Consider the great bands in music, and then consider what makes these bands rise above the usual accolades into being something great. So many groups have tandems within the band, two artists that provide direction and ability. Two artists who may develop friction. I remember reading about the Clash and coming across a passage describing Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. I am paraphrasing but I have always remembered the quote as saying, “The Heart and the Head, the Rhythm and the Groove.” Your heart represents the passion and the routine by the very nature of the organ there is nothing by rhythm; the head with its ability to free flow and really flitter around your skull is the groove, a squiggly line going from point A to point B. With the Clash Strummer was the Heart, Jones was the Head. Think about other tandems in rock. The Stones: Mick Jagger the Head, Keith Richards the Groove. These tandems are combined of artists of similar interests that grow and learn from each other before surpassing each other and eventually chafing at each other. Out of this tension and friction can come great art as well as great wreckage of bands ruined. The German band NEU! is one of those bands, a meeting of great art that ended in great wreckage.
NEU! was two people: Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger. Rother plays guitar, Dinger plays drums. Boom, two people making such lovely music. The history of the band centers around the city of Dusseldorf as Dinger was from there, fled from there and returned there after the war. Rother was the son of a man who moved around (Munich, Hamburg, England, Pakistan) before settling in Dusseldorf. Both men would play in small-time bands, each honing their skills. As I mentioned in my article on the early days of Kraftwerk, Rother and Dinger were in an early incarnation of that band. In fact, Dinger played drums on the very first Kraftwerk LP. August of 1971 saw the two split from the formative Kraftwerk to form their own group. Together the band recorded and released their self-titled debut LP in 1972.
Right away you can hear the music split between the two men. NEU! varies between long, driven songs with a similar insistent drumbeat and glistening playing. Really that is the band, that is their sound, that conflict and friction between the two men. “Hallogallo” from NEU! is what I consider the NEU! sound. The song is long and flowing, it conjures up the feeling of motion when standing still. The guitar is what drives the song; the drums are present but subtle rather than dominant. The rest of the LP, to me, sounds like a tug of war between the artists. You get a song that the drums are louder in; you have a song written by Dinger. More guitar, Rother. Regardless the debut is a classic, almost an idea for something new (NEU?) that arrives fully formed. Even with a perceived friction the music is strong and lasting.
NEU 2, from 1973 is famous for being half completed before the band ran out of funds. Rather than continue the revamped and modified existing tracks. The song “Super 16” is on side two three times in differing speeds. See kids, back in the day your Mom could buy you a portable turntable with differing speeds. You got your 33rpm, your 45rpm and your 78rpm. In rare occasions there was a fourth speed, 16rpm. The Highway HiFi played records at 16rpm, presumably a slow speed would allow for a RECORD TO BE PLAYED IN AN AUTOMOBILE. When that idea circled the drain the 16rpm speed was used primarily for radio transcription discs or LPs of narration for the visually impaired. What did the band do? Well the issued the song on 33 1/3 rpm, sped it up to 78rpm, and then slowed it down to 16rpm. I wonder if the songs would sound like the 33 rpm if you played them on the wrong speed. This experimentation does set the band apart and upon first listen you do feel kind of. . . gypped. But when you really listen to the original songs and their variations the songs become fuller, you understand the textures better when hearing them slowed way down and then sped way up. “Super 16” would go on to be featured in Kill Bill in homage to the Kung Fu film, Master of the Flying Guillotine. At the 16rpm the song has deliberate menace where the clang once was. Another aspect of the LP I find so fascinating is the concept of running out of money for studio time. In today’s age of ProTools, Serato, and GarageBand you never need to run out of anything other than your abilities. Of the many outstanding songs on the LP, the second track, “Spitzenqualitat,” stands out on repeated listens. Here is a song that Dinger truly shines on, laying down a concrete and repetitive beat that would echo through music for decades. Listen to the drums and the echo and think. Then take a piece of paper and trace the bands that you think of while listening to that drumbeat. At first I heard Public Image Ltd, naturally. But then I thought of Joy Division. In the first 1:44 of the song you hear a direct link to the music of today. Mind-altering stuff.
Now NEU!75 is something new; on this LP you can hear the band pull apart. Side one belongs to Michael Rother, with his glistening guitar and shimmering beauty. The lead off track, “Isi,” sounds like everything before and yet is so singular and unique. Rother was playing in another band at this point in time, Harmonia, which is a band for a future column. I see this cut as a direct link to his solo work, Flammende Herzen in particular. The sound is addictive and you just fall into the groove.
Side two belongs to Dinger. The songs on this side are more song-driven, with a direction to go with the churn. There are lyrics and on the song “Hero” the listener gets a feel for where Dinger’s musical intentions are. As with the Rother songs on side one, you can plainly hear where Dinger’s career would take him. After Neu! split he formed a new band, La Dusseldorf. I have only heard some of their catalog but what I have heard the blueprint for their sound is this Neu! song, “Hero.”
The friction ripped up the band, but in 1985 the two men reunited for a tumultuous series of recording sessions. The music from this period were cobbled together by Klaus Dinger, and issued by a suspicious label by the name of Captain Trip in 1995 as Neu!4. This release would be a sticking point between the two men up until Dinger’s death in 2008. Yet in 2010 with the re-rerelease of the Neu! catalog the LP was rearranged, tidied up and issued as Neu!86. I have a copy of the original LP and when I listen to it after the collected work of the first three Neu! LPs it is far weaker than anything that came before. It feels, upon listening, that the people playing in the band were not, in fact, Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger. It sounds processed, dated, a relic of the mid 1980s. Am I glad it has been reissued? Sure. Am I clamoring to buy it? No.
Looking at their catalog as a whole the music of Neu! is remarkable for its beauty and directness. It makes you want to move your feet and your hips. It sounds like sunset and thunderstorms. It sounds like two individuals creating music separate and in tandem, making beautiful music. It sounds like now.