Music

Einstürzende Neubauten: Kalte Sterne: Early Recordings

Emily Sogn

Einstürzende Neubauten are a force of nature, or, um, a force of industry. The band originated in Berlin as part of Die Geniale Dilletante, an arts collective inspired by the Dadaist arts movement that had reached its boundary-pushing apex in the early years of the second world war.


Einstürzende Neubauten

Kalte Sterne: Early Recordings

Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2004-06-29
UK Release Date: 2004-06-07
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Ours is a musical landscape where record companies, MTV, and other entrepreneurs that traffic in new music need to consume each "next big thing" to survive, like vultures need unguarded carcasses. Therefore, it is inevitable that music movements that begin in earnest become commodified ever quicker, their authors drained of inspiration, the music made repeatable, and packaged with a smile to a throng of listeners with increasingly short attention spans. As a result of this predatory relationship, music genres that were once groundbreaking become hollow categories synonymous with the user-friendly bands that have brought the music to the mainstream. Sum 41 is "punk", Marilyn Manson is "goth", Dashboard Confessional is "emo", A Perfect Circle is "alternative" (a term that has absolutely no meaning in today's musical landscape), and the term "industrial" conjures up an image of stringy haired, dog collared sourpusses humorlessly clanging away on garbage can lids while hissing menacing lyrics over the din.

While many in the originating camp of the former categories are faced with almost unrecognizable parodies of the music they helped invent, German industrial pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten both fit and break the mold that signifies the boundaries of their particular brand of new wave Krautrock. With their notoriously abrasive songs and über-serious persona, they certainly offer plenty of fodder for the cliches that surround industrial noise. Yet somehow they have managed to maintain a substantive grasp on some of the most interesting aspects of industrial noise, even as the genre itself has disintegrated into another musical idea that makes more sense as another niche at Hot Topic than as an active segment of today's music community.

For those unfamiliar with these pioneers, Einstürzende Neubauten are a force of nature, or, um, a force of industry. The band originated in Berlin as part of Die Geniale Dilletante, an arts collective inspired by the Dadaist arts movement that had reached its boundary-pushing apex in the early years of the second world war. Their name translates loosely to "collapsing" or "imploding new buildings" in English and, as their verb-laden name suggests, this band is and always has been all about music as an action. The man credited by fans and critics as being the mastermind behind the band calls himself Blixa Bargeld (he was born Christian Emmerich), and his penchant for aggressive industrial noise and experimental instruments helped propel the band to their status as one of the innovators of what would later be couched in the term "industrial music".

Kalte Sterne consists of 13 tracks of material compiled by Bargeld that were originally recorded in the years 1981 and 1982, before the band released their debut full-length, Kollapse. The record makes clear that these were golden years for the band, when the novelty of their formation made every song resonate with a palpable and furious energy. Additionally, the songs represented on Kalte Sterne represent a unique period in the band's catalog. Despite their brash and confrontational veneer, the compositions on the record are, with very few exceptions, meticulously arranged and performed. Some of the tracks even approach a catchiness and a discernible melodiousness rare for a band that has become so infamous for their violent disregard for such restrictive notions.

As with the music that would later be recorded after the pieces compiled on Kalte Sterne, Blixa and company generously depart from traditional guitar-bass-drums instrumentation. Employing not only unusual instruments like wind chimes, children's toys, and recorded loops of field noise, the band is expert at coaxing interesting sounds from industrial materials and household objects that range from carefully amplified metal springs to power drills and window glass. The band even goes as far as to list a "survival blanket" as a mysterious source of noise on the final track, "Schwartz".

While it is clear that the band was more than willing to sacrifice conventional melody in favor of the more generous realm of the "soundscape" or "noise collage", the real treasures of Kalte Sterne are to be found when the band features its simplest elements, namely Bargeld's ear for the careful arrangement of a constantly changing palate of odd noises and an enormous capacity for restraint. What Einstürzende Neubauten realize that so many band's with similar aesthetics do not is that noise is most effective when it is not used to bludgeon a listener into submission. While many of the sounds that the band uses in their songs are harsh and conventionally "unmusical", the band treats even the most abrasive noise as if it were an integral part of a harmonious symphony.

Album opener "Fuer den Untergang" is an example of the success of the band's painstaking ordering of a variety of unusual sounds. A fierce and sparse track that consists primarily of tribal-sounding drums and Bargeld's voice, which grows in intensity as the song progresses, the song could easily have been drowned by superfluous noise. Instead, the song is allowed to flourish in its simplicity -- occasionally keyboard sounds invade the chant-like melody, along with a menacing slide guitar and a noise made by plucking guitar strings behind the instrument's bridge, a sound now familiarized by its appearance in Nirvana's recently released recording, "You Know You're Right". "Tan-Ze-Dub" gets similarly light-handed treatment, with a composition based almost solely on rhythmic the beating of a tom drum, interlaced throughout with Bargeld's echoey vocals.

"Zuckendes Fleisch" is easily the most approachable song on the record, a buoyant bass line providing more of a structural springboard than the band usually gives their compositions, making an aural connection between this early track and a more melodic contemporary, Bauhaus. "13 Loecher (Leben ist Illegal)" is another song held precariously together by bass rhythms, yet just as the melody begins to cohere, it is quickly laid to waste by the hilarious employment of a power drill (get it? -- it's so industrial!), which covers nearly every other sound with layer of grinding noise.

Though the majority of the songs on Kalte Sterne are similarly spirited, there are a few tracks that fail to make the grade. Most notable of these is the nine-minute opus "Thirsty Animal", which features a raging Lydia Lunch spouting furious verse over droning guitars. Though the song has a few inspired moments, Lunch's rantings are not in top form and the song disintegrates into a mess of morose bass slaps and murky guitar fuzz, while Lunch repeatedly moans the unfortunate refrain, "We'll bring out the leeches / To suck the bloodless" and "Stick it / Stick it / Stick it full of holes". Lunch's scathing solo spoken word albums have historically shown that she is capable of much better than this, and as the rest of Kalte Sterne proves, so are Bargeld and his compatriots.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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