The 'Colorless City' And Odd Characters Behind The New German Wave Of The 70s

Aug 1, 2016
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. If someone were to ask you where Germany's hottest music scene in the late '70s and early '80s was, you'd probably think Berlin or you might consider Cologne, home of many of the progressive Krautrock bands. But a more accurate answer might be Dusseldorf where some interesting characters helped start a new German pop scene which was documented in a recent book and two CDs of rare tracks. Rock critic Ed Ward has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF LA DUSSELDORF SONG, "DUSSELDORF")

ED WARD, BYLINE: In 1975, Klaus Dinger broke up the band Neu!, a minimalist noisy outfit that had grown up when Dinger and his friend, Michael Rother, left Dusseldorf's best-known band Kraftwerk. He grabbed his brother Thomas and a studio technician he'd worked with, Hans Lampe, went into the studio and, as La Dusseldorf, released an album leading off with a 13-minute "Dusseldorf," an unclassifiable, but catchy piece of music.

In order to understand the humor of this, you've got to realize that Dusseldorf was long one of Western Germany's more boring cities. It doesn't have a particularly long history and is a center of finance and fashion. That industry reached out to Japan several decades ago with the result that Dusseldorf has a large Japanese population.

The Rhine flows through the city and the 19th-century poet Heinrich Heine lived there until he moved to Paris. That seems to be what its young people do, move. But Neu! and Kraftwerk were on the avant-garde end of Krautrock, not the sludgy guitar end, and when David Bowie heard La Dusseldorf, he proclaimed them the soundtrack of the '80s. Meanwhile, Dinger's former partner in Neu! Michael Rother was out in the countryside with two other guys who called themselves Moebius and Roedelius, making music as Harmonia. Their odd experiments inspired Brian Eno to visit and record with them on his way to Berlin to produce "Bowie" in 1976.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUNEBURG HEATH SONG, "HARMONIA AND ENO '76")

WARD: Meanwhile, in the city itself, a punk scene was born in a small bar, the Ratinger Hof. Besides the usual guitar shenanigans, there was a heavy electronic element to the music happening there. The first band to get recognition was DAF, an ironic abbreviation for Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, German-American friendship. The duo, Gabi Delgado-Lopez and Robert Gorl were out to shock with a very homoerotic stage act, a refusal to sing in English, like most current German acts, and their first single "Der Mussolini."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DER MUSSOLINI")

DAF: (Singing in German).

WARD: With lyrics telling us to do the Mussolini or the Adolf Hitler, DAF wasn't focused on airplay, especially not at home. But they did shock the young punk scene into realizing the German bands could and maybe should sing in German. Thus was born the NDW movement, Neue Deutsche Welle or new German wave and more synth bands at the Ratinger Hof.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUMMITWIST")

DER PLAN: (Singing in German).

WARD: Der Plan was even more mechanical than DAF with a more cautious sense of humor and managed to have a modest career in Germany. But the idea of NDW soon caught on with a lot of bands, not all of whom were as avant-garde, and most of whom, of course, didn't live in Dusseldorf. The city's local heroes started doing side projects breaking up and reforming and enjoying a little success in England where the new romantics listen closely to the synthesizers, and bands like Visage and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark showed their influence.

I only visited Dusseldorf once on assignment to cover a show in one of the art museums, documenting the punk scene there, not particularly well, as I reported. But there was nothing to listen to, and I always considered Dusseldorf bands like Kraftwerk and DAF to be from Cologne. The only specific piece of music I associated with the city was an NDW remake by La Dusseldorf of their signature tune. I liked it.

GROSS: Ed Ward is the author of the forthcoming book "The History Of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920 to 1963." The music he played is from "Electri City 1" and 2 on Groenland Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF LA DUSSELDORF SONG, "LA DUSSELDORF")

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about our illogical brain and why it isn't necessarily like a computer. My guest will be a neuroscientist and columnist Dean Burnett, author of "Idiot Brain." We'll also hear from comic Ali Wong, who was seven and a half months pregnant when she recorded her comedy special which Marc Maron called the most honest, rawest, funniest special I've seen in years. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF LA DUSSELDORF SONG, "LA DUSSELDORF")

LA DUSSELDORF: (Singing in German). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.