Neu! were one of the great bands of the 20th century, a sonic break with what came before.
The German group was best known as a duo; drummer Klaus Dinger, who died in 2008, and guitarist Michael Rother. Conny Plank, the late legendary producer and engineer, was key to the group’s radical sound. Plank worked with many of the leading ‘Krautrock’ bands of the 1970s, including Cluster and Kraftwerk.
The merger of Dinger’s unstoppable ‘motorik’ beat – buoyant, expansive, and seemingly endless, stretching in all directions – with Rother’s shimmering guitar textures still sounds revelatory, four decades later.
“There were three great beats of the 20th century: Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, James Brown’s funk and Klaus Dinger’s Neu! beat,” Brian Eno once said.
Neu!’s classic debut album, Neu! (1972), was recorded on a shoestring budget. “When we recorded the first Neu! album and the second Neu! album, there was hardly any sophisticated gear,” said Rother when I interviewed him for Frieze some months ago.
“The amazing quality of Conny was that he managed to create those soundscapes with hardly any gear.” Plank’s legendary home studio near Cologne had not yet been built. Plank had a keen ear, pulling together the best parts of the group’s jams and subtly shaping them into sonic landscapes. “He picked up what we were trying to express very early — surprisingly early, when the ideas weren’t even laid down properly,” Rother told me.
“The way Conny Plank memorized the ideas scattered around the multitrack — it still impresses me when I think back,” Rother continued. “It was a time before computer-aided mixing; everything happened by hand. Just listening to what we recorded in a haphazard way, scattered across the tape machine. He managed to highlight the best parts in a fascinating way.”
During the recording of ‘Hallogallo,’ one of the all-time classic Neu! tracks, Plank turned the tape around, playing it backwards. For the song ‘Negativland’, Plank stood between two reel-to-reel tape machines, manually phasing the sound by slowing down one machine and then the other.
“He had a lot of respect, of course, for the musicians,” said Rother, “but his attitude towards sound creation, to sound processing was that everything should be turned upside down and inside out.”
Plank also served as a mediator between Dinger and Rother – a volatile relationship, given Dinger’s notoriously strident opinions and sometimes erratic behavior.
“Klaus was a very tough guy to work with because he just couldn’t accept answers from Conny,” Rother recalled. “Klaus wanted more and more excitement and then [Conny] would say ‘Klaus, this is the loudest this mix can be; we cannot make it louder.’ Klaus would never accept it – sometimes Conny suffered a bit because Klaus was so stubborn. Of course that led to amazing results – Klaus’ desire to crash through walls, to never accept limitations.”
The self-titled album – and the two that came after it, sporting the charmingly literalist titles Neu! 2 (1973) and Neu! 75 (1975) – don’t sound dated. Plank’s analog treatments are appealingly rough around the edges; the drums sound live; the music is striking and minimal. In contrast with much of the ‘70s rock of that time, Neu! still sounds new.