“AMERICAN RUHR” – A MACHINEKISS

Let me tell you three stories from my neighbourhood, the Ruhr district: It´s about the amazing degree of affection which the club scene there has for music from Detroit. And it´s about the bizarre and unusual route which sounds from Detroit travelled to the Ruhr and Duesseldorf, only to return and then cross back again. And finally I will be consulting my currently favorite book about music, to examine where this kind of trans-atlantic story can lead.

So – stories from my neighborhood: The REGION I’m talking about is not defined in terms of political or city boundaries, but by my own personal musical experience. It is a conglomeration of towns and cities which overlap so as to almost merge with one another, and through which flows the river Ruhr, which has given the region its name. I have extended this a little to include Duesseldorf, only 25 km distant. Taken as a whole it is a region of post-industrial landscapes, which is astonishingly similar to the Detroit/ Windsor area. But more on that later.

In 1995 the Homewreckers were called the Broccoli Brothers and we did a recording and a video in the Ruhr District starring the A40, the so-called Ruhrschnellweg, the most important freeway in the Ruhr, connecting cities like Dortmund, Bochum, Essen und Duisburg. People in the Ruhr have a love-hate relationship to this road. Its permanently gridlocked and steals your time. It stinks. And everybody knows someone who lost their life in an accident there. At the same time, everyone has been on it at night, on their way to a date with the love of their life. All of that underlies the images, so that the A40 appears as a cold but romantic place, a place that swings.

It’s the same with the music. At first the rhythms seem cold, hard, and unrelenting. Then you realise that the song is as warm and tender as, for instance, John Lennon’s Imagine or Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues. It was amusing to watch the reaction of the international Dance Music Press back in 1995. Opinion was divided: was it more Chicago or more Detroit. German record shops filed Ruhrschnellweg both under Germany and under Detroit! We recorded the piece in a small basement studio.

After many years as DJs in small neighbourhood clubs, it was one of our first recordings.
What was even funnier was that, a few weeks and a couple of good reviews later, we were invited to support Derrick May from Detroit in our leading electronic music club at the Ruhr. And that was just the beginning. Over the following years many first and second generation DJs from Detroit came over, and we provided support and service. We experienced Juan Atkins fainting in the middle of a set.

We collected Jeff Mills from the airport and loved the question he asked in the car: Is the club uptown or downtown? We had to try and explain that everwhere was both uptown and downtown, that there were no real limits between the cities. – Apart from Berlin, it was the RUHR DISTRICT which was to become the most faithful and enthusiastic stop for Detroit DJs in Europe.

 

How did this come about? I found my first record from Detroit by chance, back in 1991. It was The Future Sound EP by Juan Atkins. I adored the groove and the atmosphere of the recording but couldn’t care less where it came. Then, a few years later I was startled to discover that 80% of the records I owned had appeared on Detroit labels. In the beginning of the 90s House and techno records were being published all over the place, from London to Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, Miami and Chicago – how come I unknowingly went for Detroit recordings?

 

I began to get interested in the place the music came from and started gathering information. I found out that the Detroit area (if you include Windsor) has a population of 5,8 million, EXACTLY like the Ruhr. Both are post-industrial regions with ASTONISHING similarities. It is the managers of General Motors in Detroit who currently decide over the fate of Opel, the biggest employer in the city I come from, Bochum. Just two weeks ago Germany’s largest newspaper wrote that Detroit’s Hamtramck looked just like the Ruhr. And on this side of the Atlantic, American author Gerri Hirshey’s history of soul music describes the Detroit region as the AMERICAN RUHR.

At this point I remember two short film sequences. Both films were made in 1985, the year Juan Atkins recorded Night Drive (Thru Babylon) in Detroit. At the same time, in the region I come from, music was being made which, in the case of Kraftwerk, was to have an influence throughout the world, but in the cases of many, many amazingly innovative projects was only ever appreciated by a few specialists.

Both are the opening sequences from two very successful cop films, the American Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie Murphy, which begins in Detroit, and the German Zahn um Zahn with Horst Schimanski as the detective, which takes place at the Ruhr.

