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Having a Smashing Time
Mojo, Apr 1997Mojo Magazine
Deconstructing the nuts, bolts and girders of rock - or simply having a smashing time?
A day or two after the Queen Elizabeth Hall concert, my ears are still ringing when I go to interview Jean-Hervé Péron, one of the founder-members of Faust, at a flat on the Hornsey-Tottenham borders.
Jean-Hervé is the bassist who had asked the Sheffield audience whether they were going to let the hall manager adjudicate their listening taste, the same barefoot bassist whose string had snapped at the QEH show. He's wearing jeans, a scruffy T-shirt and the kind of big industrial boots that have never featured in fashion spreads. Jean-Hervé spent the later part of the '60's on the road, busking Dylan songs in French, and remembers the May '68 revolution as a deeply radicalising time.
"The relationships between children and parents were changed radically," he recalls. "It was the beginning of the anti-authority education, there was a big revolution in France, De Gaulle had to go, and also we were not happy being a deluded echo of what went on in the music scenes of England and the States: groups like Amon Düül and Kraftwerk and Faust and others sprang up in every town, especially in Germany, and I think we did manage to find our own identity. We were the mirrors of this social and political upheaval."
In Faust's case, the mirror was put in place by Uwe Nettelbeck, a noted German journalist who was connected with various left-wing factions, and served at one time as co-editor of the journal Konkret, revolutionary mouthpiece for the likes of Ulrike Meinhof. Indeed, Nettelbeck holds the distinction of being denounced by the futurist terrorist leader for transforming the magazine into, quote, an instrument of the counter-revolution, unquote: "Too late, however," Meinhof announced in a Frankfurt newspaper in April 1969, "did we come to recognise the solidarity declarations of Uwe Nettelbeck for what they were: attempts to ingratiate himself."
Nettelbeck declined to be interviewed for this piece, which is a shame, as he was clearly a central figure in the birth of Krautrock. What appears to have happened was that, while head of a satirical-critical magazine called Pardon, Nettelbeck was contacted by Polydor Records with the aim of finding an underground band with which to leaven the label's MOR-mainstream output. Streching his brief somewhat, Nettelbeck put together Faust, designed their startling album sleeves, and managed to convince Polydor to release the group's albums on its distinguished classical outlet, Deutsche Gramophon. They remain the only rock band thus honoured.
"It started in late '68," recalls Jean-Hervé Péron. "The history of Faust is basically of two little German groups playing Hamburg, and one man - Uwe Nettelbeck - and a social situation, Europe in 1968. There was a nucleus of people doing music for underground filmmakers like Helmut Costa and Hans Hemminghaus, people that are now sort of established. One day Uwe arrived, and he and Helmut Costa got together and said they were looking for a new group, for something new on the music scene.
"Helmut was a neighbour of mine, and he put Uwe in touch with us. Uwe liked what we were doing, but thought we should have more drums and keyboards; so we contacted the other group and told them we needed a drummer. That was the foundation of Faust. Rudolf Sosna, Gunther Wüsthoff and myself being in this first group, and Werner 'Zappi' Diermaier, Joachim Irmler and Arnulf Meifert being in the other group. We got together in the studio for half a day and re-did our demo. Uwe said, 'Yes, that's it, I'll take it to Polydor'."
In the spirit of the age, the fledgling Faust acquired a house in the country, in which to work on their music and try and find, as Jean-Hervé puts it, something new. "Which meant just going deeper into what we were already doing - putting guitars into radios, using machines, and making quite absurd but nevertheless critical texts. At the end of '69 we had managed to do the first LP, Faust Clear; after that we got more pressure from Polydor, who wanted to invest more money. They put at our disposition an old school at Wümme, which we transformed into a recording studio." Central to the group's recorded sound was engineer Kurt Graupner, whom Péron describes as a genius, while each member brought different skills to the band's sound. Meifert and Diermaier shared percussive duties, Péron brought his enigmatic melodic sense to bass and guitar, Sosna played piano and wrote some of their arrangements, Irmler played keyboards and synthesizers, and Wüsthoff was largely responsible for the intricately-layered and spliced collages of the debut album, which constitute one of rock music's breakthrough 'texts', the closest European equivalent to the montage work of Frank Zappa.
