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Concrète Dschungel: Einstürzende Neubauten’s Kollaps At 40
Jeremy Allen , October 4th, 2021 08:19

Neubauten's uncompromising debut album ‘Kollaps’ is 40 years old. Jeremy Allen explores the bombed-out terrain of their West Berlin and wonders if, despite the penurious conditions, it was easier to make art then

“[West Berlin is] a surrealist cage in which those inside are free.”
György Ligeti.

Feral musicians emerging from the rubble of bombed-out West Berlin and creating themselves out of their own blood and guts very much feels like a tale from another age. In a world of coffee shop startups, utilitarian computer software and ersatz bedroom electronica as aural wallpaper, building your own percussive instruments from scrap might seem primitive, complex, redundant even. But in 1981, when Einstürzende Neubauten made Kollaps, it was revolutionary.

For the briefest of moments they tried to be conventional, but it didn’t last long. The Moon Club in Berlin on April 1st, 1980 was the scene of Naubauten’s first ever show, after Blixa Bargeld overheard a promoter telling somebody else that an act was needed for the following Tuesday night; he formed the band there and then and blurted out the name - “collapsing new buildings” - to give them something to put on the poster.

Bargeld scored the gig at Gudrun Gut’s Eisengrau shop on Goltzstrasse in Schöneberg; Gut and Bettina Köster sporadically sold their homemade clothes there, though it acted more as a creative hub where West Berlin’s freaks met, functioning not unlike Sex on the King’s Road. Graffitied on the interior wall at Eisengrau were the words “THOSE WHO SLEEP MISS OUT”. Luckily, Bargeld was on hand much of the time to sell the speed needed to ensure there’d be less FOMO.

A thrown together ensemble featuring Bargeld, Gut, Beate Bartel and drummer N.U. Unruh bombed spectacularly at the Moon on April Fool’s Night. The venue soon went under, though Neubauten are still standing, proud and magnificent, revered as a cult act of seminal significance. They are often filed under industrial, pigeonholed as punk, but belong to neither; if they must fit into a genre then that genre is Neubauten. Their survival is a triumph over some incredible odds, weathering years of heroin and Communist speed, near starvation, periods of aggressive indifference from the public and, at the very beginning, a decadent death wish that hung around their necks like vials of poison.

There were more prosaic existential threats in the early days too: Gut and Bartel went off to form Mania D; Unruh was forced to sell his drum kit in December 1980 in order to meet the rent. The 20-year-old Bargeld – who’d been expelled from school after he set it on fire, and who’d hitherto only left the “island” city of West Berlin on two occasions in his life – had no rent to pay as he sofa-surfed between squats.

It’s often said these days that a career in music is contingent on how well off musicians are – a kind of gentrification of pop that was only accelerated by the Labour Party, introducing the Welfare To Work programme and then reneging on the New Deal for musicians in the death throes of the Brown administration in 2009. Since the Conservatives have been in power, Brexit, COVID and the neoliberal mission to turn every performing space in London into flats, is not helping. Neubauten’s circumstances were dire and yet, as we’ll see later, the unique conditions of living in West Berlin at that time enabled them to perform miracles.

From the penurious rock bottom they found themselves at, they began to forage for objets trouvés and come up with a sound that was truly extraordinary. According to Jennifer Shryane’s superbly detailed Blixa Bargeld And Einstürzende Neubauten: 'Evading Do-Re-Mi' (published by Cambridge University Press), Bargeld came across a recording of nomadic Ethiopian performers in the “obscurity department” of his local record shop, and was struck by the fact they used just their voices, some sticks, handclaps and sounds from the environment. He told The Independent On Sunday in 2006: “If it was possible for nomads to come to that tear-driving authenticity by just using what’s there, it should be possible for me in my own surroundings”.

From Potsdamer Platz and the ghost station at Anhalter, they began to collect metal detritus. Unruh would fashion instruments out of discarded timber and whatever else he could find. Naubauten became interested in the acoustics of outdoor locations, playing under bridges and within small inner steel cavities of the autobahn flyover. A favourite surrogate bass drum in the early arsenal was a metal screen discarded from taxi cabs. The sheet had been placed in vehicles as a barrier between the driver and passenger after several cabbies had been shot. Taking their chances, these fearless fiakers disposed of the metal screens which, unbeknownst to them, made a nice thud when struck with purpose.