Two minutes of Detroit and two minutes of Duisburg-Ruhrort. What I see is an almost identical form of urban romanticism, seen from a mainstream perspective. Both films use stereotypes from a subcultural romanticism of the streets, with images of the ghetto, synthiepop and gangs, which they use to give drive to the story. In German house and techno, imagination works in a similar way – as can be seen in the hundreds of Underground Resistance-Reviews found in the German music press. Again and again we find a quite specific image of Detroit being used like an abstract science fiction scenario: abandoned neighbourhoods; industrial wastelands; derelict warehouses and factories; a theatre turned into a parking lot; a city wiped out by the loss of faith in progress, with only a few techno musicians to construct a new belief in the future!

I believe in the machine music of Detroit, which speaks for itself, and which you can still tell comes from Detroit, even today in 2007, after thousands of attempts worldwide to copy the Detroit sound. And I believe in the legend of a city, capable of making a quite unique form of emotional contact, especially in places that don’t radiate the selfconfidence of the great metropolises.

The Ruhrgebiet and Duesseldorf have never given rise to a local musical culture quite as successful throughout the world as Detroit did with Motown, the Stooges, MC5 and the various techno-generations. But it did give birth to a number of bands, without which machine music and club culture would be quite different today, even in Detroit and Toronto. I should like to examine two bands more closely, and in particular there influence both in and from North America: KRAFTWERK (who you all know); and DER PLAN, also from Duesseldorf, very influential, but completely unknown. Or rather, not completely unknown. During my research I discovered that as well as their few faithful German fans, Der Plan also have two fanclubs abroad – one in Japan and one in Canada. I managed to find out who was behind the Canadian fan club: Brian Karasick from Montreal, who sent me the following e-mail:

Hi Johannes:
Yes it is true, I am a Der Plan fanatic. It was the artwork from their first album Geri Reig that caught my eye in a record store in the early 80’s. This record was indeed good and it introduced me to the group, and from there encouraged me to seek out more and more German New Wave, both earlier and later. As a result, I probably know more about this musical genre than many Germans!
I always myself wondered how so much talent has come from such a small place, but there are places like this, and I think of Manchester/U.K. or Austin/Texas as examples. I know there is a special relationship between Duesseldorf and Japan, and that Der Plan are also very popular in Japan. I think the Japanese seem to like quirky electronic music as I do, so maybe there is some connection.
I’m also a very long time fan of electronic music in general, and a huge percentage of my collection is German. I think after Der Plan, my next favourite artist is Conrad Schnitzler. My thoughts on why Germany is such a force for this type of music has to do with its difficult history, and a willingness to start again and experiment in an effort to overcome the past and its stereotyping. We were amazed to find on our last trip the Schmaltzwald happening in Berlin (helped along by a few Canadians from Toronto I may add). In speaking with them, we concluded that such an experiment could never happen in France as people would be to self-conscious, yet in Germany, there is always an openness to experiment. Again there may be historical precedent, but the collection of German electronic artists continues to grow and I think it still remains the richest source in the world for this type of music.
Regards, Brian

This kind e-mail made me very happy and I should perhaps just add that Brian also produces his own weekly radio show in Montreal, called Space Bob after a song by Der Plan.

Der Plan is made up of three artists from Duesseldorf, making them direct neighbours of Kraftwerk, who came together in 1979, and who for me have to be one of the most influential bands of that time. They called themselves punks, but the only instruments they admitted were KORG MS-20 synthesizers, kids’ toys and kitchen gadgets! They were funny, although one never quite knew why. Their first albums are legendary and are still revered by very many German machine musicians. Der Plan broke up in 1992, but reformed last year. They even made a live appearance at the Montreal Electronic Grooves Festival two weeks ago!

OK, but who are these guys? Der Plan are Moritz Reichelt, Frank Fenstermacher and Kurt Dahlke. Five years ago, they gave an interview for a book about the 80s music scene in Germany, looking back to their beginnings. Their statements are an exciting journey to the roots of electronic music. I would like to read you a few of them:

Moritz: We did know that the guys from the record industry had had their day. That we had brought about our own form of cultural development. But that was the only aspect of this idea of ‘Germanness’ that interested me. I wasn’t concerned with the nation. I just felt out of place in that kind of cloned pop-culture. Having said that, the idea of developing our own pop culture – and that’s what’s so paradox – only began to seem plausible to me after my first visit to America in 1979. It was only then that I realised what it means to be part of an authentic pop-culture. And how great it is when people begin creating art from within their own environment rather than just importing it. It is so much more fun.

