Perfect Sound Forever

MUSIC FOR MIND & PANTS


Photograph: Peter Lindbergh

THE SHOCK OF THE NEU!
by Richard Mason (October 2000)

Did you buy Neu! 4? I did. Forked out big time. Saved up, just like when I was a kid. Got all excited about it too. Still got it? Me neither. Get much in trade? Don't ask. How many times did you play it? If you mean all the way through, didn't even make it once. My loss, but of course. Maybe it'll be duly heralded a 'maligned classic' in years to come; then we can all cast our minds back through the mists of time and have a fucking huge laugh at that dumb English git who just didn't get it. Maybe not. All that can wait anyway. The real deal, and the reason that I'm writing this, is that what we learned and esteemed rock critics care to refer to smugly as the 'proper' Neu! recordings are being officially reissued, at long fucking last.

By the time this article goes up it might even have happened. The last I heard was that they would come out some time in autumn, or, if you must, fall 2000 on the German Gronland label. As far as I know, it's still on the cards. It's hoped by potential investors everywhere that the inimitable original sleeve designs will be adequately reproduced and the sound quality will both represent an improvement on the 'notorious' Germanofen 'bootleg' CD releases and stem the tide of appalling prices being asked for the original Brain and United Artists vinyl by 'specialist dealers.' (Whether or not we'll get any, um, er, bonus tracks or not of course remains to be seen. I doubt it; ever the optimist.)

Before we go any further I'll do you the ultimate discourtesy of reminding you that Neu! was essentially a duo, namely Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother. I'll now trouble you to bear with me while I provide the URLs for their respective homepages:
 

http://www.gawl.de/Dingerland/

http://www.michaelrother.de/
 

And of course please don't let me deter you from dusting off that old binder that you keep in the attic containing your back issues of PSF and completely immersing yourself in our dearly beloved editor's windswept and interesting interview with Michael Rother from March 1998. You can stumble upon this sacred relic at the following URL: http://www.furious.com/perfect/michaelrother.html
 
Perhaps I should have waited and put all that at the end. But I think it's only fair to point out as early as possible that there are two utterly different takes on the whole Neu! thang that emanate from the former protagonists. If you want their versions of how it was you know where to go now. Of course this situation is part of the whole Neu! 'myth' and part of the reason why it's taken so long for the material to be officially re-released. There may even be those twisted individuals who take some kind of bizarre delight in observing the infighting that has characterised the post-history of this group. Rest assured I'm not one of them. You may also take it as read that this piece has been compiled with absolutely no input from either camp whatsoever. I had originally intended to coincide its appearance with the CD reissues, but to be honest I can't wait for that. I'm going to have my say now. Neu! was/is/will be a big deal in the history of 20th. century music. Anyone who claims to know anything about 'good taste' in rock music loves them but why?

There aren't many true originals in any walk of life, let alone in contemporary bleeding music. Let's name some names. Just a few. Edgard Varese. James Brown. Derek Bailey. The Velvet Underground. Jimi Hendrix. Annette Peacock. That's enough. Some of these people proved to be hugely influential sooner or later. Some didn't. I think it's fair to say that Neu!, who are most assuredly not out of place in such a scheme of things in my opinion, fall into the former category. You could spend all afternoon citing the post-punk names who've either acknowledged their debt to Neu! in interviews (more on this soon) or who merely betray the influence through their utterly unprincipled plagiarism. I'll save you the ordeal of another list of names, we all know who they are and half of them aren't worth mentioning anyway. You may recall I finished the last paragraph with a question I've spectacularly avoided answering so far in this one. I know, but I really wanted to get this influence business out of the way. After all, what does it really matter how influential someone proves to be? Does it make their music any better or any worse (or, if you'll forgive the use of the following italicised words, any less vital or essential or groundbreaking - don't you just love those words? Where would we rock scribes be without them? Don't answer thatů) because time has proved it to be 'the anthem of a generation'?

For decades now we've been plagued by sincere artistes who can't wait to tell us what music made them what they are today. I recall in the late 70s when John Lydon, in between inflicting his ludicrously over-rated and pretentious noodlings upon us lesser mortals, often used to honour us with his edicts from on high about what groups we should be 'into' (apart from his, of course) and like the good and faithful sheep we were we went out to our local emporium and bought Tim Buckley and Can and Captain Beefheart and Dr. Alimantado and Peter Hammill and Funkadelic and all the rest. Not that he was the only one, or even the worst. And nowadays you can't get away from it! Everyone in a band wants to tell you who's their favourite band and why and spend an age doing it! And of course they all simply adore Neu! And doesn't it show? Well, yes and no.

