Neu created the beat that keeps on going

Perched inside the recording room at Star Studio in Hamburg, guitarist Michael Rother heard his own playing in a new light. It was a couple days into the four-day session in December 1971 that would produce the first self-titled album by Neu, Rother’s newly formed duo with drummer Klaus Dinger. Along with producer Conny Plank, he was fleshing out the 10-minute instrumental “Hallogallo,” conjuring plumes of melody that would swirl over Dinger’s streamlined, insistent 4/4 beat. While listening to the playback, Plank decided he wanted to hear the guitars backward, suddenly throwing the tape into reverse.

“Everything went vvvvp vvvvp vvvvp and I thought, oh this is wonderful,” Rother recalled during a recent Zoom call from Italy. “That change from reality — that abstraction — really interested me. I’m not saying suddenly genius melodies came out of me, but it was inspiring.” Plank incorporated the inverted guitar into the mix, ingraining the song with an otherworldly euphoria that Rother was able to play off of in subsequent takes. On the recording, his guitar darts in and out of the surreal swells of sound while Dinger’s drums march a straight line toward the horizon.

“Hallogallo” would go on to define an era of German underground music and influence multiple generations of rock bands, electronic music producers and experimentalists from all over the world. Though it sold modestly upon its release in March 1972, and was out of print for much of the 1980s and ’90s, “Neu” cleared the path soon trod by Brian Eno and David Bowie, and later countless others who were searching for a way out of established rock-and-roll tropes toward something more transcendent and strange. Across its six tracks, Rother and Dinger, guided by Plank and his penchant for exploring the possibilities of sound, dismantle just about every hierarchical structure in rock music. Chord progressions and song structures are boiled down to a singular drone, which is experienced as inexhaustible, almost eternal.

Fifty years after its release, the album’s influence continues to be enormous. To mark the anniversary, the German label Grönland has put together a boxed set compiling that landmark first album and the three that followed, along with a collection of remixes and new songs by contemporary musicians inspired by their sound and legacy. Artists such as the National, New Order’s Stephen Morris and composer Yann Tiersen all reworked material for the set. Though Dinger died in 2008, Rother will be revisiting Neu songs at a concert in London on Nov. 3, with Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor opening.

“We’ve always loved that sound, the stacked guitars driving toward infinity,” says Kassie Carlson, singer with the New York-based band Guerilla Toss. The band contributed an original song, “Zum Herz,” to the Grönland tribute compilation, transposing the melody from Rother’s solo song “Zyklodrom” into an post-punk rave-up. “A lot of our music nods toward that era of German cosmic music, with that blissful, major sound. But with ‘Zum Herz’ we really wanted to try to write a Neu song.”

Rother and Dinger met in 1970 when they became members of Kraftwerk alongside one of the band’s masterminds, Florian Schneider. The association with Kraftwerk and that group’s status as one of the most well-known German bands of the 20th century hangs heavy over the story of Neu, even if the duo’s contributions never ended up on a Kraftwerk album. In that embryonic stage, their music had an unpretentious, often impassioned character compared with the mechanized, detached style they would adopt years later when they fully embraced synthesizers and drum machines. Rother grins as he tells a story of performing with Kraftwerk and understanding just how unhinged a player Dinger could be. “I noticed the audience staring at the stage and followed their eyes to Klaus,” he remembers. “There was blood squirting from his hand. He loved to play on broken cymbals, which of course had very sharp edges. He was beating the drums and just continued to play without stopping for a second. I think it never crossed his mind.”

This image runs counter to how many fans and critics have characterized Dinger’s drumming. The beat on “Hallogallo,” as well as “Negativland” from the first album, “Für Immer” from “Neu 2,” and other songs, has been popularized as “motorik” (“motor skill”), conjuring a well-oiled machine, unchanging and static. Dinger never adopted that name, and later in life he began calling it the “Apache beat,” evoking a stereotype of Native American music. Despite the problematic genesis of that terminology, it points to the focused intensity of his playing as the drummer attempts to draw connections to the ceremonial uses of repeated rhythm in Native communities. Listening to the motorik beat, it can indeed seem unbound to clock time, pushing defiantly into boundless space even as it ticks off the seconds precisely and purposefully.

