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Motorikpop: A Secret History Spotified
Lee Arizuno , May 22nd, 2009 12:01

What do Midge Ure, Yoshimi P-We and David Bowie have in common? Not a beard in sight, yet they've all used the motorik beat invented by Neu! In response to the ill-conceived 'tribute' album Brand Neu! we've created our own, more ambitious collection for your drive-time pleasure

Before releasing an album called Brand Neu!, you'd hope any compiler would first listen both to Neu! and to the tracks they'd chosen to demonstrate their influence on today's music scene. Unfortunately, ahead of releasing one of the most egregious examples yet in the justly maligned "tribute to . . ." genre this week, the good people at Feraltone Records seem to have gone as far as typing "Neu!" into the Amazon search box and giving the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought..." recommendations a fleeting glance.

Their dire collection opens with a triple whammy in the form of the surreally awful, wince-inducingly titled 'Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu!' by Ciccone Youth. It was released 21 years ago; it owes nothing at all, creatively, to Neu!; most chilling of all, it implies that Neu! are mere fodder for the people blethering banalities about US indie life — while blithely ignoring the fiercely modern, playfully poppy, bravely brutal music playing scratchily behind them — who take up the first minute of the track (after that, it turns into a piss-poor piss-take of 80s synth pop). And, astonishingly, give or take a couple of belters you'll likely already be familiar with, things go downhill from there.

If you can hear the influence of Neu! on School of Seven Bells' 'Device (fuer M)' (a faint whiff of Kraftwerk, but no Neu!), Foals' 'Titan Arum' (no Neu! influence whatsoever) Hook And The Twin (landfill electro-rock with a vaguely Can-like rhythm unlike any used by Neu!) or LCD Soundsystem's 'Watch The Tapes' (a Klaus Dinger-style beat in the four-bar intro and bridge; the rest shows — you guessed it — no Neu! influence whatsoever) you're a worse person than I, and you should be locked in a dank cell and forced to listen to 'Negativland' on repeat for 48 hours while Julian Cope points out to you each individual word he wrote about the band in Krautrocksampler with his crooked forefinger. Worst of all, the predictably atrocious contributions from Oasis(!) and Kasabian(!) prove not only that the kids in the remedial class at Rock School aren't ready to take the Krautrock module just yet, but that they're not even aware it exists.

What's most surprising about Brand Neu! is the near absence of the band's most obvious legacy to pop music: the motorik beat (or Apache beat, as only its creator Klaus Dinger called it). Anyone who's listened past the first track of a Neu! album will know that they were nothing if not eclectic – they played proto-just about everything, from industrial to introspective lo-fi to straight-ahead punk to ambient electronica. But playing the bass drum in the way a learner drummer would the hi-hat (eight beats to the bar) was their rhythmic ident: pummeling and relentless, yet precise and energising, what could at first sound almost like mockery of rudimentary trad-rock drumming turned out to be an inversion that helped found a new modernity in pop.

It didn't quite come out of nowhere. You can hear in motorik something of the infectious, speed limit-threatening beats used in soul revues (check out Otis Redding's Can't Turn you Loose for an example) and by 60s groups such as the Stones, which the musicians' amphetamine-fuelled, heavy-driving touring lifestyles no doubt helped to shape. But the key pointer was The Velvet Underground's primitivism: just as Mo Tucker's steady, determinist chug captured the relentless, amoral pace of New York street life, Neu!'s propulsive, thuggishly powerful but elegantly balanced beat caught the feel of bombing down the wide-open, newly built concrete pathways to somewhere as yet undefined, an endless, new Europe one just had to keep on keeping on to realise. No wonder Brian Eno identified it as one of the three great beats of the 70s, along with James Brown's funk and Fela Kuti's Afrobeat.

As is often the case, the musicians responsible tend to deflate the more high-flown claims critics make on their behalf. Neu!'s Michael Rother has explained that they only applied the term "motorik" (which translates as "motor skill") to playing football: "You know, running up and down and everything. We even had a very good team with me and Klaus and Florian (Schneider, Kraftwerk) — he could run very fast. We all loved to run fast and this feeling about running fast and fast movement, forward movement, rushing forwards that was something that we all had in common. And the joy of fast movement is part of what we were trying to express in Neu!" Road-test the likes of 'E-Muzik' on your headphones during a long run and you'll see where he was coming from — 'motor skill' in the sense of physical movement, as opposed to expert driving. Indeed, Neu! always had a physical drive at odds with Kraftwerk or the kosmische side of Krautrock — one that perhaps only a two-man band in perpetual conflict with each other could produce.

