If music is often a portrait of the life of the artist, then it may sometimes bear the wounds and scars of the complex nature of human relationships; even at times, of the differences musicians experience working together. If that can lead to albums being abandoned mid-recording, it can also occasionally result in the creation of transcendent pieces of art. Think of ‘The Beatles’ or Spacemen 3’s ‘Recurring'(featured in TNPC #51). But rarely has any album borne witness to this possibility more transparently than ‘Neu! ’75’.
In late 1974, when he entered the studio to record Neu!’s third album, Michael Rother was 23 years old. It is no exaggeration to say that by that stage in his short career, he and Klaus Dinger had already rewritten the future of popular music. They might not have known it, and Rother may even feel faintly embarrassed by the suggestion, but it is virtually impossible to talk about the music Neu! produced in the early 1970s without introducing to the discussion references to the profusion of artists and musicians who have borne their influence directly or indirectly. From contemporaries such as Hawkwind, Eno and of course Bowie, through PiL and Joy Division, to 80s synth bands such as Ultravox (who worked with Neu!’s producer Conny Plank) and The Human League, through to the post-rock landscapes of Stereolab, Tortoise, Mogwai and The Sea & Cake, they can boast legions of admirers.
At its root this was music without a past, and as a consequence, it constructed the future. But buried in its grooves, ‘Neu! ’75’ bore the DNA of the divergent paths Rother and Dinger had taken in the intervening three years since they had last collaborated (on ‘Neu! 2’). Rother had fully immersed himself in his latest project Harmonia (with Cluster’s Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius). It was a project from which Dinger possibly felt excluded. If ultimately Harmonia was a failure on a commercial level, nevertheless it was artistically a tremendously rewarding one for Rother, and something with which he was aesthetically very satisfied. The time with Moebius and Roedelius had not been wasted, nurturing in a period of creative growth, during which his musical horizons expanded immeasurably.
By contrast, during the same period in question, Dinger had travelled to London in order to seek more media exposure for Neu!. With the exception of some additional air play from John Peel, his efforts were largely fruitless. Likewise, his own project, the fledgling Dingerland record label, had collapsed leaving him bankrupt. At the same time his girlfriend Anita (the ‘love of his life’) left him. Disillusioned and filled with rage, Dinger re-entered the studio with Rother to complete together their third LP for Brain, the dreaded contractual obligation album.
It is a schizophrenic creation. Unlike say Bowie’s ‘Low’, where the two sides of the album simply differ stylistically, here we have the two protagonists moving in completely opposite directions, so much so that they compromised on composing one side of music each. Despite this, Rother and Dinger were possessors of sufficient fingerspitzengefühl, alongside a virtually telepathic understanding, enabling them to contribute selflessly to the other’s compositions. For example, Rother plays guitar on Dinger’s ‘Hero’ and Dinger plays keys on ‘Leb Wohl’ perhaps the two songs which capture best their sonic polarisation. Neu! as an entity, could probably not have lasted any longer than it did at the time. The differences, musical and personal were too great to bridge. Dinger was aided in his efforts by Thomas Dinger and Hans Lampe who played drums on his side of the album allowing him to focus on guitar. That the album was as brilliant as it was is truly remarkable given the circumstances.
‘Isi’ / Rother – Michael, enthused by his experiments with Harmonia, procures a crisper and more joyous sound – this possesses a lightness of touch – the simple recurring piano motif – and features a trebly keyboard line which points forward to the electro pop of Depeche Mode and OMD. Musically, clearly a descendant ‘Hallogallo’, but simultaneously dancing into the future.
‘Seeland’/ Rother: there’s a greater emphasis on synths and keys on the album; at times Michael’s guitar creeps back into the shadows. Here however, his brooding, patient playing creates a solemn ghostly sound. Listen to this and then play ‘The Overload’ from ‘Remain In Light’ – Eno was clearly smitten. There’s a (subconscious) Eastern influence too. The track has been criticised for ‘not going anywhere’ but the patient, hypnotic groove is mesmerising as is the inventiveness of the atmospheric wash of guitars.
‘Leb’ Wohl’ / Rother: Rother and Dinger shared a mutual love of natural sounds, but if Dinger was more likely to cultivate an aggressive confrontational noise, some may say proto-punk, then Michael was by the same token proto-ambient. Here the music anticipates the experiments of Eno, Harold Budd and David Toop with a chilled out concoction of ocean sounds and minimalist piano (possibly by Dinger), the whole thing breathing and groaning like the great Aum of existence. And with a title such as Leb’ Wohl’ (‘Farewell’) who knows if it was possibly Rother’s goodbye hymn to Klaus.
‘Hero’ / Dinger: Klaus, raging at providence unleashes a tirade against Anita, the press, the record company and Lord knows who else. “Your only friend is music until your dying day/Your only friend is music/And you’re just another hero riding through the night/Riding through the city, trying to lose your fight…Fuck the press/Fuck your progress, fuck the press/Fuck the company, fuck the company/Your only friend is money.” If it had been released in 1977, it would have made more sense. And more money perhaps. Some say it was the inspiration for Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ but listen to ‘Red Sails’ off Lodger for an even closer comparison. Oh, and listen to Johnny Rotten too, I’m sure his ears must have been seduced by Dinger’s histrionics.
‘E-Musik’ / Dinger: Klaus utilises all that destructive energy, channelling it into the creation of an ‘Autobahn’/ ‘Sister Ray’ hybrid for the 1970s (and possibly the 80s/90s for good measure). The ‘E’ in question does not stand for ecstasy, but for Ernste (so this reads ‘serious music’) – perhaps symptomatic of Klaus’ frustrations at Neu!’s relatively modest critical and commercial standing at the time? [Trainspotter alert: Deerhunter sampled the little keyboard riff at 5:42 for ‘He Would Have Laughed’]. But what really stands out here is the brilliant use of phasing in the percussion – a new and significant development in the Neu! Sound, and the way the rhythm dies off into nothingness at the end, blown away by the wind; providing temporary respite before…
‘After Eight’ / Dinger: Almost their most conventional rock’n’roll moment with Dinger’s guitar revv-ing it up like Manzanera kicking off on ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. Not perhaps entirely representative of Neu!’s sound but a psychotic discharge which provides an aural snapshot of Dinger’s state of mind at the time. (JJ)