INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Uncut JUNE 2018 - by Stephen Dalton
"THE MEMPHIS OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC"
Welcome to Düsseldorf, 1978. As Stephen Dalton discovers, the city's nascent new-wave scene incubated wild avant-garde happenings, conceptual artists and shocking public outrages. There is street violence, lost cult stars and terrorist paranoia - plus the tensions between radical new acts and local aristocrats Kraftwerk. Says one musician, "Music could be wild, it could be punk."
During the mid-to-late '70s, Kraftwerk became accustomed to unexpected visits from unwelcome guests. During the political turmoil of the time, the group had their homes in Düsseldorf and even their Kling Klang studio searched on several occasions by the police. "They didn't come and knock on the door," Ralf Hütter told Uncut. "They'd be coming in with pulled guns: 'Where are the weapons?' It happened again in some houses; they would climb the walls to the third floor, where we were working on the artwork for Radioactivity. So you had the whole paranoia of the situation. We travelled late at night and we'd be stopped just for controls. Düsseldorf is a very controlled city, so they would stop your cars and ask for your papers and permits."
To the members of Kraftwerk, change was coming. A knock at the door might mean many things. The arrival of the police searching for evidence of terrorist activity - or perhaps the sound of a new generation of musicians seeking to make themselves heard. Kraftwerk had once been fêted as cutting edge, but now a new and more radical revolution was underway - and, it became clear, Kraftwerk were anything but welcome.
On June 3, 1978, the Carsch-Haus - a former Düsseldorf department store in the centre of the city - played host to Germany's first punk festival. Bands on the bill included Male, frequently cited as Germany's first punk band, and Charley's Girls, a chaotic collective of fluid membership. At the door, meanwhile, two smartly dressed men in their thirties tried to gain entry.
"It was Ralf and maybe Karl," recalls Ralf Dörper, a teenage punk at the time. "They wanted to come to the festival, and they were sent away. 'You're too old! We do not want you people here!' That was the attitude to Kraftwerk among most people."
"They wanted to come in, but they were not allowed, and then they were nearly beaten up," adds another eyewitness - musician, author and Düsseldorf rock historian Rudi Esch. "Another friend of mine took care of this situation. He said, 'No, no, no! They are cool people, you can't beat them up!' So he helped them. This was Trini Trimpop, who later formed Die Toten Hosen."
Punk arrived in Germany a little late, but its supporters certainly made up for lost time. In 1978, underground bands, venues, fanzines and labels began to emerge from the key urban centres of Berlin and Hamburg. But it was the more genteel, compact, arty Rhineland city of Düsseldorf that led the charge. Orchestrated by a tiny handful of ambitious amateurs, the German new wave scene howled and hammered itself into existence. Even in a city as placid and well-heeled as Düsseldorf, the climate was ripe for revolution - or perhaps several revolutions all at once. During 1978, Düsseldorf was not only caught up in its own punk insurgency, but also rocked by other forms of turmoil - creative, intellectual and political.
In the late 1960s, Germany had served as a giant laboratory for a new wave of experimental avant-rock bands including Can, Kraftwerk, Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream, Amon Düül II, Neu! and Cluster. Now, a decade later, a fresh generation of musical dissidents were determined to forge a new German identity of their own. They flocked to Düsseldorf from as far afield as Munich, Frankfurt and Berlin to find the city awash with riotous young bands, wild avant-garde happenings, armed police and wanted terrorists. These were incendiary times, exciting but explosive. "Everybody was doing something, everybody was looking for something," says DAF's Robert Görl. "There was a lot of exchange happening at that time."
Ralf Dörper turned eighteen in January 1978. By this time he was already a key architect of the embryonic Düsseldorf punk scene, playing with one of Germany's earliest art-punk bands, SYPH. Inspired by reading the English music papers and listening to John Peel on the British military radio network BFBS, he was eager to shake up his sleepy hometown. "In Düsseldorf we had a punk scene, but we were a step behind," Dörper says. "More or less when punk stopped in England, it started in Düsseldorf."
Dörper admits the city's initial punk inner circle numbered barely ten or fifteen people, but he was determined to document it in the pages of Germany's first DIY punk fanzine, The Ostrich - named after a pre-Velvets Lou Reed song. Launched in March 1977 by Franz Bielmeier and Peter Hein, the magazine's tiny pool of writers used multiple aliases, mostly female, to magnify their cultural impact. They also shamelessly plugged their own short-lived amateur band, Charley's Girls, who later played the Carsch-Haus festival.
