Krautrock – Made in Düsseldorf

From Liverpool Club to Conny Plank and NEU!

Berliner Straße 1955, Düsseldorf by Dolf Siebert / Stadtarchiv DüsseldorfVisit Düsseldorf

After the Second World War, the major West German city of Düsseldorf gained a new look. Modern skyscrapers arose as early as the mid 1950s, where rubble still ruled over the cityscape just a short time ago. One driver of Germany's rapid economic growth—the Miracle on the Rhine—was the steel industry, based primarily in Düsseldorf. British occupying forces declared Düsseldorf the capital city of the new region of North Rhine-Westphalia. Music helped young people overcome their worries about the future. Their listening habits were shaped by the once prohibited sounds of the Allied liberators: swing and jazz. These founded a music culture which continues to set trends today.

Germany's Ruhr - 1St Take, Ralph Crane, 1953-12, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Ralph Crane, 1953-12, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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In prosperous 1960s Düsseldorf the music scene flourished, and it wasn't just English bands that performed at the clubs in the old town. The local scene also had lots of opportunities to perform. Bands like The Beathovens, featuring Wolfgang Flür on drums of later Kraftwerk fame, covered blues and beat music by big names from the UK and USA. Just a few dared to reinvent music. At that time, the center of English-language music was the Liverpool Club on Graf Adolf Strasse.

Music-lover and student Florian Schneider-Esleben met Ralf Hütter at a concert at the former Remscheid Academy of Art. Together they attended a jazz improvisation course at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in Düsseldorf. Ralf and Florian roamed the cultural scene on the Rhine and Ruhr. Back home in Düsseldorf they worked on a new personal musical vision: Ralf on the hammond organ, flautist Florian on instruments with part electronic distortion (electric flute, alto flute, glock, triangle, tambourine, electric violin).

KRAFTWERK - L’Olympia, Paris, France 1981 by ©Ilse RuppertVisit Düsseldorf

Kraftwerk was lucky that there were already happenings with electronic music in and around Düsseldorf. "In the beginning we had no involvement at all in the traditional music scene. We performed in the arts scene, like in galleries and universities," Ralf Hütter stated in an interview with Jean François Bizot, appearing in Neon Lights—The Kraftwerk Story (Neonlicht—Die Kraftwerk Story) by Pascal Bussy.

Record company RCA was interested in the young Düsseldorf natives. Under the band name Organisation, a name that was also understood in England, an album was born at the Rhenus Studios with Conny Plank at the helm. It was exclusively released in England in 1970. However, Tone Float never did as well as expected. The planned tour around England fell through. Organisation (full name: Organisation for the fulfillment of shared music concepts [Organisation zur Verwirklichung gemeinsamer Musikkonzepte]) disbanded. Meanwhile, Ralf and Florian remained inseparable.

Düsseldorf, Mintropstraße, passageway to the former Kling Klang Studio by Thomas StelzmannVisit Düsseldorf

In downtown Düsseldorf, Ralf and Florian rented space on the site of a former factory. The Kling Klang Studio became the experiments lab for their band which had a German name: Kraftwerk. The walls were covered with plastic panels, and the musicians placed their synthesizer and amplifier cables on the linoleum floor. The band deemed the foundation of the legendary studio to be the true beginnings of Kraftwerk.

The genre which British journalists lovingly and jokingly christened krautrock continued to grow with diverse guest musicians. Three albums documented this process: Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2, and Ralf and Florian. 

Conny Plank's signature as a sound engineer and the traffic cone as a creative motif characterized this early work. The music from around this time was an attempt to find an individual German identity in pop following the Second World War. An identity which wanted to be liberated from traditional popular songs and folk music and manage without the help of Anglo-American examples. 

Former Kling Klang Studio, Markus Luigs, From the collection of: Visit Düsseldorf
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Conny Plank at the mixing desk in Hamburg 1971, Christa Fast, From the collection of: Visit Düsseldorf
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Dig (2005) by Gilbert & GeorgeArt Gallery of New South Wales

Kraftwerk created a fusion of avant-garde music and timeless art: the cover invokes Andy Warhol's serial art reproduction or the self-portraiture of Gilbert & George. Already in 1970, the Kraftwerk record inner sleeve used a photograph of artist duo Bernd and Hilla Becher who founded the now globally renowned Düsseldorf School of Photography in the late 1970s.

"Vision of an electric band", Emil Schult 1973 by Emil SchultVisit Düsseldorf

Kraftwerk's close proximity to art is also reflected in the band's collaboration with artist Emil Schult, a college student of Joseph Beuys and later a Master's student of Gerhard Richter. At the time, Beuys and Richter were both based at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. A comic as the insert for LP Ralf and Florian marked the beginning of a long creative collaboration, which would not just result in later album covers but also song lyrics.