We all heard the motorik beat long before we'd heard of Neu!, usually being played by bands who didn't sound (or look) anything like them. Considering that it was all but impossible to hear Neu! until the 2001 CD release of Neu!s 1-75, perhaps this shouldn't be such a surprise; it's quite likely that those responsible for some of the music on our playlist hadn't heard them either. Yet the beat has enjoyed a constant presence in pop — often in such unexpected places as Human League's mega-selling Dare or Midge-era Ultravox's UK Top 3 hit 'Dancing With Tears In My Eyes'. Musically, it's been used in myriad ways: on Boredoms' ultra-modern epic Vision Creation Newsun, where it sounds like the pace-maker beat in a race toward spiritual enlightenment; by My Bloody Valentine, where it speeds you through a sweet and sour snowstorm; in Fujiya & Miyagi's pocket-sized pleasure pop; or as the inevitable force backing the Stereolab's Marxian lyrics, cloaked with charming melodies.

More recently, with the free availability of pop history in its entirety, Neu! have become something of a hipster staple: Krautrock tools are there to use and they always sound good, in the same way skinny black jeans always look good. But unimaginative bands will always abound, whether they're copping ideas from The Velvet Underground, The Smiths or Americans with bushy bugger-grips who sing about petrol stations. Our hipster-friendly selections from LCD Soundsystem (led by a corpulent, 30-something ex-punk from New Jersey) and Fujiya & Miyagi (geeks from Brighton, not Shoreditch fashionistas) dispel casually held notions of them as lazy pasticheurs — anyone who trusts their own ears can tell that they sound like no one so much as themselves, and that there are strong processes at work in their music.

So there's never been a time when Neu! weren't influential. The more interesting story than the one Brand Neu! attempts to tell — and the basis for a much better playlist — is this: how versatile, irrepressible and devilishly effective the dumb-at-a-glance motorik beat has proved to be over the last 35 years.

Unfortunately, Spotify hasn't caught up with some of our very best choices just yet, but you can still listen to our abridged Motorikpop playlist and check out our track-by-track guide, including clips of the missing pieces, below.

Here are the details:

  1. Neu! – 'Hallogallo (1972)
  2. The Modern Lovers - 'Roadrunner (1976)*
  3. Iggy Pop - 'Funtime' (1977)
  4. David Bowie - 'Red Sails' (1978)
  5. Joy Division/Warsaw - 'Novelty (1978)*
  6. PiL - 'Chant' (1979)
  7. Human League - 'Seconds' (1981)
  8. Ultravox - 'Dancing With Tears In My Eyes' (1984)
  9. The Jesus And Mary Chain - 'Never Understand' (1985)
  10. My Bloody Valentine – 'Honey Power' (1991)*
  11. Spectrum - 'How You Satisfy Me' (1991)*
  12. Stereolab - 'Crest' (1993)
  13. The Fall - 'Touch Sensitive' (1999)
  14. Boredoms - '♥' (1999)*
  15. OOIOO - 'Be Sure To Loop' (2001)*
  16. Broadcast - 'Pendulum' (2003)*
  17. Secret Machines - 'Nowhere Again' (2004)
  18. LCD Soundsystem - 'Jump Into The Fire' (2005)
  19. Fujiya & Miyagi - 'Ankle Injuries' (2006)
  20. Mercury Rev - 'Senses On Fire' (2008)
  21. Manic Street Preachers - 'Marlon J.D.' (2009)
  22. The Horrors - 'Sea Within A Sea' (2009)
  23. Neu! - 'E-Musik' (1975)

*Yet to be Spotified – check out the clips below

Motorikpop: a track-by-track guide

The Modern Lovers – 'Roadrunner' (1976)

Beatific modern-world motorik

Bit of a cheat, this one, in that it wouldn't have been directly influenced by Neu! (it was first recorded in 1972). But it's a great US counterpart to Neu!'s wide-open road into the future: an elated Jonathan Richman's epiphany ("Well I see Route 3 in my sight and I'm the Roadrunner") as he bombs around Boston's outskirts, a celebration powered by those Dinger-paced kick drums.

