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Babylon Is Everywhere! The Strange World Of Amon Düül
David Stubbs , June 8th, 2015 12:05

Ahead of their London concert at Village Underground this week, David Stubbs profiles the weird and wonderfully cosmic world of German experimental group Amon Düül, from commune life to psychedelic sonic wanderings to Baader Meinhof myths

"We didn't allow ourselves to listen to Clapton or that American or English Mickey Mouse music," Weinzierl told me when I interviewed him for my book Future Days: Krautrock And The Building Of Modern Germany. "It was about listening, seeing what comes, what could be done, what could be done differently – especially as we had this identity clash, as the world told us – it was no good to be a German, you must not be a German, you must not go to war again. Of course, you hear this stuff and you look inside yourself, asking 'Where is my war virus? My vicious virus?' But of course it's not there."

Like Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Amon Düül came of age after the war into a West Germany shrouded in amnesia and wracked by repressed guilt following the Second World War, its pitiful mainstream culture, from kitschy Schlager to weak Anglo-American imitation indicative of a national sense of low self-esteem. For them, new forms of music and new modes of being were paramount, vital to West Germany’s spiritual and artistic renewal.

That said, Amon Düül despise the term "Krautrock" with even greater intensity than their peers on whom it has also been imposed and refuse to acknowledge themselves as having anything to do with the "movement". They see themselves as a highly individual collective operating within the broader realms of psychedelic rock. Their earliest albums are of most interest to aficionados, in which they really stretch themselves experimentally over lengthy, often segmented pieces covering a range of styles. Later, they went in a relatively pop direction. However, in recent years they have been reinvigorated, in their element on the internet, as their website attests, convinced that the web represents new hope against the machinations of the music industry. They operate around the nucleus of longtime members Chris Karrer, John Weinzierl, Peter Leopold, Christian "Shrat" Thiele, Renate Knaup-Kroetenschwanz, Danny Fichelscher, Dieter Serfas, Falk Rogner and Lothar Maid, Jan Kahlert and Gerard Carbonell. They still espouse the ideals they did in the late 60s, in defiance of 21st century pragmatism. As Weinzierl puts it, "The experiment is on! Babylon is everywhere and the lemmings are still dancing."

The Communes

"Amon Düül" began not so much as a musical but a social experiment, arising from a commune in Munich. The commune scene was strong both here and in Berlin, where Kommune 1 started in January 1967. In Berlin, the inner city was left deserted as both industry and citizens relocated to the outer reaches of the town; this left urban space in which communes could thrive. This wasn’t simply about cheap living, however; they represented a philosophy, a means of getting away from the patriarchal, nuclear family structure, a way in which young people, some of whom were post-war orphans, could find new ways of organising themselves socially, engaging in self-discovery and a new sense of identity as young Germans. The philosophy of these groups was left wing and libertarian, an anti-Nazi riposte to a society still run to some degree by 'Altnazis', functionaries of the Third Reich, who retained authoritarian and repressive habits. In more prosperous Munich, there was a different vibe from the more politically revolutionary Berlin communes, with music a primary concern. That said, communes were not always peaceful places; practical difficulties such as engaging with suspicious locals, suffering the overbearing attentions of the police made life hard. Meanwhile, the anti-patriarchal ethos did not always prevent some very unreconstructed behaviour visited on the female participants; Chris Karrer recalled having to grab a female and have sex with her there and then to prove to his browbeating male peers that he "wasn’t gay".

Amon Düül

In the beginning, there was one Amon Düül, a democratic, free-form musical collective which provided a soundtrack to the numerous "happenings", teach-ins and demonstrations occurring in 1967/68. Their name had new age/cosmic connotations - Amon was the name of an Egyptian Sun God - but tellingly, they adapted the name "Dyl", taken from a mythology created by a psychedelic band, and converted it into the emphatically Germanic Düül. As with other experimental music of the era, there was a need to establish a sense of German identity for reasons that were quite the opposite of Britpop’s assertion of Britishness. Young, creative Germans like Amon Düül were inscribing their identity anew on a clean slate. The Amon Düül collective included Ulrich Leopold, Peter Leopold, Rainer Bauer, Helge and Angelika Filanda, Uschi Obermeier, Wolfgang Krischke, Falk Rogner and Renate Knaup. Their inclusive, "anyone can do it" philosophy was a forerunner in its own way to punk. Four albums were released under the Amon Düül banner, including Psychedelic Underground and Paradieswärts Düül, all of which were cut from the musical cloth generated by a 1968 session and mischievously designed to cash in on the subsequent success of the breakaway, more musical Amon Düül 2.

