those who were claiming that he would never do anything better than Neu! with this first lp. Once again, it's a work of utter genius. It's brilliant, majestic, crazy. The opening track, Düsseldorf is so sexy and mantic, it dips and sways and reflects, but it's so on edge. What's even better is the track that follows, a song that shatters any groovy notions you had, La Düsseldorf. It's a punky, very German take on Jerry Lee. Bloody Hell. Oh, and the other tracks, Silver Cloud and Time are so good, they were nicked by just about anyone, most notably Bowie for Low.
Marvellous piece of music.
Scene two, Viva! (1978)
Fantastically up-beat, funny, Utopian, irreverent. I think that's the best way to describe Viva!. Whilst everyone in the US and the UK got all doomy and made dour metallic slabs of whingeing underachievement, (yes, that means you Wire), La Düsseldorf made a brilliant glam punk record. It's so tuneful and life affirming. Dinger seems to have deliberately set out to embarrass the trendy and affected with a very hippy take on life. He really states the obvious on tracks like Gelt (money is the trauma of the world... yep agreed) or Cha Cha 2000, a 20 minute paean to green fields and blue skies and Utopian leaders (we need leaders who love us and don't cheat us, don't cheat us!) Anyone else (and I mean anyone else) could not have carried these ideas so successfully on record. That this LP still sounds convincing and sounding avoids sounding like, say, 10cc or Sailor, is an incredible triumph.
Oh, before I forget, the back cover's got a great picture of Dinger hanging out with a horse, whilst wearing white overalls too.
Scene three, Individuellos (1981)
Actually, this is my favourite LP of the three. Many sages much wiser than me, (Mr Cope for example) rate this as the least successful artistically. Okay I'll ride with that, but I can't think of anything more life-affirming than Menschen (wir sind menschen, menschen, menschen!) or the beautiful Mittel Europa instrumentals of Flashback and Sentimental or the beautiful re-working of Neu!'s Lieber Honing '81. Wonderful.
End of Act Six. A brief interlude
Act the Seventh, Michael Rother solo lps (1976 – present day)
Michael Rother, after leaving Harmonia, quickly got t work on three wonderful LPs in as many years, working with legendary producer Conny Planck and Can's Jaki Liebezeit on drums.
The first Flammende Herzen was effectively the soundtrack to Walter Bockmayer's film of the same name. The album sets the pace for the other two later releases, lots of chiming and beautiful guitar/synth effects and clean, unfussy drumming from Jaki L. Sterntaler followed in 1978 and Katzenmusik in 1979. Katzenmusik is my fave, especially with the track KM 6, a beautiful backwards guitar track, uncannily like the experiments the Stone Roses did 10 years later. Rother was always busy with film music in this period, an example being the soundtrack for Lessings Mina von Barnheim.
Later LPs in the eighties continued a similar theme, albeit more experimental. Fernwaerme in 1982, Lust in 1983, Suessherz und Tiefenschaerfe in 1985, and the pick of the bunch for me, Traumreisen in 1987. The eighth LP Esperanza followed in 1995, and Remember the Great Adventure in 2004.
Busy with sorting out the "difficult" politics over the Neu! and Harmonia re-issues, Rother has re-ignited his partnership with Cluster's Moebius and Rodelius since 1998 playing lots of brilliant live gigs (I know cos I've seen them in action).
For more info check out his website http://www.michaelrother.de/en/
End of Act Seven. A brief interlude
Act the Eighth, Later Dinger stuff (1982 - present day)
I have to be honest and say that I've not kept up with the Late Klaus Dinger's later work, which includes his releases with Rheinate Bella Düsseldorf (Neondian 1985) or his later band, La! Neu? in the 1990s. However, it's all available on Captain Trip recordings, so go and check it out. http://www.md.xaxon.ne.jp/~cpttrip/
Check out also his entertaining website
End of Act Eight. A brief interlude
Act the Ninth, Neu! 4, Lost Stuff & Reissues
To end this story on a slightly disappointed note would be unfair, I suppose, but I have to say that the Neu! reunion in 1986 was a bit of a let down. Neu! 4 is okay, but nowt spectacular by their standards, highlights being the beginning moments when there's a weird take on the German national anthem and the song Crazy which is funny and funky. But you suspect their heart's not in it, really. One for the completists I'm afraid.
Much better (though a much more demanding listen) is the Neu! Live in Düsseldorf May 1972. This is actually a rehearsal recording, and not the greatest sound quality but it is very, very good. You really get a feel of what Neu! were driving at. It's all quite shamanistic, and there's a great bit where the rehearsal dissolves into a slanging match.
And I bet its Dinger screaming "scheisse" here.....