The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Features

The Soundtrack Of Our Youth: Conny Plank Remembered
David Stubbs , February 13th, 2013 10:11

As Gronland release a four-disc box set of the music of Conny Plank, David Stubbs remembers the "midwife of Krautrock"

Add your comment »

"Without Conny... I don't know," sighed Klaus Dinger in one of the last interviews before his death. Neu!'s drummer knew. Without Conny Plank, it's possible that his studio partnership with Michael Rother might have petered out, for lack of encouragement or simply for a lack of guidance as to how to make the best of what technology was available in a 1970s studio, particularly to impecunious experimental musicians.

The name "Conny Plank" is stamped all over the Krautrock canon. To call Krautrock a "movement" is, of course absurd, given that many of the groups were unaware of each others' existence at the time and in any case moving in very divergent directions. Conny Plank, however, is a strong common factor. He was, in many ways, Krautrock's midwife. As well as Neu!, early Kraftwerk, Can, Guru Guru and Cluster all benefited from his production work.

He wasn't simply a jobbing producer, indifferent to whoever was jamming away behind the glass, merely adding polish to their raw material however. He was a creative contributor, whose genius was an enabler of otnher people's ideas, or the technical means whereby they achieve unheard-of sound objectives. He not only intimate with the equipment but was forever finding ways of modifying the machinery in real time and space to create effects that sound decades in advance of commercially available solutions. When samplers arrived, they held no surprise for Plank – he'd been "sampling" for years, albeit manually, isolating and looping notes, playing them through the console. He created huge tape loops that would stretch the length of the studio and played phase analogue machines simultaneously by hand. He brought colour, clarity and depth to his productions; which was vital in the case of Krautrock which revealed itself through its textures and spatial relations.

Sadly, the vivacious, hugely generous, highly opinionated, genial bear-like genius of a man that was Plank died in 1987, aged just 47. Who's That Man? is a four CD tribute to a pioneer whose name is familiar to any music aficionado as a mark of quality assurance but about whose life and work too little is known. It covers the range of his work, from the 70s, and his productions of Neu!, La Düsseldorf and Dieter Möbius, through to his Neu Deutsche Welle days, including helping D.A.F. achieve their immersive electro pop. The last CD is a live recording he made in 1986, in South America with Dieter Möbius and Arno Steffen, playing material from his 1983 album Ludwig's Law. As Möbius recalls, it was an incredibly effervescent performance, reminiscent of Liaisons Dangereuses in places, with barely an ounce of Teutonic stiffness about it, typifying the spirit of a man who believed that "craziness is holy".

"We mixed it live," Möbius recalls. "We had a 16 track machine on the road with us. We were 600 kilos overweight on every journey we made. The CD is taken from a cassette which I found by accident at a house I used to live in. They digitilised it - but originally, it was recorded with a single microphone. We had big audiences, bigger and bigger – from Argentina up to Mexico. But of course, this was nearly the end for Conny - the time he fell ill."

Möbius first recorded with Plank when he was part of Kluster (along with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Conrad Schnitzler). The session came about thanks to an idealistic young organist and cantor named Oskar Gottlieb Blarr. It was at his church, in December 1969 that they recorded their debut albums, Klopzeichen and Zwei Osterei. As a condition of being allowed to record under church auspices, spoken word Christian text was later added to the sides they cut.

"We had never heard of him before," says Möbius. "At this time, this was just a normal studio where he worked, not his studio, so he was just working as a normal sound engineer. But of course we did manage to record the two albums in one night – it was organised by a church, and we were just happy to record two albums."

Plank already had a distinguished recording career at this stage however. He is often said to have recorded Marlene Dietrich in the 1960s but his son Stephan, who is currently putting together a documentary about his late father, is sceptical as to whether this actually took place. What is certain is that he worked for titans of modern composition Mauricio Kagel and Karheinz Stockhausen. He produced a stack of tapes with the pair which are in Stephan's possession and which, he suggests, may yet see the light of day. "As I'm going through the archive at the moment, I found quite a lot of 24-tracks with Stockhausen. His name is on them, so there's going to be Stockhausen material on them. But I don't know what it is. We're going to meet up with Simon Stockhausen [his son] and we're going to digitise the material, listen to it and decide if it's worth releasing. It's five 24-track tapes, so they were obviously serious about something."

Despite his unique facility with studio machinery, Plank found his joy in the artists – he had to click with them, as people. "I think it's kind of funny; in Germany we have the Pop and Rock Museum, and they have the whole Can studio in there," says Stephan. "But from Conny's studio, they have the kitchen. Because this is the place that Conny would work, with people."

