"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo JULY 2004 - by Johnny Black
BLESS YE JERRY MENTALMEN
This month in our series of forgotten classics: what happened when Neu! met Cluster in the German forest.
Harmonia: Musik Von Harmonia
Back in 2001, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante was asked what new direction the group's music might be expected to take. We all have been sharing this sort of love for some of the German electronic music of the '70s, he replied, like Kraftwerk and Cluster and Harmonia.
While Kraftwerk's influence on virtually every genre of popular music is unquestioned, those other two comparatively unknown bands had a subtler impact. Similarly, the tendency to lump together all of the experimental German groups of the period - Can, Neu!, Tangerine Dream et al - under the Krautrock banner has over-simplified the oeuvre in which they moved. Indeed, one track on Harmonia's debut album, Musik Von Harmonia, is ironically titled Sehr Kosmisch [Very Cosmic], purely as a poke in the eye of the other krautrock bands., with whom Harmonia felt little kinship. We didn't feel close to those other bands at all, explain's Harmonia's Hans-Joachim Roedelius, because it was all esoteric rubbish.
While Tangerine Dream, for example, were conjuring up gigantic soundscapes that seemed to echo from across vast gulfs of interstellar space, Roedelius and his partner in the group Cluster, 'Mobi' Moebius, were exploring an altogether more intimate, inward-looking musical landscape. Meanwhile, guitarists Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger of Neu! were creating propulsive, repetitive, minimalist, rhythmic structures.
In 1973, Cluster were based in a rambling sixteenth century house in the tiny north German community of Forst, where they were surprised one day to find Michael Rother on their doorstep. We found out later that Klaus Dinger had sent him to find out if Neu! and Cluster might form a supergroup, recalls Roedelius, but Michael did not tell us this. I think he was becoming bored working with Klaus, who was a very difficult person, so he decided to stay with us and forget about the supergroup idea. The result was Harmonia.
Life in the big house, occupied by the band and their girlfriends, was run on a communal basis, with one of the ten spacious rooms allocated as a studio, littered with arcane electronic instruments. The eight all-instrumental tracks on Musik Von Harmonia, although driven by a relentless drum-machine pulse, exhibit a gritty, home-made feel, the result no doubt of the haphazard way the trio approached the making of the music. We would find a nice beat on the drum machine, explains Roedelius, and then improvise from there. When we played live, we would try to push the same buttons on the drum machine to recreate what we had done, but it never quite seemed to work out.
At their most concise, the three minute long guitar-led Dino percolates with danceable rhythms, while the meditative Ahoi! drifts along a simple repeated bass pattern overlaid with the most delicate of keyboard figures. (Its) melodies are child-like and cosmically eternal at the same time, enthused Julian Cope in his book Krautrocksampler, and each mood-piece of long snippets of feel and vibration sends the listener into a delightfully whacked-out state.
We did not use synthesizers, points out Roedelius. I had a Farfisa organ, and we had some tone generators that were built for us by friends. There were some effects machines from Dynacord, one of the early tape-delay machines, and a mixing desk. I also used a cello, and sometimes guitar.
The house was so remote from any major centre of civilisation there was no problem with neighbours complaining about the noise. It was in the middle of green fields, with the River Weser running beside it, says Roedelius. The only buildings nearby were a brewery, a water mill, and one restaurant with a bordello in it - very nice women from everywhere. We went many nights, when we could afford it, and played billiards and drank beer.
Out of this rural idyll came an album ahead of its time (there's a track called Hausmusik), which sold poorly on release but has grown in stature over the years, hailed not just by the Chili Peppers but such artists as Cope and Brian Eno (who later collaborated with Cluster on two albums, Cluster & Eno and After The Heat).
Roedelius, now in his seventies, still writes, records and plays music for appreciative audiences internationally. Rother and Moebius still live in that big house by the river. The bordello, however, has gone.
Tracks: Watussi / Sehr Kosmisch / Sonnenschein / Dino / Ohrwurm / Ahoi! / Veterano / Hausmusik
Chart Peak: none
Singles Extracted: none
Personnel: Hans-Joachim Roedelius (organ, piano, guitar, electronic percussion); Dieter Moebius (keyboards, guitar, electronic percussion); Michael Rother (guitars, piano, organ, percussion)
Availability: Brain POCP 2387