Learning to Eat Time with One’s Ears
Date de parution : 17.08.2021
Philology often seems concerned with tracing origins and identifying true sources as a way of sweeping away the penumbrae of cultural ornamentation and exfoliating the accumulated dead skin of the past that hardens into decadence, at once institutional and intellectual. Its spirit is Lutheran, or Nietzschean, which amounts to the same thing when you think about it a little. So can it be with punk, which is usually reduced to a series of flattened clichés about bondage trousers, dyed hair or the alleged political relevance of drywank bands like The Clash. For those uninterested in such banalities, I urge you to read Julian Cope’s Krautrock Sampler, which was published in 1995 and has been out of print since 1996. The non-availability of this book appears to be a calculated act on Cope’s part, as he was fed up with wan-faced legions of muso-blokes endlessly pointing out his errors and omissions. But it can be found and easily downloaded in our fab new digital world. Cope argues that Krautrock, namely the music that began to emanate spectacularly out of WEST Germany with a mad intensity in the late 1960s and early 70s, is Ur-Punk, primal punk, punk as eating snot off your mate’s face, Magick punk, Gnostic punk.
If you don’t know who Julian Cope is, then you are hopeless, and I strongly suggest that you stop reading at this point. He shares much with his namesake Julian of Norwich, the most theologically profound of the Medieval mystics, who rewrites the Christian narrative of redemption by transfiguring the concept of sin, which she found inexplicable: ‘When I looked into God, I did not see sin.’ But where Julian of Norwich experienced the first ‘Shewing’ or Revelation looking on a crucifix that began to bleed as she was at the point of dying, Julian Cope experienced such Revelation laying in a caravan in Tamworth in Staffordshire in 1972 listening to ‘Hallogallo’ by Neu! on the John Peel Show on the BBC. This makes perfect sense to me. I experienced something similar lying on the settee in Letchworth Garden City a couple of years later. Many, many thousands of others had analogous experiences. Here music triggers the energy of religious conversion. Suddenly, the world and your place in it shifts and everything opens up in a different way, forever. World de-worlds and a vast creative nothingness seizes the back of your throat and the top of your head. Things start to tingle.
There is a common and obvious origin story about punk, that traces its philology to the influence of three American bands: The MC5, The Stooges and The Velvet Underground. There is no contesting the world-historical importance of each of these bands, especially The Stooges, especially their second album, Fun House, which Iggy Pop described in 1976 as ‘the ultimate blowtorch of savage nihilism’. The Stooges took the convenient framework of pop music and audio-transformed it into a mimesis of a mass production, industrial Detroit drill hammer. Iggy also showed the error of human existence, the breathless nearness of death, and the lure of fun and action. He was like a much better-looking version of Schopenhauer.
But what is missing from this common story is the sheer extremity of being which was the effect of a generous armful of bands that poured out of the ehemalige Bundesrepublik in the wake of the breakdown of the Adenauerian post-war consensus and reemergent ugliness of the murderous German past. Let us name the names: Amon Düül I and II, Tangerine Dream, Faust (who wrote a song called ‘Krautrock’), Cluster, Harmonia, Guru Guru, Popul Vuh, Ash Ra Tempel, Kraftwerk, and the mighty, mighty, mighty Can. Cope (who is a little bit mad, it should be remembered) describes Krautrock ‘As a kind of Pagan Freakout LSD explore-the-god-in-you-by-working-the-animal-in-you Gnostic Odyssey’. Saint Julian has a way with words.
All of these bands are important, especially what Can managed to produce in a series of early albums from
Monster Movie (1969) to Future Days (1973), passing through the lysergic splendour of Tago Mago (1971). Just listen to the rhythms or maybe just the kick and snare drum patterns of Jaki Liebezeit. Yes, life can still be that good. But in terms of punk philology, as the art that formed a template out of which or through which the music that we call punk emerged, much of it rising out of the recessionary rubble of post-imperial Britain, then pride of place has to be given to Neu! Everything they did was mediated through the space-time shifting brilliance of Conny Plank, recording in his handmade studio in Wolperath, on the southern outskirts of Cologne. This is where Plank encoded new patterns for what the ignorant call noise, and laboriously crafted compulsive new rhythms of existence. Just listen to the pneumatic drills at the beginning of Neu!’s ‘Negativland’ and how they merge and meld into a blank, motoric sweetness. Yes, sweetness. For what are really three rather brief albums (
Neu! , Neu! 2  and Neu! 75) the contradictory creative forces of Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger were held together like two sides of a Sophistical antilogia. As with Lennon and McCartney, or Morrissey and Marr, Rother and Dinger were always pulling in opposite directions. Of course, they fell apart. Rother moved into the lush harmonies and tunefulness of Flammende Herzen (1977) and Sterntaler (1978). Dinger preempted the entirety of punk in the powerful, drum-led, apparent dumbness but actual sublimity of La Düsseldorf (1976). The only lyric on the first two tracks of that album, adding up to around 20 minutes, is the repeated name ‘Düsseldorf’, which is like an English band just saying ‘Coventry’ over and over again. Somehow, it is moving and makes me think of the utter base materialism of Joseph Beuys which never stands in opposition to the spiritual, the airy lightness of radio transmissions.
On Neu! tracks like ‘Hallogallo’ and ‘Für Immer’, everything seems to move relentlessly ahead, rhythmically pressing, pulsing and pushing while at the same being mesmeric and melodic. It makes no sense that a piece of music can achieve such simultaneously opposed effects. And all this without the assurance of a bass guitar or any of the formal features of rock and roll, whatever that might be. This music’s mystery is its utter simplicity and obviousness. Nothing is hidden. New aesthetic rules for music were being written. All Joy Division did was to add some lovely, cribbed Iggy words. Just listen to Neu! 75, which both prefigures and completely surpasses all that is interesting in punk and much post-punk, where Neu!’s ‘Hero’ becomes Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, and on through to The Cure’s ‘Seventeen Seconds’(1980). And yet Neu! had already gone beyond this by this point, and there is something already nostalgic about Neu! 75. They had created entirely new aesthetic forms, perfected them and abandoned them like husks, pupae or chrysalides. Genuinely new music doesn’t stay in place for long. Looping back to Julian Cope, the track that captures this mood perfectly is the first single by The Teardrop Explodes, ‘Sleeping Gas’(1979): one riff, one five-note bubbling bass pattern, no drum frills, in an ever-repeating and developing, deepening musical loop. If you don’t know it, please listen to it, it is perfect: ‘Sometimes I wonder if you’re really living / What is this feeling you think that you’re giving.’
Punk should be fearless, amoral, born from a spirit of defiance, refusal and the celebration of a vertiginous dizzying freedom. Slabs of music are like tiny Novalis-like romantic fragments pressure-cooked through the dystopian hell of the post-industrial world and allowing us to push back against the pressure of reality with a fearless imagination and a dauntless, beautiful naivety. Punk’s raptures are mystical. Its archaeology is Neolithic. All we philologists have to do is to learn to read the codes.