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The old Neu!
Rediscovering the roots of motorik

BY DOUGLAS WOLK

The market waits for no one. The three classic í70s albums by the German band Neu! were reissued in America a few weeks ago by Astralwerks, after being out of print for decades. But an awful lot of canny record buyers already had them: they were bootlegged on CD in the mid í90s, spawning a new little cult among those whoíd only heard about them during their first little cult.

Neu! were the most single-minded band of their time, or maybe the most mindful. At a time when " progressive rock " meant instrumental pyrotechnics, freakishly complicated soloing, and cosmic-minded lyrics, Neu! headed off the other way. The bandís complete lyrics could, perhaps, fill one side of an index card. Drummer Klaus Dinger pioneered the " motorik " beat: a crisp bam-bam-bam-bam, barely accented, no more varied than the turning over of a carís motor. Guitarist Michael Rother is rockís king of the one-chord jam ó not the snowballing rave-ups of, say, the Yardbirds, but a single tone or cluster explored in expanding timbral ripples. The two of them met in a shortlived early line-up of Kraftwerk; they split off to record as a duo and (legend has it) promptly began to disagree about everything. Their albums sound as if theyíd been pared down to the only things the two could agree on: a small set of sounds for each track and an eternal infinite groove. Itís not much, but their common ground has aged beautifully.

It can be hard to keep the Neu! albums straight if youíre new to them; all three discs have almost identical cover designs, and theyíre respectively called Neu!, Neu! 2, and Neu!. Still, theyíre very different in attitude and intent. The first Neu!, recorded in 1971 (white background, orange lettering), comprises six long " experiments " ó the quotes are there because, though they were certainly dice throws at the time, they sound like the flour and water of art pop now. Dinger and Rother made listeners wait and wait for something to change by more than degrees, or for a vanished rhythm to reappear, and their fans learned to love the waiting game. More than 20 years later, Stereolab appropriated " Hallogallo " more or less verbatim, added some lyrics, and called it " Jenny Ondioline " ; Negativland named themselves after the albumís malevolently dissonant, bass-heavy death march, and their label Seeland after a later song.

Neu! 2 (white background, gray and pink lettering) starts out very similarly and then flies off the map. The band ran out of money with only half the album finished (including " Für Immer, " which was essentially a new recording of " Hallogallo " ), so they filled in the space with their " Neuschnee " / " Super " single ó played at normal speed, 16 RPM, and 78 RPM ó plus a few other tape mutations of extant material. The finished record has Neu!ís prettiest recordings and their least pretty ó not just the messed-up varispeed stuff (love it or hate it, you canít get around it) but details like the sick chord Rother swipes at again and again through the foaming-at-the-mouth chant " Lila-Engel. "

The Neu! with the black background and white lettering, usually known as " Neu! 75, " sounds ahead of its time in a different way from the other two, and not just because Billy Idol lifted the riff from " Hero " and made it the guitar solo in " Dancing with Myself. " Recorded after the duo split and re-formed, itís their least diplomatic record, and the most willing to break with the formal restrictions that defined them early on. Rother switches to piano for a few tracks, and you can sense him trying to calm the waters ó at least on the first half of the album, which he dominates. Dinger controls the second half (for which he brought in two more drummers), and itís almost disturbingly tense. His screams, tuneless and raw, are like nothing heard on record before ó itís the voice of punk rock, a year or so early to the party. (Even so, thereís a bloom of guitar at the beginning of every bar, like a drop of food coloring splashed into clear water.) " E-Musik " is another exploratory one-chord groove, but instead of opening up space it seems to close in on the listener.

After the third album, the differences between Dinger and Rother got the better of their partnership ó itís mostly their enmity thatís kept their music from official re-release for so long. But itís also the tension between them that keeps these collaborations taut and thrilling: they seem to go on forever, and not a moment too long.

Issue Date: August 23 - 30, 2001





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