Iggy Pop – 'Funtime' (1977)

Sleazy, druggy, nightclubbing motorik

Frosted with synth and seared by power chords, Iggy sounds like he's about to drag his mate Dave deeper into the depths of Lynchian depravity than even he's dared to dip before. ('Lila Engel' from Neu! 2 could well have been the blueprint for this one.)

David Bowie – 'Red Sails' (1979)

Ludic avant-pop motorik

Always the trickiest Bowie album to pin down, Lodger. On the surface, it was a move toward the pop charts after the more obviously experimental excesses of Low and Heroes. But it all feels a bit "off" due to the Burroughsian cut-up techniques he'd famously used on his lyrics being applied to the music too. Picking different styles out of the bag for each song – reggae, middle eastern music, Scott Walker's portentious Night Flights songs, disco and, here, Neu! - made for surprisingly soaring pop that rang in the 80s.

Joy Division/Warsaw – 'Novelty' (1979)

Brutalist concrete motorik

Before Martin Hannett fully reconstructed the Joy Division sound, they still owed a clear debt to Krautrock and The Stooges; this early work also had a more direct emotional and physical impact at times. The relentless motorik kick drum lends 'Novelty' an unflinching point of view, forcing you into Curtis's world.

Public Image Ltd – 'Chant' (1979)

Freeform psychotic motorik

The version on Metal Box slips in and out of Dinger's beat, but its relentless, monomaniacal drive is pure Neu! On the Peel Session version, however, the motorik beat anchors the chaos but also ups the pressure.

Impressively, they got this jagged, profundly adult mess onto TV. Here's a chaotic live broadcast of 'Chant' from Tyne Tees Television's Check It Out (followed by what appears to be the longest censored obscenity in television history, courtesy of Jah Wobble):

The Human League – 'Seconds' (1981)

Sci-Fi motorcade motorik

Imagine a pop version of the part in JG Ballard's 'Atrocity Exhibition' about recreating the assassination of JFK, leavened by endearing clangers such as "Every face had a smile like a golden face." That's 'Seconds' and – typical Human League – it can just about make you weep.

Ultravox – 'Dancing With Tears In My Eyes' (1984)

Nuclear power pop motorik

Another update of that pop staple, the death song, this time imagining a Chernobyl scenario. Its staccato take on motorik keeps it just the right side of Bonnie Tyler-style melodrama.

Jesus And Mary Chain – 'Never Understand' (1985)

Nihilistic/romantic motorik

The sound is pure, sarcastic primitivism straight out of Neu!'s distorted 'Spitzenqualitat' ("Top Quality"); the song pure, romantic classicism.

You can see Bobby G bash out his trademark modified motorik on this Old Grey Whistle Test performance:

My Bloody Valentine – Honey Power (1991)

Scary-sweet motorik

My Bloody Valentine had the vision to alchemise J&MC's retro juxtaposition into something with an authentic life of its own. 'Honey Power' is a wide-eyed rush, and an enigma you can't shake off. From the Tremolo EP, a Top 30 hit.

It's not on Spotify or Youtube, but here's a live performance from 1991:

Spectrum – 'How You Satisfy Me' (1991)

Laser-guided psychedlic motorik

Here, motorik is the active agent in Sonic Boom's blissful, glorious, lab-coated psychedelia.

Stereolab – 'Crest' (1993)

Stern/sweet Marxist motorik

Having heard roughly 200 Stereolab songs too many over the years, it can be difficult to remember how great a proposition they once were: they suggested a new, 90s retro in which under-explored past futures could be resuscitated as an affront to chauvinistic classic rock assumptions; a politicised usurping of the form. Unfortunately, though, these graduates from the school of C86 and their fiddly approach couldn't compete with the fiercely futuristic jungle, trip hop and third golden age of hip hop going on next door.

