INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian OCTOBER 22, 2015 - by David Stubbs
HARMONIA - TEN OF THE BEST
The German pioneers' complete catalogue gets reissued later this month - but its members' work extended far behind the Harmonia name. Here are ten classics from across their careers.
1 KLUSTER Electric Music Und Texte - In 1969, Conny Plank, a young West German producer with a decent pedigree in the industry but a deep sympathy for a new generation of experimental musicians, managed to persuade a church-run studio to record an album he was making with Dieter Moebius, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Conrad Schnitzler, a musically untutored fellow extremist from the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in Berlin. In February 1970, they recorded a follow-up album entitled Zwei-Osterei (Two Easter Eggs). Its lengthy opener, Electric Music Und Texte, is a stabbing, pre-post-industrial, brutalist broadside of abrasive sound effects; these are not achieved on synthesisers, then prohibitively expensive, but the result of Plank electronically modifying the trio's piano, guitar, cello, flute, percussion and organ playing, with fearsomely compelling results. Strangest of all about this track is the "Texte", a religious tract read out by one Manfred Paethe as a condition of the band recording on church premises. Conrad Schnitzler later advised listeners not to try to decipher the text, not merely to attend to its Teutonic textures. "If you find out what it means, it sounds terrible."
2 HARMONIA Sehr Kosmisch - In 1971, Moebius and Roedelius were considering moving away from their noisenik, confrontational approach. When the opportunity arose to move into a large house deep in the idyllic setting of Lower Saxony, they decided to take it, despite the renovations it required to make it remotely habitable. The forest was a refuge - away from the city, the commerce of the music industry, closer to an ideal of nature where music could arise organically. As with Can, Kraftwerk and Faust, it was important for Harmonia to create in a hermetic, studio environment - the studio was not a place where pre-written, pre-rehearsed material was merely recorded, but the place in which work began, a sound lab. They were joined by Michael Rother, whose other group, Neu! was on hold in 1973. He drove up with a primitive sequencer in tow initially just to jam, but decided to stick around. Their album Muzik Von Harmonia, eventually released in 1974, is the work of three pacific but intense souls gently overlapping. Sehr Kosmisch (very cosmic) is a pun, sounding deliberately close to sehr komisch (very funny). German experimental musicians were wryly aware of how lightly they were regarded in their own time. This, however, is sublime; ambient skies criss-crossed like vapour trails by put-putting rhythms and filled with solemnly burgeoning cloud formations. It speaks of the rural peace of its environment, but its electronic signal pulses speak also to the future.
3 CLUSTER Rosa - Recorded in the immediate aftermath of Muzik Von Harmonia in 1974, Cluster's album Zuckerzeit was made by a group that was, in effect, Harmonia minus Michael Rother. He had been compelled to depart the forest idyll to fulfil his contractual commitments with Neu!. He did, however, leave behind an array of instruments of which Moebius and Roedelius took full advantage in creating Zuckerzeit, whose melodic, pop-friendly ambitions are a far cry from the days when they spelled their name with a harsh "K". Rosa is a reminder of just how much they had in common with Brian Eno and prefigures the cross-fertilisation that took place between them; small, mobile, immaculate in its distressed, watercolour beauty, it fades in amid the regular knocking of a woodblock percussive loop that would not have sounded out of place on Eno's Another Green World, released a year later, in 1975.
4 HARMONIA Holta-Polta - Recorded at the Penny Station club, a disused railway station in Griessen, Germany, the album Live 1974 can today be seen as a precursor of minimal techno and vast swathes of electronica and dubscaping. Back then, Harmonia were greeted with oblivion; Michael Rother recalled driving three hundred kilometres with Harmonia to a venue only to play to three people. There aren't that many more than that present at this gig, a handful of stoned, possibly befuddled hippies who barely acknowledge these extended improvisations, the best of which is the fifteen-minute Holta-Polta. The title is an onomatopoeic reference to the clicking, rotating rhythm that drives this piece, in which a bass twang recurs remorselessly, amid babbling trickles and aerial scrawls of modified guitar, synth and electric organ. The group had a fadeout device with which they were unfamiliar and kept misusing, drawing this track to several premature near-silences, above which can be heard indifferent audience chatter. Live 1974 was not released until 2007, to adulatory reviews from twenty-first century critics.
5 HARMONIA Deluxe (Immer Wieder) - The opening, tonal chimes of Harmonia's second album, Deluxe, indicate a shift from the ambient abstractions of its predecessor, and reflect the dominance of Neu!'s Michael Rother, who had deferred to his hosts on the earlier album. This track feels akin to the sort of bold, lucid, melodic statements Kraftwerk were beginning to make at the same time, announcing the imminent arrival of a distinctly European electropop. The deadpan chants say it all (while not actually saying it) - the Germans were coming. The Cluster duo later admitted they were less happy with this album than the first, their hearts less in it. Forty years on, this feels like a Utopian dream of how electronically assisted pop could have occupied a role of serene, functional beauty in everyday life.