With strong roots in the visual arts scene, Düsseldorf's first-generation punk clique included several future prime movers in the German new wave (Neue Deutsche Welle) movement that blossomed in the early 1980s, spearheaded by electronic bands like Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft, Der Plan, Fehlfarben, Die Krupps, Rheingold and Liaisons Dangereuses. Some lived in the city, others in nearby towns like Solingen and Wuppertal. In early 1978, for instance, the founding members of DAF were living in an eco-hippie artist commune in rural Gevelsberg, an hour east of Düsseldorf. They were focused on progressive jazz-rock at the time, but keyboard player Kurt Dahlke was converted after seeing proto-punk collective Mittagspause play one of their hilarious, combustible, wilfully amateurish shows. In particular, the group's Spanish-born dancer-singer Gabi Delgado, a bisexual live-wire fired upon LSD and Dadaism, Iggy Pop and Kurt Schwitters, was a revelation. "The drummer was an artist from the Academy, he couldn't play drums at all," Dahlke laughs. "They had only two guitarists as no one could play bass. They played three-chord things with funny lyrics. I thought at the time, 'There's no reason for playing jazz anymore.'"
Düsseldorf certainly needed shaking up in 1978. The pop charts that year were dominated by Boney M, the Smurfs, and novelty Dutch disco trio Luv. In May, meanwhile, Kraftwerk scored a Top 12 album with The Man Machine. But despite being widely hailed outside Germany by bands like Joy Division, Human League and OMD, Kraftwerk's pristine brand of electro-futurism sounded distinctly old hat to Düsseldorf's bright young things.
"At that time I found them too clean, too accurate," recalls Robert Görl of DAF, whose pulverising, jagged, techno-punk minimalism felt like a stern rebuke to Kraftwerk's high-art perfectionism. "It was too commercial for us."
"I was not interested in Kraftwerk at all," agrees Kurt Dahlke. "For us they were hippies coming from a totally other music world. They were established. They made hit records, we didn't. We saw ourselves as a new generation in music."
This growing indifference towards Kraftwerk in Düsseldorf was not just generational but also life-style related. As Wolfgang Flür records in his Kraftwerk memoir I Was A Robot, the band were living a deluxe playboy lifestyle in the late 1970s, with nights spent hopping between VIP dance clubs like TV, Malesh and Sheila. This is the glamorous celebrity world they both celebrated and satirised on The Model, the stand-out single from The Man Machine; wealth, fame and privilege made them soft targets.
"We called them the guys from the other side of the Rhine, from Oberkassel," says Görl. "They came from rich families."
"Kraftwerk were night people," Dörper says. "It's important to understand, in the mid-'70s, Düsseldorf was very much a disco city. We had a few of the most popular discotheques in all of Germany. Posh ones. Very hip. You had to be rich and beautiful to enter these places."
So where did the non-rich, non-beautiful people gather? The Ratinger Hof was a dive bar with a tiny dance-floor tucked away in the cobbled back streets of the city's Old Town district, the Altstadt. In 1974, Carmen Knoebel and Ingrid Kohlhöfer took over the bar's tenancy and transformed it into a kind of living art gallery for creative misfits, students and teachers from the nearby Art Academy.
Two years later, Knoebel's painter husband Klaus "Imi" Knoebel redesigned the Ratinger Hof interior into a strikingly minimal concrete bunker. "He changed the appearance totally," Dahlke recalls. "If you went there in '75 it was like a totally hippie place with palms and nice atmospheric lights. But they threw everything out and made a white room with neon lights. This was kind of the opposite of all the other bars in Altstadt."
"It was modelled after CBGB in New York," says Rudi Esch, who was just twelve in 1978 but still clearly remembers the Ratinger Hof. "It was the brand-new thing, everyone went there.The '80s already started in 1978 in the Ratinger Hof. That was the first thing I learned at school, before I turned fifteen."
Under Carmen Knoebel's management, the Ratinger Hof became the crucible of the German new wave, developing a reputation to rival SO36 in Berlin and the Markthalle in Hamburg.The Hof became a routine stop-off for like-minded English and American bands, including Wire, Pere Ubu, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Fad Gadget and XTC, who all played early European shows there.
