Forget Kraftwerk doing it for one song, in the late 1980s, fellow Düsseldorf outfit Der Plan came up with a crackpot scheme to completely replace themselves with robots…
Back in 1955, as the technical revolution was gathering pace, the eminent Hungarian mathematician, scientist and polymath John von Neumann foresaw impending calamity. Two years before his death, he spoke of a dark, dystopian future where automatons designed by humans would surpass the capabilities of their creators.
Von Neumann called it “a maturing crisis of technology”, where artificial intelligence would eventually lead to the rise of a mechanised order, deposing humanity at the top of the hierarchical structure we like to call the animal kingdom. The concept has come to be known as the singularity.
Moritz Reichelt (aka Moritz R®) and Frank Fenstermacher were born in Düsseldorf in October 1955, around the time von Neumann was delivering his apocalyptic warning. Some 30 years later, as members of Der Plan, they would dare to take us dangerously close to that technological tipping point.
Der Plan are, without doubt, North Rhine-Westphalia’s strangest pop group – and this, remember, is the region boasting Kraftwerk as its most famous sons. Formed in 1979 and originally known as Weltaufstandsplan (“World Rebellion Plan”), they were joined in 1982 by Kurt Dahlke (aka Pyrolator, formerly of fellow Neue Deutsche Welle protagonists, DAF).
Over the next eight years they released six ambient dreampop albums bordering on the nightmarish, with unsettling sonic excursions and forays into schlager, often flipping to scary psychedelia. But this is the story of the one that got away.
Originally recorded in 1989, Der Plan’s lost meisterwerk, ‘Save Your Software’, was accidentally rediscovered by Reichelt during a lockdown spring clean at the band’s Ata Tak label headquarters in Düsseldorf.
“I was rearranging my entire studio and I was ready to start throwing things out,” he says over the phone from Berlin. “And then suddenly this cassette fell into my hand.”
As mechanised voices, taut techno and old-skool hip hop beats emanated from the tape via the office stereo, memories flooded over Reichelt like a tidal wave. This was the sound of the Fanuks, a specially assembled trio of robots designed to replace Der Plan’s three humans.
“When I listened to all these mixes of the Fanuk music, I thought, ‘Wow, why did we never pursue this? It’s not so bad!’. But we’d completely forgotten it existed. So I sent it to the others suggesting that we should think about releasing it, and they said, ‘Yeah, why not?’, and the record company also immediately agreed to put it out.”
There are six excavated tracks in all, including the lead single, ‘Copy Copy Machine’. They sound almost commercial, contemporary even, in the obscure and often misunderstood world of Der Plan. Reichelt jokes the album could be the start of a new genre – robot schlager. He’s keen to point out, though, that schlager really just means “hit” in German, and not necessarily the beery, kitsch folk pop we’ve come to associate it with.
“I’m already pretty curious,” he adds. “Will the Fanuks sell better or worse than our last regular album?”
‘Save Your Software’ is a hybrid of past and future. The six original tracks on the A-side are complemented by three more on the flipside, inspired by the originals and pieced together from incomplete fragments retrieved from the recovered tapes.
These are separated by a 13-minute “documentary” called ‘Die Geschichte Der Fanuks’ (‘The History Of The Fanuks’), a blow-by-blow account of how the project came together. It’s a useful synopsis if you happen to speak German, though perhaps a track you might skip if you don’t.
The making of ‘Save Your Software’ is an unbelievable tale. Given it was so long ago, Reichelt admits there may be some blurring of fantasy and fact in its telling , but don’t let that put you off. Memory is a fickle mistress and these are post-truth times after all. So buckle up…
The year 1989 saw the old order shift on its axis. Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, Czechoslovakia experienced a Velvet Revolution, and on New Year’s Eve David Hasselhoff belted out his German chart-topping ‘Looking For Freedom’ from a bucket crane over the recently breached Berlin Wall. Little wonder that Francis Fukuyama was writing about “the end of history”. Yet if revolution – both political and social – was in the air, then stranger things were afoot right on Der Plan’s doorstep.
“Around this time, there was a car that used to park near Ata Tak’s headquarters in Düsseldorf,” says Reichelt. “It was a yellow Audi with these red letters across the side, spelling the word FANUC. And I always wondered, ‘What is FANUC?’. In those days there was no internet, but I managed to discover it was a robot company located at the foot of Mount Fuji, and it became even more of a mystery.”
