Total Body Control: The Strange World Of… D.A.F.

Krautrockin' Brit David Stubbs travels to Düsseldorf to speak to Gabi and Robert of Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft in order to find entry points into their large body of work

Photo by Anton Corbijn

Along with Kraftwerk, Neu!, Der Plan and others, D.A.F. – Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft – arose from the compact German city of Düsseldorf and helped reshape electronic music worldwide. They were innovators in the vein of their 70s Krautrock predecessors but held fundamentally different values having arisen from the punk scene – for a start, they clashed head-on with politics lyrically, as on 1980’s ‘Kebabträume’, which deals mordantly with the divided city of Berlin and the status of Turkish "Gastarbeiter" (guest workers).

It was the physical shape and body image D.A.F. assumed both as musicians and in their music, however, that distinguishes D.A.F. They deliberately flirted with taboos about Germany, particularly the ones that arose from the Third Reich but also with sex and sexuality, discipline and liberertarianism.

They started life as punks at the Ratinger Hof in Düsseldorf with Gabi Delgado-López on stylophone and Robert Görl on drums, before expanding to a relatively conventional line-up including guitars and saxophone and featuring Chrislo Haas (later to form Liaisons Dangereuses) and Kurt Dalkhe who would leave to join Der Plan. But then, they would contract to their original two piece to embark on the finest phase of their career, all of which features on the Gröneland 5CD box set Das Ist D.A.F., also available as a vinyl deluxe collection.

They split at their height leaving a pristine, immaculate legacy. However, all is paradox with D.A.F., in whom the cerebral and the superficial, pleasure and pain, restraint and excess, perversity and serious commingle sensually. They inspired so much and yet remain two of a kind.

I caught up with Gabi and Robert at a Hannover hotel following a triumphant festival gig in which they defied the passage of time and made a direct and successful appeal across the decades to a whole new audience. From punk to electronica, from Düsseldorf to London, theirs has been a strange, singular and self-created world, indeed.

Synths As Punk

Although they swelled to a five piece for Die Kleinen Und Die Bösen, D.A.F always imagined themselves as a two piece.

"It was a decision," says Gabi. "In fact, at the start, it was just Robert and me. At that time, we couldn’t afford synthesizers, they were incredibly expensive. So we needed other musicians. But it was always really Robert and me. And when synthesizers became really cheap, we thought, okay, we can really strip this down to the bone as we had wanted to do in the beginning.

"The Korg was the breakthrough for us. They were the People’s Synthesizers." However, despite electronics representing the logical reduction of punk, Suicide legendarily were showered with hostility when they supported The Clash in 1978, exposing the Luddite tendency at the core of punk. D.A.F. had been fired by German punk themselves, however, with tracks like ‘Gewalt’ [Violence] attesting to the raw physicality that was their key component. They were determined to avoid the sense of tinny insipidness which sometimes characterised early electropop.

Gabi confirms, however, that D.A.F. were born out of the punk ethos. "The philosophy of punk we saw as saying ‘Do what you like, you don’t have to studio music. Create your own fanzine, your own look, your own record label. Do it yourself."

Conny Plank

Having learned his craft as a sound engineer in the 1960s working with Stockhausen among others, Conny Plank shared the missionary desire of the 70s Krautrock bands to create a music that was distinctively West German in origin. He worked with Kraftwerk, Guru Guru, Cluster, Neu! and Harmonia among others. He enabled them to make the best of the available technology, through expertise and improvisation, to fully realise their futuristic visions of what a truly neue musik could be.

He recognised a similar spirit in D.A.F. He worked with them on Die Kleinen Und Die Bösen, their debut album for Mute (and second album altogether). His methods perturbed Daniel Miller, who had set them a time budget of just a few days. For the first two or three days, he did nothing but talk and walk with the band, cook and eat food with them. But this was a necessary preparatory component for Plank, not lazy prevarication. He needed to have a full idea of the artists he was producing. First food, drink, conversation. Finally, work.

"Conny was important for us, of course," says Gabi. "He created a playground for us. He never got involved in composition or lyrics, just the sound. Synthesizers weren’t powerful enough, so he put them through Amps, rock Marshall amps for example. Also, he understood microphones – he put mikes in front. So this combination of raw amp sound with a little amount of the clean sound coming from the synth that makes the DAF sound. It’s this mixture. And that was Conny’s idea. A simple one but very good."