But the Ratinger Hof also served as an experimental arts lab, rehearsal room and surrogate home for budding musicians, painters, photographers, filmmakers, creative troublemakers and future pop stars. Joseph Beuys, who taught at the Art Academy, was a regular. Sometimes painters and musicians would share the stage in anarchic avant-garde happenings, flooding the dance-floor with water and slaughterhouse waste.
"Early Kraftwerk played in art galleries, and that was something that also happened with the first Düsseldorf punks due to the connections of Carmen Knoebel," Dörper explains. "She got all the interesting, stranger bands into the Ratinger Hof. She could have gone totally commercial, but instead she got Pere Ubu, Tuxedomoon, people like that."
Munich native and classically trained drummer Robert Görl stumbled across the Ratinger Hof on a stopover in Düsseldorf after spending the summer of 1978 in London. Having caught the end of punk in Britain, he was inspired to find similar scene just beginning in Düsseldorf. At the bar he met Gabi Delgado, his future partner in DAF. "Many bands were formed in the Ratinger Hof," says Görl. "People were hanging out there from the Art Academy, Beuys was there, there were people making their own fanzines."
When the old guard came to Ratinger Hof, the generational divide was clear. Neu!'s Michael Rother had already left the city for his rural retreat in Forst, but he still had family in Düsseldorf, and occasionally dropped by the Hof. "From my memory it wasn't glamorous at all," Rother says. "It was just a place where these people hang out. But I didn't feel like I belonged to that crowd. I was always sort of an outsider, and happy to be away in the country."
Rother's former Neu! partner, Klaus Dinger, also liked to visit the Ratinger Hof. In June 1978, his new band, La Düsseldorf, released their second LP, Viva. It proved to be a big commercial success, but reviews were mixed. The author of one unfavourable review, Conrad Schalensick, walked into the Hof at the wrong time. Dinger cornered him, punched him in the face and broke his nose. "Klaus was very eager to be loved and admired, "Rother says ruefully. "My mother really liked him, but she didn't have to work with him."
Open seven days a week from mid-morning to the early hours, the Ratinger Hof became a magnet for the city's punk crowd and hipster elite. Beer and marijuana were the main drugs of choice, recalls Görl. "It was not just like a weekend party," he grins. "We went out from Monday to Monday. The Ratinger Hof every night, already starting at midday. I think we can truly say we were living in the club."
Despite such high spirits, tensions between the Ratinger Hof art-punk crowd and the grungy, biker-friendly rock bars elsewhere in the Altstadt occasionally boiled over into confrontation. Robert Görl remembers witnessing a smash-and-grab robbery on the cash desk,and rowdy raids in which the whole venue would end up trashed. Kurt Dahlke recalls another night when art-punk provocateurs Minus Delta T faced down an angry mob. "They made a performance and that evening one of these rocker gangs from the other side of the Rhine came in with their bikes," Dahlke says. "They tried to storm the Ratinger Hof. But Minus Delta T were totally prepared for that; they were turning around the billiard cues and just hitting hem. So they went away. The battlefield was then moved to another place called the Okie Dokie."
The latent violence of the Altstadt took a tragic turn on August 21, when musician Wolfgang Riechmann was fatally stabbed by two drunken strangers on his way home. The thirty-one-year-old had previously played with Michael Rother and Wolfgang Flür in their late-1960s covers band Spirits Of Sound, subsequently joining prog-rock band Streetmark. He died shortly before the release of his debut solo album, Wunderbar - mostly a collection of synthesiser instrumentals. Rother's photographer girlfriend Anne Weitz took the sleeve shot of Riechmann as anandrogynous, blue-lipped alien.
"He was walking through Altstadt with his girlfriend, not doing any harm," says Rother. "These two guys, they had been kicked out of several bars. They were angry and frustrated. They put a knife into his chest and he bled to death. He died before the album was out. It was devastating, the senselessness of something like that."
Another, more politically charged strain of violence also visited Düsseldorf in 1978. The Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction) was a leftist terror group founded by Munich-born activist Andreas Baader and radical political journalist Ulrike Meinhof. Nicknamed the Baader-Meinhof Gang, their violent actions peaked with the "German Autumn" of 1977, when a 'commando unit' kidnapped and executed industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer, killing his driver and three bodyguards in the process.
On September6, 1978, fugitive RAF member Willi-Peter Stoll died in a gunfight with police at a Chinese restaurant close to the Düsseldorf apartment shared by Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos.Two weeks later, Stoll's accomplices Angelika Speitel and Michael Knoll were arrested in nearby Dortmund. Knoll and police officer Hans-Wilhelm Hansen both died from their wounds.