Internationale Essener Songtage

The International Essen Song Days Festival took place in September 1968. With future controversial kosmische entrepreneur Rolf Ulrich-Kaiser involved, it brought together a number of groups who would later be forcibly gathered under the Krautrock banner including Tangerine Dream, Guru Guru, Soul Caravan (later Zhol Caravan) and Amon Düül themselves. It also included overseas artists such as The Fugs and Mothers Of Invention, led by Frank Zappa, who would exercise a profound influence on German bands of the day, not least Amon Düül. Zappa's appearance acted as a catalyst for an eclectic new wave of German experimentalism, even if the man himself was bemused and unimpressed by some of the earnestly garrulous and utterly stoned young Germans he encountered. It was at this festival that a formal schism developed between those members of Amon Düül who merely wished to sit in circles playing bongos at varying speeds and those with more ambitious, musical ideas such as Chris Karrer and a young John Weinzierl. There were now two Amon Düüls.

Amon Düül 2

If the Amon Düül philosophy was wholly inclusive, the musical results were consequently not always of the highest calibre. Chris Karrer and a few of those who could actually play consequently broke away to form Amon Düül 2; the necessity for the "2" has always grated with the band but at least Karrer had the sense to trademark the Amon Düül name so that any releases under that moniker had to be licensed from AD2. "We made the big mistake of simply adding the 2 to the name," Weinzierl remarked, "and this led to the misunderstanding that it was all one thing. I'm very surprised when people take one of these rubbish albums (by Amon Düül) and say it was quite good."

Amon Düül’s first album was titled Phallus Dei (God’s Penis), a sacrilegious, occasionally lyrically shocking, musically digressive work which ranged from the Pink Floyd-isms of "Kanaan" to the 21 minute title track, whose free ranging peregrinations take in free jazz, classical, folk and pyschedelia in its search to map out new terrain. It’s an infernal triumph, and vindicated the faith of Siggi Loch of German United Artists, who was among a few highly placed execs who sensed that something new and seismic was stirring beneath what had hitherto been a slavishly imitative German rock landscape.

Wolfgang Krischke

The ill-fated Wolfgang Krischke, one of the original members of the Amon Düül commune has posthumously provided us with one of most searing and enduring images of German experimental music. Looking like some wiry, feral rock & roll animal, he appears on Falk Rogner’s sleeve for the Amon Düül 2 album Yeti wielding a scythe, looking remorselessly Reaper-like, or, as German mythology has it, the "Schnitter". He personifies the revolutionary cultural intentions of young West Germany, while Rogner’s sleeve slide projectors and lights to create an acid-fried effect, the sense of a psychedelic nightmare. However, it was Krischke himself who would be cut down. Just weeks after this photo was taken, he visited his parents home in the middle of winter, took an LSD trip and then stumbled out into neighbouring woodland, where he fell asleep and died of hypothermia.

Renate Knaup

Despite the lack of Anglo-American rock ego which distinguishes Amon Düül, as well as groups like Kraftwerk, Can and Faust, women barely feature in their numbers and, when they did, were often subject to sexist assumptions. Renate Knaup struggled with the limited vocal role she was asked to perform on Phallus Dei. "The problem I had in the beginning was self confidence," she said. "It was difficult to be the only woman involved inside this macho, musical mafia. Phallus Dei had no words for me to sing. I only did these oohs and aahs for the vocals. I wanted to be a soul singer, in the same way that Hendrix was a soul singer."

With her 'Archangel Thunderbird' on Yeti, however, she strikes a distinctive and too rare note of female empowerment, her vocal soaring, brandishing and cascading from the upper registers, a thing of unconventional beauty; you sense her male counterparts tightening obediently in the background as she lays down the vocal as if laying down the law.