6 NEU! Leb' Wohl - By the time of what would in effect be Neu!'s final album, duo Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger were so artistically estranged, and so different in outlook that they decided that side A would feature the conventional Neu! line-up but side B would be effectively a Dinger solo project. It was Dinger who conceived the motorik beat, which, post-Stereolab, has been such a influence on modern avant indie - no verse, no chorus, just drive on. However, Rother's bittersweet atmospheres hang significantly in the Neu! air, not least on track three, Leb' Wohl (Farewell), which follows the trajectory established on the previous two Neu! albums - the opening track bowling out in sanguine, motorik style, before a profound wistfulness slowly settles. Leb' Wohl sounds like an illustration of the maxim that it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive; it seems to be located at some distant beach at dead of night, the end of the road, suffused with the sad beauty of having gone as far as there is to go. Neu! had reached that point; from here, Rother would put out onto calmer waters.
7 HARMONIA '76 Luneburg Heath - When Brian Eno first heard Harmonia, he extravagantly proclaimed them to be "the most important band in the world". He sought them out, joined them at a gig for an onstage jam and stayed with them in Forst for eleven days, during which time the collective that is now often known as Eno and Harmonia '76 recorded Tracks and Traces. Eno was, in a sense, an honorary Krautrocker, whose idea of contemporary music as a sort of plastic art and interest in the then-obscure concept of ambient music chimed with Cluster. On this album, Eno applies the lightest of touches but does venture a vocal performance on Luneburg Heath, where he advises the listener, "Don't get lost", as Harmonia create an alluring, thick miasma that practically invites you to lose your bearings.
8 BRIAN ENO By This River - Eno was a one-man vortex in 1977. For the album Before And After Science, he enlisted the services of both Phil Collins and Can's Jaki Liebezeit on drums, referenced cultural influences as diverse as Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, Talking Heads and Julie Christie, with whom he had a brief fling. On the more meditative, pastoral side of the album he showcased Moebius and Roedelius, who receive co-credits for By By This River, a piece so spare and limpid it makes Erik Satie sound Wagnerian, but whose choice droplets make it one of the album's highlights. It was valuable exposure for Cluster, too. Before Eno, and more significantly, Bowie, took an interest in new German music, Krautrock had been considered a music press joke. After the blessing they conferred in the late '70s, thereafter anything Teutonic was invested with a metallic sheen of avant-garde cool, that would eventually percolate into the monikers of Bauhaus and Spandau Ballet.
9 HANS-JOACHIM ROEDELIUS The Diary Of The Unforgotten - Roedelius was born in Berlin in 1934, before Elvis Presley and way before any Beatle, and was the senior member of Harmonia. He has had an astonishing career, still active, which began as a child screen actor in the Nazi era before he was conscripted into the Hitler youth. After the war, he was forced to forage for food for his family, slipped back and forth between East and West Germany before eventually settling back in Berlin where he co-founded Zodiak with Conrad Schnitzler. His early life helped build his skills in self-sufficiency, improvisation and enterprise and he was always a prolific musician, creating countless home-crafted electronic pieces in his own, small studio between 1972 and 1978. The Diary Of The Unforgotten is one such piece, eventually released in the Selbstportrait series in 1990. This beautiful instrumental is coloured by grainy, intimations of the immediate environment, a romantic nostalgia perhaps for less fractured and brutal times, while also anticipating an entire electronic scene as yet barely imagined, let alone born.
10 MOEBIUS-PLANK-NEUMEIER All Repro - Conny Plank was a producer and longtime associate of all three members of Harmonia. His advanced and often brilliantly improvised production techniques helped colourise and realise the rich visions of the German experimentalists with whom he worked; his influence even spread into the 1980s, and groups like DAF. Here, he made one of his infrequent forays to the other side of the mixing desk - All Repro, recorded with Moebius and drummer Mani Neumeier, bridges the gap between krautrock and techno, its sequencer rhythms, eccentric, robotic emissions and African influences proposing new forms and directions for the dancefloor. Sadly, Plank died in 1987 of cancer, while Dieter Moebius passed away earlier this year, too soon to see the overdue release of the Harmonia box set, now a fitting tribute to his memory.
David Stubbs is the author of Future Days: Krautrock And The Building Of Modern Germany, published by Faber & Faber. The Harmonia box set Complete Works, a five album vinyl set, is released on Groenland Records on October 30.