"He liked to work with people he liked," says Moebius. "And so he worked with many different people and in many different styles. Gianna Nannini [1980s Italian singer-songwriter] was very different from Kraftwerk – it was more that he liked the people. Let them have their vision but push the direction in which they went – the sounds he produced were very unusual for the time – samples, loops. He had to do some commercial things [Scorpions, Clannad]. He had some fun working with Annie Lennox and Ultravox and with that money, he could afford to work for free with us! In the early 1970s he had some big jobs - Kraftwerk fooled him in a way, not going on working with him when they had some success."

Kraftwerk did indeed snub Plank once they made the decision to take everything in-house. However, Plank himself famously knocked back U2, declaring in a terse manner that does him eternal credit, "I cannot work with this singer."

"I was very young when this happened, but I know the story," says Stephan. "They were in our studio, sitting in our kitchen, talking about production. My father said, 'Well, I am going to think about it.' Then they went to this festival, and Bono went on stage and said, 'Hello, we are U2, please give a big hand to our new producer, Conny Plank.' And that's when my father decided to leave. But I am not sure if this story is true, it is the way I was told it. There are a lot of tall tales about my father."

Although too young to appreciate the radical nature of his father's music while he was alive having been just 13 when he died, Stephan has fond memories of the studio-cum-family-home they shared. The house, situated in the tiny town of Hütchsenhausen, just outside of Cologne, was full of fascinating, elaborate, delicate set-ups. The equipment, may have been fascinating but it was verboten for young hands to touch, as everything had been carefully placed to achieve a precise effect. "He was touring from time to time and he was recording outside of Germany, but otherwise he was there all the time. The music was constantly playing and I would listen to the music, as it would be around me. Growing up in the recording studio, well, you have the music and this is the soundtrack to your youth."

As Plank's career progressed, Krautrock fell away and studio technology altered apace but this did not faze him. He found new people to work with, a new generation of curious 80s electropoppers and avant-garders including Ultravox, Eurythmics, Echo & the Bunnymen, Les Rita Mitsouko and Einstürzende Neubauten. Part of his durability was that there was nothing date-stamped, or signature about his technique.

"It's really funny that you mention this, because I was looking for this, as well," says Stephan. "Does he have a signature sound? When you listen to Rick Rubin albums, you know it's Rick Rubin. The funny thing is that some of the bands he worked with were looking for a producer, and their process was to go to their collections and look through the records. Some of the bands tell me now that a third of their record collection was produced by Conny Plank and they didn't realise it at the time."

Towards the end of his life, Plank complained about the lack of range, of "high" and "low" in new productions – already, even in the late 80s, the dominance of "compression" was encroaching. How would he have coped in today's studio surroundings, I wonder?

I think he would love the technology at the moment," insists Stephan. "He bought the first McIntosh to record a bass player who was in New York, in his own studio. But it didn't work - this was 1986 - and he got really angry, because he was promised that it would work, but he couldn't use it. I think he was really keen on having these technological possibilities, because what they give you is a lot of chance to work - but you have to have the possibility in yourself to make decisions. Nowadays, what is getting lost when I look at modern productions, you have 300 tracks in there. Nowadays, the musicians work just this way, so they postpone the decisions.

"With my father it was different. You know, when they did the first D.A.F. album on MUTE Daniel Miller made a deal with my father to record the album in four days. So my father spent the first day talking to Robert Görl and Gabi Delgado [of D.A.F.] discussing music. Daniel said, 'Well, they're going to record for the next three days.' And the next day, they spent talking about music, eating good food and being very philosophical about it and didn't record anything. Daniel was getting very nervous at that point. On the third day, when they were really supposed to start the album, they talked some more about music and went for a long walk and nothing was recorded. Now, Daniel was really afraid of losing his money. On the fourth day, in the morning, they had a really nice breakfast, went to the studio and recorded the album. Daniel Miller himself told me this story. He thinks it's kind of funny."

Post-Punk Monk
Feb 13, 2013 3:22pm

Sighs. I really miss Conny Plank. We all had a lot to learn from him and we lost him far too early. That U2 anecdote a fresh one for me, but it only widens my respect. One of the great injustices is that when he had months to live he was wasting it with Ultravox, recording the uncharacteristically awful [at the time, anyway] "UVOX" album. But even that was better than 2012's "Brilliant!"

http://postpunkmonk.wordpress.com
For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

Reply to this Admin

lodger
Feb 13, 2013 4:04pm

In reply to Post-Punk Monk:

hey postpunkmonk....Brilliant is almost brilliant album...you can say what you want, but please save us from your misery ....have fun with some other music...

Reply to this Admin

Post-Punk Monk
Feb 13, 2013 4:51pm

In reply to lodger:

Lodger - I'm sorry. That was a cheap shot at the recent Ultravox album. It had no place in a comment about Conny Plank. That was triggered by the fact that "UVOX" was the only album I have with Plank involved that I didn't like. I snowballed into criticizing "Brilliant" but I didn't need to go there.

http://postpunkmonk.wordpress.com
For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

Reply to this Admin

TheUnfortunate
Feb 13, 2013 7:33pm

He also recorded Birmingham new romantics Fashion. Hmmm.

