❉ We review Rudi Esch’s eyewitness account of how the highly influential Düsseldorf electronic scene developed from 1970 to 1986.
The question of how far environments go in shaping creativity has long been addressed by music writers. How far did Liverpool’s open access to the Atlantic inspire the Mersey Beat? Would the frozen, lakeside conditions of Detroit and Chicago inspire the huddled warmth generated by dancing to Techno and House? It is a question that Rudi Esch attempts to answer in his book ‘Electri_City: The Düsseldorf School of Electronic Music’. Essentially a collection of interviews, cut-and-pasted into a narrative, the book charts the emergence of the electronic music scene from 1970 to 1986, as performed by artists such as Neu!, La Düsseldorf, Cluster, Der Plan and, the ubermensch of the scene, Kraftwerk.
Essentially there is a lot that is familiar in the Düsseldorf story. The first bands were art school kids experimenting with form, playing in loose collectives and getting shit-faced. This social interaction brought together students from different backgrounds, if we think the class system played an important part in shaping British pop music, it was equally relevant in Germany. One of the more well-off kids was the only son of a famous architect who played the flute. Florian Schneider had received a formal education in music and while being a student played in a band called Piss Off. While training to be an architect like his father he had met a young Hammond Organ player named Ralf Hutter. Together they would form a band called Organisation. It wasn’t long before that name had changed to Kraftwerk. By contrast, Klaus Dinger (drummer) and Michael Rother (guitarist) had come from more working class families, this set-up a dynamic that remained with Kraftwerk as their line-up changed over the years: Ralf and Florian were in charge, everyone else was an employee.
‘Kraftwerk’ was their first album and featured a ten minute piece entitled Von Himmel Hoch, one-third dive bombers and explosions, the piece gives way to a second act that’s a conversation between Florian’s flute and Ralf’s organ, the last three minutes are danceable jazz-funk. Not a synthesizer in sight.
This proto-prog approach excited the likes of Dinger and Rother who decided that they could form their own band. Neu! were formed as means of allowing the duo’s spontaneous creativity to be set free, curtailed as it was by Kraftwerk’s adherence to planning and form. All they needed was someone to help them shape their playing. Enter Conny Plank, lauded as being the person who shaped the Düsseldorf sound more commonly known by its later, derogatory title Krautrock. Plank was a hippy who had built his own recording studio on a farm. Blessed with a remarkable ear for what worked, Plank was the perfect person to shape Neu! into a tangible band.
Hallogallo is another ten-minute piece, albeit one that positively cruises through the air something more polished than Kraftwerk’s efforts. Less a song and more of a blueprint, the band would improvise endless variations of the piece when performing live, though admitted they had problems achieving on stage what they could in the studio, recreating technical effects live was still difficult to do.
Meanwhile Kraftwerk were also realising their needs could not be solved with simply flutes and organs. Having released an album entitled ‘Ralf und Florian’, again engineered by Conny Plank, they had seen the potential of synthesizers such as the MiniMoog. In order to accommodate their requirement for experimentation and new instruments they found a space in an industrial part of Düsseldorf: Mintropstrasse 16 and moved in, nailing egg boxes to the walls and ceiling as sounds suppressors. They called their new home Kling Klang. They took on new personnel. Drummer Wolfgang Flur had made his own electronic drum kit. Later Karl Bartos joined the group and this would be the ‘classic’ line-up of the band from the seventies into the eighties.
In 1974 electronic music emerged as something potent and wonderful in the form of Autobahn, Kraftwerk’s audio trip from Koln to Bonn. Plank once again took engineering duties as the synth line-up included the ARP Odyssey, Minimoog and the EMS Synthi AKS. The album and title track propelled Kraftwerk into the mainstream. As the seventies rolled on, Kraftwerk found themselves touring America. Audiences had, understandably, heard little like it. Thanks to an accidental conflation in the US psyche of Kraftwerk’s stage appearance (neatly groomed, in suits, to represent the engineers they wished to emulate) and the lyric ‘Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der autobahn” being very similar to the sixties pop hit Fun, Fun, Fun the band suddenly found themselves being described as the ‘new’ or ‘electronic’ Beach Boys. They had the look and a hook for success both in Europe and the USA.
