The Swarm

April 04, 2008

Mike Rubin: Neu!: Hinter Der Musik: Extended Remix version

TDS Editors

Most of the obituaries of the recently deceased Krautrock pioneer Klaus Dinger were conspicuously absent of all but the most boilerplate information about the former Kraftwerk, Neu!, and La Dusseldorf member, which, given Dinger’s crucial musical contributions, remarkably colorful biography, and, um, “challenging personality” (as the Gröneland Records press release announcing his death so delicately worded it) constituted a historical omission which only compounded the sadness of his passing. To correct this imbalance, we turned to writer and friend-of-the-Swarm Mike Rubin, who actually visited the idiosyncratic and press-shy German artist at his Dusseldorf home in 2001 while researching a SPIN story on the long-awaited rerelease of Neu!‘s albums on CD, allowing us to offer to our readers a Daily Swarm exclusive: the extended-length remix of Rubin’s 2001 article, presented here for the very first time.

Neu!: Hinter Der Musik by Mike Rubin

Michael Rother’s living room is virtually Neu!-free. In the tidy Hamburg apartment the guitarist calls home during the winter months, there’s a couple of Frida Kahlo reproductions on the wall, some artist monographs about Magritte and Delaunnay on a bookshelf, but no rock memorabilia to speak of. Although Roland and KORG keyboards are clustered around the computer on which Rother handles the business for his Random Records label, the imprint through which he distributes CDs of the nine solo albums he’s released since 1977, there are otherwise few traces of his 30-plus years as one of Germany’s most legendary musicians.

The only evidence, in fact, of Rother’s membership in Neu!—the band that influenced artists like David Bowie and Brian Eno, bands like PiL, Sonic Youth, and Stereolab, and genres from punk to post-rock to house and techno—are two thick binders on the dining room table. Inside each are a small sampling of Rother’s collection of documents relating to the decade-long struggle to get the three original Neu! albums recorded between 1971 and 1975 officially released on compact disc, mostly scores of faxes from his former partner in Neu!, drummer Klaus Dinger. At the top of the pile is Dinger’s response to a Neu!-related business query, faxed to several parties who had been seeking his feedback. Across the page in huge letters, Dinger has crudely scrawled “IHR KONTT MICH MIT AN ARSE LEKEN.” Rough translation: “LICK MY ASS.”

As such missives make plain, Rother and Dinger are trapped in one of pop music’s most dysfunctional relationships, a bitter case of he-said/he-said in which the pair seemingly cannot agree on anything save the seminal importance of their three albums of largely instrumental progressive rock. Despite their differences, the sound that they created—a groovy, minimal, throb that jacked the fuzzed-out drone of the Velvet Underground and hotwired it for a sunny Sunday drive on the Autobahn, memorably described by Dinger as “music for mind and pants”—remains as timeless today as it was three decades ago. While Rother’s guitar contributed both shimmering melodic sunbursts and jagged shards of feedback crackle, Dinger was responsible for the group’s hypnotic, compelling 4/4 beat—often referred to as “motorik” because of its sonic similarity to the sensation of driving—a triumph of German engineering that’s one of pop music’s most essential, insinuating pulses. “We were with eyes fixed on the horizon,” says Rother of the band’s trademark forward-chugging surge. “That was of course the feeling that we wanted to create: going on forever, or flying a long flight, or just running, running, running.”

It’s mid-April and Rother should be ecstatic by the imminent Astralwerks/Gröneland re-release of his landmark work, out-of-print for decades and never really available in the United States, but thanks to the pair’s ongoing dispute there’s still plenty of technicalities to be ironed out and Rother is at the end of his rope. He tries to smile bravely but he’s noticeably exhausted, the frustration carving deep creases around the 50-year-old’s grey-blue-green eyes. “These days,” he says with a heavy sigh,waving wearily at the binders across the room, “I start to wonder if I am even a musician at all anymore.”