Kurt: Our first album was called Geri Reig. Moritz brought the term back with him from America. To jerry reig means to make something from nothing. For instance, if you want to repair something but don’t have the original parts, so that you have to make do, but the result still works. On the album cover we wrote: Making the most with least. That means that you can use practically anything as an instrument. If you don’t have anything, then clap your hands. If you’ve got a cooking pot, a toy, or an idea, use them.

Moritz: One really key experience for me, was when I first came across a machine: Kurt had a Korg MS-20. And I was allowed to play around with it for a while. The thing looked like a phone switchboard. And if you twiddled about long enough it no longer sounded like an instrument, but like wind, water, helicopters or airraid sirens. I had the feeling: Now at last, I too can start making music.

Frank: We didn’t just want to produce German lyrics, but German music as well. And having been hugely disappointed when I first discovered that most German hits were just cover versions of American songs, the only tradition we could really pick up on was the children’s song. But then that suited me otherwise as well. I was in no hurry to grow up. I wanted to carry on PLAYING as long as possible.

Moritz: Then we bought a weird kind of machine, the Brontologic. A huge thing. Big as a desk. Made out of silver-coloured metal, with hundreds of switches. A certain Werner Lambertz built the thing. He had made a fortune out of jeans, and wanted to build himself a computer that could automatically generate good music – without making any mistakes. And in those days, if you wanted something like that, you had to build it yourself. He made that first machine using telephone switches. Not that they were called computers. They were known as synthesizers or sequencers; in other words straight controllers, where you created sounds by plugging and replugging cables.

Frank: What I remember most of all, was that we had a totally futuristic look. All in white and with huge masks over our heads. They were mainly made out of polystyrene packaging – glued or stuck together.

Moritz: I always envied Kraftwerk their approach to the media. They were very consistent when it came to releasing information. They were very successful in building up a mystique. But with a chatterbox like Frank? Whenever we thought of something, Frank would spill the idea even before we had done anything about it. It started with our first appearance. We had intended to burst on stage with our masks. But Frank, of course, had to go out there and walk through the crowd wearing his mask. The strong visual aspect also came about because we had a bad conscience about using such a lot of playback, not being able to play any instruments. But it would seem that it was THAT which led to genuine innovations. By making the best of the situation.

Pyrolator: In these days, I was very into a kind of industrial romanticism. Firstly, Germany was marked by an infinite faith in technology. People believed machines were capable of solving all mankind’s problems. Then there were the hippies, for whom machines were just evil. With the advent of punk, my own perceptions became more important to me. The Ruhr District is full of former factories. I spent a lot of time on old industrial sites where the machines still stood around. Just like my friends from the band SYPH with their song ‘Zurueck zum Beton’ – which means Back to Concrete! – for me it set the theme.

So far Moritz, Kurt and Frank in their own words.

Der Plan’s first album ‘Geri Reig’ was recorded on a single track tape, not in a studio but in their office in Duesseldorf. Kraftwerk’s ultramodern Kling Klang Studio was (and still is) just two blocks away from there – a different world – and yet both bands were part of a common scene.

I don’t feel I need to say much about Kraftwerk. But what is important is to take a short look at what actually took place between Duesseldorf and Detroit. It is a marvellous example of the process which Jon Savage and Dan Sicko have called ‘double refraction’ – a process by which music is passed and copied back and forth between cultures.

Founders Ralf Huetter and Florian Schneider (joined later by Wolfgang Fluer and Karl Bartos) called themselves Kraftwerk, a German word meaning “power plant.” With the release of Autobahn in 1974 they achieved worldwide chart success. Indeed it’s been often cited that legendary Detroit DJ the Electrifying Mojo was one of the principal catalysts in breaking Kraftwerk through America’s musical and cultural barriers. In 1977 came “Trans Europe Express”, one year later came “The Robots”, and in 1981 “Computer World”. With its minimal, unwavering rhythms, the music on this album and, more specifically, an appearance at the defunct Detroit club Nitros in 1981 spurred Detroit’s much-hyped techno scene and its founders.

