Unedited NEU! piece for Big Shot Magazine
NEU! –TURNING BACK THE CLOCK TO THE FUTURE
by Sean-Michael Yoder
It seems fitting that UK based label Grönland Records is re-releasing krautrock legend NEU!'s entire catalog as an expansive vinyl box set. The label has become synonymous with rescuing crucial, but forgotten, chunks of German pop music history and few musical groups outside of the Velvet Underground and the Stooges sold as few records as the mysterious German duo of Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother yet still managed to exert such heavy duty influence on future generations of musicians from David Bowie to Thom Yorke. Although it is techno music where NEU!'s influence can be felt most in the 21st Century, NEU! Still remains the perfect candidate for a comprehensive box set retrospective.
While the rest of Europe would get its restless postwar, economic meltdown howl and generational angst out late in the Seventies during the new wave zeitgeist, in Germany artists got the ball rolling much earlier in the decade. Pioneering proto-krautrock groups such as Kraftwerk and Ash Ra Temple took cues from US outsider groups like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges by using primitive rhythms and brute minimalism to convey an aesthetic of danger, mood, and style. Two early Kraftwerk cast-offs, Dinger and Rother, would go on to form an unlikely alliance with legendary producer Connie Plank at the dawn of the Seventies. Plank, who passed away unexpectedly in 1987, was a visionary producer - one of the first to envision a world of music enhanced by electronic soundscapes and a huge influence on the krautrock bands as well as superstar producers like Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite. Drummer Klaus Dinger would play his single minimalist 4/4 thump over those spatial soundscapes, a rhythm he called his "Apache beat" and is now more commonly known as Motorik, best exemplified on NEU!’s biggest hit “Hallogallo”.
This beat became the foundation for all krautrock music despite the diversity of the groups in the scene - ranging from NEU! contemporaries Can to Kluster. On top of that beat, guitarist Michael Rother would "complement Dinger's rhythm by eschewing chord changes, and instead opting for a harmonic drone – a single chord, layering numerous electric guitar overdubs." Couple that revolutionary stance with the enigmatic cover art of NEU!, a simple stencil proclaiming "new" in German that the group would spread out over three albums during the early Seventies (NEU!, NEU! 2, and NEU! '75), and in retrospect it is no mystery that later new music groups such as Joy Division, PiL, and Wire would find a seminal influence in the mysterious band. Other artists such Brian Eno and David Bowie would work directly with NEU!'s members, most notably Plank's production of Bowie's "Heroes" - a clever biting of the Motorik style. The group would dissolve at the end of the Seventies and reform only once more in 1986 to cut NEU! 4, cleverly repackaged and given a new track listing and title (NEU! ’86) for the new box set, the final album merged the band’s old Motorik style with a penchant for bad synth pop (think Simple Minds or Peter Gabriel) and would became a source of strain amongst the two headstrong principles for the next two decades until Dinger’s untimely death in 2008 from heart failure. But the seeds were already sown, devoted fans of techno will instantly recognize Dinger’s simple, relentless beat and Rother’s ability to weave between emotional tension and release while eschewing chord changes and other traditional formalities in favor of bathing the band’s sound in washes of pure musical color.
In the nearly forty years since NEU!’s first offering, it has become evident that the group was really talking about the future, becoming a tangible touchstone for today’s electronic musician in terms of influence. Grönland’s box set goes a long way in raising the profile of this forgotten band. "I’m investing a lot of time and effort into the NEU! vinyl box set, which we hope to release this year," Rother explained in a 2009 interview. "It will contain all of NEU!’s recordings, also the ones that were illegally released by my partner, the late Klaus Dinger, in the Nineties. Plans also are to include a thick booklet filled with rare photos and new text as well as rare live recordings.” It’s about time.