Life at Wümme was unusual, to put it mildly. Peter Blegvad, student of the arcane, one-time member of Slapp Happy and Henry Cow - and, for a tour, Faust - and latterly the enigmatic cartoonist for the Independent On Sunday, lived at the commune for awhile, having been enticed over by his friend Anthony Moore, who was part of the avantgarde soundtrack circle which Péron mentioned earlier. Moore specialised in non-melodic, alternative music for non-narrative, alternative films (one such LP featured wooden sticks being dropped onto different surfaces - wood, plastic, glass, metal - for three quarters of an hour), and he had been impressed that Uwe Nettelbeck had managed to get Polydor to release one of his LPs, a record called "Secrets Of The Blue Bag" (worth upwards of a ton these days, record investors). Perhaps, Moore suggested, Polydor might also be interested in the kind of semi-satirical pop songs he and his old school chum could make? At the time, Blegvad was in the slough of student despond at Exeter University, and jumped at the offer. Together with Moore, Dagmar Krause, and a backing band made up of various Faust members, he recorded two Slapp Happy albums at Wümme.
"We used their extraordinary engineer, Kurt Graupner, who was a pivotal figure in Faust, also responsible for their secret weapons, these mysterious boxes of synthesized sounds. He had a huge moustache that covered half his face, and he zoomed around in a Porsche. There was a lot of driving on autobahns between Wümme and Hamburg, at enormously high speeds: they all drove these terribly fast cars. It was all very technical - I was a poor hippy student, straight from a rotting Exeter bedsit with cold water, and Uwe Nettelbeck lived in this hi-tech, utopian architect's dream in northern Germany, and his car had quadrophonic sound - all this stuff was brand-new to me. And instead of taking the dubious drugs we made do in Exeter, he had real LSD-25 from Swiss chemistry labs!"
None of the band, according to Blegvad, was exactly a virtuoso instrumentalist, but this hardly mattered. "In a way, their technical limitations were an irrelevance; their interest, and their value, was more in using the studio as an instrument in itself, and at that they were extraordinary. And I daresay that if they were more accomplished musically, they might not have focused on alternative strategies to make the music as radical as it was. They weren't really interested in doing flashy solos, or getting a pure tone - on the contrary, whenever there was a pure tone recorded, they would feed it through some machine that would shred it."
"We were quite privileged," believes Jean-Hervé Péron in retrospect. "We were like in a monastery. We went for months without TV or radio, and only Joachim would listen to other music. It's pretty hard, too: you're always together, you love each other, you hate each other, you can't escape - but when you left, you couldn't wait to get back to Wümme."
For Blegvad it was another world entirely, both sonically and socially. "It was like a commune - we all lived together and caught the crabs off each other, the way you're supposed to," he recalls with fondness. "Jean walked around stark naked all the time, indoors and out. Werner seemed to spend most of his time in bed, as did most of the others - but that was OK, because the microphone cables streched from the control-room out of the studio, into the house, up the stairs and into the bedrooms. Very often they recorded in bed, lying there with headphones on. I thought that was very civilised.
"In the evenings, they would repair to the local town, to a seedy discotheque which played oompah music, and occasionally they would bring back drunken townspeople and jam - but these people were seldom musicians, so the results would be drunken harangues over rock'n'roll. I remember a tape we were all impressed by featured the local Elvis impersonator - not so much a profession, as a delusion by which he would be gripped after sufficient quantities of alcohol - who one night recorded the entire Presley ouevre. He was shouting, with a thick German accent, all those famous words, with Faust backing him. It was a very radical record; I hope it's made available some day. Deconstructionist, before the term was invented."
The air was thick with art, and talk of art. "We often talked about ambient noise and such stuff, sitting around the table in Wümme," says Blegvad. "And John Cage - things like, 'If it's boring after 20 minutes, try it after 40': that was an adage that was much touted about, as was, 'I have nothing to say, but I am saying it, and that is poetry' - you couldn't get away with that today, but in the '60s, that had the ring of truth about it!"