Because many youthful RAF members adopted a long-haired, hippie-like image, musicians became frequent targets of police suspicion. Roadblocks and random ID checks were routine in 1978. "It was like a police state," claims Ralf Dörper. "There were a lot of police controlling you during the night on the motorways. They were pretty young, totally nervous, with machine-guns. We had that quite often when we went to some punk events outside Düsseldorf, or we played somewhere ourselves. We were controlled like that."
Flür reported that Florian Schneider's apartment had once been raided erroneously by anti-terror police prior to his joining Kraftwerk; Flür was even mistaken for wanted RAF fugitive Christian Klar by armed officers who followed him home.
"That was a very troubling period," agrees Michael Rother. "I even remember earlier when we were with Harmonia in Brussels, we were sitting in the car and we had all these policemen surrounding us with guns.They did a body search, looking for drugs or weapons. This was the time of the Baader-Meinhof revolutionaries, or terrorists, depending on your point of view... Something went terribly wrong with these people."
Just as British punks like The Clash had borrowed urban guerrilla iconography, so their counterparts in Düsseldorf seized on the RAF's slogans and graphics for their own disruptive ends. Gabi Delgado of DAF later wrote a tribute song to the terrorists, Kinderzimmer, likening them to his childhood heroes Bruce Lee and Emma Peel from The Avengers. Ralf Dörper had the group's wanted poster plastered on his bedroom wall alongside Alice Cooper. His first punk band, SYPH, even used images from the Schleyer kidnapping on the cover of their 1979 debut album, Viel Fiend, Viel Ehr. The sleeve had to be altered after several printers refused to handle it.
These were not the earnest political statements of the previous generation - like the international student protests that exploded in Berlin in 1967 - but adolescent gestures intended to provoke extreme reactions. As Berlin punk pioneer Jaki Eldorado noted in Jürgen Teipel's fêted 2001 'docu-novel' about the German new-wave scene, Verschwende Deine Jugend, "punk rock was so interesting precisely because there was no longer any ideological baggage. You could go crazy. Party. You wouldn't care if someone walked around with a swastika or if someone else supported the RAF."
"It was kind of a terror chic," acknowledges Rudi Esch. "In hindsight you can't be too fascinated by it. But it was like rock'n'roll. Street Fighting Man."
For the Düsseldorf punks, a decisive shift took place at the end of 1978, inspired by a run of Ratinger Hof shows that passed into local legend. One was by Wire, making their European debut teetering atop a makeshift stage straddling two snooker tables.
"Everyone formed a band after seeing Wire in November 1978 at Ratinger Hof," says Esch. "The best concert I saw there," confirms Dahlke. "It changed my life, actually. There was always crazy-good concerts going on, so I changed the way I was doing music at that time."
Another seismic Ratinger Hof debut came courtesy of Pere Ubu the following month, whose prominent use of synthesisers had a profound effect. "This really fascinated me," says Görl. "The Sex Pistols punks were not attracted by this kind of electronic, weird, Pere Ubu thing. But I thought this was great, electronics mixed with this new power music."
Dahlke recalls the liberating shock value of seeing Pere Ubu's Allen Ravenstine playing a primitive EMS VCS3 analogue synth. "Besides Brian Eno, I had never seen anybody playing this instrument on stage," he says. "He was so cool, just doing freaking noises. I thought, 'Wow, that is a totally new style of making music.' That was changing my style quite a lot."
Exposure to more electronic post-punk bands at the Ratinger Hof encouraged aspiring musicians like Dahlke and Dörper to embrace new directions. The launch of relatively cheap new synthesisers and sequencers in 1978, notably the Korg MS-20, also helped fuel this electronic rebirth.
"Early Korgs and early Rolands made a lot of things possible," nods D&ouiml;rper. "And it helped to see somebody like Fad Gadget playing Ratinger Hof. You realised electronic music did not need to be bureaucratic on stage. It could be wild as well, it could be punk."
These new-generation music machines were affordable, but still not cheap. To raise funds, DAF co-founder Chrislo Haashit on the ingenious scheme of driving to Amsterdam and smuggling a car-load of hashish back to sell in Düsseldorf.Result: three thousand Deutschmarks to spend on shiny new synthesisers.