Like its capitalist cousins who had tamed Hitler’s war machine, West Germany was not exempt from the upheaval of the late 1960s. The dissent sweeping Europe was compounded in Germany by the younger generation’s desire to exorcise the ghosts of the nation’s Nazi past, and the sentiment against U.S. imperialism wasn’t reserved solely for the Vietnam War but also the American and British pop music omnipresent in West Germany thanks to Armed Forces radio.

Even given such turmoil—what Rother describes as “a virus of new ideas”—it’s still remarkable just how radical the Germans’ take on sex und drogen und rock und roll was. Traditional pop song structure was out, and in its place was an increasingly freeform, often improvised psychedelic squall. Some groups experimented with electronics (like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Cluster), others flirted with acid-damaged freakouts or cathartic noise (such as Amon Duul I and II, Ash Ra Tempel, and Faust), and still others applied avant-garde academic theory like the former Stockhausen disciples in Can. Although there was no unifying element to any of these bands’ approaches besides their long-distance country code, that didn’t stop the always tactful British press, perhaps with the sound of blitzing Stukas still ringing in their ears, from terming their music “krautrock.” “There was this growing feeling of change being necessary in all areas of political, social, and cultural life,” recalls Rother over a coffee at an outdoor cafe in Hamburg on the banks of the Elbe River, “and this also included music. It made it necessary to create your own ideas, to drop the heroes I had grown up with, to drop all of that in the most radical way and go back to sort of zero—to be aware of avoiding cliches, avoiding the repetition of something some other artist had already developed.”

In 1971 psychology student Rother was at a political demonstration in Dusseldorf when a friend invited him to a jam session with a band called Kraftwerk, then still more man than machine. There that day, along with Kraftwerk founders Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, was Klaus Dinger, a Dusseldorf native who had recently played drums on Kraftwerk’s debut album after abandoning his studies in architecture. The session went well, and when Hutter quit the group a short while later, Schneider and Dinger tapped Rother to join. The trio toured extensively, crisscrossing Germany in Schneider’s van—“Florian drove like a lunatic,” remembers Rother, “I was really terrified”—and wowing crowds with their intense live performances, which often left Dinger dripping blood thanks to a jagged cymbal. “The basic idea mostly was start slowly and calmly and end up beating everything like an orgasm,” says Rother of Kraftwerk’s live approach. “It was sexy—it was sex, I think.”

Unfortunately, the only existing documentation of the trio’s stint together are a couple of concert bootlegs and some fuzzy video footage of their appearance on the German TV show Beat Club, though they actually recorded some material for what would have been Kraftwerk’s second album. Rother remembers incredible hostility between Dinger and Schneider, although Dinger claims that it was Schneider and Rother who quarrelled. Regardless, after six months with Kraftwerk, Dinger and Rother decided to strike out on their own (Ralf would soon rejoin Florian and Kraftwerk would go on to revolutionize music with their Autobahn album).

The pair settled on the name “Neu!,” meaning “New!,”, then (as now) the most popular word in advertising. Their debut album’s simple graphics—the word “NEU!” emblazoned in bold day-glo letters on a solid background—evoked pop art in its blunt appropriation of marketing hype; the rock version of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can, its rudimentary visual assault anticipated punk’s graphic violence and was a welcome antidote to the faeries, goblins, and other fauna overpopulating other album covers of the period. Credit for the cover art has become a major sticking point in the Neu!-gotiations; both men agree that Dinger was most instrumental in the band’s packaging, but the work was attributed simply to “Neu!” and Rother prefers not to monkey with the wording of the original credits now.

Rother and Dinger recorded their debut album with now-legendary producer Conny Plank in just four nights, with the music more or less improvised on the spot. For “Hallogallo” (which provided the blueprint for Stereolab’s grand theft motorik) Plank recorded Rother’s guitar, played it backwards, and then taped Rother responding to what he heard, while the careening distortion effects on “Negativland” anticipated the feedback pyrotechnics of Sonic Youth (who paid homage to Neu! by titling a song “Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu!” on their 1988 Ciccone Youth project). Plank also served as a skillful mediator between Dinger and Rother. “At that early time,” recalls Rother, “our problems weren’t the way they have become over the last ten years, but we were never friends. We were always opposite characters. That is the magic of Neu!: one of the reasons why Neu! is probably so hard to understand and so special is because these two worlds meet that usually cannot.”

