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Mojo NOVEMBER 2015 - by Andrew Male
WE THREE KINGS
It began as an idea to expand Neu!'s live sound and ended too soon, but Harmonia made some of the best experimental music of the '70s, says Andrew Male.
Harmonia: Complete Works
When Neu!'s Michael Rother first visited Cluster's Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius at their idyllic Forst commune - three grand, crumbling houses on the Weser in Lower Saxony - over Easter 1973, he was hoping to convince them to join himself and drummer Klaus Dinger in Neu!'s expanded live line-up. Says Roedelius: "He came to find out whether Cluster would be part of a supergroup called Europe: two synth players, two percussionists, two guitarists. But this didn't work out. It worked out that he founded Harmonia."
"There was no supergroup," says Rother. "As a live duo Neu! didn't work. I introduced a tape recorder and people hated that. We were different, on our own mission."
In November 1972 United Artists invited Neu! to tour the UK. "We needed other musicians," says Rother. "Then I remembered Cluster, from a double concert in Hamburg in '71 [and] one track Im Süden, [on 1972's Cluster II], with a kind of melodiousness guitar that could go with mine. So I took my guitar and visited the Cluster guys in Forst. That really changed everything."
Of the three, Rother, twenty-two, was the one with musical training. His mother played classical piano and, as a 1960s teenager, "totally fascinated by Jimi Hendrix", he taught himself radio pop tunes. By contrast Roedelius, thirty-nine, was a trained physiotherapist, and Moebius a graphic designer. But all three were keen to find a new sound language.
It's that exploration you hear on their 1974 debut. Recorded between June and November 1973, Musik Von Harmonia is the sound of three men building new rhythmic structures of delicately wrought beauty from guitar, piano, organ, keyboards and synthesizer. The beat-driven tracks, Watussi and Dino, squeak and hum like perpetual motion machines, while the shimmering patterns of Sehr Kosmisch and Ohrwurm capture the pastoral light in the room at Forst. Bounced through three Revoxes and a cheap mixer, the degraded thinness bathes everything in a fine lambent haze.
Divested of blues, pop and rock clichés, Harmonia tapped into a sense-memory of Central European folk and classical music, as well as their surroundings; new machines in old lands that twitter and trickle like mechanical birds by metallic streams.
The Forst backdrop is integral to the design of this five-LP box. The cover shows the group gambolling on a green hill, and the records are packaged with a pop-up artwork of the Forst mansions and a thirty-six-page scrapbook of the trio's seemingly idyllic lifestyle. But, insists Rother, "Harmonia can't be explained by beautiful landscape. I'm sure the life we led had a strong effect but it was not all in one peaceful hippy cloud. In a nice way, everything was a struggle."
You hear that struggle in Live 1974, as the trio create exploratory music for uncomprehending audiences on unyielding equipment. "It was analogue times," says Rother. "Nothing was in sync. If you'd asked, 'Do you want everything in sync?' I would probably have said, 'Oh, that would be great', but the effect was amazing and still is today." Live 1974 has the effect of floating inside boundless synesthetic patterns of imperfect repetition. But audiences were bored by the infinite. "Sometimes it took ages to find a lead to something that made sense," says Rother. "That fascinated us [but] the audience were walking out."
As a result, Rother fought for adding more structure to the next Harmonia LP. Recorded in producer Conny Plank's sixteen-track mobile studio, with Guru Guru drummer Mani Neumeier, and a good mixing desk, Deluxe is Harmonia's masterpiece and Rother's vindication. "Michael's influence was growing," admits Roedelius. "I didn't appreciate pre-structures, I always wanted to do it live with my hands, [but] Deluxe is the sound of Michael's guitar and his ability to structure pieces." Of the opening title track, the fizzing joyride Monza, and their shared hypnotic refrain "Immer wieder rauf und runter / Einmal drauf und einmal drunter" ("Up and down again and again / Once on top and once underneath"), Rother says, "It's comical, but underneath there's truth. That was the life we led. Driving miles to a concert, three people showing up, driving home with no money..." Out of such hardships came bliss. "I remember recording it in a trance state," says Rother, and all of Deluxe has a buoyant, rapturous continuity, the organic experiments of '74 held aloft by Rother's driving self-belief.
The new tracks here, collected as Documents 1975, offer more evidence of peak Harmonia: two epic live Hamburg pieces (recorded by Moebius for German electronic composer Asmus Tietchens), plus Proto-Deluxe and Tika-Taka, two tracks recorded for a German radio station that travel a thrilling line between order and collapse, defining the struggle and solidarity of this perfect-imperfect union.
As such, Harmonia's final recording is a mild anti-climax. Initially released in 1997, and in expanded form in 2009, Tracks And Traces was recorded in Forst in September 1976 with Brian Eno, two months after the original trio had split. "Dieter and I were more or less about the laziness, working on music not so structured, to be always open to new territories," says Roedelius, "But Michael wanted to rehearse all the time. That was the reason why we split."
"I didn't want to stop," says Rother, "but Joachim and Dieter didn't want to continue. Then suddenly Brian was on the line saying, 'Could I come over?'" The most 'complete' sounding of Harmonia's albums - the trio's fuzzy rhythms and warped melodies rounded out by Eno's dark, throbbing basslines, Tracks And Traces is a lesser LP, where every strange detour becomes a point of certain destination. Whatever Harmonia were building at Forst ends with Tracks And Traces . "It was a way we were able to live for a while and the music reflected that," says Roedelius. "How happy we were."
"When I first arrived at Forst," concludes Rother, "there was one cold water socket, no toilet, bricked-up windows, nothing but this process of building a structure, of removing walls, letting in light - of so much freedom."
BACK STORY: WHAT'S IN A NAME?
"It's important to know the name 'Harmonia' was also a joke," says Michael Rother. "In Germany, choirs used to be called 'Harmonia something' so people considered Harmonia to be a very old-fashioned out-of-date sort of name. We were of course harmonious, but we were always aware of the contradictions. It was like a motto, maybe. People don't get that. We were very opposing personalities, right up to the end, but also we were in solidarity. A great solidarity."
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