The Ratinger Hof's imperial phase ended when Carmen Knoebel left in 1979, but it continued as an important music venue for another decade. Some estimate between twenty and thirty bands formed there during its eighteen-month peak as Germany's avant-garde punk laboratory. Its legacy also endures in a nation-wide network of DIY labels set up at the end of the decade, modelled on early British indies like Mute and Rough Trade. Knoebel herself launched Pure Freude (Pure Joy), while Kurt Dahlke formed Warning, later renamed Ata Tak, to self-release his early work with DAF, Fehlfarben and Pyrolator.
"We made so many contacts all over Germany with bands who had the same kind of spirit," nods Dahlke. "Not only in Düsseldorf, also the scene that was going on in Hamburg and Berlin. This was one thing that opened up the whole scene."
As a new decade began, Düsseldorf's punk scene became a global concern. DAF proved influential on artists including Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and Frankie GoesTo Hollywood. Dörper, meanwhile, joined industrial rockers Die Krupps before finding greater success as a founding member of Propaganda.
They may not be as fêted as the first krautrock generation, but Düsseldorf's late-1970s electro-punks have arguably had more lasting impact across multiple subcultures from synth-pop to techno to industrial metal. In Germany, their legacy has been celebrated in films, exhibitions, compilation albums and books, notably Esch's definitive oral history of the city's electronic scene, Electri_City. Esch calls Düsseldorf "the Memphis of electronic music".
In recent years, many of these bands have been recording and touring again. Der Plan, Die Krupps and DAF remain sporadically active, still exploring the experimental fringes of rock, still making music on their own terms. "Our aim was always to become successful," says Robert Görl, "but in an underground way. We wanted to get famous in a weird way!"
FULLY AUTOMATED LUXURY COMMUNISM
The Man Machine at forty
Released forty years ago this month, The Man Machine is Kraftwerk's most fully realised pop-art statement, a succinct and melodious roadmap for the 1980s synth-pop boom. With Karl Bartos sharing full songwriter credit for the first time alongside Hütter and Schneider, it features the timeless techno-utopian anthem The Robots, droll satirical vignettes like future UK chart-topper The Model, and the sublimely romantic ballad Neon Lights, later covered by OMD and U2. The Man Machine is also Kraftwerk's most disco-era creation, nodding to Giorgio Moroder's Euro-disco throb on the rippling, gleaming synthscapes Spacelab and Metropolis. The silky production was partly engineered by Leanard Jackson, renowned for his work with Rose Royce, Smokey Robinson and George Clinton. Featuring the four band-members in matching militaristic red shirts, Karl Klefisch's striking sleeve artwork references both the Soviet Russian graphic artist El Lissitzky and the androgynous high camp of the Weimar era. Life is a cabaret, old chum.
BEUYS KEEP SWINGING
Five key albums that shaped the Düsseldorf new wave
MICHAEL ROTHER Sterntaler (Sky) - Having left Düsseldorf for the pastoral haven of Forst, Rother's second solo album radiates a kind of soul-soothing bucolic beauty. Featuring Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit and legendary krautrock producer Conny Plank, Sterntaler blendsHawaiian guitar and sparse percussion with increasingly prominent electronic elements.
LA DÜSSELDORF Viva (Radar) - Klaus Dinger's post-Neu! grab for left-field pop fame found its most lusty expression on this modest commercial hit, with its Eno-ish shimmers, punky chants, fuzzy guitars and fizzing synthesisers. David Bowie called La Düsseldorf "the soundtrack of the '80s".
RIECHMANN Wunderbar (Sky) - A Düsseldorf scene veteran who once played with both Wolfgang Flür and Michael Rother, Wolfgang Riechmann delved into synth-pop futurism on his first solo LP, a stylish electronic affair that predicts much of the New Romantic movement. Tragically, he was killed in a random knife attack before its release.
DAF Ein Produkt Der Deutsch-Amerikanischen Freundschaft (Warning/Ata Tak) - The volatile original four-piece incarnation of DAF recorded their self-released debut after singer Gabi Delgado temporarily quit the band. A fast-paced pile-up of metal-bashing instrumentals, all untitled, it called time on krautrock and signalled the exhilarating birth of German industrial electro-punk.
PYROLATOR Inland (Warning/Ata Tak) - Leaving DAF after just one album,Kurt Dahlke launched his solo Pyrolator alias with this uncompromising collection of ear-scraping synthscapes, found sounds and horror-movie gloomtronica. Four decades later, it still crackles with chilling sonic unease.