“For me it’s the greatest beat to play guitar to,” writes Stereolab’s Tim Gane in a recent email. Several of the French group’s most iconic songs sit atop the assertive pulse Dinger pioneered. “The motorik drum beat isn’t just any 4/4 drum beat, and Klaus Dinger wasn’t just any ordinary rock drummer,” Gane added. “His way of playing is totally unique and so full of soul, passion and intensity that it counterbalances the alienating effect of the guitar effects. It creates a new kind of shadow rock music that wasn’t at all shallow.”

Motorik has become almost synonymous with krautrock, the inelegant term coined by the British press to lump together the groups emerging from Germany at the time, but “Neu” is an album built on contrasts. Following the immediacy of “Hallogallo” is the hyper-minimal “Sonderangebot,” a five-minute recording of a muted cymbal roll panned between the left and right channels in a slow, queasy lurch. “Negativland” buzzes with a distorted twang created by Plank manually phasing two recordings of Dinger playing the shamisen, a Japanese banjo, standing between two tape machines and slowing down one tape and then the other. No two songs sound alike, and the whole enterprise is built upon the juxtaposition of Dinger’s rhythmic intensity and Rother’s sanguine, cosmically inclined songcraft.

“It’s definitely more about the total package,” says Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley when asked about Dinger’s influence on his own style. Shelley heard Neu for the first time on mixtapes Sonic Youth would listen to in the tour van, and was able to track down used copies of the first three albums while the band was on tour in Europe in the ’80s. “Television, the Stooges, and obviously the Velvets were a big part of what we shared, and this became another pillar,” he says. “We really based a lot of how we heard things and what we started playing on this Neu music.” Shelley was invited by Rother to play that music with him as a part of the group Hallogallo 2010, which debuted at that year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. “It has a certain freedom. That stuff sounds wide open.”

That openness allows Neu’s influence to trickle into many unexpected streams of music. It fueled the rise of punk, with Iggy Pop telling the BBC in 2009 “when you listen to it, it allows your thoughts to flow.” The idea of the endless pulse coupled with ethereal, atmospheric sounds has come to define many strains of electronic music that are made for the dance floor, as DJ and radio host Tim Sweeney explains. Sweeney’s show, Beats In Space, has been a place for countless DJs to present new sounds to a wide audience, and Sweeney himself has consistently mixed krautrock into the show for decades. “You almost go into a trance listening to it,” he says. “A lot of dance music is like that, with that repetition. The atmosphere is a big part of it, too, the delay they used — that gets referenced a lot.”

For all its influence on music at home in dense urban environments, even Pop heard what he called “pastoral psychedelicism” in Neu’s music. Nashville-bred guitarist William Tyler finds surprising connections between the country music he grew up on and Rother’s music in Neu and beyond. Beyond the ubiquitous associations with the open road that permeate both, there was a revelatory moment where he heard a Waylon Jennings groove, “that to me sounded like krautrock. It drives the same way, and glides the same way,” he says. His 2016 album “Modern Country” was based around the question: “What would have happened if those guys from Düsseldorf had made a record in Nashville?” Tyler made the connection explicit by performing the gently drifting Neu track “Weissensee” on that tour, and covering Rother’s “Karusell” on his EP “Lost Colony.”

The German countryside is very important to Rother, who moved to an estate outside the town of Forst shortly after making the first two Neu albums (simultaneously forming the group Harmonia with Cluster’s Hans-Jochim Rodelius and Dieter Mobius), and has remained there ever since. The music Neu made was created with the echoes of fascism still audible, a reckoning with the Nazi regime still in progress. Rother is an outspoken pacifist, and he blames the obsession of pinning German identity onto the music they made on the British music press. His music, with its expanses and bright textures, suggests a type of pastoral futurism, an idyllic vision of music that has escaped the trappings of what he calls “Anglo-American influence.” Neu’s music always points to something beyond — beyond the narrow mind-set of nationalism, beyond the history’s impulse to repeat itself, beyond any expectations whatsoever.

Rother often reminisces in interviews about his time growing up in Pakistan, where his family lived between the ages 9 and 12. He developed a love of droning sounds and the new scales he heard while listening to street musicians, and he swam in the Arabian Sea, the waves swallowing him up and spitting his small body back out. “It’s such a big joy,” he says, ruminating on those times in the ocean and his current love of swimming. “It just keeps going. You can’t see it properly, and it keeps getting deeper and deeper. It’s something that inspires my imagination.” The sound of water permeates the first Neu album — it leads into several songs, those sounds giving listeners audible connections to that sense of the infinite Rother speaks of now. Its powerful slipstream, uninterrupted for 50 years, continuing on.

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