"Conny liked people he liked," says Robert. "Quite a few famous people he turned down. Bono, of course, even David Bowie. If something was not his thing he wasn’t interested."

Plank would go on to produce the classic trilogy of D.A.F. Virgin albums. Their timelessness is in part due to the clarity and superb, chromium black finish he provided for them.

Electronic Body Music

As tracks like ‘Absolute Körperkontrolle’ (Absolute Body Control) attest, D.A.F. were eager to make a very conscious claim for the body in their music. As ever, there were contradictions – live, Gabi would flail about with mock-nerdish abandon, while Robert stoically held down the percussive back seat. however. For their album covers, however, they posed, formidably, close-cropped, clad in sleeveless leather garb or bare-chested. They were conscious of the gay underground club scene and clearly wished to derive some its power. They were also aware of the strange, homoerotic aura that surrounded Nazism and fascism, the uniforms, the posing, the strutting, the narcissism, the obsession with physical perfection. D.A.F. flirted and queered and played with all of this. Occasionally, in their early gigs, actual neo-Nazis who missed the irony would turn up at gigs; on one occasion, Gabi reached down and neutralised one of them with a kiss.

It wasn’t just in artwork, however, but in the visceral texture of the music that D.A.F would achieve their taut, minimal, disciplined, erotic sense of the contested zone that is “the body”.

"We knew Suicide and there is the biggest similarity," says Gabi. "But they used drum machines. We liked that combination of electronics and raw, natural drums."

"If you use a computer drum beat, it is very much thinner" says Robert. "We wanted to bring muscles. We did punk as electronic – very energetic, very body-orientated."

The German Tradition

"I never understood why this fresh movement, punk, was using the instruments of the fathers, the guitars," says Gabi. "We wanted to create a music that had no tradition at all, certainly not the Anglo-American rock tradition."

In this respect, D.A.F echoed the previous Krautrock generation, pioneers ranging from Kraftwerk to Tangerine Dream to Neu!, who all declared, or carried out the intention of creating new rock forms, shapes and strategies which were a conscious departure from the blues-based norms of verse-chorus, the centrality of the vocalist, and so forth.

"We weren’t influenced by Can but we knew them – we certainly preferred them to Emerson, Lake & Palmer!" says Gabi. "Neu!, also. But there wasn’t an influence. No tradition at all also meant not even the Krautrock tradition, not even Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream."

D.A.F. thought along the same lines as their West German predecessors but, following the schism of punk, took a more brutal, concrete, explicit tack then the more verdant, psychedelic, pacific, instrumental and implicit Krautrockers. Also, they made a point of singing in German, revelling in the inherent harshness of the language and the connotations it still had with nervous 1980s audiences.

“People didn’t even understand the lyrics but just loved this harsh sound”, says Robert. “Whenever we went onstage we never spoke English, we’d say ‘Guten Abend Mädchen’”, adds Gabi. “We really wanted to bring across our point of view that we were really fighting against English domination of the pop language – it was an important matter to fight that, to not imitate, and to use a language, our own, in which we could truly express ourselves.”

It’s true – a track like ‘Verschwende Deine Jugend’ (Waste Your Youth) simply wouldn’t work, rendered in English.

"I am Spanish so I love the German language for its multiple syllables," says Gabi. "It’s complicated, also, to find a way to be rhythmical with all these consonants and syllables. And the shortest expressions in German are always imperatives! So there are a lot of imperatives in DAF. A lot of ‘Do this, do that’."

D.A.F. And London

Unlike many other musicians, D.A.F. never affected to be unconscious or disdainful of the role of music press discourse in the making of bands. They realised that post punk London was at a certain point around the turn of the decade the centre of the universe, the nerve centre, the intelligence centre of new music; NME writers like Paul Morley and Chris Bohn immediately appreciated their iron and their irony. Paul Morley was sufficiently enthused, when writing about D.A.F. to celebrate their "pursuit of pleasure as a political act", a sentence for which he was reprimanded, in mid-review, in a bracketed intervention, by his editor. Certainly, there was a critical apparatus whereby they would be understood and disseminated in a way that was impossible in their home country. Crucially, D.A.F. appealed to a generation of post-rockist writers not hung up on hoary, guitar-bound notions of authenticity, who understood that what the slow-witted might regard as "superficial" in new pop was actually an intelligent mass of signifiers in play. No more so than with D.A.F.

