In the Holy Trinity of krautrock, Düsseldorf’s NEU! (drummer Klaus Dinger and guitarist Michael Rother) were nowhere near as prolific as Can or Faust, but in the long run arguably more significant. NEU!’s output seems meager in comparison with their peers’ bulging catalogs, but the three official albums released between 1972 and 1975 contain some of the period’s most inspired and inventive music. Brian Eno has said, “There were three great beats in the ’70s: Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, James Brown’s funk and Klaus Dinger’s NEU!-beat.” There was more to it than that. NEU! were punk before punk; they pursued sounds and approaches that would become commonplace in industrial, ambient and other electronic musics; they were precursors of post-rock; and they experimented with what would later be called the “remix.” After Dinger and Rother parted ways in 1975, their influence manifested itself immediately in punk and post-punk (everyone from Pere Ubu to PiL to Cabaret Voltaire to Sonic Youth). As their records went out of print and by the ’80s circulated only as bootlegs, NEU!’s myth grew. Bowie piqued the interest of those unfamiliar with the band when he revealed he had originally wanted Rother to play guitar on his clearly influenced Low / Heroes / Lodger trilogy; Julian Cope drew further attention to the band in his 1995 book Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik – 1968 Onwards. Interest swelled in the ’90s as the likes of Stereolab and Tortoise emerged (and, later, Gay Dad), bands who showed more than a passing acquaintance with NEU! At century’s end, it was still practically impossible to hear NEU!’s music, although, ironically, one opportunity came with 1998’s A Homage to NEU! — an album of cover versions by System 7, Autechre, Dead Voices on Air, Khan and the Legendary Pink Dots, among others. Remarkably, it wasn’t until mid-2001 that NEU!’s three albums were officially reissued.
NEU! was anything but conventional, although Dinger and Rother started out in rather orthodox ’60s groups. As an architecture student, Dinger joined the No, a band influenced by British groups like the Kinks, Beatles and Stones, and then moved on to a touring covers act called the Smash; at college, Rother played guitar in the Spirits of Sound, a Britcentric band that also included future Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flür on drums. In 1970, Dinger was drafted by Florian Schneider and Ralph Hütter to help out on Kraftwerk’s debut album and, when Hütter temporarily withdrew in 1971, the remaining pair brought in Rother on guitar. Dinger and Rother’s experience in this version of Kraftwerk (for a period of six months) proved crucial as the trio’s improvised live performances laid the sonic foundations on which NEU! would subsequently build. (Evidence of that can be found in June 1971 footage from the German Beat Club TV show, which features the trio performing the epic “Rückstoé Gondoliere,” often referred to as “Truckstop Gondolero.”) However, Kraftwerk’s inability to reproduce its live sound in the studio (coupled with aesthetic and personal differences) led Dinger and Rother to strike out on their own in late 1971 with the aid of Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank. Plank, a veteran who had begun his remarkable career doing sound for performances by Marlene Dietrich, would be a vital force in shaping NEU!’s music.
Dinger and Rother’s relationship was a famously fraught one. The pair had differing creative visions and starkly contrasting personalities. Rother was more aligned with the gentler side of ’60s/’70s counterculture, his feel for melody and ambience symptomatic of a more harmonious worldview. Dinger, on the other hand, had an anarchic streak that resonated with the more confrontational aspects of the counterculture. This tension surfaces in NEU!’s music, which often swerves between soft and hard sounds, tunefulness and cacophony, sometimes combining both tendencies within the same track. Plank played a key role, mediating between the two musicians, showing them what was possible and guiding them toward syntheses of seemingly incompatible ideas. Reflecting the oppositional, anti- capitalist mood of the time, the band’s name — which ironically evokes the language of advertising: NEW! — is a statement of intent. Dinger and Rother were keen to dispense with the received wisdom about how rock music should be made and sound. Although Rother had initially emulated guitarists like Clapton, Harrison and Hendrix, his attitude was punk avant la lettre: he adopted a “year zero” stance, kicked over the statues and sought to develop his own musical identity. In a similarly proto-punk fashion, Dinger espoused a Situationist sensibility, displaying a neo-Dadaist spirit akin to contemporaries Faust and approaching music-making as a spontaneous process, open to the potentially chaotic and the random nature of the moment. This intermingling of artistic practice and the fabric of the everyday, which lay at the heart of Situationism, came across particularly in NEU!’s fragmented, jarring and anarchic tracks, as they incorporated everything from traditional rock instrumentation to drills, cutting, pasting and recycling elements of their own music as they went. Dinger also brought this aesthetic to bear on the band’s artwork, anticipating the work of Situationist-inspired designers like Jamie Reid during the punk era. Unlike the sort of elaborate album covers that probably took a month to develop, Dinger’s cut-and-paste montage sleeves looked as if they had been assembled in minutes with the aid of a typewriter, some sticky-tape and a photocopier. The scrawled track lists and liner notes on NEU! appear to be the work of a doctor; Dinger and Rother feature only in tacked-on, low-quality black-and-white photos (passport- booth snaps on NEU! 2); and, on all three records, the band’s name might have been daubed on the jacket by a passing vandal (with his accomplice spray-painting the number 2 over the logo on the second album to distinguish it from the first).
