Neu! 2 is one of those rare albums that challenges the very notion of music itself. It scrutinizes the concept of the album, the relationship between the artist and the listener, the producer and the consumer, as well as making the very notion of originality extremely dubious.
In Krautrock/art-rock circles, the story of Neu! 2 is pretty well known. Neu! was formed in 1973 in Düsseldorf, Germany. Multi-instrumentalists Michael Rother (bass, guitar, keyboards) and Klaus Dinger (guitar, drums, keyboards, vocals) left an early formation of what was to become the most famous Krautrock band, Kraftwerk, dissatisfied with the band’s movement toward an entirely electronic sound (for the best example, listen to their classic “Autobahn”). Rother and Dinger wanted to pursue a more minimalist guitar experiment. Hence, Neu! was born.
Neu! recorded their eponymous 1972 debut in four days, and despite the album’s simplicity in terms of both melodies and rhythms, it sold extremely well in West Germany. When they went into the studio in 1973 to record Neu! 2, however, Rother and Dinger ran out of money after recording only a few tracks. Ergo, the bizarreness of Neu! 2. Desperate to get a full-length LP into the stores, Neu! remixed the existing songs at different speeds, resulting, for example, with three versions of both “Super”: along with the normal speed version, we are treated to alternate versions of the same track, simply sped up to 78 rpms (“Super 78”) and slowed down to 16 rpms (“Super 16”). The effect is startling and unsettling-much like the films of Ed Wood, the famed ‘worst director of all time’, these cheap, hastily thrown together tracks leave you wondering if these guys are really serious.
The tracks originally recorded for Neu! 2, however, are wonderful. The meat of the album is the 11-minute driving instrumental, “Für Immer [Forever]”. A straight, dry drumbeat consistently chugs along as two clean guitars intertwine with a lightly droning keyboard. As the track progresses, new keyboards glide gently in and out and minimalist lead guitars rise and fade. The effect is something like the Velvet Underground under a warm blanket of synthesizers. “Neuschnee” also stands out, opening with plucked strings ringing out starkly, giving way to another driving instrumental, driven less by thumping guitars than a sublimely beautiful lead guitar ran through so many processors and effects pedals as to sound like a distorted synthesizer.
“Super”, the album’s closer, is nothing short of a time warp: instead of it being 1973, you could swear it was 1977. “Super” is a driving proto-punk guitar swirl, showing us what the Sex Pistols and the Ramones would sound like at their most daring and weird moments. In Dinger’s warped and effected snarls and screams, you hear a prototype for the “Oy! Oy!” of the Ramones later in the decade. And while we’re in the time machine, Dinger’s wailing and desperate gasps and indecipherable yelps on “Lila Engel [Lilac Angel]” are pure Thom Yorke-lilting, delicate, and amazingly affecting.
For all of the sparse greatness of these tracks, however, the fact remains that Neu! 2 is a joke. Not only is the band’s name (which means “New” in German) laughable in it’s tongue-in-cheek over-enthusiasm (an exclamation point?!?), but the cover of Neu! 2 barely qualifies as a cover at all. Over a stark white background, the word “Neu!” is written diagonally in gray in front of a crudely spray-painted bright fluorescent pink ‘2’. Not only did they not have the money to put together enough songs for an album, it also seems they did not have enough money to even attempt making a presentable album cover. And while you can rationalize the “remixes” till you’re blue in the face, they are not “remixes” at all-they are jokes. To play a record at 78 rpms and call it a remix is to throw the whole idea of remixing out the window.
So why do we remember Neu! today? Why are they valorized by such diverse artists as David Bowie, Brian Eno, Sonic Youth, Pere Ubu, Stereolab, and Radiohead? Precisely because of their practical joking. To dismantle the structures of rock and start fresh, you need jokers like Neu! to create music so unabashedly ridiculous and bizarre as to make the notion of “serious” rock a joke. To get some place new, you have to make the values of the past seem ridiculous. Isn’t all really great rock, after all, just a joke? What about “Louie, Louie”, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, the Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look up The Number)”, or the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”? As great as they are, all of these are jokes.
What all of these artists did in their levity and glee was to push the limits of what “serious” fans would consider art. When an album like Neu! 2 can be re-released by Astralwerks and be heralded as a trailblazing visionary work that never got its proper due, the responsibility lays not on Neu! but on us. They were just bored musicians in a studio making funny sounds — we actually consume those sounds. So when Neu! simply fills in an album with the most ridiculous Ed Wood tactics and get away with it, what does that say about music listeners? When does minimalism give way to pure laziness (or, in this case, poverty)? Are we so enlightened that we can find beauty and meaning in Neu!’s silliness? Or are we simply pretentious fops, heralding anything bizarre as genius, losing all critical insight and some degree of objective evaluation? Neu! 2 is not a great album, but it is amazingly provocative and challenging. It pushes rock to its breaking point.
Is this an album? Is this music? Is this art? I certainly don’t know. But then again, I don’t think Neu! knows either, which is what is so thrilling.