"We really wanted to get to English people, to do it for them," says Robert. "We made our reputation in London. First at Mute, then Virgin."

"In West Germany there were just three venues you could play music like ours – absolutely no labels were interested in us," says Gabi. "London was where it was happening. I believe you should always go to the centre of the universe and back in 1979, 1980, London was the centre of the universe. If you are an actor go to Hollywood, don’t waste your time in Berlin. If fashion is your thing, go to Milan, don’t waste your time in Hanover. In the UK, three weekly music were papers coming out; in Germany there was just one music paper every month called Sounds. It just wasn’t an important thing for Germany. Also in the UK you had The Face and iD.

"People like Chris Bohn really liked that we didn’t just stick to the normal Anglo-American concept, that we really fought it. We played the Electric Ballroom supporting Wire, who were a very big thing back then; and then the Germans said, well, they’re really getting big in London, I suppose we must go interview them. Because before that, we had not been very popular in Germany, outside of the punk scene. The rest of the German media didn’t really like us – until we made it in the UK and then all of a sudden they were very proud, our guys doing it in London! Like when Boris Becker won Wimbledon, you know?"

The trilogy – Alles Ist Gut, Gold Und Liebe, Für Immer

Over the course of 1981 and 1982, D.A.F. released a trilogy that remains undimmed and perfect in its intention, execution and cerebral and physical effect. Alles Ist Gut, Gold Und Liebe and Für Immer were stamped throughout with D.A.F.’s physical uniqueness, at once raw and cooked. This was sexual music, whose electronic treatment enabled it to writhe, contort, as Gabi sweated out the lyrics to ‘Mein Herz Macht Bum’ and ‘Sex Under Wasser’. Tracks like ‘Goldenes Spielzeug’ and ‘Der Räuber Und Der Prinz’ had a sinister, dark fairytale air to them which teased out latent taboos and childhood fears, while ‘Ein Bisschen Krieg’ (A Little War) was their riposte to Nicole’s ‘A Little Peace’ which had won the Eurovision Song Contest for West Germany in 1982. D.A.F’s perversity and ironic flip-flopping was breathraking in its gymnastics but all conducted within a tight, minimal space defined by Robert’s crashing, stomping percussion, big, black, 3-D synth riffs and Gabi’s vocals, libertarian imperatives delivered with the utmost severity. "You can recognise DAF within a few seconds of putting the needle on the vinyl," says Robert.

And then, they split.

"It felt like a perfect painting that was finished; why add to this painting?" says Gabi. They went solo, they reformed but they never again approached this pristine, monumental proto-Techno trilogy.

Sacrilege And Monuments

"You must always separate history and the comic," says Gabi. "There is the history of German fascism, it’s true but there is all this Nazi ‘opera’, all this paraphernalia, and we like to use this sort of thing because it represents Germany very much. If you go to Morocco and say you are German, even today, they will say, ‘Ah, Adolf Hitler and Beckenbauer.’ In the 80s, American tourists would come to Germany and wonder where the Hitler monuments were; in Hollywood, in TV series, there was the cliche of the German Nazi, who moves, dresses and behaves in a certain way. Of course, no one speaks like that in Germany. But still, sometimes my Spanish friends ask me to say something in German, so I do, and they say, ‘No, that’s not German!’ Their idea of ‘German’ is this cliche. So we used it, but in the way we dress, but also the body language of Nazis, of Mussolini – but also the Pope, or flamenco. It is always good to take from different sources, mix them."

"Of course, it was important to appreciate the irony," Robert hastens to add. "Always the irony. Another important influence was Russia, the power of the architecture, the propaganda."