While NEU!’s packaging displayed a knowing sensibility, the music’s minimalist, deconstructionist bent was often a result of necessity, thanks to sparse budgets. The self- titled debut album was recorded over a four-day period in December 1971 at Plank’s Hamburg studio. To keep costs down, they worked only at night, when the studio rates were cheaper. Although Dinger and Rother set out with rough ideas, for the most part their creative process embraced spontaneity. (Rother actually refers to the sessions for NEU! as “chaos.”) After two days, they had made scant progress but, on the third day, they recorded a version of “Negativland.” The track’s heterogeneous assemblage of accelerating and decelerating rhythms, obsessively metronomic beats, abrasive guitars, industrial atmospherics and random noise-bursts (a pneumatic drill) provided the ingredients and the methodology on which the duo would build its album. “Negativland” would also give Joy Division, PiL, Einstürzende Neubauten and Sonic Youth plenty of food for creative thought (and conceptual pranksters Negativland their name). In a less expansive and sustained fashion, NEU! shares the ambient orientation of Cluster (with whom Rother would eventually collaborate under the Harmonia moniker). “Im Glück” (“In Bliss”) is a peaceful interlude comprising droning bass, lapping water, spacey guitar washes and seagull-like cries, whereas “Sonderangebot” (“Special Offer”) paints a darker sound picture, its distorted metallic percussion and vaguely ominous aura calling to mind the sort of austere environments Brian Eno’s On Land would later explore. If people are familiar with only one NEU! track, though, it’s generally the album’s ten-minute opener. “Hallogallo” stands as one of the band’s most impressive and immediately accessible numbers, the paradigmatic instance of Eno’s “NEU!-beat,” the sound most readily associated with the group. Dubbed motorik to characterize its driving, mechanical feel (a term later rejected by the beat’s creator, the contrarian Dinger, precisely because of its mechanical connotations), this NEU! signature does have some antecedents, including Can’s “Mother Sky” (1970). (Rother would subsequently work with Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit.) Who-was-first debates aside, for many “Hallogallo” is the urtext of the motorik groove — “Autobahn” nearly three years before Kraftwerk drove that route. While Dinger’s metronomic beats are absolutely central, propelling the number onward cleanly and smoothly, “Hallogallo” owes its success as much to Rother’s inspired, minimalist guitar work. Without his distinctive contribution, the track wouldn’t be so memorable. The relentless locked-groove beats lay the foundation, but the real pleasure of “Hallogallo,” its trance-inducing quality, derives less from that endlessly repeating pattern than from the subtle changes introduced by Rother. Ranging from small strokes and touches to broad swathes that weave around the beats, Rother’s streams of electronically altered guitar add warm pulsing textures and melodic coloring that enhance the track’s blissful effect. For the work of two musicians renowned for their inability to get along, “Hallogallo” is a masterpiece of equilibrium. This balance of solid repetition and incremental change and variation produces a timeless track that set the standard for artists working at the interface of rock and electronica.
