Sasha Frere-Jones on Michael Rother

WE MUST FORGIVE OTHERS for the terrible things they do, especially when love takes them to the brink. If you have never heard the first Neu! album, you might find yourself babbling about this music. “It’s so peaceful and alive, and it’s noisy but in this benevolent way, and all of these things happen even though it’s mostly just drums and guitar,” and then you get so excited you say, “This is real Krautrock,” even though you’re not sure you should be using that phrase, but you’ve heard other people say it, and what are you even comparing it to? And then you call the drumming “motorik” because it is so driving and steady and funny, like cars, because cars are funny. You are forgiven.

In December 1971, guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger continued the work they’d begun together as members of Kraftwerk and recorded an album in Hamburg with producer Conny Plank. They tracked at Windrose, a rental studio, and mixed in a studio belonging to a publisher in Hamburg who got publishing rights in exchange for the trio’s time there. “As it turned out, that was a very good deal—for the publisher,” Rother told me.

What the three did on this album seeded bits of Stereolab, Sonic Youth, and the Fall, as well as several variants of ambient music. For years, though, writers have said a lot about the beat, which most often ends up being called motorik. The drumming is just one aspect of the music, but it is very much its own beast. Dinger’s beat is a steady eighth-note pulse played on the kick, with the snares falling on the third and seventh beats: more kicks than you are expecting, but snares right where you want them. What you don’t expect is how little it changes and how comfortably it sits. In Dinger’s hands and feet, this is hard, repetitive motion turned soft, more like the pulse of blood than gears turning over. This music is a little slower than disco and was faster than most of the rock being released in 1972, which is when the first Neu! album came out in Germany.

Oscillators ring, guitars feed back, machines chug along, people chug like machines.

“In the ’70s, we never gave names to the ideas behind our music,” Rother told me. “‘Clouds’ were what Klaus and I referred to as the melodies I recorded on top of our basic recordings, like in ‘Hallogallo.’ That was probably the only description we used back in 1972. All the other descriptions—like ‘lange Gerade’ [long straight]—came up much later, probably in the ’90s, when Klaus was interviewed and used them to describe this idea of ours of heading for the horizon.”


Michael Rother in Harmonia’s studio, Forst, Germany, 1973. Photo: Ann Weitz.

Those “clouds” might be guitar chords that repeat as steadily as the drums but float without suggesting a particular direction. Other times, Rother creates a sustained tone, a kind of contrail that lets the guitar signify “guitar,” though it is close enough to a synthesizer in timbre to suggest a more complex electronic intervention. “I had very simple gear,” Rother said. “I had a standard fuzz box, which was the same I had already years before. I had a wah pedal, and I had a speaker box. On the first album, those very long notes were feedback which I just incorporated.” Over the course of three albums, with a difficult fourth eventually completed, Neu! made a kind of unrock that is both wired and mellow, distinct and upright in its logic but loose and free-form in execution. It’s a body of work that erases the idea of persona and rock stars—except, big footnote here, for “Hero,” where Klaus Dinger steps up to the mic and almost invents punk rock in 1975. The number of ideas contained in the first three Neu! albums still has the capacity to frighten. The duo splintered after the Neu! 75 record but still managed to record the fourth in 1986. After some illegitimate releases initiated by Dinger, Neu! ’86 was later restored by Rother for a box set issued in 2010. Rother has refined the clouds yet again for As Long As The Light, a new collaborative album with Vittoria Maccabruni that compresses the dreamwork nicely.

Grönland has corralled all of the Neu! albums and a slate of new tributes for a big fiftieth-anniversary box set wrapped in an orange-and-white version of the Neu! logo. That image, Dinger’s idea, was inspired by the most common sticker in German supermarkets, which read NEW. “My understanding is that the cover of Neu! was foremost an attempt to stand out among the covers of other bands in the window displays,” Rother told me. “Klaus seems to have said at some point in the ’90s that he saw the cover design as a criticism of consumerism.”

Dinger died in 2008, so we cannot ask him, but there is a vibration with other things going on in Düsseldorf. In 1963, Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg staged their legendary “Living with Pop” at a Düsseldorf furniture store. The performance involved putting items already in the store on white pedestals and then sitting on sofas (which were also on pedestals). In an Artforum interview from 2014, gallerist René Block described this as “a mirror of petit bourgeois behavior, but more as a kind of persiflage than an attack.” This aligns with the Neu! aesthetic, which seems vastly modern without being in any specific sense political.