On the back of the sleeve of the debut album Kollaps, is a photograph of Bargeld, Unruh and the percussionist F.M. Einheit, standing proudly outside the Olympic Stadium with their array of instruments and amplification. As well as Blixa’s low-slung, beaten up guitar and a couple of keyboards, it looks rather like the contents of a serial killer’s dungeon, with an array of axes, pliers, screwdrivers and pneumatic drills. It’s a picture dripping in symbolism, as angry youth in the foreground display their weapons of artistic catharsis, with the Nazi-built Olympiastadion looming over them.

“It's not architectural destruction that haunts us,” said Bargeld in 1993, “it's the rift torn in the culture of Europe and especially Germany. The pre-war avant-garde tradition was completely severed. There was no German tradition one could refer to without feeling guilty. That culture which existed before the war is rightly forbidden to us, because of what it led to – or at best, did not prevent. Connect the ‘destructive character’ with this historical perspective and you have a key to our method and madness."

Kraftwerk, Cluster, Can and Faust before them had all invented their own musical vocabularies to break with the past, and Neubauten, who came slightly later, were still living in that same postwar shadow, some 35 years after the suicide of Hitler. The trio in the picture at the Olympiastadion certainly look like they mean business; sonic paramilitaries, ready to inflict pain on our ears, and pain on themselves if necessary. There’s a strong sense too that they’re doing it because they have to. This was physically demanding work which often would lead to self-inflicted wounds, with their own bodily neglect a “deliberate mockery of the values of postwar West Germany and the Wirtschaftswunder”, according to Shryane. A listen to the pent-up anguish and blood curdling, visceral anger of the record will likely give you that impression too.

On opener ‘Tanz Debil’, Bargeld barks ‘Gier!’- the German word for lust - over and over like an animal on heat down down at the scrapyard; lust for flesh, lust for drugs, lust for you. The industrial pummelling doesn’t subside for quite some time. ‘Steh auf Berlin’ opens with the squeal of drill on metal, and sees Blixa paying homage to the things he likes: viruses, intoxication, decline. On ‘Negativ Nein’ Bargeld longs for either asylum or exile as someone fishes around inside a toilet bowl, evoking that scene from Trainspotting. There’s a tension throughout that you rarely find on any record; a rage against emptiness and malaise and fakery on piledrivers like ‘Abstieg & Zerfall’ [descent and disintegration]. Kollaps, in many ways, sounds like a therapy session with Arthur Janov set to the cacophony of construction, though there are moments of tenderness too if you look for them.

Neubauten can slay you with beauty these days with a song like ‘Alles In Allem’ because the wasteland years sharpened their focus. Here there’s ‘Draussen ist feindlich’, where Bargeld, accompanied by an almost tuneful dustbin lid, reveals his vulnerable side and then retracts it out of shame: “Outside is hostile/ Lock yourself in with me/ Here we are safe/ I love you…” The sound of a woman laughing mockingly is heard, and he quickly adds: “Forget it.”

That juxtaposition is reminiscent of Birkin and Gainsbourg’s ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ – or “I love you... me neither”. Neubauten tack an impudent minute long rendition of the French classic to the end of side one under the name ‘Jet'm’, featuring a shrilling single line that penetrates the neural pathways like a dentist’s drill. It’s inclusion acts as a coded signifier that there’s a beautifully wry sense of humour at the heart of Einstürzende Neubauten which, like a comedy skit in a Shakespearian tragedy, is balm from all the intensity and horror. The idea of them performing this exquisite chanson with erotic overtones is amusing to say the least. Humour is never far away on any given Neubauten album, but it’s often so black that you can’t see it.

Perhaps what’s most extraordinary about Kollaps is that it was made at all. Aside from those fleeting moments of tenderness, it’s a violent, raging, uncompromising din, made by urban nomads; at least one member was of no fixed abode. When I said they came from another age, it’s certainly difficult to envisage a record like this appearing in the racks of HMV in 2021, especially when we keep being told how pop music is now the plaything of poshos like Blunt, Welsh, Martin, and libertarian ideologues Mumford and Sons, who are practically landed gentry.