Performance artists like Kurt Schren and Dieter Meier, later of Yello, would drop by to chat, or work on projects. "Dieter spent a couple of days in the studio at Wümme making up this story about an ice-hockey goalie who drinks too much the night before the match," Blegvad recalls. "I can still hear him screaming over and over in his Swiss-German accent, the hookline 'Ref! Ref! I cannot see the puck!' while we were playing the blues behind him. It was heart-rending, beautiful!"
Other visitors were less artistically inclined, however. German communes at the time were considerably more politically-motivated than their Anglo-American equivalents, and possibly through Nettelbeck's left-wing connections, members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang would sometimes hide out on the premises. They would, of necessity, keep a very low-key presence; Blegvad knew they were around ("In the cellar or somewhere"), but admits he never saw them personally, though Jean-Hervé Péron recalls being woken early one morning to find himself staring down the barrel of a policeman's gun, as the forces of Laura Norda closed in on the fugitive terrorists. "There is no doubt about the connection between Uwe and the RAF (Red Army Faction) people," he affirms. "I vaguely remember very strange characters that had nothing to do with music coming in and out, so there may have been some connection there. One time we woke up to find Wümme surrounded by heavily-armed, nasty-looking policemen, with dogs and cars everywhere. I had a gun right ot my forehead and told not to move. I thought it was a joke at first, but they weren't kidding. It was real scary. It was like a bad movie which you can't stop." It was a serious time to be a musician.
"You don't have to look far to understand that perhaps the Germans felt a need for a radical exorcism of their recent past, which American and English people could be a little more complacent about," explains Blegvad. "You had to be black in America, I think, to consider actually shooting people to make a political point, but in Germany you could be bourgeois and consider it, because most of the people you were dealing with were Nazis and murderers who had gotten away with it: the rhetoric had a much more frightening edge of gravity to it. Their feeling was that their lives had just started from scratch - there was no history that they wanted to acknowledge as theirs."
"When the Germans do something, they don't fuck around," adds Péron. "They either don't do it, or they do it properly. So if they're talking about fighting for freedom, they get guns and fight for it."
Under pressure to record a less abstract second album, Faust delivered So Far, a much simpler, more direct record than its predecessor, to the point of including real songs. It didn't, however, meet their label's expectations.
"Shortly after that, we got into trouble with Polydor, who realised they had put an awful lot of money into it, and when there was a change of head at the company, they said it either had to be more commercial, or they would call a halt to it," says Péron. "At that time we were absolutely unprepared to make any compromise, so we stopped."
By that time, however, the cultural climate outside Germany had shifted sufficiently to give the band more room to move. In Britain, a mail-order retailer, Virgin, was considering moving into the recording business, and had noted the bourgeoning popularity with this new German music.
"There was a very strong customer relationship with the mail-order company," says Simon Draper, who started the label with Richard Branson. "People would write to us, and we started getting these requests for all these German records by people we'd never heard of. So we contacted Ohr Records in Germany and got a batch of about 30 different titles, and spent a weekend listening to them. Some of it was utter rubbish, but it was quite clear that, of all of them, Tangerine Dream were far and away the most interesting - and the level of interest in them was huge, too. We must have sold 15,000 Tangerine Dream albums on mail order, just importing finished product from Ohr and selling them on. So when I started the record label, I thought about what would make the label special, and thinking again of the mail-order response, I went for Gong, Robert Wyatt, and all this German stuff."
Faust were the first band signed to the new label, Draper negotiating an unusual deal with Uwe Nettelbeck, who had accumulated the various bits and pieces of music Faust had been working on since So Far. "He wanted to do something different, so he said, 'I'll give you all these tapes for nothing, no advance, but you put the record out for nothing, effectively'. We had to guarantee we'd make no money out of it, and so we priced it as low as possible: we sold The Faust Tapes for the price of a single, 49 pence."
The strategy was such a remarkable success it has since entered into music-biz legend. 100,000 copies of the album were sold in a matter of weeks. "Afterwards," recalls Draper, "Richard was always convinced that all you had to do to break a new group was sell their records cheaply. But the trouble with the Faust album was that 90 per cent of the people that bought it hated it! Then later we put out Faust IV, which didn't sell too bad, but nowhere near the same figures."
