Graded on a Curve:
Neu!,
Neu! ‘75

Celebrating Klaus Dinger on the day of his birth.Ed.

I’ve always loved Neu!; theirs is the relentless and steady as she goes “motorik” sound of a BMW stolen by the outlaw Baader-Meinhof Gang speeding down the Autobahn, on their way to West Berlin to create mischief and mayhem.

Formed in 1971 in Düsseldorf by Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, both of whom were former members of Kraftwerk, Neu! was one of the founders of Krautrock, utilizing the simplistic 4/4 motorik (i.e., “motor skill”) beat (which Dinger chose to label the “Apache beat”) to propel their songs while dispensing with all kinds of useless stuff like verses and choruses and the like. Meanwhile Rother accompanied Dinger’s drumming with a guitar-produced harmonic drone, utilizing a single chord upon which he would pile overdub upon overdub to emphasize timbral change.

Not that I know what any of that means, but I don’t have to, because I’m no musician but just a guy with ears, two of them to be exact, one of which works better than the other due to a tragic Q-tip accident. The important thing is that Neu! influenced everyone from David Bowie to John Lydon, to say nothing of Stereolab (natch) and even Oasis. The results of Neu!’s innovations were simultaneously lulling and exciting; theirs was the sound of minimal variation at high velocity.

Neu! ’75 followed 1972’s Neu! and 1973’s Neu! 2, and was significantly different from those records in so far as Dinger and Rother had begun to take divergent paths. In the end they compromised, with side one highlighting Rother’s ambient leanings and side two spotlighting Dinger’s more feral rock, which could almost be called proto-punk. The resulting LP is a Jekyll and Hyde proposition, but it works, in exactly the same way as David Bowie’s Neu!-influenced Low LP does.

Opener “Isi” (I’m not going to provide translations, but I’ll make an exception in this case; it’s pronounced “easy”) opens with some plaintive piano, then proceeds to motorik its way along in a lovely way, with lots of cool keyboards to keep the engine from overheating as it goes. The song is a delight, what with Dinger’s drumming and Rother’s keys, and I’ll bet you it would sound great on the Autobahn, going say 165 mph. “Seeland” is a more ambient production, counting on a simple metronomic drum beat and guitar and keyboards to produce a beautifully moody number that will hold you in its arms and gently rock you. I love the way the song gently swells and wanes, until it reaches a moment of actual catharsis, before fading into the sound of rain falling and thunder crackling.

As for “Leb’ Wohl” it opens with a guitar and the sound of surf, and in general reminds me of a never recorded Who number. Rother then proceeds to play a very simple and plaintive piano as the waves continue to wash ashore behind him, and does a kind of singing, or muttering, and just that fast you can forget the Who, because now the melody bears haunting echoes of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” Organ, piano, that metronomic drum beat—it’s all so simple and so beautiful, like a dream of awakening in the warm morning surf to find yourself surrounded by everyone you’ve ever lost, happy to welcome you home. Even Rother’s erratic whistling is lovely, as is the way he whispers, at song’s end, “Bye bye.”

On side two Dinger puts down the drumsticks and picks up a guitar, leaving the skins duties to not one but two drummers, his brother Thomas Dinger and Hans Lampe. And on the blazing “Hero,” the results are stunning. The guitars are searing, Dinger doesn’t sing so much as howl and snarl as the song roars along, and it’s no wonder John Lydon, future Sex Pistol, loved this song so much. Doubling down on the Apache sound, “Hero” is definitely a Mr. Hyde proposition, especially with Dinger sounding like a mental case.

The instrumental “E-Musik” (or “Serious Music”), on the other hand, bears more in common with opening track “Isi” than it does with “Hero”; it chug-a-lugs along, relentless and hypnotizing, and only Rother’s keyboards and a climbing guitar towards the end disrupt the song’s seamless nature. It closes with the sound of a high wind, the fine-tooled machine that is Neu! meeting the sound of nature, followed by a brief and melancholy coda, characterized by some oddly zipping keyboards and such.

“After Eight” is another flat-out speed rocker, a musical V2 that opens with a roaring guitar, some seriously heavy drumming, and Dinger’s distant howl. You can barely make out Rother’s keyboards, but you won’t care because this right here is an example of rock at its best, a zooming flight down the Autobahn of your mind to stay one step ahead of the Polizei. Neu! produced faster (see “Super 78”) and stranger (see “Super 16” and “Cassetto”) music, but I’ll take “Hero” and “After Eight” over most of them, with the exception of suck killer motorik standards as “Drive (Grundfunken)”, which I think means “Drive Grand Funk,” and the epic “Hallogallo.”

It’s almost tragic that personal disagreements characterized the duo’s relationship between 1975 and Dinger’s death from heart failure in 2008, although the duo did ultimately manage to release some new material as well as a live album. One of the most influential bands of their time, Neu! created a sound that was sui generis, totally unique, and utterly captivating, and you can hear echoes of their oeuvre in numerous bands that came later, including Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu, to name just two. Me, I can’t listen to them without wanting to steal a BMW, take to the road, and drive really fast. And I mean really, really fast. Like a latter-day member of Baader-Meinhof, off on a criminal lark.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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