The album was a surprise underground hit, especially in Britain, thanks to support from the BBC’s John Peel. Expanding their studio palette from eight to 16 tracks, the recording of Neu! 2 went much less smoothly and the duo soon discovered they had expended their entire budget on just the first side. Out of what Rother calls “pure desperation,” the pair resorted to drastic experiments in order to finish the rest of the album in just one day. Dinger had the idea to take a scratchy copy of the band’s “Super”/ “Neuschnee” single and record it at 16 and 78 rpm, sometimes deliberately knocking into the turntable as the seven-inch was spinning. “Hallo Excentrico!” consists of Dinger holding his finger on the tape player to slow it down, the sound of the tape being rewound, and control room chatter, while for “Cassetto” Rother played side one’s “Fur Immer” on a dying cassette recorder, giving the music a stuttering, rubbery bounce.

The result was arguably pop music’s very first remix album, but the record was drubbed by critics and Rother was sufficiently disturbed by the experience that when he traveled out to the Weserbergland countryside near Hanover to visit the duo Cluster, he never came back. Striking up an instant musical rapport with Cluster’s Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, and becoming enchanted with the medieval farmhouse in which they lived and recorded—“It is a little bit magic” says Moebius of the area’s pastoral natural splendor—Rother immediately packed his bags and moved from Dusseldorf into their compound in the small town of Forst, where he still lives most of the year.

Under the name Harmonia, Rother, Roedelius, and Moebius recorded two albums of mellifluous electronics, 1974’s Musik Von Harmonia and 1975’s Deluxe, and caught the ear of ambient music pioneer Brian Eno, who described them then as “the most important band in the world” and even joined the group for some recordings. Unlike Neu!, who were never able to successfully translate their studio work to the stage, with Harmonia Rother finally enjoyed performing live. “I discovered that I liked the music that we did more than Neu!,” admits Rother. “I completely fell in love with everything we did.We communicated in a way that was not possible with Klaus and me.”

But Neu! still contractually owed their label a third album, so the pair met again to record Neu! 75. The melodic sense Rother had sharpened with Harmonia suffuses the lilting “Isi” and “Seeland,” while Dinger reveals his alienation in the aggressive “Hero” and “After Eight,” which prefigured punk by more than a year; Dinger’s cathartic “singing” on “Hero” would also inspire a young John Lydon’s Rotten snarl. Following the album, however, Rother returned to Harmonia and then launched a solo career, enjoying immediate success with his 1977 debut Flammende Herzen. Dinger, meanwhile, was left to formulate his post-Neu! identity alone.

Klaus Dinger’s house is practically a Neu! museum. In the front room of his cluttered Dusseldorf home, a stack of prints of Neu!’s original early ‘70s promo photo are piled on a dusty couch, right next to a copy of Neu! 2 propped up on display. Strewn haphazardly on the floor amidst dozens of musical instruments are records collectors would kill for: the original Neu! albums, the “Super”/“Neuschnee” single, a copy of an Elvis Presley “Blue Suede Shoes” picture sleeve 45” that Dinger bought when he was 10 in 1956. In an adjoining room, a giant xerox of a Japanese article about Neu is tacked to one wall, while an enormous logo for Dinger’s late ‘80s band Die Engel des Herrn has been spraypainted across the other. Lying open on a table is letter from 1984 that doesn’t seem to have been touched for 17 years.

Photos from the ’70s reveal Dinger as a kind of glam superstar; in his mirrored shades and Teutonic mullet he looked like a middle European Ziggy Stardust. Time has since stripped Dinger of much of that mystique: the 55-year-old is skeletally gaunt with a grizzled beard and wispy gray hair that forms a wild mane, and he’s lost most of his teeth; just four tobacco-stained incisors remain on top. Scribbled notes and blurry Polaroids bulge out of the front pocket of his overalls, which today are blue instead of the customary white he adopted as his personal uniform in the late ‘70s.