Der Plan had already decided in 1985 – in a vote carried by a slim majority of two to one – to bow to the inevitable and replace themselves with robots as soon as the technology became available. They contacted Second Life Inc, a tech firm that had worked previously with both George Lucas and Kraftwerk, although this was new territory even for a global company spearheading robotic technology.
The yellow vehicle outside Ata Tak felt like a sign, and it transpired FANUC had offices in Düsseldorf. A collaboration was soon agreed – at a price, of course. With Der Plan being entertainers first and foremost, they decided to incorporate robots into their next live performance and set about writing music for the stage show. Perhaps aware they might draw comparisons with their compatriots Kraftwerk, they didn’t just stop at robots.
“We had this idea for a live show with Der Plan as three different bands,” says Reichelt. “One was a tango band featuring an old man singing depressing lyrics, another called Catholic Kitsch was a psychedelic, long-haired hippy group who put candles on the stage, and the third would be the Fanuks with their hard-edged electronics.”
For the robots’ voices, Der Plan used a speech synthesiser that sounds almost exactly like the online simulator featured on simulationcorner.net.
“It was one of the first programmes to turn text into voice,” chuckles Reichelt. “We had to do a lot of editing to make it fit to the rhythms, but we had these very specific robot voices that even Kraftwerk didn’t have.”
In their dealings with FANUC, Der Plan had an intriguing intermediary – the shadowy figure N Senada, a Bavarian philosopher and musician whose legend precedes him, although a cursory internet search will take you to a Wiki fandom page for the American art collective The Residents.
N Senada occupied the musical surrealists’ world for a time, and rumours circulated that he was actually Captain Beefheart in disguise, although how or why remains unclear. I mention this confusion to Reichelt, as well as the fact that, phonetically in Spanish, N Senada means “cove” or “inlet”, and se nada translates as “I know nothing”. What could it all mean?
“People are always wondering where the name came from,” he replies, impishly. “There’s also Ensenada in Mexico, close to the border, where Californian youths would go at the weekends to take acid.”
Under closer scrutiny, Reichelt admits N Senada might be apocryphal and is most probably named after that Baja Californian town where young Americans tripped their faces off.
When Der Plan formed at the tail end of the 1970s, their key influence was undoubtedly The Residents, and their ethos was to push against the worthiness of punk in a way that was both satirical and quietly seditious.
“We were anti-rock ’n’ roll, but there’s so much good rock ’n’ roll that I can’t be against it, really. If you think about it, even Kraftwerk would be lost without it.”
The catalyst for the band came via a life-changing epiphany in the shape of a lysergic gadabout at Disneyland, California. Do Der Plan critique Disney in their music, I wonder?
“You have these different aspects of Disneyland – it’s not just the incredible entertainment, but also this amazing machinery that sucks people in. When you experience it on acid, you see all these different dimensions. Critique is probably the wrong word – you’re just able to see all the different parts of the mosaic.”
“Yes! The first time I went, what most impressed me was a statue of Abraham Lincoln as an animatronic, holding a copy of a speech. It was pure propaganda. It’s like Stalin as a mechanical puppet. Can you imagine being on acid and seeing that?”
Did Reichelt slyly drop a tab before entering Mickey Mouse mecca, then?
“Yeah, it was my first visit to Disneyland – I went there with a friend just after a trip to Ensenada actually.” He laughs his head off at this point. “It all came together, you know!”
Sadly the robots didn’t come together, mainly because Ata Tak ran out of capital and Der Plan ran out of energy.
“It was too complicated. To make an impressive robot, even as a costume, takes a lot of effort and money and we couldn’t do it in time, so we dropped the Fanuks from the concert entirely. In the end, the third band would be Der Plan with typical Der Plan music,” he laments. The music for the project was put on the back burner, then swiftly forgotten.
Der Plan may have failed in their mission to set into motion the technological singularity John von Neumann prophesied, but they were never anything but singular in their vision. In the intervening years, we as a species have become dangerously obsessed with technology – First World humanoids attached to smartphones that demand our constant attention, a fusion of man and machine, even if we don’t look like cyborgs.
“In these times, people are becoming increasingly like robots – they’ve become so rational and aren’t as crazy anymore,” says Moritz Reichelt, sounding disappointed. “And robots are becoming so intelligent that they’ve developed more and more to be like people.
“On the other hand, our artificial intelligence is developing emotionally. In Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, the robot has these human qualities which make everything more appealing to the real human beings on the spaceship. And I think that’s happening today. AI is developing rapidly – it will be the number one subject of the future. It’s going to change everything so much and in ways we can’t even imagine.”
‘Save Your Software’ is out now on Bureau B