If being parodied in a Coen Brothers movie is any measure of popular success, then the West German underground scene of the 1970’s may indeed have a fighting chance at the history books. And while “Autobahn”, the fictional nihilist New Wave band depicted in The Big Lebowski (whose members include Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), gives a Hollywood name-drop to Kraftwerk, the popularizers of the West German, the “rest” of what came to be known as “Krautrock” has yet to be given its moment on the silver screen.
The rest? Yes, the rest. Not every German band was tricked out in matching jumpsuits and Moog synthesizers, singing electro-fried peans to calculators and highways–no matter what the Coens would have you believe. Kraut (not the cabbage kind) had been stewing in the basements of Berlin and Cologne since the late Sixties–and the earlier Kraut bands, such as Amon Duul II, and the early lineups of Can and Kraftwerk, dealt mostly in half-hour experimental prog jams, replete with tape-loop experiments, flute solos, and free jazz drumming. But this prog-rock idyll was short-lived. One band came along which drastically changed the face of Kraut–and unknowingly became the major influence of many of the best British bands of the Seventies.
This band was called NEU! – German for “new” – and no name could be more appropriate. A splinter faction from the earliest lineup of Kraftwerk (which had more in common with Genesis than Justice at that point), NEU! was made up of guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger. Eschewing the free-jazz and classical influences which initially inspired their contemporaries, Rother and Dinger forged an uncompromisingly futuristic musical vision–a bleak landscape of howling guitars and driving drumbeats, regulated by a strict, Teutonic sense of funk that still left nothing to be desired in terms of experimentalism.
While the sounds of NEU! all but changed the face of German rock, and laid some of the earliest templates for post-punk, space rock, and electronic music, the band plays the role of a sort of musical middleman; while albums such as Ege Bamyasi and Autobahn have become eminently namedroppable in their integral roles in molding the Radioheads and Daft Punks of the world, NEU! has wallowed in a comparative state of obscurity. Ironically obscured by hyper-influential powerhouses like Can and Kraftwerk, Rother and Dinger are the true engineers of the later Kraut sound–and mostly because of an infamous drum beat.
Dubbed ”motorik,” a portmanteau of “motor” and “musik,” by the German press, Klaus Dinger’s drum work on tracks like opener “Hallogallo” and the exhausting “Negativland” is NEU!’s major point of departure from the more improvisational larval stages of Krautrock. Where the free-jazz influence expressed by earlier lineups of Kraftwerk was marked by evocative tom-tom and cymbal work, Dinger, playing in strict 4/4, with usually just a driving hi-hat beat and a pounding kick drum, made a revolutionary argument with his beats, marrying ham-handed rock n’ roll with modern minimalist savvy. The motorik, or “Apache” beat which jump-starts NEU!, has been copied by everyone from space-rockers Hawkwind (their entire 40-year career) to dad-rockers Wilco (to the letter on 2002’s “Spiders/Kidsmoke”); in terms of influence and sheer awesomeness, Dinger’s Spartan timekeeping on “Hallogallo” is to indie rock what “When the Levee Breaks” is to metal, even what “Amen, Brother” is to breakbeats.
Dinger’s drum work hardly overshadows the entire range of influential sounds and radical forms that make up guitarist Michael Rother’s contribution to NEU! Listening closely, Rother’s howling guitar work and ear-bending samples set trends for decades to come–from his elegant leads on “Weissensee” that find an echo in Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” of the late Seventies (Rother even recieved, and declined, an invitation from Bowie to work on the Low sessions), to the “Negativland”‘s jarring jackhammer noises that surely inspired Blixa Bargeld’s noise-collective Einsturzende Neubaten. Even some contemporary bands claim a first-generation influence from NEU!: the bizarre “Lieber Hoenig”, with its field recordings, wheezing “vocals” (that’s a generous term), and sparse guitar melodies sounds like nothing less than a thirty-year-old prototype for Efrim Menuck’s work for Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Although Rother certainly wasn’t the first guitarist to experiment with tape loops and definitely wasn’t the first–nor the last–Krautrocker to get his foot on a wah-wah pedal, his droning, flowing guitar work on NEU! crystallized the West German scene, inspiring contemporaries like Michael Koroli of Can to simultaneously stretch the sonic capabilities of his instrument while making extra room for the rhythm section to be heard. Despite the group’s influence overseas, even amongst English-language contemporaries like Roxy Music and Hawkwind, commercial success eluded NEU!, who failed to garner international hit singles like Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” or even the regional Top 40 success of Can’s “Spoon”.
Perhaps this explains, despite the group’s influence, why there isn’t a major cult following for NEU!, at least not like that of Kraftwerk or Can or even Amon Duul II. While NEU! could hardly be called a “missing” link–as it’s totally integral to the later sounds of Kraut and a benchmark recording for underground music around the world–its influence is overshadowed by that of Autobahn, Ege Bamyasi, and Popol Vuh’s dizzying score for Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Sadly, Klaus Dinger died last year, in this very week–and while there was a timely biopic on Pitchfork which featured a number of excellent Youtube clips of Dinger’s drumming, the article, which is now a dead link, failed to sum up just how integral and influential NEU! was–not only in its influence on today’s bands, but in its nearly complete resurfacing of the sound of Krautrock in the early ’70s.
Hats off, then, to Dinger–and Rother, too. While their influence may not be as universally acknowledged as their contemporaries, their work on NEU! has scuplted the experimental underbelly of rock music for the past thirty-eight years. And coming from the scene that practically invented post-punk, neo-folk, and electronic music in less than ten years, that’s a hell of an accomplishment. Even as it stands in the shadows of giants like Kraftwerk and Can, NEU! continues to be a bright beacon for the ever-changing face of music.