Despite being an outspoken character who’s boasted of possessing a 191 IQ and 1000 LSD trips under his belt (he even advocates that acid use be taught in schools), Dinger has avoided interviews in recent years because he felt they only promoted the bootleg Neu! CDs that appeared in stores in the mid ‘90s. He also has a reputation for being somewhat paranoid, such as his belief he’s been blackballed by the music industry for anti-American sentiments expressed on his 1985 solo album Neondian; “If you don’t lift your (’85) boycott I’ll go to Japan and I’ll ask for political asylum there and launch a big campaign against Western business and media fascism” went one fax he sent to execs at Time Warner, MCA, and Polygram. Earlier in the day when we met to talk, Dinger brought along two artists as “witnesses”—part of a circle of young Japanese bohemians that he’s been working with on a new project called “Japandorf”—and periodically he trained a small camcorder on me as I asked him questions.

After Rother devoted his energies to Harmonia, Dinger started a band with his brother Thomas called La Dusseldorf, with the goal of “becoming more popular, to reach more people.” Sounding somewhat like a synth-driven version of Neu!, with Dinger playing guitars and keyboards, the group released three late ‘70s albums (La Dusseldorf, Viva, and Individuelllos), scoring hits with “Silver Cloud” and “Rheinita” and reportedly inspiring David Bowie (who described them in 1979 as “the soundtrack of the ‘80s”) to relocate to Germany for his Berlin period (Bowie would also ask Rother to play guitar on his “Heroes” album, but Rother passed on the opportunity). He tried to start his own Dingerland record label, sinking all his money into a band called the Lilac Angels, but audiences were indifferent—“they were quite normal rock and roll,” says Dinger, “but not so original”—and Dinger was soon bankrupted. Further tribulation came in 1983, when a lawsuit filed by his La Dusseldorf bandmates pitted him against his brother and stretched on for 13 years, which Dinger believes ultimately caused the death of their father.

But Dinger’s greatest estrangement has been from Rother; for the last several years, they’ve communicated primarily via the fax machine, if at all. “I think we have the feeling, ‘Better to avoid each other,’” says Dinger, taking a drag from a hand-rolled cigarette. “It’s a difficult situation.” One of their major problems is that Dinger views himself as the creator of the Neu! concept and the keeper of the band’s legacy. “As an idea, to build on and go forth from, it was always my proposal,” he insists, “my task to convince and overcome resistance.” Despite repeated overtures from several labels—Mute Records founder Daniel Miller, for instance, tried in vain for ten years to negotiate a re-release deal—they’ve been unable to resolve their reissue issues; considering the grief they put each other through, you’d think they were trying to negotiate land for peace, not simply re-release three records. Sometimes the sticking point was money, sometimes credit, sometimes just the bad blood between them; Dinger also wanted new Neu! recordings included as part of any deal, while Rother preferred just to release the back catalogue and then see what transpired from there. In 1990 Neu!’s old label Metronome sought Dinger’s permission to release the CDs. When he refused to grant it, they attempted to put the discs out anway; Dinger took them to court, and in 1995 he won control of the CD rights. “I know that I’m difficult, because it’s all difficult,” says Dinger. “How can it be easy? I see myself as gesamtkunstwerk, which means total art, and going to court for me as an artist is somehow an art form. I don’t make any distinction with everything. If I cut a slice of bread, it’s also a piece of art. If you take closer look at how I do that, you may agree; may not.”