Dinger and Rother returned to the studio with Plank in January 1973 for NEU! 2, another four-night stand. This time around, the band’s schizophrenia is acute and the chasm yawns between accessible, melodic tendencies and noisier, experimental urges. Another motorik epic, the eleven-minute “Für Immer” (“Forever”), opens the proceedings but it eschews the understated minimalism of “Hallogallo” for an aggressive, altogether meatier sound. The application of a broader set of effects, some emphatic riffing and a more forceful beat give the track a greater dynamic range than its predecessor. (Stereolab’s “Jenny Ondioline” owes much to this number.) NEU!’s industrial and ambient inclinations again declare themselves throughout this record. “Spitzenqualität” (“Top Quality”) is dominated by pounding drums, circled by electronic noise, and “Gedenkminute” (“Minute’s Silence”) offers a brief atmospheric passage consisting of gusting wind and a tolling bell. With cavernous beats, buzz-saw guitar and disturbed/disturbing wordless vocals by Dinger, “Lila Engel” (“Lilac Angel”) suggests Pere Ubu eviscerating garage rock, leaving its bones barely held together by sinew. The seamless pulse of “Neuschnee” (“Fresh-Fallen Snow”) is more in the vein of “Für Immer”; “Super” (first issued on 7-inch with “Neuschnee”) sees Dinger and Rother channel the punk essence of their fragmented, noisy soundscapes into a more fully realized song that wouldn’t have been out of place in late 1976. Rother’s taut, angular playing on this track is crucial to the equation and points forward to Wire.
NEU! 2 was especially memorable (or forgettable, depending on your perspective) for the material that made up the bulk of the second side on the original vinyl release. The first album had been successful in Germany, selling over 30,000 copies, but the duo ran out of cash during the making of NEU! 2 and their label refused to help out. Faced with the problem of completing side two without money for studio time, they adopted a paradigmatic postmodern art strategy, recycling and reconfiguring existing texts, or tracks in this case. Dinger and Rother took “Super” and “Neuschnee” and used them as the basis for four exercises in sonic deconstruction, in the process making an early foray into the art of the remix. The various versions of these tracks might not exactly be enjoyable, or even listenable, and the project may have been undertaken more as a vengeful expression of frustration at their label than as an artistic experiment, but the method is innovative in the context of rock music of the period. As the rpm reference in their titles suggests, “Neuschnee 78” and “Super 78” are Chip ‘n’ Dale-style readings of the original, achieved by playing the tracks at 78 rpm; “Super 16” is a groaning 16 rpm beast (heard briefly in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1). The wobbly, slow-motion “Cassetto” (actually the remains of “Für Immer” being consumed by a dodgy tape recorder, which may have given My Bloody Valentine a few ideas) and “Hallo Excentrico!” (“Neuschnee” played with a finger on the disc, slowing it down) are analog precursors to glitch electronica in that they make a virtue of audio detritus and error. But while the likes of Oval don’t need to put a disclaimer on their CDs explaining they are meant to sound that way, NEU! inform listeners in the liner notes that the weirdness is intentional, something that perhaps undermines their radical stance.
Due to financial difficulties and record label indifference encountered during the making of NEU! 2, plus perennial creative and personal differences, things didn’t bode well for Dinger and Rother’s continued partnership. Additionally, in an ironic reversal of the problems encountered with Kraftwerk, the duo had grown frustrated with their inability to translate NEU!’s studio sound to live performance. In the ensuing hiatus, Rother followed his ambient muse with Dieter Möbius and Hans- Joachim Rödelius of Cluster. As Harmonia, the trio released Musik von Harmonia (1974) and Deluxe (1975). (In 1976 the trio would team up with Brian Eno, who had called them “the most important band in the world.” The recordings they made together were released only in 1997 on the album Tracks & Traces.)
