Sydney Morning Herald MARCH 16, 2012 - by Bernard Zuel


Michael Rother is possibly the most influential man you've never heard of. He is one of the most important figures in music since the 1960s.

Yet his total record sales outside his home, Germany, wouldn't register as a blip on the Adele scale, his name won't open a single door in the world of Gaga and Australia's Got Talent and when he plays in Sydney this weekend - for only the second time in a career that began as a guitar student of George Harrison and Eric Clapton in the mid-'60s - he will be playing at the Oxford Art Factory, not the Opera House or the Sydney Entertainment Centre.

"Some people made some money, even if we didn't," a polite and often amused Rother says from Germany.

"But I can honestly say that I wasn't concerned about being famous; I was full of the desire to create exciting music. I expected people to share my excitement and sometimes I didn't understand when people turned their backs on us and said 'go away'."

To get a sense of why Rother matters, you need to start with Kraftwerk, the band he joined in 1971 after a stint as a psychiatric hospital worker. Before the quasi-robotic, electronic pop band of Autobahn and The Model, Kraftwerk were what Rother has described as a "primitive" art rock ensemble mashing American pop, avant-garde ideas and the wild artistic freedom of Germany's post-war generation with technology.

He then co-founded Neu! with another ex-Kraftwerk member, Klaus Dinger, working with pulsing metronomic rhythms and angular sounds that played with tape loops and coruscating guitars. Before his solo career, he was also a member of Harmonia, which created space rock and ambient soundscapes.

We know that Harmonia was being listened to by musicians, such as fan and occasional collaborator Brian Eno, who set up in their classic hippie commune then told every interviewer in Britain how his ideas were taken directly from the Germans. But sales-wise, "it was a complete disaster: no one wanted to listen to Harmonia. People hated us", Rother says.

Looking back, we can see that the '70s, long derided as an arid period for music, established the roots of electronic music, hip-hop and dance music, laid the platform for the post-punk and industrial genres of the '80s and provided the seeds for ambient. And most of that was first done in cities like Dusseldorf by men like Rother.

If you've bought music in the past twenty-five to thirty years, the chances are you've bought something influenced by Rother or his compatriots, whether it's Radiohead (who picked up Neu! and Harmonia ideas in their career-redefining albums Kid A and Amnesiac), David Bowie (who wanted Neu! to be his backing band for late '70s albums Low, "Heroes" and Lodger), Aphex Twin, Wilco, U2 or Sonic Youth (who wrote Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu!).

Rother was vaguely aware of some of this but had always been so caught up in his own work that he found it a shock when confronted by it.

"It took me some years before I noticed that people outside of Germany had grown up listing to our music," he says. "A friend took me to a concert of [Anglo-French electronic/avant-garde band] Stereolab. I didn't know the band or their music and when we were listening to the music I looked at my friend and I said: 'What's going on, am I listening to myself?' They made some very beautiful music, I liked it, but it was very strange to hear this echo of our ideas."

Michael Rother, with Dieter Moebius and Hans Lampe, plays at the Oxford Art Factory tomorrow.