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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Sydney Morning Herald JUNE 5, 2015 - by Christopher Hollow
HOW DUSSELDORF BECAME THE BIRTHPLACE OF MODERN ELECTRONICA
Liverpool. Manchester. Nashville. Seattle. Dunedin. All unsuspecting provincial towns that have fostered a fertile scene that has changed the course of music forever.
Another that fits the bill - Dusseldorf - the Mississippi Delta of electronica.
The city on the River Rhine is renowned for its steel industry, its fine-arts academy, its hoppy altbier and acrobatic cartwheels in the streets - yes, there's a long history of cartwheeling; a motif that's celebrated in the town's architecture, literature and carnivals.
It also gave birth to a swag of bands that are pioneers in electronic dance, alt and avant-garde music.
This is the place where Neu! conceived the motorik beat, Harmonia dreamed up ambient, Die Krupps expanded the idea of industrial, and where those brilliant mensch-maschines Kraftwerk, declared: "We are the robots".
A wide array of artists has tapped the energy and innovations of krautrock - from David Bowie to Daft Punk, Talking Heads to Tiesto, Stereolab to Sonic Youth.
The influence of Kraftwerk on Australia's premier electronica artist, Gotye, can be seen in the early concept pop of 2006's Thanks For Your Time through to one of a myriad of unofficial remixes of Somebody That I Used To Know, that mashes the 2011 international smash hit with Kraftwerk's Tour de France drums.
As Gotye, Wally De Backer has played Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg, even Cologne. But the German town he's most keen to visit is Dusseldorf.
"Kraftwerk were my entry point into that very fertile period of German electronic music," says De Backer. "As a teenager, I heard them mentioned by a number of people who I was into, like Nine Inch Nails and Portishead. I jumped into The Man Machine and Computer World before going back to Autobahn. It was the first stuff from Germany that I really listened to and [became] enamoured of. Sometimes you might go and explore something that you hear about - a significant moment, a certain scene in history that had a lot of influence and it's great when it does actually change your musical world. Kraftwerk definitely did that for me."
At home, '70s German experimental rock is dubbed kosmische or elektronische music; the term "krautrock" began as a piss-take tag coined by the British music press.
"At first, it probably should have been insulting," says Rudiger Esch, author of Electri_City, which chronicles the years 1969-1986, when most of Germany's bespoke analog electronic music was coming out of Dusseldorf. "But, then, it got turned into something good. If you say krautrock, you know what you're talking about. It's a name, it's a brand. It's like techno, blues or rhythm and blues. It's now a great tradition in the history of German music."
The Dusseldorf sound has its roots in a tight-knit group of individuals. It includes Kraftwerk leaders Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider and their ambitious off-siders Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother.
"Dusseldorf as a town was nothing special," Rother says. "But I was fortunate to be in Dusseldorf at the time [when] it was possible to meet the people in Kraftwerk and Neu!... It was exciting to meet and jam with Ralf Hutter and find out that I wasn't totally alone with my idea of this kind of music. And then to play with Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger. Of course, that introduced me to a completely new world."
In 1971, Dinger and Rother exited Kraftwerk intent on their own path. As a duo, Neu! were a Jekyll/Hyde combination, often at each other's throats. Dinger was wild, aggressive and inspired; Rother was more introverted.
Despite their differences, they successfully fashioned three albums of ground-breaking, forward-thinking music that is still being referenced. Their sound was based on a hypnotic drum pattern - dubbed motorik - that reinvents itself with every bar. With this, they created the template for krautrock and the Dusseldorf sound.
"They really were exploring texture in long form," De Backer says. "They established the motorik beat and around that the sense of things like synths and guitars slowly morphing... It gives you the sense of space in the same way as a lot of twentieth-century minimalist classical music does. At first, it can confront you by the absences, but it gives your brain the space to find detail and find real beauty over time."
One concept that binds the krautrock bands is the idea of a cultural Year Zero. Like other major German cities, Dusseldorf was bombed into oblivion during World War II. By the late-1960s the town's impressive skyline was all new. Neu!'s credo was similar. To raze all influences to help create something original.
"It was crazily ambitious and maybe a bit big-headed to try to forget everything and try to discover something new," Rother says. "In a way, it's not possible. Looking back, I still see connections."
Irmin Schmidt from Cologne band, Can, shared a similar Year Zero philosophy to the musicians of nearby Dusseldorf.
"We didn't want to just imitate English or American music and try to play as if we were born in Liverpool or Nashville," Schmidt says. "We played our music with all the consciousness, memory and knowledge that we were born in a country like Germany, where the whole cultural development had been cut with the Nazi time and the whole tradition had been destroyed... We did not try to hide that. We didn't imitate the English and say, 'Oh, shit, we are wonderfully hip and pop'. We weren't. We were German.
"In Germany, there was no pop tradition. No jazz tradition. No tradition which led to something like pop music because the last one was Beggar's Opera [The Three-Penny Opera] from Kurt Weill. So our music was maybe the first German music which truly referred to our situation - born in a field of ruins. That sounds very serious and not at all rock'n'roll and I mean it to be."
The unifying factor linking the first and second generation Dusseldorf bands is Austrian-born producer Konrad "Conny" Plank. His work with Kraftwerk, Neu!, Harmonia, Cluster and La Dusseldorf is as significant as Martin Hannett to Joy Division/New Order, Brian Eno to David Bowie, or George Martin to The Beatles. He also worked with artists as disparate as DAF, Devo, Ultravox, Eurythmics and Australia's Hunters & Collectors.
"Conny was brilliant," Rother says. "Although he was never in Dusseldorf [his studio was on the outskirts of Cologne], his name is connected to all the important stuff."
Despite the international acclaim generated by the musicians of Dusseldorf, the town is not one to celebrate its homegrown heroes. There are no statues recognising their achievements, no streets named after their bands.
"For people who live in Australia or Liverpool, they've always found this is a good ground for music," says Esch. "In Dusseldorf, you never have this feeling. I travel to London and see record stores and they have all three Neu! albums in their window. This doesn't happen in Dusseldorf. Some people don't even think Neu! is a band, they think it's an advertising company or something else."
"Maybe it keeps fresh because it's never a household name," Rother says. "Neu! and Harmonia was never successful in the early days but somehow it's started coming back. But it's still something for the minority and maybe it has to stay that way."