As the seventies wore on hippy culture was dead, glam had been around and punk was coming. The kids in Düsseldorf were hanging out at the Ratinger Hof. Neu! made it to the middle of the decade and died out, giving way to another Klaus Dinger project La Düsseldorf. Meanwhile, in the UK, people like Andy McClusky of OMD and Martyn Ware of The Human League/Heaven 17 were beginning to grasp the importance of the German sound and the synthesizer having had their aural imaginations aroused by the likes of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and ‘Doctor Who’. Slowly the technology to make that sort of sound and music was getting more and more affordable. Bands on both sides of the Channel were turned-on to the Düsseldorf sound.
Kraftwerk released three classic albums back to back: ‘Radio-Activity’ (1975), ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (1977) and, the culmination of Ralf Hutter’s obsession over fusing imagination with technology, ‘The Man Machine’ (1978). By the time the band went on tour with ‘Computer World’ (1981) they worked out a way of getting all of Kling Klang’s studio kit out on stage with them. They had to employ a full time engineer just to ensure the equipment kept running. Creatively though they were beginning to plateau.
The punks had left Kraftwerk behind, they rejected the band’s robot-fetish, it’s dry wit and most of all its impotence – ‘She’s a Model and she’s looking good / I’d like to take her out, that’s understood’ highlighted their passionless loser status. In contrast new and hungry bands were determined to rip up the past and start again. Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft or DAF were one such band. Plucked from Düsseldorf to be produced in England, DAF were an uptempo electronic group that more than flirted with fascist iconography.
Der Mussolini says it all. They grew a following of skinheads and Nazis. At one gig, to prevent the stage being rushed by a gang of thugs, the band started to hand out copies of ‘Mein Kampf’. This kept the crowd happy. While the band no doubt leveraged the whole look and terminology of fascism it was their application of a poppy electronica that musically placed them alongside Depeche Mode, Ultravox and Visage.
All of these incidences, plus many more besides are described in Esch’s book, sometimes from differing multiple viewpoints. While Esch seems to have had great access to Wolfgang Flur, neither Ralf nor Florian contributes in direct interviews, which leaves the story of Kraftwerk only half-told. Equally, figures like Conny Plank have had a massive influence on the music produced, only to unfortunately be dead now. Therefore throughout ‘Electri_City’ there seems to be moments of silence, gaps in the record that should be filled. As a de-mythologising of both the city’s status as a cradle of electronic creativity and of Kraftwerk it works well. You understand that over the course of sixteen years there were loose collections of people who knew each other, some real geniuses and many hangers-on and also-rans.
Many in the book enjoy pricking the pomposity of Kraftwerk – one of my favourite stories was that the band like to mock Florian after the cover of ‘Trans-Europe Express’ portrayed him with a massive head. Likewise, figures who had interacted with the German scene and took influence from it seem somewhat inconsequential. Yes, Bowie revered Kraftwerk and played their albums in full over the PA before his ‘Station to Station’ tour. However, Kraftwerk weren’t nearly as enamoured with him though the did go to see him in concert, all in the same car. While Düsseldorf is nurturing electronic music, Munich has Giorgio Moreoder, creating European disco while working with Donna Summer. The city has its place in music history, but Esch is careful to point out it is not the be-all-and-end-all.
In short though, I found the book fascinating, especially as a study of what it means to be in a band and achieve fame. It rarely happens. Being in a band is to be poor, arguing with friends and abusing too much drink and drugs. If you’re a student, you might as well do all those things anyway, as an adult it becomes more challenging.
I think it quite possible to make the case that Düsseldorf inspired creativity. Yes, it inspired the fascination with technology and engineering, but it also had an arts scene that lent itself to pushing boundaries and embracing the new (Neu!). It’s mix of social backgrounds meant that sparks flew and minds were opened. For a country so damaged by the events of twenty-five years prior, it gave life to new ways of expression.