Those are bold words about a band that most people have never heard of much less thought of as influential, placing NEU! in the same company as two legendary household names. Even more so coming from a figure who has cast a long shadow on modern music himself. The question arises: why would this label and this man go to such lengths to promote this virtually unknown band?
The answer is of course the profound influence that “NEU-beat” has had upon popular music, an influence driven in part by Eno himself.
The Klaus Dinger referenced in Eno’s quote was the drummer and force behind the band NEU!, and he called the distinctive rhythm he crafted the “endless line,” later redubbing it the “Apache beat”. Eventually it came to be known as “the motorik beat,” a term coined in reference to the beat’s driving momentum. However, this beat is not unique to Dinger even in rock music. An early source seems to be Moe Tucker from the Velvet Underground and her propulsive simplicity on songs like “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin.” Another German group, krautrock legends Can, also explored similar territory on occasion. However, Dinger most definitely made it his own in an unparalleled way.
The first three NEU! albums were the result of a collaboration between two former members of Kraftwerk, arguably the most influential German pop group ever. The aforementioned Dinger along with guitarist Michael Rother joined forces with producer Konrad Plank (better known as “Conny”) who also worked with Kraftwerk. The story of the motorik beat is the tale of their collective influence on modern music, as driven by Eno’s obsession with their singular creation.
While NEU! records sold very well in Germany, the group remained fairly unknown throughout the rest of the world. However, their unique sound managed to catch the ear of David Bowie and his collaborator Brian Eno. In a move that U2 would emulate in 1991, they even made the trek to Berlin to record three of Bowie’s albums: Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979). The title of the second album Heroes seems to be an overt nod to the name of the song “Hero” from NEU! ‘75.
What captured the ears of Bowie and Eno, musicians who were at the top of their game at the time? For me, NEU!’s music is at its heart about the beauty in repetition and simplicity. Dinger’s propulsive motorik beat is driving without being frenetic, full of near constant bass drum hits but always tightly restrained, doling out energy in little quantum packets strictly in tempo. Rother provides layers of deceptively lush melodies, and what beautiful things they are, each one feeling like seeing an old friend again after a long absence. Conny’s contribution is the stellar, but understated production, helping to surface NEU!’s compositional elements. His close recording techniques get the most out of each and every sound, so a simple guitar melody can sound like a huge orchestra. Also the drums are extremely dry, thudding rather than booming, which allows Dinger’s incessant movements and his motorik rhythms to be captured precisely, with no echo or reverb to blur the sound.
The result is so captivating, it’s no wonder that artists like Eno and Bowie were intrigued, having already been looking beyond the stale tropes of rock music in the mid-70s. Eno himself went to Germany in 1976 to work with Rother in the project Harmonia (along with members of German avant garde synth group Cluster) in advance of heading there with Bowie. It was here that the motorik baton was passed from NEU! to Eno. Bowie’s “Berlin” records are often cited as some of his best work and were extremely influential themselves, carrying on the legacy of the motorik beat in songs like “Red Sails” as well as imitating aspects of Plank’s production.
The motorik baton was then carried by Eno to England – fertile ground for new sounds as more and more groups stretched out sonically, beyond the constraints of the dominant AOR sound of the time, defined by groups like Led Zeppelin. Ultravox! in particular took up this challenge, incorporating synthesizers early on, even adding the exclamation point to their name in honor of NEU! (though that didn’t last). And who produced the first Ultravox! album? Yup, Brian Eno. Ultravox then went on to have Conny Plank produce three of their records, infecting their British New Wave with the sound developed by the German underground, called “krautrock” by the British press.
Ultravox and similar electronic pioneers like Gary Numan, The Human League, and Yellow Magic Orchestra were to have a profound influence on the synth-pop branch of New Wave, imparting the dry studio sounds of Conny Plank, the synthesizer driven approach of Kraftwerk and the motorik beats of NEU! The influence of those sounds can be seen perhaps most dramatically in the sonic shift Joy Division underwent when they became New Order, moving from guitar driven post-punk to synth-pop. This was THE sound of the early 80s.
All of these groups had a major influence on the next generation, especially in Manchester where the “Madchester” sound of the late ‘80s embraced both guitar bands like The Charlatans and The Stone Roses as well as dance acts like A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State. Lots of songs from this time employ that motorik feel, if not the beat outright. A physical connection for these influences was The Haçienda club, which played a major role in the rise of dance music and DJ culture and defined England’s tastes for a decade. Which brings us full circle, and explains why a prominent dance music label like Astralwerks was interested in reissuing NEU! albums in the first place.
At that point, the effects of the motorik beat branch in several directions, and become a bit more diffuse, as newer artists began to feel its influence more indirectly. Synth-pop and German music both had profound influences on the new dance underground of the 80s and even early hip hop, such as Afrika Bambaata’s classic nod to Kraftwerk in 1982’s “Planet Rock.” The steady driving nature of the four-on-the-floor motorik beat was incorporated into dance music early on, especially in rave and acid house. Simultaneously, Conny Plank’s DIY experimental influence was taken up by adventurous producers, just as new methods of recording opened up the possibilities for lesser known artists. The ’90s rise of “Britpop” was also shaped by these influences, which can be seen in bands such as Blur, Gay Dad, The Verve and more.
Another fork in the path of the motorik beat’s influence occurred in the U.S. To begin with, Eno himself produced three albums for the Talking Heads, whose driving beats and dry sound injected the spirit of NEU!’s into New York New Wave. Another New York band, Sonic Youth, played a large role in popularizing these obscure German albums to their brethren and followers in the American post-rock scene. Their immense influence on the ‘90s indie rock scene carried these ideas forward to a new generation. More than probably any band, UK outfit Stereolab proudly and unabashedly wear their love of NEU! on their sleeves, and groups as diverse as Pavement, Sleater-Kinney and The Sea & Cake (and later Caribou and Deerhunter) all perform songs with a motorik feel, and production values straight out of the Eno/Plank playbook.
This playlist explores Eno’s love of the motorik beat and celebrates its vast influence over modern music.