Never exactly close friends, Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger reconvened in Cologne in 1975 to record their third album as Neu! simply to fulfil a contractual obligation. Arriving in the studio with nothing planned or written and recognising that they were never going to reconcile their considerable differences, they decided on a unique approach to '75 and cut the album straight down the middle, taking a side each. On paper it sounded like they were heading for disaster, but on record they produced an original, fresh and unique album that hasn't aged in the forty years that have passed since its strange conception.
Rother takes Side One and creates a clean, understated, almost pastoral sound that conjures up images of green fields, open spaces and blue skies that even the field-recorded rain storm can't spoil. Isi starts the album with three descending piano chords and takes a short breath before Dinger's now legendary 'motorik' beat sets the song on its way and propels it forward. Rother's keyboard parts are bright and, through repetition, become euphoric. Ethereal voices (I've never found out whose) coo and ahh like angels in the spaces the song creates. As it draws to its end the track builds steadily, with an ease and efficiency; like a utopian future, everything gleams and nothing is out of place.
The pace slows considerably with Seeland. Rother allows his treated guitar to ring out in long notes over shadowy synth textures, while Dinger's drumming prevents the song from floating away from the surface of the earth and into the sky. As the song fades out, it is replaced with the sound of rain and thunder, as if Rother’s guitar lines have caused the clouds to burst.
Leb' Wohl is the first track on the album to feature lyrics, but these are breathlessly spoken rather than sung, and they're difficult to pick out underneath the sound of the sea, the sad, slightly hesitant piano, and the muted cowbell. Could it be the sound of a man recalling a lost love as he falls asleep? The frailty and weariness of the vocal is oddly wonderful, as is the sound of the gentle lapping of the sea that washes in and out of the song and envelopes the narrator as he drifts off to sleep. Dinger's (?) whistling as the song closes is almost incongruous, yet it hints at an acceptance that his lover has left him and that he has already moved on, happy to think of something else.
Dominated by Dinger, Side Two is a dramatic and aggressive about-face. The listener is thrown from the ebbing tide and into the dark corners of the city with the early thrash punk of Hero; here, Dinger sneers at and berates the father of his ex-girlfriend, whom he believes to have sabotaged their romance. Even forty years on from the album's release, the dramatic leap in styles and change of pace from Leb’ Wohl to Hero is still capable of triggering an involuntary twitch in the listener - it's a genuinely exhilarating moment.
E-Musik strikes a balance between Rother and Dinger's differing approaches, and for 10 glorious minutes, the two sides of the album shake hands and form a truce. As the phased 4/4 beat and the driving rhythm guitar fade into the sound of the wind, you feel as if you're watching the song disappear over the horizon and that it will continue on like this, forever moving forward, unable to be stopped. Dinger then closes the album with After Eight, a return to his supposedly sabotaged relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and despite its title the song is simply another version of Hero. However, Dinger is no longer 'riding through the night' but instead seeking help to get through it, although his vocal delivery remains insolent and combative. As the album finishes, you’re left with echoes of Dinger's snotty vocals ringing in your ears.
Neu! '75 was a commercial failure upon its release, and Dinger and Rother never played or recorded together again. However, the album's reputation began to grow in the nineties, thanks in part to Julian Cope's patronage and the record's ageless production (presided over by the legendary Conny Plank). Its influence on modern bands would also become more dominant over time, with Primal Scream, Sonic Youth and Death in Vegas all citing Neu! as an inspiration.
Dinger and Rother, rather aptly, spent this time bickering over the Neu! legacy and their unreleased material until Dinger's passing in 2008. '75 remains their masterpiece, and is one of the defining albums of the Krautrock era.
Michael Rother will be performing at this year's Green Man Festival. which kicks off on the 18th of August (that's just over 12 weeks away). Click here to see the full line-up and book your tickets online.