Still, fantastic moments such as 'Crest' are worth remembering. Although Stereolab are still perhaps the most renowned Neu!-borrowers, they only used the motorik beat a couple of times as far as we're aware (here and on 'Wow And Flutter'). True to their name, they've always put an idea to the test until they're sure it's completely done (often to death), and Refried Ectoplasm is the album on which they explored motorik-ish ideas at length. It doesn't actually sound much like Neu!, though.

The Fall – 'Touch Sensitive' (1999)

Drunk-driven, surrealist motorik

Despite growing up on Can and Neu!, Mark E Smith only broke out the motorik beat during what seemed to be the band's heaviest-touring, least obviously avant years, on one of their biggest hits. 'Touch Sensitive' is the sound of a very, very drunk surrealist pushing on through long after the time for bed has passed, and unexpectedly finding his second wind.

Boredoms – ♥ (1999)/OOIOO – 'Be Sure To Loop' (2001)

High-power, hi-tech, life-affirming motorik

Boredoms' polyrhythmic masterpiece Vision Creation Newsun hits a straight-ahead stretch on its fourth track, '(heart)', where the motorik beat is writ large and vibrant. Of all the bands included here, Boredoms are the most in tune with Neu! (they explore the power of rhythm, and of the studio as an instrument) and the least copycat; they've used the beat and technique to make something new and unique, reinventing rock music in a way that's not been surpassed since.

Their sister band OOIOO put motorik through a similarly strict test (true to itself, the title's repeated over and over – that's the lyrics taken care of) which again lent it a new, precision life force. Unfortunately, the eight-minute studio version's nowhere to be found on the internet, but here's a short live clip to give you a hint of where they're coming from:

Broadcast – 'Pendulum' (2003)

Blondie-stranded-on-Mars motorik

Parallel universe pop driven through space and time by the motorik beat. The giddying film of blood corpuscles and space exploration projected at Broadcast gigs around the time of 'Pendulum's release heightened the compellingly sinister edge to edge to their gorgeous pop songs; a killer combination.

All the internet will yeild for this for this criminally under-heard song is a baffling home video:

LCD Soundsystem – 'Jump Into The Fire' (2005)

Punk disco r'n'r motorik (with cowbell)

A cover of an early-70s Harry Nilsson hit (the one used to great effect in Goodfellas when Liotta's being trailed by that helicopter). If the bass-heavy original is the sound of a cokehead's heart beating like a fucked clock, shot through with the motorik beat it sounds closer to Klaus Dinger speeding along with The Cult. Infectious dance energy is the result; it shaves a minute off Harry's time. (This was a BBC session released as the B-side of 'Daft Punk Is Playing At My House'.)

Secret Machines – 'Nowhere Again' (2006)

Desert-straddling, stadium-rock motorik

A great mainstream rock version of motorik. 'Nowhere again' hints at mystical experiences while driving through American deserts; it has the space and propulsion, if not the modernism, of Neu!

Fujiya & Miyagi – 'Ankle Injuries' (2007)

Enveloping, intimate, pocket motorik

iPod motorik, with no particular place to go. Fujiya & Miyagi captured the small pleasures of an age in which we tend to gawp at gizmos all day long, using motorik to create a feeling of freedom of manouevre within this virtual world. 'Ankle Injuries' wipes the floor with the overpraised Hot Chip, who've never been smart enough to make pop music this understated or effective.

Mercury Rev – 'Senses On Fire' (2008)

Oneiric, ecstatic, digital motorik

It's difficult to think of another band in its 'mature' stage that's capable of knocking out wonder-filled, curious dream pop like this. The sound is the product of their attempts to get people in their remote local pub to dance; whether it worked or not, when it hits its stride it sounds immense.

Manic Street Preachers - 'Marlon J.D.'

Their highest-flying moment since Richey was in the band gets its pummelling power direct from the motorik beat; outstanding stuff. No one knows what on earth they're on about here, but still they cry or go nuts to it.

The Horrors – 'Sea Within A Sea' (2009)

Club-friendly, goth-pop motorik

Well-conceived goth-pop with a rich sound palate indicative of the eclectic, crate-digging DJ sets of Southend's Junk Club, where the band came together. No great shakes as a single, but a lovely mood piece to end an album (or playlist) with. (The album, it turns out, owes more to MBV and even Suede than it does to any German band.)