Dinger had been recruited by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970 for the first version of Kraftwerk, when the flute was as prominent as synthesizers and the band had not become robots. You can hear Dinger on the first album credited to Kraftwerk, from 1970, on a track called “Von Himmel Hoch.” At the same time, Rother was doing duty in a psychiatric hospital, carry­ing out his obligation as a conscientious objector to mandatory service in the Bundeswehr. Having convinced a military court that he didn’t want to use a weapon—“They pointed out that I didn’t manage to convince them of my theories about peaceful international politics,” he added—Rother had chosen the mental hospital near Düsseldorf because he was interested in psychology and wanted to stay close to home and his girlfriend. He served there for eighteen months.

“There was another objector working with me at the hospital,” Rother said. “He was also a guitar player, and he had an invitation to do some recordings, so he asked me to join him. I didn’t know the band, but I luckily decided to go to the Kraftwerk studio and ended up jamming with Ralf Hütter.” A version of Kraftwerk with Schneider, Dinger, and Rother—but not Hütter, who went back to school—lasted all of six months. About twenty minutes of music was recorded for a second album and then scrapped. “I have some memories of what we played and may even have some cassette tape somewhere, but I’m pretty sure that music history can do without those recordings,” Rother said.

The most easily found document of this lineup is “Rückstossgondoliero,” a “spontaneous” composition recorded for the German TV show Beat-Club in May 1971. Rother sits with his guitar at a table, where he faces an amplifier, an echo unit, a small bell, and a tuning fork, which he uses for “a sliding effect.” Schneider is also seated, sending his flute and violin through several devices. Dinger is wearing a white tunic with dark sunglasses, driving away on the drums with occasional quiet jaunts into cymbal work. Against this, Rother and Schneider produce cycling figures that never lapse into the blues scale, nor do they try to create an obvious narrative flow.


Cover of NEU!’s NEU! 50! (Grönland, 2022).

If there is one thing that set the “Krautrock” cohort apart, it was a respect for machines as they are. Oscillators ring, guitars feed back, machines chug along, people chug like machines. It wasn’t the machines at fault—it was the human intervening in their unnatural natural flow. In Neu! music, the sounds and machines are all given a great deal of room to simply be themselves without making any concessions to song form or language. It might seem “jammy” if you feel compelled to see improvisation as somehow at war with form. Over time, this open-ended approach has proved much more central to music than have any of the pop hits of the time.

“Klaus and I, we agreed on music nearly 100 percent,” Rother said. “But our personalities were really very different from one another. A person like Klaus could never have been a friend, and we fought outside of the studio but never inside. When we were making music, I agreed with what Klaus did. . . . We both loved what the other one did.”

In 1973, when Rother had already been in both Kraftwerk and Neu!, he helped form Harmonia with Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster. Their five albums, one recorded with Brian Eno, are another block of luminous detachment and played no small part in Eno’s own conception of ambient music. (Rother was also invited to play on Bowie’s “Heroes,” but the collaboration never happened, owing apparently to the interference of various managers.) After Harmonia broke up in the summer of 1976, Rother started recording solo albums. The first four of these were made with drummer Jaki Liebezeit of Can, whom Rother describes (accurately) as a magician. Before the ’70s were over, Rother had worked with an unusual number of the most important people in German rock. He is the Nile Rodgers of Krautrock—a term Rother really did not like, at first.

“It must have been in the ’90s,” Rother said, “when I was in Australia and New York and I thought, OK, this nasty term is being applied to this big family of musicians, but it is meant in a respectful way. In the beginning, this was not so totally clear, you know?” The combination of spaciousness and crisp, intentional economy is why people bang on about “Krautrock,” and that is in no small part Neu!’s fault. Their music feels both necessary and a lot like what has been happening for years anyway. People want to vibe and they want a dependable, hard-won identity. You can spend a little time with Neu! or listen to it like goddamned Sherlock Holmes. The choice is yours.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer who lives in the East Village. He recently completed Earlier, a memoir.

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