Whoever said imitation was the sincerest form of flattery never had to endure any Stereolab records. In case it slipped your attention, all this 'who were your major influences' bollocks well and truly gets my goat. All of this inherited wisdom ethic almost makes me hark back to my teenage years when my mates & I chose the bought records mainly because we liked the covers. This of course resulted in some horrendously misplaced purchasing power on my part (two prime examples that spring to mind are Fruupp and Secret Oyster - in case you don't know their stuff, believe me, you're better off) but then again if it hadn't been for such a policy I never would have heard Nuggets or Honey by the Ohio Players. I digress.

So why were Neu! so great? One reason for me is that their music was so simple, so natural and so easy to listen to and absorb. This might sound a bit of an odd thing to say. But for me it's true. Each of their pieces creates a mood so unique and evocative that you're drawn in and stimulated on different levels, which is obviously part of what they had in mind, hence the whole 'music for mind and pants' business. And it's so easy to enjoy their music; it's so emotive in many different ways, the icy melancholy of "Weissensee" and "Leb'wohl," the tranquil yet sinister brooding of "Im Gluck," the rage and spleen of "Negativland," "Hero" and "After Eight" and of course the irrepressible driving motorik (whatever the fuck that means) of "Fur Immer," "Isi" and "Hallogallo." If you take the music apart and look at it bit by bit it soon becomes apparent how simplistic the music is, not just because of the harmonic modality in some cases but also due to the basic nature of the arrangement and instrumentation.

I hope nobody thinks my use of the word 'simplistic' is intended in a derogatory sense. Far from it. One of Neu!'s primary attributes for me is their ability to know when to stop, when to say 'enough is enough'. Given the infamous history of Neu! 2 this may often in part have been a circumstantial necessity but I suspect not always; just as they were looking for the antithesis of the prevailing trend for messy detailed opulence in the record covers of the time with their glaring colours and advertising style logo (I'll refrain from all references to 'pop-art' as I haven't got a clue what that really means), they also sought a healthy and streamlined alternative to the aural malaise and overkill of the 'progressive rock' (and indeed some of the so-called 'Krautrock') that was their immediate contemporary. The music always seemed to be built up from a basic framework within the constraints of the individual tracks until the desired effect or ambience was realised - then stop. Such restraint is indeed rare in rock music, and this surely has a lot to do with why Neu! created such an impression at the time.

In considering the level of 'musicianship' you need to take into consideration the fact that a very different approach was being taken from most of the competition. They saw no value in technical virtuosity if it added nothing to the music. Even in the more uptempo tracks that most obviously resembled traditional rock or pop, the over-riding factor was the creation of a 'feel,' an individual ambience. This is where the melodic genius of Neu! came to bear. Their talent for harnessing exquisite strands of melody and matching them to a compatible rhythmic or other type of framework (perhaps most perfectly realised on Side 1 of the original Neu! '75 LP) was phenomenal.

There is almost an innocence (aural, rather than moral) about some of their recorded output; like their German contemporaries Cluster and Kraftwerk, their ability to balance sugar-coated melodies upon a rhythmic fulcrum and create a truly uplifting feel is beyond debate. Yet they could also produce some of the most chilling and threatening music around; the violent, almost psychotic sound of tracks such as "Negativland" and "Hero" has not only an edge but also a total lack of theatricality about it that sets it apart from, say the Stooges or heavy metal. There is an immediacy that negates their tradition; the absence of 'riffs', the lack of 'distance' from the listener, the sheer rawness of the methodology - all these factors set them apart from other 'influential' musics of the time. The vocals, an oft neglected aspect of Neu!'s music, exemplify this aspect quite clearly; the demystification of the singing process in order to get the emotive point most forcibly and honestly made. The pure desperation and dejection of the vocal on "Lieber Honig" and the crazed anger and rage of the vocal on "Hero" are two sides of the same coin. For me Neu! was always about the expression of emotions far more than the execution of ideas, hence in part at least the simplicity and immediacy of the music.

Indeed, experimentation, the leap in the aural dark, constantly outweighed the carrying out of any preconceived musical plan. The part played in this by Conny Plank is impossible to underestimate. From what we can gather, his close relationship with Neu!, his constant encouragement of their ideas, his enthusiasm for trying something different, his astute balancing and assuaging of the two very differing personalities and approaches in the group without compromising the overall sound and his utter artistic integrity was little short of vital in the realization of these recordings. And that doesn't even begin to cover his technical expertise as a producer, a factor so key in making these records as good as they were that it really merits some kind of investigation of Plank's career as a whole by someone with far greater knowledge of record production techniques than myself. But the clarity with which he rendered Neu!'s music, the separation he achieved between the voices and individual instruments (and, as a direct consequence, the space he created in the music, a vital factor in its power of evocation) and the depth and resonance of the sound he gave to those voices and instruments is clearly evident throughout.