Baader Meinhof and the communes

The links between German terrorists organisations such as the RAF and the correspondingly revolutionary German music of the day have been often wishfully exaggerated. John Weinzierl would have been disappointed to learn that the disc found on Andreas Baader’s record player in his cell after he died was by Eric Clapton. However, commune life did mean that there were occasional intersections. They were frequently subjected to police raids, occasionally armed, purely on the basis of their appearance. And once, according to Renate Knaup, Andreas Baader and fellow terrorist Gudrun Ensslin broke into their rooms, as the group discovered on returning from a gig. "I came back from tour, went to the room I shared with Falk, and said, 'Who the fuck is in my bed? Get out!’", she told Mojo’s Andy Gill in 1997. "It was Andreas Baader lying there, in my bed. Chris came down, he had found Gudrun Ensslin in his bed. He said, 'She won't get out!' I went up, said, 'Who the fuck do you think you are, get out of here!' But eventually, we were so tired, we just moved them into the living-room and left them there while we slept. They stole all the guys' new clothes, and disappeared!"

Amon Düül In London

Although it was the French who first took to Amon Düül 2, the British were not far behind and in 1972, Amon Düül came to the UK. A gig they played in Croydon, featuring material from their first two albums, was used as the basis for a live album. Live In London was released at a budget price as a means of introducing the public to the group, and, while well-received didn’t quite do enough to shake the stoner, complacent Britprog assumption that Anglo-American rock was where it was all at. Only with the first generation of punk would that happen. Meanwhile, however, John Weinzierl was gratified that a longhair like himself could walk the streets without raising the suspicion of the authorities that he was a terrorist. "When we came to England we couldn't believe it. We were allowed in hotels. You couldn't stay in hotels in Germany. It was 'hello, love!' and 'Come in, love!' We thought, what's going on here?" They would support Roxy Music while in London, one of the first UK groups whose sound was affected by the German influence, thanks to the ever-musically alert Brian Eno, who produced Roxy’s first album.

Made In Germany

Although by 1975, Amon Düül appeared to be heading in a more orthodox musical direction, they made perhaps their boldest and most bizarre musical statement to date having signed to Atlantic Records. A rock opera of sorts, Made In Germany was ostensibly a sweeping survey of recent German political and cultural history in which everyone from Fritz Lang to the Kaiser, and, of course, Hitler were referenced. Ultimately, it functioned as a satire on Anglo-American attitudes towards German music, as the group satirically played up their Teutonic-ness, with John Weizierl renaming himself John Von Düül for the project. It even featured a spoof interview between an American DJ and Hitler (represented by clips of his speeches), though this was removed at the American label’s insistence. "Using some of these things, deliberately, like the Hitler Speech, you can tell how ridiculous this is. whenever you come as a German it was assumed you were a Nazi sympathiser," said Weinzierl. Other squelched ideas in this scheme had included renaming the group Olaf And His Swinging Nazis and hiring a Zeppelin in which to land the group in New York. None of this was to be. "This should have been our big Coming To America album," said Weinzierl, "but it was shot down."

Amon Düül UK

Although Amon Düül "split" in 1981 they have never drifted very far apart from one another, and these days operative as a collective, working under the name even if not all of the members are present onstage or in the studio. During the 1980s, John Weinzierl worked with the UK bass player Dave Anderson, who had played with the group in their earliest days under the moniker Amon Düül UK. John Weinzierl recalled as best he could the time they played together at the Essener Songtag festival. "I remember we were tripping on the day of the concert. I remember Dave Anderson going down the stairs onto the stage. It felt like half an hour of him simply going down the stairs." Anderson would later go on to join Hawkwind, who always had an affinity of sorts with kosmische music and all Germanic points beyond and it was natural that they should keep each other musical company during the 1980s, on a series of albums beginning with 1981’s Hawk Meets Penguin, at a time when Amon Düül 2 and musical fashion were at their farthest apart.

Amon Düül play Village Underground this Thursday, June 12th. For tickets go here. David Stubbs' book on German experimental music from the 1970s is available here