The new contract, however, merely served to bring to a head the tense relations within the band. When Virgin wanted to bring the group over to England for a tour, Joachim Irmler and Rudolf Sosna apparently refused to cross the water unless they received an impossibly enormous advance, estimated by Blegvad at around half a million pounds. "Part of the Faust thing," he explains, "was that it was a kind of act, but lifted to this level where it was all so outrageous that you had to take them very seriously: it was like that with the music, and with the negotiations with the record company - very impressive, really. I guess Uwe must have been the conceptual brains at the beginning, but they happily ran with it."
At any rate, only Gunther Wüsthoff, Jean-Hervé Péron and Zappi Diermaier came over, so Blegvad found himself recruited as guitar player for Faust's first English tour. "We would arrive in these northern towns, and the first job Ruud Bosmer would be dispatched to perform would be to find a road crew and hire the pneumatic drill!" he recalls. "Somewhere there's a picture of me with hair down to here, wearing my wife's very feminine cardigan and bell-bottoms, playing this hydraulic drill. We left these beautiful Victorian polished parquet stages just chewed up! We played in pitch blackness, deafeningly loud, no melodies - there was no relief. If you were bored playing, band members were encouraged to drop their instruments and play pinball instead."
The group's sonic armoury for these shows included a series of big black boxes, designed by Joachim Irmler and built by Kurt Graupner, through which the members applied such effects as fuzz, wah-wah, echo and synthesizer distortion. "By today's standards they're probably woefully primitive, but at the time they were totally radical, amazing," recalls Blegvad. "Every musician in the band had one - and you were in no contact with the others, you'd be doing your own thing in pitch blackness, stabbing at these little buttons. That's practically all the audience saw: the glow of the TV's, the pinball machine, and all these little red dots of light on the black boxes."
To Blegvad's amazement, the audiences were very sympathetic. "I remember thinking, This is the worst music I have ever heard in my life, and I'm as miserable as I've ever been in my life playing it - it was so loud I had nosebleeds occasionally! - and then, to my horror, looking down at the edge of the stage, noticing that one young man was smashing his head in time to the drumbeat against these enormous speaker bins we'd rented from The Who or somebody. He wanted it louder and more physical! I realised I was probably not best cut out for that job, and I didn't stick it long."
Back in Germany, the band stumbled into further trouble when they tried to record the follow-up to Faust IV in Münich, at a studio previously patronised by The Rolling Stones. Still pushing the envelope of social acceptability, the booked the studio and a posh hotel some way beyond their means, and proceeded to record in leisurely fashion. "We said, 'It's all right, we're with Virgin'," chuckles Péron. "We worked hard there, but when we left the hotel, we had to leave like thieves! I remember driving away, smashing through a post that blocked our way. Joachim and Rudolf got caught and jailed, and their parents had to bail them out - we are still in debt with them! The bill was 30,000DM! But we did some good music, in very nice conditions. After that, we dispersed across Europe and went back to our old conditions."
This might have been the full-stop for Faust had not Chris Cutler - former Henry Cow drummer and Recommended Records' founder - picked up the baton and run with it through the '80s, reissuing the early albums in all their conceptual glory and securing a release for some of the Münich material. When, visiting Cutler, Péron saw how much royalties had accrued, he realised there was still a substantial audience out there for Faust, and the group decided to re-form, first for obscure, tiny shows in Germany, then wider afield, playing the Marquee and even touring America, where the 'Table Of Elements' label reissued the Faust/Tony Conrad album "Outside The Dream Syndicate" and put out another Faust LP, Rien.
Since then, their profile has risen sharply, with the aforementioned pre-Christmas shows at London's Garage packed to the rafters. A further tickle of releases including Untitled and the new album, you know faUSt, has found a new, expanding market for the band, which now numbers just Péron, Diermaier and Irmler. They no longer live in a commune but, judging by their performances, they've lost none of their instinct for the unusual. For one US event in Death Valley, the band members were placed miles apart on different hills; at The Garage shows, they brought in farm and building equipment, and hired an artist who, with welding equipment and grinder, built a metal sculpture as they played. Who knows what they'll be up to in 25 years' time?Andy Gill, "", Mojo 1997