Neu 50

Fifty Years of Motorik Celebrated in ‘Neu! 50!’

Neu! 50! highlights how when Neu! were good, they were great, and when they weren’t great, they had the good taste to be interesting, at the very least.

Neu! 50!
23 September 2022

When people talk about krautrock, they usually refer to one of two things: either the glacial, analog synthesizer and proto-drum box sound of Kraftwerk or the relentless, four-to-the-floor pulsations of Neu! The former is the most widely known of the two versions due to Kraftwerk’s high profile and a smattering of hit singles. Neu!, however, are a rarer beast, and one gets the feeling that hit singles and commercial success would have been greeted with disdain by founder members Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger. So why should anyone care about Neu! 50!, a boxed set that lumps together their four albums with many remixes by contemporary artists? Simply put, you should care because Neu! manage to define an era by making unique music that owes nothing to what surrounded it when that music was being made.

Neu!’s debut self-titled album was released in 1972, but it sounds like it came out yesterday. Or tomorrow. Side one, track one on the record is “Hallogallo”, which might be krautrock‘s “Freebird”. A gently pulsing bassline and a squelchy, wah-wah guitar figure are underpinned by the driving “motorik” drums of Klaus Dinger. Throughout the instrumental’s ten-minute duration, very little changes, but that’s the whole point. Listening to “Hallogallo” is like listening to your heartbeat, which has been somehow seamlessly integrated into a piece of music. It casts a long shadow over the rest of the album and over everything they ever did that followed it. “Negativland” comes fairly close, adding otherworldly textures to a sinister-sounding riff. As debut albums go, this was pretty damn good.

Neu! 2 starts in fine fashion as “Für Immer” picks up where Neu! left off and uncoils beautifully over 11 minutes. The fun starts on side two. Legend has it that the band blew the recording budget on the first few tracks, meaning there was no money to complete the record. So, in a moment of postmodern, dadaist art terrorism, or more likely, desperation, Rother and Dinger remixed their last single, “Neuschnee/Super”, seven times. The tune is played at various speeds, manipulated via a mixing desk, or simply mangled by an off-kilter cassette player. It’s either a powerful statement on the cookie-cutter, production-line model of modern pop or an arty joke. Whatever the motives behind it, it’s a fascinating series of recordings, if a little tricky to dance to.

Neu! ’75 starts in the same vein as the debut. “Isi”, “Seeland”, and “Leb’ Wohl” are graceful, stately pieces, with Rother’s minimal piano playing often taking center stage. The remaining three tracks – side two of the initial release – are a different kettle of fish altogether. Rother helmed side one, but on side two, Dinger was in charge, and he chose to record three pieces that occasionally sounded like Mike Oldfield playing songs by the Sex Pistols. Two drummers clatter away (simultaneously) in a very appealing way, Dinger sings in a proto-punk fashion, and Rother tries to keep up. When rock scholars argue over whether New York or London was the crucible of punk, they really should have had a closer look at Düsseldorf.

The wheels fall off a little by the time we get to Neu! ’86 – the last album in the set. Recorded in the mid-’80s, it’s an unsatisfying attempt to make a commercial, almost techno-pop record. The fact that it remained unreleased until 1995 says a lot about the quality of the project. Very little of what made Neu! so vital is on display here – and collectors beware – the version of the album in this collection is the 2010 release and not the hard-to-get 1995 release. It would have been nice to have had everything included here, but given the bad blood and acrimony around this era of Neu!, I guess it’s a miracle we even get to hear any of it.

Bolted on to Neu! 50! is a collection of remixes by a selection of Neu! acolytes. Like most of these tribute releases, it’s a mixed bag of material, veering from over-reverence to iconoclasm and all points in between. The National‘s version of “Im Glück” is one of the more successful pieces, grafting a gentle, motorik pulse to the original’s minimal approach. On the other hand, Idles‘ treatment of “Negativland” bares almost no relation to the original recording and stretches the concept of a “remix” to its breaking point. Guerilla Toss contribute “Zum Herz” – a Neu!-inspired piece which works really well. Maybe that approach should have been taken by a few more artists contributing to this tribute.

In the 50 years since Neu!’s debut record was released, much of the musical landscape has changed, but somehow their music has driven a straight line from 1972 to 2022. It seems that a playful approach to music composition and a good beat are a guarantee of longevity. When Neu! were good, they were great, and when they weren’t great, they had the good taste to be interesting, at the very least. Neu! 50! is a fine if slightly intimidating starting point to enter their unique world. 

RATING 7 / 10