Plank's role in the assemblage of the LP's must also surely be seen as crucial. And here we come to a recurring bugbear about the whole Neu! saga. How, I hear people say time and time again, can a group be regarded so highly when one-third of their recorded output was cobbled together on cassette recorders and as a result of slowed down and/or speeded up tapes? It isn't even a proper LP! Oh, really? Roll over Karlheinz Stockhausen and tell John Oswald the news. Then again, there are people who don't question the legitimacy of the method, but find Neu! 2 pales by comparison with the other LP's. I don't subscribe to that view. There's something quite liberating about hearing "Super" at three different speeds, and besides the LP is so firmly imprinted into my memory banks now it's impossible for me to imagine 'what might have been,' which I reckon is the key factor for a lot of peoples' objections to this LP. The sheer eccentricity and inventiveness of Neu! 2 for me enables it to take its place in the canon without a murmur of discontent; it may not be the one I play most but I couldn't ever rank it lower than, or even separately from, the other two LP's.

And of course those other 2 LP's have a considerable level of design about them; compare "Weissensee" and "Im Gluck" on Neu!, as well as the beginning and end of side 2 of the vinyl, and then "Hero" and "After Eight" on Neu! '75 for evidence of this. It's plain that Neu! saw each record like a work of art; I don't mean that in the usual 'pretentious rock musicians with ideas above their station' sense of the phrase but as a sincere observation on their way of working, to see each of the recordings as a separate entity with a peculiar structure and individual characteristics. Yet the packaging was clearly intended to show each record as having the corporate blueprint and (by now) immediately identifiable way of working and sounding. I feel sure somehow that Conny Plank's involvement in the musical side of this was of paramount importance; his presence and influence must have been a truly liberating factor in both the execution and molding of the music.

I can't let this section pass without inserting my own particular foible of praise; Conny Plank produced my favourite crash cymbal sound of all time on Neu! But of course it's his ability to let the humanity of this music shine through any technological considerations that enabled the records to sound they way they do. I really hope that they are not, if you'll pardon the expression, 'digitally remastered' or arsed about with in any other fashion upon their re-release; for me at least and I suspect for many other s too it would be a total travesty of the superb achievement of Conny Plank if they were 'brought up to speed with the 21st century' seemingly for the sake of it as seems to happen so often with re-released material these days. Caveat fucking emptor if they are.

Of course, chickens should not be counted with regard to all this. I wouldn't be colossally surprised, given the past history of all this (and there's plenty of it) if the reissues fell through and we were all once more to be indebted (pun intended) to the mysterious moguls of Gemanofen, they of the P.O. box in Luxembourg infamy. Stranger things have happened. But even if it hasn't happened by the time you're reading this, even if it doesn't actually happen at all, this group and the music they made are worthy of celebration and acknowledgement. As long I have a working record player I'll play my increasingly worn and crackly United Artists original LP's till I can't play them any more. Admittedly, I have played them more than usual as a result of wanting to write this piece; I also went to the length of recording all three onto cassettes so I could play them on my Walkman whilst riding my bicycle to and from work each day. You can't imagine what an uplifting feeling it is to cycle home on a sunny June afternoon through the park in central Oxford with "Isi" blasting forth in both ears. It may sound like a completely fatuous observation, but for me Neu!'s music is both stimulating and relaxing, like a nice cup of tea. Like that of Michael Hurley, their music keeps me sane and makes me smile. It works on a variety of levels; I always wanted to see how a dancefloor would react to Hallogallo or Fur Immer; I'm sure now there are establishments where such a phenomenon might be observed. 'Music for mind and pants' indeed.

For me, Neu! are one of the greatest bands ever, transcending as they do musical boundaries and listeners' levels of expectation in a way precious few other artists have done before or since. And yes, of course, yawn yawn, their degree of influence on their successors in rock's rich tapestry is such that it's practically impossible to evaluate, we all know that, don't we, yes. And of course I'm no better. All my ranting on earlier about how crap this whole influences malarkey is was just a smokescreen to try and cover up my own feelings of inadequacy about having been such a mindless sheep and just gone and done what some big flash rock star told me to do, i.e. go and buy a Neu! record. Yep, guilty as charged. Fact of the matter is, officer, I confess, the reason I bought the first Neu! LP was because it had a sleevenote by Dave Brock of Hawkwind, for me at the time the very zenith of cool and wonder. (The degree of influence that Hawkwind's patronage had on the U.K.'s reaction to several of the German groups in the 1970s got is another story altogether; another time, perhaps.) So I'm no better than anyone else. But isn't that always the way with your rock critic? Don't hold it against me. Just go off and buy those Neu! CD's if and when they appear. You'll be doing yourself a favour, whether you're hearing this extraordinary music for the first time or, like me, replacing old vinyl that's seen better days. Whichever it is, remember to utilize both mind and pants.


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