Neu!’s Michael Rother Looks Back on Krautrock Band’s ‘Very Ambitious’ Start 50 Years Ago

“If you had asked me 50 years ago what I would be doing in a year, I wouldn’t have had an answer,” says Michael Rother over Zoom from his partner’s house in Pisa, Italy. Although he would never have imagined it when he recorded the first Neu! album, Rother will soon begin a short tour to mark the 50th anniversary of the band, which he formed with drummer Klaus Dinger. There’s also a box set of the band’s three albums and a collection of remixes. All of which, Rother says, would have been almost impossible to imagine back in 1972.

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When Neu! went into the studio to record its self-titled debut album with Conny Plank, who worked on many of the era’s iconic Krautrock albums, “we were very ambitious with the intention to create a new music,” Rother says. At the time, traditional German pop sounded backward, sometimes even tainted by the country’s history, and the Anglo-American rock that was popular globally seemed obviously imported. Along with other Krautrock pioneers, Rother, who had already played in Kraftwerk, wanted to develop a new kind of pop that would be formally innovative but also accessible – think rock with Mitteleuropean characteristics.

“It was the result of very clear thinking about moving away from Anglo-American rock and pop,” Rother says. “But whether it could become influential didn’t even cross my mind. The first objective was to be happy with the result.”

He was. When Rother returned home to Düsseldorf, he played it for his mother, brother and girlfriend and realized “it sounds really good,” he remembers. “That was my memory.”

It was more than “good” — Neu! sounded revolutionary. From the first track, “Hallogallo,” the music was driven by Dinger’s propulsive drumming, which came to be called the motorik beat. Rother and Dinger, who died in 2008, freed the musical vocabulary of rock from the verse-chorus-verse form and let it soar – sometimes, as on “Hallogallo,” in a way that could also be catchy.

Neu! sold decently in what was then West Germany, and Rother and Dinger followed up with Neu! 2 in 1973 and Neu! ‘75 in, yes, 1975. The albums won a small but dedicated following in the U.K. and then the U.S. as well. Along with some other German Krautrock bands – Can and Faust, most prominently – they brought an inventive, experimental approach to psychedelic rock at a time when it was starting to feel stale.

All three Neu! albums are collected on the 50th anniversary box set, along with an album of remixes, which Rother is celebrating with a series of concerts – Oct. 26 in Berlin, Nov. 3 in London, followed by shows in Barcelona and Paris, and maybe more – with different guests in each city. Neu!, once considered somewhat obscure, is arguably as influential and important as ever.

More than other Krautrock bands, Neu! became something of a myth, partly because their albums fell out of print in the ‘80s and ‘90s as Rother and Dinger had a falling out. Dinger, who started the band La Düsseldorf after Neu!, became known as a genius who was eccentric, sometimes hard to get along with.

One day, Rother remembers, he received a fax that a new Neu! album was coming out in Japan – which he hadn’t approved. Meanwhile, the rights to the group’s original three albums were stuck in legal limbo. They were reissued in 2001 thanks to the efforts of Herbert Grönemeyer, a mainstream German rock star who runs the Grönland label. “He was told, this band is these two German guys, they fight about everything, they will never release the music,” Rother says. “But I think this spurred his determination.”

He first got Dinger and Rother to agree to include solo songs from each, plus a Neu! track, on a compilation of German rock he produced, then started asking them about reissues. “I think it took him one and a half years of meetings, talking like a psych therapist to us,” Rother says.

Rother has always been active – he joined Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius from Cluster in the band Harmonia, which released two iconic albums in the mid-1970s, then started a solo career. From 1977 to 1987, he steadily released solo albums – which sold well in the German-speaking world but barely at all outside it.

“Neu! was more popular outside Germany and my music was more popular in Germany,” Rother says. “Harmonia was ignored but my music took off like a rocket.” He pauses. “Well, the comparison with a rocket is a bit misleading. A slow-burning rocket. A tractor-rocket.”

Rother’s last two albums – the 2020 solo set Dreaming and the 2021 duet with his partner, Vittoria Maccabruni, As Long as the Light, came out on Grönland, which has also released two box sets of his solo albums. But he’s also looking forward to revisiting his history. “I feel fortunate that I met all of these musicians,” he says, “and I feel fortunate to have that history.” He pauses. “It’s 50 years,” he says. “Sounds a bit strange.”