Shock of the Neu!
In memoriam Klaus Dinger, inventor of Motorik. Starting with Kraftwerk's 'Ruckzuck', and driving on through Neu! and the hooligan terrace chant electro-punk of La Dusseldorf, this relentless pulse is the modernist impulse in excelsis - calmly driving ineffably forward, a changing same where the destination isn't wholly clear, but the process of moving and morphing into something new along the way is paramount. Notwithstanding the (let's not put too fine a point on it) revolutionary implications of the motorik beat, Dinger was a hugely underrated pop artist, mocking prog rock Tolkeinisms on the Neu! sleeves in favour of a knowing identification with consumerism (in English one tends to think of it as referring solely to the band, but spend more than 5 minutes in Germany to find NEU! declared all over the place). Anyway, as some sort of celebration of the motorik he set in motion, here's something I wrote several years ago (taken from the same essay as this and this, hence clumsiness) in which, although not always mentioned, the Dinger beat runs throughout.
Wir Fahr’n, Fahr’n, Fahr’n
If Jonathan in Wenders' The American Friend is out of place in the ‘futuristic ambience’ of the Paris Metro, then his post-68 contemporaries Kraftwerk were the quintessential representatives of the German techno-sublime. Kraftwerk and the linked Dusseldorf groups made a connection between German romanticism and Teutonic efficiency, allied it to a kind of tribute to 1950s whitebread America, and thrived on the resultant political ambiguity. They were torn between a kind of awestruck machinic-romantic (the glittering fantasia of ‘Neon Lights’) and an impersonalised mechanical funk (the transliterations of the rail system on ‘Trans-Europe Express’, or the stock exchange on ‘Numbers’). Their panegyrics to power stations or motorways seemed designed to spite the pastorally inclined New Left. Kraftwerk’s Wolfgang Flur writes of this as an explicit reaction, a deliberate elegance and efficiency - ‘we greedily sucked in anything that wasn’t German and believed that anything that came out of Britain or America was good, modern, honest…in the middle of this identity-free cultural vacuum, (we) suddenly appeared on the scene and did everything completely differently. We presented ourselves as German and fashionable, sang German lyrics, and defiantly gave our group a German name. We played songs that sounded as technical and calculatedly cool as if they’d been written by scientists to chemical formulae, or to the German industry-standard DIN format’.
While contemporary German groups would have sub-Dali, grand guignol psychedelic sleeves for their records, the Dusseldorf groups had a Warholian approach to design, mimicking consumer capitalism in a gesture that is as ironic as the viewer wants it to be. Musik Von Harmonia was a washing powder ad, while Kraftwerk and Neu!’s early records would feature standardised logos. Klaus Dinger of Neu! pointed out in an interview that these sardonically blank designs were ‘a protest against consumer society, but also against our ‘colleagues’ in the Krautrock scene, who had a totally different styling, if any. I was very well informed about Warhol and pop art. Also during this time I lived in a commune, and in order to get the space that we lived in I set up an advertising agency that existed entirely on paper. Most of the people I knew were trying to break into advertising so I was surrounded by this NEU! all the time.’ This led to a mockery through over-identification - a reclaiming of elegance and neatness for non-mainstream activity, and also an admission that these works are commodities, that buying them won’t epater les bourgeois, can’t be worn as a badge of resistance.
The adoption by Kraftwerk, Neu!, Cluster and Harmonia of a ‘Central European Identity’ would have a great effect on the Anglophone pop they were defining themselves against. Most of these groups began making typically discordant, acid-fried, obviously counter-cultural improvisations, attempting to destroy US/UK rock conventions. This would in fact be displaced more convincingly on records like Cluster’s 1974 Zuckerzeit, a suite of short, sweet electronic pieces, using drum machines and twinkling synth/guitar repetitions. Along with their collaboration with Neu!’s Michael Rother, Musik von Harmonia, this was an obvious referent for the sound that Brian Eno, having rejected rock and all its ideologically unreconstructed thrusting, would arrive at on the techno-pastoral utopia of 1975’s Another Green World. These groups made dance music of a sort- a rhythmic, melodic and becalmed proto-techno. Similarly, the influence of Kraftwerk on black American electro and techno producers is well documented. An interesting issue here is that the groups in question were at pains to evoke a bourgeois image: whether this is Kraftwerk, tailored and airbrushed on the cover of Trans-Europe Express, or Cluster/Harmonia setting up their studio in the forest and sitting back from rock’s sexual insistence and turbulence, we are a long way from Kommune 1, let alone the Red Army Fraction.
