It took a lot of work in the '70s to make music that sounded like it was created entirely by robots. The same could be said for Electri_City.
Electri_City: The Düsseldorf School of Electronic MusicPublisher: Overlook Omnibus
Author: Rudi Esch
Length: 448 pages
Publication date: 2017-03
It seems the ultimate goal in a book about music should be to somehow evoke the era, or the style, or the artist that the book takes as its inspiration. In the case of Electri_City, Rudi Esch's sprawling tome regarding the rise and reach of Düsseldorf as a musical hub, such a goal may have worked against its author.
Düsseldorf is most famously the point of origin for Krautrockers and electronic innovators like Neu!, Kraftwerk, and DAF. Electri_City is a tale of those bands, the members of those bands, and the many bands, artists, and even producers that came into their orbit either through mutual membership or association. The entire story is told through the words of the artists and associates themselves, through what must have been a tremendous number of interviews, emails, and interactions, all arranged into something like a narrative by Rudi Esch. There are extensive quotes from Klaus Dinger, Michael Rother, Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Flür, and many many more names familiar to the late '70s music scene originating in Germany, in addition to occasional commentary and throwaway lines from the luminaries they inspired, like Iggy Pop and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Given the nature of the text, Electri_City carries the cachet of being told by the mouths of those who "were there", while implicitly acknowledging the unreliability of its narrators, often placing the conflicting claims of at-odds parties right next to each other. As Wolfgang Flür dryly quips in the book's foreword, "I am sure that everything told and revealed... constitutes the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."
The problem that comes into play -- and one has to allow that the fact that this book was largely translated from the original German might have something to do with this -- is that the book is dry, dry, dry. The breadth of scope that Esch takes when tackling his material has boxed him into a chronological telling of Düsseldorf's musical history. Each chapter spans a single year. Within each year, we have man after man telling the tale of who was in what band at what time, what they were working on, who they were working on it with, what clubs they were playing, whose house they were staying at, and so on and so forth.
There's very little time for relationships, or inspiration, or even true insight into the most influential songs; Esch has a goal here, and that goal is to be as comprehensive as possible. The details behind the many goings-on are what make them interesting; to gloss over them for the sake of incorporating more content is to miss out on a grand opportunity with these artists.
As alluded to above, however, the construction of the book does share many parallels with the music it covers. Its near-mechanical construction, even as its breadth betrays a fan's love for the music, is vaguely Kraftwerkian in nature; after all, it took a lot of work in the '70s to make music that sounded like it was created entirely by robots. The same could be said for Electri_City, though in this case, there's no analog to the music's steady (and often catchy) beats to ground the proceedings.
Now, to intimate that reading Electri_City is a total drag is a bit unfair. There's an awful lot here that is quite interesting, topics that could probably be expanded into their own books given time and interest. The very early years of Kraftwerk and Neu! are hilariously chaos-ridden, with members switching bands seemingly willy-nilly, even as Kraftwerk settled into the "classic" lineup relatively quickly and Neu! never quite figured out what a "classic" lineup was, except that Klaus Dinger had to be involved (and not surprisingly, he ended up in Kraftwerk for a hot second as well).
Straying a little bit from the music, it's also interesting when politics get involved, as Germany's fall after World War II was still only a couple decades removed from the happenings of Electri_City. There's a cloud that falls over the words of most of the players when the word "Nazi" is as much as whispered; their discomfort with the continued outsider perception of Germans as Nazis is, understandably, palpable.
Of course, a couple of the players here relished it as well, if only (possibly) for provocation's sake. Chrislo Haas, who spent some time with DAF in its early days, said of wearing a military shirt with SS logos and a death's head: "To me it was just another piece of military outfit; not a fascist statement but rather a fashion statement." Chrislo did not last long in the band.
Those already well-versed in the history of the Düsseldorf scene will probably find plenty to love here. By using quotes as nearly the entirety of the book's text, it does provide insight and "horse's mouth" believability to the points of view of the people who defined that scene.
That said, those with just a passing interest in Kraftwerk need not apply. Too dense and dry to be a krautrock-'n'-roll tale, too inconsistent and broad in its targets to be a true reference book, there's nothing here that offers much of anything resembling a point of entry for those who are simply seeking to learn more about a region and/or genre that they know little about. The sheer technical achievement of what Esch has assembled here cannot be overstated; still, there are too many moments where it's too easy to wish he'd narrowed his focus.