INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Soundblab FEBRUARY 10, 2013 - by Rich Morris
VARIOUS ARTISTS - WHO'S THAT MAN: A TRIBUTE TO CONNY PLANK
He might not be as well-known, but Konrad 'Conny' Plank can assuredly take his place next to the likes of George Martin, Lee 'Scratch' Perry and Brian Eno as a producer who fundamentally shaped the sound of music in the twentieth century. In the right place at the right time to capture the full blooming of Krautrock, he produced, engineered and played on seminal, game-changing albums by a multitude of artists including (deep breath) Kraftwerk, Neu!, Cluster, Harmonia, Ash Ra Tempel, Holger Czukay (of Can), and Guru Guru. The sonic boom he helped to sculpt, taking in minimal proto-techno, squalling, free-form guitar noise, and wide-eyed kosmische, has proved inestimably influential to generations of musicians in all genres, and continues to be so.
This anthology takes in the full sweep of his career and then some, featuring two discs of his productions, a remix compilation and a recording of his final live performance, with Cluster's Moebius and composer and producer Arno Steffen in Mexico in 1987. Anyone who knows only of Plank through his role as Krautrock midwife in the '70s is in for a surprise. In the '80s, Plank went on to produce Devo, DAF, Eurythmics and an early incarnation of Underworld called Freur, as well as several less celebrated artists. In fact, it's fair to say the sheer amount of music collected here is formidable, daunting, a little overwhelming.
In fact, with so much on offer, it takes a little while to clock the stark absence of Kraftwerk on the playlist. This is not a great surprise, as the band have taken an extremely Stalinist approach to their early, more experimental material, almost airbrushing their formative Plank-produced works out of history. This is a crying shame, and you are urged to listen to Vom Himmel Hoch from their first album immediately upon finishing this review. Also missing here is anything from Ash Ra Tempel, Czukay, and Guru Guru, so while one can say this compilation is extensive, it is certainly far from exhaustive.
However, what we do get is no less vital. Discs one and two are full of oddities, obscurities and seriously weird little musical tangents which may surprise even experienced Plank fans. Although no Cluster or Harmonia tracks feature on the compilation, we get plenty of stuff from key members Möbius and Rödelius, most notably a collaboration with Brian Eno, Broken Head, which, with its lo-fi synth-bass, sheets of feedback and lopsided rhythm, recalls both Iggy Pop's Nightclubbing and Eno's Before And After Science.
Much here sounds proto-industrial, from the clattering drums and Yoko Ono-style yelps of Phew's Signal, to the cattleprod electro of DAF's Alles Ist Gut. New wave and post-punk sounds are also well represented. Eurythmics' mournful, sparse Le Sinistre pre-dates the duo's world-straddling synth-soul formula; Let's Have A Party by Psychotic Tanks is as scrappy, disjointed and bad-tempered as anything early Pere Ubu created, while the jerky synth-pop of Was Ziehst Du An, the second DAF track, must have been an inspiration for Depeche Mode.
To its credit, the compilation doesn't plump for the obvious Neu! tracks. Leb' Wohl and Negativland are a decent representation of the two sides of the duo: the former a dreamy, piano-led evocation of natural beauty, the latter an urban clusterfuck of pneumatic drills, audience noise and pile-driving guitar wedded to a so-dumb-it's-genius rhythm. Neu!'s guitarist Michael Rother also provides the excellent, chiming Feuerland.
Plank's solo material also makes an appearance, firstly on the brief, brash Security Idiots and then on Weihnachtssong, a bawdy, Captain Beefheart-like 'reimagining' of Silent Night which sounds like a drunken studio goof-around and unquestionably provides the compilation's nadir. By far the greatest oddity, however, is Streetmark's cover of Eleanor Rigby, an organ-heavy '70s pomp-rock rendition complete with strained vocals and widdly guitar which is, weirdly, quite enjoyable. Sacrificing the original's modernist emotional distance for a throaty wail and drawn-out rawk climax is an interesting creative choice, to say the least.
While the first two discs might be considered a curate's egg, three and four are definitely for completists only. That said, in some ways disc three is the most accessible of the lot, consisting as it does of remixes which, at times, make the songs of the first two discs more danceable, and thus less intimidating. The Automat Rework of Broken Head, for example, turns the original into funky Kraut-disco gold, complete with LCD Soundsystem-style clattering percussion. Sometimes, though, this is a little superfluous; Rother's lovely Feuerland doesn't need a big old beat strapped under it. Although this addition doesn't hamper the original's beauty, it also adds nothing substantial.
Most notable among the remixes is Fujiya & Miyag's reworking of Möbius & Plank's Conditionierer which emerges as a kind of cattle-poke-motorik-electro-popping-glitter-rock thing, soldering tinny slide guitar, beardyman grunts and distressed sax honks to a deathless, irresistible beat. It's obviously pretty amazing. Meanwhile, Eye transform Neu!'s shimmering Fur Immer into stuttering glitch-punk, and for some reason, we get not one but two moody, downbeat, and very long remixes of Phew's Doze. Like I say - for completists only.
As is disc four, the live recording, although to be honest, even the most ardent Plank fan might struggle to get through this one. A flat recording of several meandering tracks of what sounds like largely improvised electronica is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, by any stretch of the imagination. If you fail to stay the distance (and really, I wouldn't blame you), Mecanismo Latino might make an impression, consisting of fizzing beats and ambient sounds thoroughly redolent of early techno. It proves Plank had is finger firmly on the pulse of electronic music right up until his untimely death, while a manipulation of a recording of Edelweiss into a rather lovely ambient piece shows the man's bravery and iconoclastic instincts never dimmed.
There's no doubt Plank was something of a visionary, a catalyst for so much musical development who deserves to be more widely known and in time probably will be. His occasional penchant for howled out versions of Christmas standards, however, shall most likely remain less celebrated.