Neu (Dinger and Rother) by Metronome / Thomas DingerVisit Düsseldorf

Some of the many guest musicians of the early Kraftwerk music project also included drummer Klaus Dinger and guitarist Michael Rother for live performances and studio sessions. In 1971, Dinger and Rother formed their own band. The name marked their new beginnings: NEU! The band made experimental rock music. Klaus Dinger's motor-like beats and Rother's spherical guitar riffs had never been heard before. From 1972 to 1975 the band released three revolutionary albums and split due to musical differences. 

The influence of NEU! reached far beyond Düsseldorf: The records that David Bowie, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop brought out at the end of the 1970s were inspired by the music laboratory on the Rhine, which is why they sounded so German. In the 1980s and 90s, many international bands cited Dinger's work as an influence. Famous international groups like Stereolab, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, and Oasis were influenced by the style of NEU!

While working for NEU! and during live performances, drummer Hans Lampe and Klaus Dinger's brother Thomas were already helping out the band. In 1975, he and Klaus Dinger formed the band La Düsseldorf. Their debut Düsseldorf connected Field Recordings and krautrock to the soundtrack of life in the Rhine metropolis. After two more albums the band broke up. Klaus Dinger had the courage to think for himself, live autonomously, and not act in line with what the industry wanted, according to Dinger archivist Miki Yui in a later interview with Philipp Holstein in the Rheinische Post.

Wolfgang Riechmann, born in Düsseldorf, played together with Wolfgang Flür and Michael Rother in the band Spirits of Sound in the 1960s. From November 1977 to January 1978 he created his own album "Wunderbar" at Star Studio in Hamburg. The musician from Düsseldorf played nearly all the instruments himself. 

On August 20, 1978, Riechmann was walking along the main street with his girlfriend in the Düsseldorf old town. There was a confrontation with two criminals, and one of them, intoxicated with drugs and alcohol, stabbed him to death.

Four days later, 31-year-old Riechmann died in Marienhospital in Düsseldorf, only three weeks before his album was released. Two years after the incident, the murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment. He said he had willfully acted to "vent off some steam." He didn't know his victim. Riechmann's legacy is one of the milestones of Düsseldorf's music history. His posthumously released solo debut is a timeless gem. The euphoria of a jubilant artist resonates in its name: Wonderful (Wunderbar). 

LIFE Photo Collection

The electronic sounds on the Rhine called new Berliner David Bowie into action. Bowie was in a way impressed by Kraftwerk, leading him to want to cooperate with them. They outright refused this, however. Attempts to gain Kraftwerk as the opening act for a tour also failed. However, in the song Trans-Europe Express, they humbly agreed to meet Bowie and Iggy Pop in Düsseldorf. And Bowie played the song V2-Schneider for his Berlin album Heroes—a nod to the last Wunderwaffe (wonder weapon) of the Nazis as well as to the Kraftwerk musicians.

Kreidler by Thomas StelzmannVisit Düsseldorf

David Bowie remained on the pulse of the Düsseldorf music scene even after the style-defining 1970s. In a conversation with David Bowie in 1997, journalist Max Dax gave him a present: a CD of Weekend by the Düsseldorf band Kreidler. The cover photo, a work by founding member Stefan Schneider, shows flowering magnolias in Düsseldorf Volksgarten. In the interview piece Alert by Max Dax, Bowie praises the artwork and its creator: "By the way, I've already heard a lot about Kreidler, and only good things."

Kreidler was formed in 1994 from the halls of the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. Their avant-garde pop combined analog and digital sounds and demonstrated close ties to art and literature. The quartet is still tapping into new soundscapes today.

 

Mouse on Mars by Thomas StelzmannVisit Düsseldorf

In 2002, author and music journalist Thomas Venker met David Bowie for an interview for music and pop culture magazine Intro. In response to the German punk movement emerging at the end of the 1970s in the Ratinger Hof local and the events in Düsseldorf, Bowie recalls: "Yes, I followed Düsseldorf very closely and liked a lot of it." The star confided in Venker: "I'll tell you who I'm liking a lot right now. They're German. Mouse on Mars." Another band from Düsseldorf!

Avantgarde electronic duo Mouse on Mars is one of the most important and diverse electronic music projects in Germany. Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner tirelessly work on the concept of electronic pop music. "They are the philosophers among many German electronic musicians who grew out of the alternative techno scene since the 1990s," writes the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Since 1994 the sound tinkerers have mixed techno, dub, krautrock and many more constructs as unique as they are abstract, which they turn into a renowned German electronica export.

Credits: Story

Curated by Sven-André Dreyer and Dr. Michael Wenzel, editorial assistance Thorsten Schaar (Visit Düsseldorf). Participating institutions: Cultural Office of the State Capital Düsseldorf, City Archive Düsseldorf, Heinrich Heine Institute, City Museum Düsseldorf, Tonhalle Düsseldorf gGmbH.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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