Michael Rother says he’s not enough of a sociologist to explain the explosion of creativity in German underground music during the early ‘70s, when a host of innovative bands emerged: Kraftwerk, Faust, Amon Duul, Cluster, Can, and Neu!, the duo Rother formed with Klaus Dinger.
“I’m just a musician, but this push to create a new personal identity was everywhere in Germany — in art, cinema, music,” Rother says. “Change was the virus of the times, and it was set loose by the huge disaster of World War II. I don’t want to sound cynical, but there is nothing like a disaster for creating art. The end of Nazi Germany, the reconstruction, the conservative structures that came into place as a reaction to the Nazis, it all came to a head during that time. I was born in1950, and by the time I was 19 my focus was the future. The elder generation, our parents and teachers and government officials, were still in shock from what came before. We wanted a new start, to wipe away everything and start over.”
Little wonder that Neu! tracks such as “Hallogallo,” “Fur Immer,” “Negativland” and the proto-punk “Hero” still sound so immediate, pulsing down an “expressway to your skull,” as Sonic Youth would say, with Dinger’s drums clipping along like cars on the Autobahn while Rother’s guitars darted in and out.
In 1969, Rother was a 19-year-old student in Dusseldorf, Germany, and he’d had enough. There were student uprisings in Paris, Prague and across America, the Vietnam War raged and divided the world, and a legion of young artists, filmmakers and musicians rose to respond. Cliches and conservative ideas were the enemy.
“I grew up playing guitar and imitating musicians like Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles,” Rother says. “But I became frustrated with that because I knew it was a dead end just to recreate the past. I experimented with jazz, but by 1970 I felt completely alone. I was searching for something, and only by chance when I met the members of Kraftwerk in a recording studio did things start to make sense.”
That chance meeting was part of a remarkable era of music in Germany. Rother’s contributions to the German art-rock bands Kraftwerk, Harmonia and, especially, Neu! have reverberated through the decades, an influence on everybody from David Bowie and U2 to Sonic Youth and Stereolab.
For decades, Neu!‘s back catalog has been irregularly available, but now all four of the duo’s albums are collected in a sumptuous, limited-edition vinyl boxed set, “Neu!” (Groenland). (The albums are also available individually as CDs, and those who buy the box will have access to free digital downloads of all the music).
And Rother has assembled a new band that includes Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and the Tall Firs’ Aaron Mullan to perform Neu!‘s music under the name Hallogallo 2010 (Rother’s old Neu! bandmate, Dinger, died in 2008).
For Rother, such acceptance was a long time coming. Neu! was not immediately understood when it debuted in1971. Rother and Dinger created a template in Kraftwerk for what they would do later — a blend of experimental and rock music that did not draw on traditional blues chords or structures. Instead, Rother drew on his childhood influences: the classical and folk music of Central Europe and the trancelike rhythms of Pakistan, where he lived briefly as a child with his family.
“I had ideas about harmonics and melody tied in with this concept of endlessness, this repetition, repetition, repetition,” he says. “That was fascinating to me. When I met Klaus Dinger in Kraftwerk, he blew my mind. I found someone equally determined to do something outside the norm, to upset the norm if need be.”
The duo forged Neu! — which is German for “new” — after departing Kraftwerk and recorded their debut album in four days with producer Conny Plank, the George Martin and Phil Spector of the German avant-garde rolled into one. The tracks were built on a foundation of hypnotic rhythm — dubbed “motorik” by journalists to describe the steady 4/4 beat.
But Dinger’s drum patterns were not metronomic. He played a stripped-down trap kit, emphasizing the snare and hi-hat, with a groove that was speeding up, slowing down, occasionally dropping out completely. Around this minimal rhythm, Rother and Dinger would add tones and textures on various instruments, and Plank would frequently manipulate the sounds by playing the recording tape backward.
“We never discussed the music or putting boxes around it like ‘motorik’ and ‘Krautrock’ — these terms were the inventions of other people attempting to categorize us,” Rother says. He and Dinger “weren’t really friends. But we were excellent collaborators. We would record, listen and then go back and forth like pingpong players, adding things. Everything was done moving forward very quickly. There was a fragility to tracks like ‘Hallogallo,’ where if you took away one element, it would crash. It wasn’t just the beat. It was this combination of elements, the colors that we added, the surprises like the feedback I discovered in the studio that enabled me to record these long notes. Conny took the tape and turned it around, and it suggested all sorts of new melodies to us. We were creating moving pictures with sound.”
The self-titled Neu! debut in 1972 “was a blueprint for a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll with no past and no immediate future, and it was to be seven years before the world caught up if they ever truly did,” wrote Julian Cope, the British psychedelic pop maestro, in his 1995 book “Krautrock Sampler.”
For Mullan, the opportunity to perform Neu!‘s music with one of the musicians who created it is “daunting and wonderful.”
“I probably knew more of the imitators than the originators as a guy working at record stores in the ‘90s,” he says. “But when I finally discovered Neu!, it was like finding the source of so many things, all the postpunk bands, the first Public Image Ltd. record, Echo and the Bunnymen, early U2. When Steve and I started playing with Michael, we’d internalized Neu!‘s music without even knowing it, because it was such an important element in all the bands we grew up listening to.”
For Rother, the idea of becoming “cool” was never part of the plan.
“We never really wanted to be fashionable,” he says. “Exactly the opposite. We learned to concentrate on our own convictions. That’s how we survived. But all this acceptance is making it easier to present my music. There seems to be so much positive response to Neu!‘s music right now. I’m not going to complain about that.”