NEU! ’50!’ (Grönland)

NEW BEAT

In the 1970s, Brian Eno declared Klaus Dinger one of the greatest drummers in the world, alongside Clyde Stubblefield and Tony Allen. The sound of Neu!, augmented by the left-field guitar playing of Michael Rother, infused the music of Joy Division and David Bowie, and later the Dingerbeat was detectable in the work of artists like Stereolab – though Neu! were a band that changed the musical landscape by stealth.

This new deluxe boxset marks 50 years since they released their seminal, eponymous debut, and boasts the first three albums (the CD set also includes ’Neu! ‘86’, originally released as ‘Neu! 4’ in 1995), plus a ‘Tribute’ album replete with remixes and new pieces inspired by the band, featuring New Order’s Stephen Morris, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, The National, Mogwai and Idles. The influence Neu! had on modern alternative rock music is unquestionable, though it’s worth remembering that their ascent to godlike status was anything but straightforward.

It was Klaus Dinger’s La Düsseldorf, a band carved in the image of Neu!, who achieved international recognition first in 1976 with a little help from their shared producer, Conny Plank. ’Silver Cloud’ was a huge hit in Germany and would later alert bands such as Ultravox and OMD to the commercial possibilities of synthesisers (and not just on novelty records). It’s also worth remembering that Neu!’s back catalogue was in disarray a little more than two decades ago because of infighting.

The relationship between prinicipal members Rother and Dinger was tempestuous at best, and by the late 90s a legal wrangle held their collective catalogue – which had been out of print for a quarter of a century – in limbo. Before the days of streaming, sub-par quality bootleg editions were all that could be acquired. That scarcity might have added to Neu!’s mystique, though they were in danger of not capitalising on the goodwill imbued by Julian Cope’s superlative ‘Krautrocksampler’ book, published in 1995. Thankfully, an agreement was hammered out, and the albums appeared again in CD format in 2001.

Fast-forward 21 years – and 14 years after the death of Klaus Dinger – and all of the stops have been pulled out here to give the band the package they truly deserve. These are albums that you probably know well already, but when brought together in one set, with the side-helping of tributes, it brings new ways of seeing.
It’s hard to imagine now just what a profound effect ‘Hallogallo’ would have had on the select group of listeners who heard it in 1972. It must have been a sonic tabula rasa, of sorts – a new beginning – and also a palate cleanser from too much Anglo-American guitar machismo and a surfeit of German Schlager. It’s propulsive driving music, but not the kind you’d find on a cheesy compilation. It’s repetitive too, but all too human to be mechanical. ‘Neu!’ is as much a manifesto as it is an album.

As is the case with nearly all manifestos, total adherence is nigh-on impossible. ‘Für Immer’ gives the impression that, stylistically, it’s business as usual on ‘Neu! 2’, though the band famously ran out of money and were forced to cut corners, speeding up and slowing down tracks in a bevy of experimentation to fill a Side Two-shaped hole. Like Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’, it’s an album that divides people.

‘Neu! ‘75’ begins with the luminescent ‘Isi’ – surely the blueprint for La Düsseldorf – though a fissure emerges and the volcano erupts on Side Two, as Klaus Dinger brings in his brother Thomas and percussionist Hans Lampe, before stealing the guitar and indulging himself in some proto-punk angst, barking and slurring into a mic (no doubt losing the other Mike at this point). In many ways, ‘Neu! ‘75’ is the most entertaining Neu! album of all.

And so to ‘Tribute’, which is unusual for a tribute album in that you’ll want to keep replaying it. The abstract nature of Neu! leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and it works a treat here, from the dancefloor majesty of ‘Hallogallo’ – remixed by Stephen Morris and Gabe Gurnsey – to the surprising ‘Zum Herz’, a breezy, Neu!-inspired punk-pop manifestation by American rockers Guerilla Toss. Yann Tiersen, who is finding his way in the electronic world with increasing assurance, takes ‘Lieber Honig’ on a journey to someplace new and intriguing, while Idles – a band ordinarily more Oi! than Neu! – fair reasonably well without all those clunking consonants to fall over on their noise-imbued reworking of ‘Negativland’.

These new versions understand the nuances of Neu!, where motorik urgency can induce long periods of meditative contemplation. And five decades after Eno made his declaration, it’s strange to think that those three influential drummers he cited – sadly no longer with us, of course – are still the standard-bearers. The Dingerbeat goes on.

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