Music and life are full of strange and streaming coincidences. On first hearing a band you might feel totally disconnected from their music. But years later you’ll interface so completely, come back to it with so much heart and congruity, that the music will just click into place. The music stays the same, waiting, while we (so fickle and changing) eventually return to it with news eyes and ears. At least, this is an effect of quality music, the kind that doesn’t age.
I had such an experience with Neu! recently, a band with a neat trinity of albums that happened to come my way in various records stores in a matter of days. These minimalist rockers were active from about 1971 to 1975, and put out a handful of albums that are now finding larger purchase on CD. It seems like a general German revival has been underway, with fierce namedrops from the likes of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and many hard-to-get reissues made available by the Astralwerks label. The musical scene of ‘70s Germany has rebirthed, its discs finding greater connection with people who come to things late, like me. Or, as the cynics might say, whose context has only now become hip and accessible. And strangely, even though the music is nearly 30 years old, Neu! still sounds illuminatingly contemporary. It still sounds completely of our time; vitally connected with the experience of living in bright cities and automated culture and hyper-modernity.
My first connection with Neu! was more than 10 years ago in a dank record store in Sydney, Australia called RedEye. RedEye had a charmingly cheesy section of music called “Krautrock”, where the punkishly simple Neu! covers nestled with Can, Faust, and Die Toten Hosen (or, The Dead Pants, for the seriously nutty German fans). I’d read about the punkish place Neu! held in the pre/post/proto punk scene of Europe in magazines that like to lampoon their mechanised rhythms and stoner grooves.
Much later, after having explored the Can oeuvre essential listening for anyone interested in understanding acute musical interplay and group dynamics, I thought to explore the other bands and plug into the broader musical mindset of the time. Admittedly, Neu! played second fiddle to the sheer chemical magic of Can; Neu! seemed little more than an interesting historical footnote to the major musical event. But there’s freedom in that particularity; and the band’s historical context turned out to be far more connected and familial than anticipated. All the musicians of Neu! played and collaborated directly or in interestingly single-degree measures of separation, solidifying the scene and sound. That said, the live power of Can (as seen on the recent Can DVD had much in common with Neu!: straight-up rhythm, lock-tight grooves with colour and drive. Neu! excel at straight rhythm.
It takes a certain amount of courage to play almost only rhythm, to make it a defined sound and put it out as a finished record (and for the album Neu!2 this meant mixing and cutting two songs to stretch the full 40 minutes). Obviously the scene around you builds sufficient context for this to happen. But with Neu! there’s a special residue, a hint of the right intelligence that shows itself right from track one. It’s not just the mechanised rhythm played on real instruments, but the trace of real human elevation that comes from repetition. The by-product is somehow more than a bunch of guys (actually, former Kraftwerk-members), who sound like they could be frustrated mechanics with instruments, trying to emulate the dry perfection of a drum machine. They create a kind of near-improvised rolling-rhythm groove that sounds humanely robotic, or poetically rhythmic. Brian Eno called the Neu! beat one of the three great rhythms of the ‘70s along with (Nigerian) Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat and James Brown’s Funk. Neu! simply called it “motorik”.
The important thing is that it still sounds incredibly fresh today. Despite the mechanised and mass-produced pop music that surrounds us the beat-perfectibility of Pro Tools in techno, boy bands, and R&B everywhere, when listening (or looking) through Neu!, it sounds like this computer perfectibility has taken precedence over the more humane and limited perfectibility of music made with instruments and an open attitude to greater musical space. The contrast becomes pointedly apparent. Don’t get me wrong I love songs and great vocals as much as the next pop fan. But when it comes to driving rhythm and getting away from the conservatism of the pop song form, there’s nothing like a crash diet of Neu! to clear one’s head. And it makes for fantastic driving music, thoroughly complementary to covering distances on straight roads or in driving rain or empty streets at night for the sheer love of it. I mean, music is transportation after all, and this little window of German instrumental music has the wide-open road at its heart. Nothing else sounds so much like driving, like the passage of blurred or streaming vistas seen through fast moving windows. It’s a synergy of blur and crisp crystalline perfection in sound.
Because not much is happening besides rhythm and the ambience of rhythm, Neu!‘s music is suggestive of so much at once: a drive through endless and symmetric urban landscapes, or a discussion about the clean lines of modern German architecture (Ziss building is like ze autobahn, ja?) or a tonal lens with which to view the strange times we live in, for a poetics of mobility several generations after Kerouac’s On The Road. Oddly contemporary then as now. Refreshing. Neu! is well worth rediscovering.
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