There have been some oddly matched musical pairings in the history of rock but surely Neu! must rank highly among them. You have the laid-back, easy going guitar player Michael Rother paired with the frentic, wild, motor mouth drummer Klaus Dinger. This odd couple somehow found the perfect middle ground and the clashing personalities no doubt created the sparks that ignited the flames of creation. Neu! burned very brightly.
They originally met when they played together in a very short-lived line-up of Kraftwerk (one that never released any recordings, although previously Dinger could be heard drumming on side two of their debut album). Frustrated with how things were progressing with Kraftwerk, they broke away to work on their own studio sessions with the trusty Conny Plank at the controls.
The album opens with “Hallogallo” which establishes their unique sound. Much has been written about “the Neu! beat” and it is a style you find to this day in modern music. It’s a tight, fast, driving rhythm that lays down the ground work for both punk and minimalist dance music. “Motorik”, the German word for motor skill, became the English language music journalists term for that beat. I will concede, it is an aptly chosen word. Even as someone who cannot drive a car, listening to “Hallogallo” gives me a feeling of vehicular motion
Over this adrenalized beat, Michael Rother plays a futuristic, funky minimalist bit of wah-wah guitar. Uplifting, utopian keyboards accompany the sonic gallup. It still sounds like tomorrow even after all these years. Although this is their trademark sound and the first thing people think of when they think of Neu!, the rest of their debut album is completely different, utilising a lot of different styles and paces.
The album drops down a few gears with the some symbol rustling and gentle guitar abstractionism of “Sonderangebot”. It’s all dissonance and subtle dischord but it sneakily segues into “Weissensee” which is all mellow and gently ambling. Dingers’ drumming goes all slow and rolling while Rother conjures up hints of eastern music in his guitar playing. It’s a sublime end to the first side.
“Im Glück “ begins with the sound of lapping water and voices, possibly backtracked. The guitar sneaks in slowly alongside what sounds like a drone violin. They begin invoking voids, space and dawns while sounding completely organic and hands-on.
“Negativland” is the song so good it has a band named after it. It starts off with a strange cacophony of reverberating engine sounds that gives way to a slow, steady beat and a low, menacing bit of guitar twanging. It slinks along at this menacing pace before breaking down into an alarmed guitar sound and suddenly Dinger kicks in with a faster beat and Rother begins furiously roaring away with his guitar. You would have to have a serious injury to not move some part of your body in response to this classic time-change.
It all comes to a close with the gentle “Lieber Honig”. Warm and subtle synths meet a classic lullaby bit of guitar playing. Dinger does a bizarre, rasping , child-like vocal. He sounds like he is regressing back to his childhood but not in a traumatic way, more in a pleasant and wistful nostalgic way. You could almost call it a musical equivalent to “Cider With Rosie” or “Swann’s Way”. It makes an unexpected and unnervingly bonkers but pleasant ending to the album.
A warning point for any non-turntable owning krautlock lovers (if that is not an oxymoron), the Neu! albums were not officially released on CD until 2001 (Astralwerks in America, Groenland in Europe). Any earlier versions on other labels are dodgy bootlegs taken from the vinyl and will sound tits. I can, however, vouch for the 2001 remaster as having a sound quality pretty much comparable to the original vinyl.
Whatever your format, though, this is a landmark album from a classic duo.