Who's That Man
, February 22nd, 2013 06:24
In some sense, this 4CD box set represents the merest glimpse of a secret history of European pop music; a history to which uber-producer Conny Plank is the key. Plank was a common thread in many of the otherwise disparate recordings of the early 70s German avant-garde quickly lumped together by the UK and US music press as 'krautrock' (a phrase as intentionally dismissive as 'shoegaze' was twenty years later- both descriptions were nevertheless adopted as badges of convenience and worn proudly by champions and revivalists after the fact). His engineering, production and in some cases playing on the seminal early albums by Kraftwerk, Neu!, Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel and Guru Guru among others defines this nebulous genre as much as anything else. As such, he was the man a younger generation of non-German musicians turned to in their efforts to synthesise the magic they heard in those LPs.
Plank helped create a new kind of rock music. Deliberately eschewing obvious American influences and tired blues clichés in favour of neo-classical experimentation (Plank, like Can's Holger Czukay, had worked with legendary composer Karlheinz Stockhausen), krautrock invented itself from the ground up, exploring the possibilities of modern electronic instruments including the studio itself. This was Plank's speciality, and although he had no obvious signature sound as such, his openness to untried ideas, almost childlike creativity, his use of space and restless attentiveness to the texture of sound and the possibility for constantly altering it (as opposed to the focus on 'serving the song' that was the M.O. of most superstar producers of the time) meant that his work immediately captured the attention of artists and fans alike.
It's an attractive myth that krautrock was an obscure, hermetically-sealed phenomena at the time, only rediscovered by crate-digging cognoscenti two decades on. In fact, the impact of Plank and the artists he produced was instant and pervasive. The music on these CDs is testament enough to that, but just as important as the artists Plank actually worked with are those who were influenced by his productions but never got in a studio with him (suggesting some great 'what if..?' scenarios). Hawkwind grafting Neu! rhythms and simplicity onto greasy Ladbroke Grove rock & roll; PiL channelling La Dusseldorf into cathartic post-punk; Joy Division under Miles Platting's premier Plank-o-phile Martin Hannett, internalising his teachings as New Order took independent flight; Simple Minds' early, pulsing, widescreen Eurovision; the deconstructed dark punk Kluster-fucks of the Virgin Prunes; the Sisters of Mercy, playing Autobahn at the wrong speed and with fuzz guitars; and of course, Bowie on Low and Heroes, surely as close to a Conny Plank production as you can get without having the man himself actually in the room.
Plank's actual later production work would include not just major alternative acts like Killing Joke and Devo, but bands such as Ultravox and Eurythmics (represented here by the gothic dub balladry of excellent early B-side, 'Le Sinistre') that soon moved to the centre field of mainstream 1980s stadium rock. Indeed, the Big Music that dominated the UK album charts and corporate arena venues throughout the decade can almost be defined by the way it borrowed from Plank's pioneering krautrock canon; commercialising and arguably debasing it along the way, but still recognisably using it as a template for a succession of multi-million selling albums and era-defining global tours. U2 (turned down by Plank, but taken up by his disciple, Eno), Simple Minds, Eurythmics, Ultravox, New Order; all post-punk bands that found mainstream rock success by looking away from America and towards Europe, using synthesisers and a sense of space in their music to communicate over large distances, and developing the possibilities of the studio as instrument on their records. Plank's productions were also staples on the early New Romantic club scene, thus influencing the chart-topping pop of the period, from Duran Duran to Sigue Sigue Sputnik. And across the pond krautrock would directly inspire Detroit techno and New York hip-hop, eventually moulding the sound of the 1990s and beyond in Plank's image too.
Two CDs provide a fairly representative sample of Plank's work, including a few rarities. Neu!, La Dusseldorf and industrial disco titans D.A.F. are all present and correct, alongside both sides of obscure German punk band Psychotic Tanks' sole seven-inch, 'Let's Have a Party,' complete with needle-drop crackles, and tastes of Plank's several collaborations with Cluster's Deiter Moebius. Of particular interest is 'Farmer Gabriel' from Ludwig's Law, the 1983 album Plank made with Moebius and the Red Crayola's Mayo Thompson, belatedly released on Drag City in 1998. Thompson's nightmarish, deadpan storytelling echoes over industrial sequencer rhythms and disquieting sound effects, somewhere between the Residents and Velvet Underground spoken word tracks like 'The Gift' or 'Lady Godiva's Operation' given a 1980s leather-club makeover.
Also worth mentioning are the groovy 14-minute jazz rock epic 'Drops' by Ibliss, featuring early Kraftwerk associates Basil Hammoudi and Andreas Hohmann, plus unless my ears mistake me, the entire cast of 1970s children's TV favourites The Clangers, and Streetmark's 1975 prog-disco-metal cover of 'Eleanor Rigby'. Eberhard Kranemann was also part of the early Kraftwerk story, and he appears here both as pastiche rocker Fritz Muller- whose 'Fritz Muller Traum' is a bizarre, dream-invoking sound collage- and as part of Blue Point Underground, whose moody cut-up tribute song, 'Conny Plank', was actually produced by Klaus Dinger. Japanese vocalist Phew, backed by Can's Holger Czukay and Jaki Leibezeit, is represented by the coruscating punk-funk of 'Signal' and a Crato remix of the more characteristically trance-like 'Doze.' And Plank's rare 1973 Christmas single, a raucous and possibly drunken bellowing through 'Silent Night,' is more punk than punk, and is frightening my cat.
The third disc, containing remixes by the likes of Walls, Fujiya & Miyagi and Eye from the Boredoms, is interesting if inessential. The real gold here though is disc four, a previously unreleased live set from Plank, Moebius and Arno Steffen, recorded in Mexico in 1986, not long before Plank was taken ill with what turned out to be terminal cancer. From the moment 'Der Berg Ruft' rampages out like a herd of robot elephants let loose on the stage, this is 79 minutes of incredible, experimental electronica from the pre-laptop era, chaotic and tightly controlled at the same time. It's astonishing that anyone was even capable of doing this live in 1986, let alone that it should still sound ahead of the game 27 years later.
There are echoes of Throbbing Gristle, Nitzer Ebb and Einstürzende Neubauten in this industrial machine funk, but more complex, varied and playful; from the unsettling, loud atmospherics of 'Search Zero' to the surprisingly soulful 'European News', this is sensual, wildly inventive and impassioned music that's not afraid to throw in a wonderful, dub-yodelling 'Edelweiss' which summons the ghosts of The Goon Show rather than The Sound of Music. 'Black Sample' joins the dots between the Art of Noise, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and the contemporary hip-hop collages of Steinski & Mass Media and Bomb The Bass. Relentlessly fun and fierce, without a single moment of chin-stroking noodling, the set closes with Conny singing a version of 'Somewhere' from West Side Story that, especially in light of the fact that this was Plank's last recording before his death, is extremely moving.