Biba Kopf suggests otherwise in his Unterwegs essay 'The Autobahn Goes on Forever'. Here the Dusseldorf group Neu! are seen as a dispersed, defused reaction to 1968. He writes that Neu!’s unsyncopated, minimalist and relentlessly forward-moving noise is ‘triggered by the failures of 1968 - sick of being caught in street battles grown static, of the surging, groaning masses of demonstrators straining against the immovable weight of the state, Neu! are driven forward and outward. Their music is less a confrontation with authority than a running skirmish with traffic cops’. Curiously, in sound at least, Neu! instrumentals like ‘E-Musik’ or ‘Fur Immer’ are the most explicitly utopian artefacts of the period. Not in the sense of the illustrated, programmatic utopia, or perhaps the purchasable idyll, but in their lack of any force impeding their relentless forward motion. No encumbrances like narrative, structure, harmony, just on and on and on, a reaction to historical amnesia that creates something both beautifully lulling and utterly restless, a doing away with the binaries blocking a musical aufhebung. Yet even here it spills over into frustration, as in the declarations on Neu! 75 - 'fuck the plan, fuck the programme, fuck the company - the only crime is money'
Conversely, by 1981 their former bandmates in Kraftwerk will have gone so far into the military-industrial complex itself (as Kodwo Eshun put it) that they speak from inside the stock exchange, that they try to incarnate the telephone interchanges, try to assume the spirit of the machines without spirit. Otto Werckmeister suggests that there is an immanent critique in something as machinically syncopated and blankly compulsive as ‘Numbers’. ‘These may be brokers at the stock exchanges of Frankfurt, New York and Tokyo, whose simultaneous bids resound through the intercontinental telephone networks. They vainly try to synchronise their overbidding with the beat. The small numbers can still fit into the 4/4 rhythm, but the longer, composite numbers jar against it, no matter how compressed their accelerated pronunciation. The programmed, hectic pace of the human voices appears to follow the dynamics of the electronic rhythm devices, but their melancholic maladjustment detaches them from the schematism of the machines.’ Werckmeister overstates his case here: indeed, what is interesting in Kraftwerk is the melancholy of the machines themselves, the sex appeal of the inorganic, the machine not as the war machine, but as interconnective, utopian in its possibilities rather than merely destructive. This is connected inextricably to the group’s rejection of (overt) nonconformism in favour of perverse identification. Werckmeister quotes Ralf Hutter- ‘someone does a solo on the drums. A sweating bundle sitting there. That’s a joke!’
In this they provide a kind of response to the Herbert Marcuse of Counter-Revolution and Revolt, particularly his critique of rock for its concentration on performance, spectacle and an illusory collectivity that replaces the actual collectivity of the black dance music it genuflects towards: ‘in (black) music, the music is the body…with the takeover by the whites…the jumping and playing now take place in an artificial, organised space: that they are directed towards a (sympathetic) audience. What had been part of the permanence of life, now becomes a concert, a festival, a disc in the making’. In their immersion in the technologies of late capitalist everyday life, as well as their danceability and refusal of overt performance, Kraftwerk are, without mimesis, closer to the black model that Marcuse posits. They are ‘radically bourgeois’ to use Adorno’s formulation of American society. The true radicalism doesn’t necessarily declare itself as such - one strain of 1968’s inheritors continues its struggle by uncovering the transformative, liberatory potential in the most seemingly constricting, mundane or prosaic technologies. This can’t be reduced to a set of signifiers of the ‘60s’, rather it insinuates its model of the machinically collective dancefloor at every level of contemporary life.