Juan Atkins from Detroit said about his first experience of Kraftwerk: It was so amazing. It was like the answer. It was the future for me. I thought man, this is the future and this is where Im trying to go. I heart the gated noise snare and the gated noise kick with no cymbals. There are no cymbals! It just froze me in my tracks.

One british critic summed it up: Kraftwerk are to Techno what Muddy Waters is to the Rolling Stones: the authentic, the origin, the real. Techno therefore reverses the traditional 60s narrative in which the Rolling Stones stole the soul and vulgarized the blues of Muddy Waters and others. For Techno, Duesseldorf is the Mississippi Delta.

Karl Bartos of Kraftwerk, on the other hand, has always emphasized: We were all fans of American music: soul, the whole Tamla/Motown thing, and of course James Brown. We always tried to make an American rhythm feel, with a European approach to harmony and melody.

This is where I see the source of the magic behind a music which genuinely moves me. Consciousness of local traditions, openness to global exchange. It is, I believe, MACHINE MUSIC which best shows the development of such a digital diaspora, linking the United States with Britain and the Caribbean with Europe and Africa. A transcultural, international form, as yet barely understood by US and European mainstream media and traditional dance music journalism.

In his book “More Brilliant than the Sun”, Kodwo Eshun gives what I regard as being the most convincing description of electronic dance music . His concept: the music should outshine the sun itself. It should not be shackled by any kind of theory, trying to give the music a historical, political, autobiographical or social interpretation. Eshun attempts a so-called MECHANOGRAPHY of music, an exploration into the secret life of machines. His challenge: Be ready to trade everything you know about the history of music for a single glimpse of its future.

Of course he has much to say about Underground Resistance, about Kraftwerk, Funkadelic, Goldie and 4 Hero, about the Acid Sound of Phuture and Bam Bam, but also about Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock and about the Ultramagnetic MCs.

Coming towards the conclusion, it would be interesting to know what Eshun would have to say about today’s little experiment? About my attempt to follow the transatlantic routes a short distance, back towards the roots of machine music. About the stories of mutual experience of post-industrial landscapes…

Eshun rejects today’s emphasis on pop music’s and especially on black sound’s necessary ethical allegiance to the street. – He wishes music to be freed from the morality tests of transatlantic, transeuropean and transafrican consciousness: Keeping it real, representing, respect due and so on. He sees machine music as being an art form that emphasizes the degree to which something is alien, alienating or strange. It is, he says, characterized by an extreme indifference towards the human. The ‘human’ thus becomes a pointless and treacherous category. This should not, however, be seen as amounting to a disembodiment of the human by technology (a charge often levelled by music-traditionalists). Eshun’s conclusion: Machines don´t distance you from your emotions, in fact quite the opposite. Sound machines make you feel more intensely, along a broader band of emotional spectra than ever before in the 20th Century.

In “More Brilliant than the Sun”, he develops this approach further, producing marvellous new constructions like ‘futurerhythmachine’ as well as amazing descriptions of grooves. And Eshun´s definitions in no way outlaw stories of the kind we have heard today, linking cities with musicians.

By way on conclusion I would just like to read to you my favorite passage from the book. It shows the work’s poetic force and also gives me the chance to mention one of my favorite tracks – Model 500’s Wanderer – which sprang to my mind when I first read it, the decription of a groove, it´s like a poem:

The sequencer is tied to a single clock, but running three rhythm patterns and two bass sequences at once yields a bewitching mosaic of overlapping rhythm melodies, an aural algebra that confounds counting, that tugs at you everywhichway, compelling an all-over omni-attentiveness. When sequences bounce and clock cycles nudge, time touches time in a machinekiss.

Illustrated lecture held by DJ expert Johannes Ehmann at
DJing Urban Industrial Roots
Drake Hotel, Toronto, Canada, Nov 4, 2005