Reply to this Admin

Post-Punk Monk
Feb 13, 2013 9:06pm

In reply to TheUnfortunate:

TheUnfortunate - Whoops. I think you're confusing Conny Plank with Zeus B. Held! I'm a member of the Zeus B. Held cult [ http://postpunkmonk.wordpress.com/2010/10/09/zeus-b-held-post-punk-mvp/ ] and while I am a big fan of Held, there's no comparison between him and Plank. Plank is a major mover and shaker for so much music it's not funny.

http://postpunkmonk.wordpress.com
For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

Reply to this Admin

Confused in West Runton
Feb 13, 2013 10:42pm

The first DAF album on Mute was Die Kleinen..., so why did only Gabi and Robert go to the studio? The first album by DAF as a two-piece, with Gabi and Robert, Alles Ist Gut, was released on Virgin, so why was Daniel Miller paying? I'm missing some history - can someone please fill me in?

Reply to this Admin

Jesse
Feb 14, 2013 6:05am

Great article, content is great... However, I think some editing might be helpful prior to going to press/post. Some typos (perhaps intentional?) and wrong terms (digitalised, for example... Even with UK vernacular/spelling should be digitised, unless simply trying to convey the original speaker's actual wording), detract from the overall readability of the article. Hopefully some constructive criticism not meant to detract but to help. I thoroughly enjoy the site and am a regular reader. Would love to help contribute actually, if possible.

Reply to this Admin

Mark
Feb 14, 2013 8:43am

In reply to Confused in West Runton:

The 2nd D.A.F Album was on Mute. Gabi and Robert were ambitious and good looking, Chrislo and Wolfgang Spellmans were neither. Wonderful article.

Reply to this Admin


Feb 14, 2013 8:44am

In reply to TheUnfortunate:

New Romantics ? you sure about that ?

Reply to this Admin

Rooksby
Feb 14, 2013 10:45am

In reply to Confused in West Runton:

Hmm, interesting point! Perhaps, because only one side of Die Kleinen... was recorded in the studio, & because much of it was based on Chrislo Haas' pre-recorded backing tapes anyway, they managed to knock out it's 7 songs in a single hectic session? A frightening thought, but entirely possible I suppose?

Reply to this Admin

Carpathian
Feb 14, 2013 12:49pm

An enjoyable read, if you can enjoy missing somebody's work and wondering what might have been.

I always thought it somewhat interesting that up until Plank's co-production work on their Systems Of Romance album (and following three) Ultravox's name ended with an exclamation mark in reference to NEU! but once they started working with him that was dropped. Considering Conny's past work I always wondered if the dropped exclamation was at a suggestion from Plank or just an oddly-timed coincidence?

Reply to this Admin

Confused in West Runton
Feb 14, 2013 8:36pm

In reply to Rooksby:

Thanks, Rooksby - interesting idea.

Reply to this Admin

The Unfortunates
Feb 15, 2013 7:04pm

Dear Post-Punk Monk,
You are right: I stand corrected. Thanks.

Reply to this Admin

the unfortunate
Feb 15, 2013 7:06pm

In reply to :

I thought so. The early stuff was harsher but the certainly adopted the New Romantic mantle later. Anyway, I was wrong about producers so maybe I'm wrong about their style too..?

Reply to this Admin

Post-Punk Monk
Feb 15, 2013 8:24pm

In reply to the unfortunate:

The Unfortunate - Fashion's first album was edgy New Wave with a slight reggae feel. Luke James' vocals were very left field. The second had De Harris on vocals and guitar. He favored late nite urban funk and the synth contingent ramped up considerably. New Romantic clubs are known to have played a lot of synthesizer and funk music back then. They might have played Fashion to death as well. I wasn't there. Guilt by association? I liked a lot of NewRo stuff but to this day I can't define exactly what that phrase means. Is it makeup and clothing? Thematic focus? [my preference] or just synth dance music per se?

http://postpunkmonk.wordpress.com
For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

Reply to this Admin

Fragile Gods
Feb 17, 2013 6:08pm

It's great that Conny is finally getting some recognition. I believe he also turned down Bowie.

I think there is some confusion regarding the DAF anecdote. The first DAF album "Ein Produkt der D.A.F." was on Warning records and did not include Gabi. The 2nd "Die Kleinen und die Bosen" was on Mute and it included the full band, not just Robert and Gabi. The 3rd-5th albums were on Virgin.

So it doen't make sense for just Robert and Gabi to be hanging out with Conny when the full band was involved in the Mute album.

Fragile Gods (http://www.facebook.com/FragileGods)

Reply to this Admin