Dinger and Rother reunited in December 1974, with Plank again sharing production duties. The pair were joined by Hans Lampe and Dinger’s brother Thomas, who together played drums on three numbers. NEU! 75 still has a split disposition, but without any real synthesis of the tensions. The material falls pretty much into two distinct categories; it’s not difficult to work out which are the Dinger tracks and which are the Rother tracks — that the two sides of the original vinyl release have very different characters is something of a giveaway. The original side one (CD tracks one through three) emphasizes the softer, more tuneful ambience favored by Rother, while the other side (CD tracks four through six) rocks harder than the band ever had — with Dinger coming out from behind his drum kit to inject noise elsewhere. Compared with NEU! 2‘s colder, mechanical edge — especially its notorious remixes, which put music through the wringer — the first three tracks on NEU! 75 are brighter, more obviously melodic and, in places, surprisingly pretty. Like NEU!’s previous album openers, “Isi” glides along on a motorik beat and interweaving melodic lines; here, however, synth and piano take precedence over guitar and there’s a warmer, more expansive feel. “Seeland” (the name Negativland would take for its label) pursues Rother’s ambient interests and is NEU!’s strongest work in that regard: with droning synths and guitar flourishes that evoke ebbs and flows, crests and troughs, this track has a sweeping, oceanic majesty. Where “Seeland” succeeds, “Leb’ Wohl” (“Goodbye”), another epic of aquatic ambience, sinks to a watery grave. Scuttled by stagnant naval-gazing and some bedlam-style moaning from Dinger, the impression that it’s permanently about to end but doesn’t holds for almost nine minutes. Like “Isi,” “E- Musik” (on Dinger’s side of the album) also returns to the motorik blueprint, this time with greater success. Although familiarly hypnotic, it doesn’t simply recycle “Hallogallo.” Overall, it has a faster, lighter groove, before ultimately dissipating into womb-like somnolence; layers of synth and guitar and the use of phase on Dinger’s drums give the track an added sense of space and movement, as well as a distinctly locomotive rush. Indeed, if “Hallogallo” anticipated “Autobahn,” then “E- Musik” is NEU!’s train song — two years before Kraftwerk took the “Trans-Europe Express” — and makes the Kraftwerk train sound like an old steam engine. NEU! 75 is most striking in its foreshadowing of punk, as “After Eight” and “Hero” move further along the path initially taken with NEU! 2‘s “Neuschnee.” On “Hero,” against a backdrop of edgy riffing and driving beats, Dinger sneers and snarls: “Fuck the press … Fuck the company … The only crime is money.” While these are unmistakable punk sentiments, it’s the sound of his voice, above all, that prefigures many of the punk vocalists who would spring up the following year. Much like the equally prescient Nadir’s Big Chance by Peter Hammill from the same year, “After Eight” and “Hero” are the sound of a paradigm beginning to shift.
Dinger and Rother went their separate ways after NEU! 75. Rother continued to work with Harmonia and eventually embarked on a solo career. Dinger re-grouped with Hans Lampe, sibling Thomas and others as La Düsseldorf. The band split in 1983 after three albums, with everything coming to an undignified, litigious end as even the brothers squared off in court over money. Undeterred, Dinger pressed on with a series of band-based ventures: Klaus Dinger & Rheinita Bella Düsseldorf, Die Engel des Herrn and La! NEU?
Solo work notwithstanding, between October 1985 and April 1986, the pair did reconvene occasionally for sessions, with a view to recording another NEU! album. That record — NEU! 4 — arrived almost a decade later, after Dinger made tapes of the sessions available to the Japanese label Captain Trip (without Rother’s approval). Given that this was an essentially unfinished project released only in Japan, a record that one of the bandmembers didn’t intend to be heard, its status as an official NEU! release is questionable. (Even Dinger himself has referred to NEU! 4 as “semi-official” and claims to be “not very happy with it.”) The album neither breaks interesting new ground nor matches past glories. Tracks like “Schöne Welle” (“Beautiful Wave”) have a good deal in common with Rother’s solo ventures, while “Good Life” recalls Dinger’s work with La Düsseldorf; his art-terrorist side comes out in “86 Commercial Trash,” a collage of soundbytes from TV ads. Conny Plank and his arbitration skills are sorely missed, and only a few numbers (such as “Fly Dutch II” and “Crazy”) hint at NEU!’s former greatness. At the other end of the spectrum, some of this material comes perilously close to ’80s synthesized music at its most banal. In 1996, NEU! ’72 Live! in Düsseldorf appeared on the Captain Trip label, again without Rother’s permission. It’s a poor quality recording of a rehearsal with Eberhard Kranemann on bass. The most constructive way to characterize the record is to say that it documents the difficulties NEU! encountered as a live act. These two releases would have made for a disappointing epitaph as NEU!’s official albums languished in legal limbo, circulating only as bootlegs. However, after a series of lawsuits and on-and-off negotiations among Rother, Dinger and various labels, in 2001 their first three albums received an official reissue. (An ironic footnote: In response to queries after the release of the CDs, Astralwerks put out a statement assuring listeners that there were no errors on NEU! and NEU! 2; people who had previously owned the bootleg versions were reportedly surprised to hear sound dropouts, scratches and skips on the new CDs. It seems that in preparing their versions, fastidious bootleggers had edited out what they believed to be flaws on the originals.)