"We weren’t afraid of using things that were taboo." says Gabi. "It was taboo to say the name Adolf Hitler. In the mid-70s, when I went to school, we learned all about the Romans and the Greeks but when it came to the Nazis, suddenly it was like, ‘Oh well, you know, it was a very hard time, we don’t really want to talk too much about that.’ A case of, ‘Don’t mention the war’, for real!"

"For us, it was important to fight monuments, whether they were positive or negative. My parents had to leave Spain because they were anti-fascist. Franco, he represents a monument, although he was a negative one. So for us, it was very important to bring these monuments down. Which is why in ‘Der Mussolini’, we mention not just Mussolini but Adolf Hitler, but also the Pope, Jesus Christ, Communism. So, the Pope is Adolf Hitler, Jesus Christ is Stalin. It was banned in Germany, in Bavaria, not because we mentioned Adolf Hitler but because we mentioned Jesus Christ in the same sentence. It was bringing them together that caused the offence."

"Splitting at our peak!" And The Neue Deutsche Welle

D.A.F. decided to go their separate ways during the making of 1982’s Für Immer. They quit just as new German music was being codified as the "Neue Deutsche Welle" (the new German wave). As with the English New Wave that followed punk, the NDW was a quirky, jerky, more pop-friendly contraction of the darkly ambitious, mordantly ironic wave of post punk bands such as Neubauten, Die Tödliche Doris, Der Plan and D.A.F. Some groups, like Der Plan, found a way of going along with NDW – D.A.F. were loath to do so.

"There was a need for us, personally, professionally, to do other things after five years," says Gabi. “Another factor was that the Neue Deutsche Welle – the new thing – was getting really big at this point. very stupid and very cheap and we were being integrated, associated, with this movement. So we had to stop, just like that. No more D.A.F. We didn’t want to be part of something we did seriously support. And I think that was one of the wisest decisions in our history. We gained immediate cult status. This was the D.A.F. philosophy. Macht was du wilt. Do what you like, don’t tell anyone else tell you what to do."

Contemporary Appeal

Watching D.A.F. at their recent M’Era Luna Festival gig in Hildesheim, it was clear simply from scanning the first five rows that D.A.F. have managed to acquire a young following. Travelling Germany, it can be alarming how unaware its youth are of their extraordinary musical heritage from the 1970s onwards. If Krautrock’s goal was to drive out the overbearing Anglo-American domination over popular German tastes then it that respect at least it failed – Bon Jovi and The Red Hot Chili Peppers are much preferred over Amon Düül and Faust.

Groups that made it post punk, such as Der Plan, Einstürzende Neubauten however, managed to gain more of a popular footing as a self-consciousness developed in German music and audiences in the aftermath of punk. Furthermore, the direct appeal of D.A.F. and the connection of they make with live crowds has helped them make more of an impact than some of their more oblique countrymen and women, especially following the impact of techno.

"It’s special that we have a lot of really young kids who weren’t even born when we started out," says Gabi. "That makes it really interesting and new. If our audience were just entirely people from the old days, that wouldn’t be nice for us at all. For us, what we do very much involves the audience. Which is why we always say to them at the end of every gig, ‘Du bist D.A.F.’ Because we are all D.A.F. We don’t believe in the concept of the performer and the audience. For us, D.A.F. is something we celebrate together. It’s a dialogue, we give each other energy."


John Peel famously described D.A.F. as the Godfathers of Techno. They were the Godfathers of a great deal more, however – mid-80s Industrial, EBM, New Beat, Goth, all drew on D.A.F.’s black, multi-angled magic in some way or other. But along with Kraftwerk and Liaisons Dangereuses among others, D.A.F. were certainly known to Chicago house and techno pioneers like Derrick May. Compact and opaque as they were, D.A.F. have bequeathed us a music in which there is a great deal to unpack – yet, despite the imitative homage paid them by the likes of Nitzer Ebb, they have retained their uniqueness – an octagonal peg in pop’s square hole.

Speaking about Derrick May and the Detroit techno originators Gabi says: "That’s great, that makes me really proud. The house pioneer Adonis in Chicago I know was a fan of D.A.F."

"Many years ago in the 80s, in the media, journalists told us, you guys are far, far ahead," recalls Robert. “You will see this work being appreciated much, much later. And this is the result.”

The Das Ist D.A.F. box set is out now

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