“I think it should worry everyone deeply that since the decimation of the music business, at first by internet piracy and then the proliferation of streaming services, it’s increasingly hard for artists, who make left field, marginal music to make a living,” said Brett Anderson eloquently in Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn. “Are we to assume that working class voices will be virtually unheard of in popular music in a few years time because it’s just no longer seen as a viable career, and the only reason left field bands can survive is if they’re bankrolled by well-off parents?”

It’s a good question, although conversely, if Neubauten fashioned their own instruments from scrap metal and objets trouvés, should bands even need to be bankrolled if they’re making art? Artists can easily make art these days, it’s the marketing side that's more problematic; l'art pour l'art, is what counts, after all. Neubauten were driven by a deeply idiosyncratic vision and a need to confront the past and carve out the future with whatever they could find, and collectively they’re a sonic force of nature, but it’s also important to note that they were lucky that the conditions were right for their own literal big bang. Penury or no, West Berlin at that time provided a perfect storm for creativity.

Timing is everything, and although nobody was getting rich, the creative scene in West Berlin, often with Gudrun Gut as facilitator, was thriving, with lots of bands springing up and sharing members, ideas and instruments. This was the time of Neue Deutsche Welle, Michel Foucault dancing at the Dschungel and Dusseldorf’s Kraftwerk breaking internationally, and musicians such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop moving to the city.

Still, the label ZickZack were going out on a limb signing a band as feral as Einstürzende Neubauten, who made Die Krupps and Die Tödliche Doris look like Busted and McFly. That idea of taking a commercial risk is starker today, especially when groups are expected to turn a profit with their debuts or face being dropped. Major labels in particular need to justify to shareholders what is being invested in, which no doubt has played its part in the streamlining of bands down to duos or solo artists in the name of expediency and cost efficiency.

Another factor is space. Naubauten had lots of it. They would park themselves on the wasteland of Potsdamer Platz long before you could arrive there by train like Bowie in the 2013 song ‘Where Are We Now?’, and before it was preyed upon by capitalism, Sony, Daimler and Roger Waters. This violent outpouring of creativity might have appeared odd to passersby, though no gawpers would have been able to outstare Blixa Bargeld. The open expanses of Berlin, and indeed the warehouse space, can’t be bought in London now – not on musician’s wages, anyway.

From squattermusik to squat rock, Fat White Family found themselves in the unique position of having somewhere to stay and play in the shape of the Queens Head, a Brixton pub where they could hone their act, take drugs and experiment to their heart’s content. Such a setup is enviable, and other artists who’ve had modest success have usually had similar. Savages and King Krule shared a cheap space in South London when they were starting out, and Black Country, New Road – who weren’t exactly slumming it with three of them being classically trained at the Guildhall – were invited back on a regular, ad hoc basis at the Brixton Windmill. The mighty Black Midi meanwhile improbably emerged from the BRIT School, which all suggests to make it as a band these days requires luck, benevolence and benefactors in some capacity or, as Anderson suggested, loaded parents. Especially if you’re based in, or haven’t been priced out, of the capital yet.

A big difference between London now, and Berlin then, is who those cities seek to attract. London builds endless expensive flats to be bought up by wealthy non-doms, while residents of West Berlin at that time were subsidised for living in a place where most Germans didn’t want to be unless they were dodging the draft. There’s a popular misconception that the wall separated east from west, but the Soviets built it around West Berlin, and you needed to travel through a large swathe of East Germany to get to it. East Berliners could wander in the Brandenburg forests or by the Lusatian lakes at the weekend, while their Western counterparts had only asphalt and graffitied concrete to stare at, which partially occluded the sun.

According to Paul Hockenos’ Berlin Calling, there was an infusion of money for young Germans to live at the coalface of the Cold War. There were plenty of tax breaks, most young people were on benefits of some kind, and those who worked were given an 11 percent subsidy which was automatically paid into the employee’s bank account, which Hockeno says was “the payoff for the angst endured by living in West Berlin.”

Sadly there’s no subsidy for the angst of living in Tory Britain right now. Culture is being taken apart by the worst kinds of philistines (powerful ones), touring outside of the UK is needlessly bureaucratic and unsustainable thanks to Brexit, and Universal Credit is being wrenched away from the poorest in society just when they need it most, by a government clearly not content with the misery, suffering and needless death it caused with austerity and the mishandling of the pandemic. With rising energy bills and no guarantees we’ll keep the lights on this winter, it may feel cathartic to hit things with metal and scream at the moon as everything around us collapses.