Another serious stumbling block between them were deals Dinger cut to release material in Japan. In 1986 Rother and Dinger had attempted to work together again, this time without Conny Plank, but after some weeks in the studio both decided that the resulting recordings—which included a synth-pop version of “La Bamba”—were unsatisfactory and sealed them for possible reassessment at some future date. One day in 1995, however, Rother received a “congratulatory” fax from Dinger announcing that ”Neu 4” would be released in Japan the next day. A furious Rother contacted the label in Tokyo, Captain Trip Records, in hopes of putting a stop to distribution, but a few months later the Japanese company issued Neu! ‘72 Live!, a shoddy mono recording of a chaotic band rehearsal. Compounding Rother’s anger, Captain Trip has since released seven albums by Dinger’s new band, shamelessly named La! Neu? (occasionally featuring vocals by Dinger’s 78-year-old mom, Renate). The Captain Trip CDs are full of Dinger’s rambling scrawlings insisting that he is the “inventor of Neu!,” and his website contains inflammatory comments about his ex-partner like “Michael is just and always has been a free rider on my ideas” and “against all the things that made Neu! groundbreaking and revolutionary.” Of course, there’s also all those faxes of the “IHR KONTT MICH MIT AN ARSE LEKEN” variety. “I think sometimes that’s one of my not-so-nice abilities,” admits Dinger. “I can quite easily hurt people without necessarily wanting, just by pure conviction. I think one can normally talk about these, discuss these, figure out and agree on these, but not in this case.”

In all likelihood, the Neu! catalogue would have remained the province of bootleggers were it not for the efforts of Herbert Grönemeyer, a hugely successful German pop star who sold over 13 million albums across Europe but is most famous on these shores for his role as the youthful Lieutenant Werner in the 1981 film Das Boot. Grönemeyer first encountered the band while trying to license a single Neu! track for a massive compilation he was organizing chronicling 50 years of German pop music. Despite being warned by previous spurned suitors like Mute’s Miller that his quest would be futile, Grönemeyer sat Rother and Dinger down to get to the root of their dispute and surprisingly enough gained both of their signatures for the first time (but not before Dinger demanded that Grönemeyer’s box set also include a second, more “Dingeresque” Neu! song and a 20-minute-long La Dusseldorf track; eventually a seven-minute edit was settled on). “The thing is that they’re so different,” observes Grönemeyer. “One is really kind of well organized, very there, everything’s in order, and that’s Michael Rother. The other one is also a very bright guy, but on the other hand, really wild, a control freak, wants to know everything. They’re like an odd couple—they’re really like that movie with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau . . . but maybe not that funny.”

Undaunted by the challenge, Grönemeyer made it his mission to land Neu! for Gröneland, his new record label, and eventually signed the bickering pair to an extremely artist-friendly contract which specified that both must give complete approval every step of the way and paid them in full up front. Gronemeyer describes his role as “a diplomat in the middle. That was their dream, to find, like Conny Plank, another third person who is able to cope with them. That was my advantage.” The deal was signed more than a year ago, but according to Rother, Dinger has used his veto power to exploit the situation for his own ends. Besides the brouhaha over the album artwork credit, major points of contention have included remastering mixes, liner-note thanks, the official bio, and even the promo photos. For example, for a vintage image, Dinger selected a 1972 photo that shows the drummer with a guitar in his hand, which Rother feels is part of Dinger’s attempt to present himself as the primary creative force of the band (though Dinger did play rhythm guitar on some Neu! tracks). For the contemporary portrait, Grönemeyer hired renowned rock photographer Anton Corbijn, but Dinger rejected the pictures and wouldn’t sit for a new group photo. (“I don’t want to be marketed and branded by this Corbijn,” explains Dinger. “There is certain hype on this guy, but why is he so famous? I think Neu! is much better than Anton Corbijn.”) Too bad, as one of the Corbijn shots seems to sum up their relationship eloquently: On the right side of the picture, a beaming Rother, looking hale and ruggedly handsome in a tight black shirt and black pants, extends his hand towards Dinger, who stands on the left dressed in his white overalls, scowling at the camera while extending his hand but pointedly not shaking Rother’s.

There may be a world of hurt between them, but Grönemeyer, for one, believes that he might yet be able to get the combatants to actually press the flesh, and maybe even more. “My dream is to convince them, when they see we really worked hard and did our best, that they may one day look and say ‘Why don’t we do an album again?’’ says Grönemeyer. “I still don’t understand. It’s a big pity because I think even today they could still be able to make a good album, I’m sure. This lovely project, these lovely albums together—why can’t you relax now and make up?”

Copyright 2001 by Mike Rubin

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