The Wümme Years 1970-73

Ed Pinsent

The Sound Projector, Aug 2001

This review was taken from issue nine of The Sound Projector, an excellent magazine devoted to some of the best things in music.

What can I tell you that isn't obvious? Faust were an important, seminal and revolutionary band, but their history is becoming more well known and I shouldn't repeat it here in much detail. Chris Cutler, the boss behind ReR Megacorp, has been personally keeping the Faust flame burning ever since Faust toured with Henry Cow in the 1970s. In 1979, Cutler licensed the Faust LPs from Polydor and reissued them on his Recommended Records label. These reissues were done with immense care and were exact copies of the original records. A contemporary advert, appealing for subscriptions to the reissues of Faust and Faust So Far, from an old issue of Impetus magazine, will indicate Cutler's mission statement at this time: "These records are pressed to the highest classical standards and we have done everything we can to ensure the highest quality at every stage of the process. This practice ought to be normal...we have chosen these two records because we think they are among the most significant of the decade and they have been unavailable for much too long (they are already selling for £40+ in France and the USA, which is crazy)."

Wumme Box SetHe should only have known then what would happen to the LP collector's market! Even those reissues are rare now, let alone Faust originals. Cutler went further and rescued other unissued rehearsal tapes from Faust's 1970s sessions, putting them out as Faust Party, The Last LP and Munic and Elsewhere, some with limited edition screenprinted covers. Selections from these were rehashed into the 71 Minutes Of compilation CD. This present collection is a comprehensive collection of all the material Faust recorded at the Wümme studios between 1970 and 1973: Faust (aka 'Faust Clear' by fans), Faust So Far, and the unsurpassed The Faust Tapes - at last with a track listing! Along with the material mentioned above, there's also the 1973 BBC Radio Sessions, and unreleased material.

All the discs are remastered and frankly have never sounded better. The superb packaging, which features 'remixes' of the original sleeve art by Savage Leisurecentre, proposes triumphant solutions to the restrictions of the CD format. The booklet contains rare photos and interviews, conducted by Cutler, with members of the band Hervé Péron and Joachim Irmler, Peter Blegvad (who played with them in Wümme and on tour in the UK), the engineer Kurt Graupner, and Uwe Nettelbeck himself - who, although he has always been supportive to Cutler's reissue projects, has never uttered on the history; he's breaking his silence on Faust for the first time.

There are several ways of looking at the bizarre mythology of Faust, and the way the interviews are arranged encourages a certain ambiguity. From a practical angle, you have a situation so chaotic it's amazing anything came out of it. Uwe Nettelbeck, a left-wing journalist and a music and film critic of no small fame, had been commissioned by Polydor Germany to put a band together. The label had just lost The Beatles and were looking for a money-maker. This was at a time when rock was still big business, and the money men were carelessly doling out enormous budgets. Can had started and the idea of potentially successful German Rock Bands was in the air. Never a man to think small, Nettelbeck put his ear to the ground and forged Faust out of members of two separate German underground bands; those on Péron's side were associated with a young avant-garde cinema scene. Using Polydor's money to sponsor it, Nettelbeck set up the Wümme studios and enlisted the help of talented engineer Kurt Graupner, who migrated from Deutsche Gramophone and brought his equipment and his radical ideas. The hippy-genius musicians of Faust - Péron, Zappi Diermaier, Joachim Irmler, Arnulf Meifert, Rudolf Sosna, and Gunther Wüsthoff - were let loose in this playground. Nettelbeck remains good-humoured today as he reminisces about the excesses of Faust as they wasted Polydor's moolah; they would sleep all day, lie in the sun, smoke lots of dope, crash cars, walk around naked, and allegedly provide sanctuary to members of the terrorist Baader-Meinhof group (this story isn't here, incidentally). The first six months, spent not at the studio but at the home of Nettelbeck's (wealthy) wife Petra Krause, were pissed away in this playful spirit. They might have appeared less than committed to delivering the promised records on time.

Of course, it's this very irresponsibility that is the essence of Faust; it's their madness, their fire, that makes the records so brilliantly insane and unexpected - even today. Besides, once they were in the studio, it was total music production non-stop; they lived, ate, slept, toked dope and probably even fucked girls in the studio. They insisted on total independence and the freedom to create as they wished. There was a political side to their freedom-at-all-costs agenda, which led to the inclusion of a recording of a political demonstration on their demo tape for Polydor; they liked the joke of a demonstration on a demo. Even the name Faust was chosen for its twofold protest implications; they saw signing up to a 'capitalist' record company as no different to selling your soul to the devil, as the original Dr Faustus had. 'Faust' means 'fist' in German, so the X-Ray image (concocted by artist Andy Hertel) of the raised fist was translated into a radical power salute.

It's much to the credit of Kurt Graupner - who was something of a 'straight' compared to the deranged hippies he had to work with, and found himself despised on occasion - that he managed to concretise the playing of these untogether loon-boons into such powerful recorded statements. It's to do with making ideas where there are no ideas. Graupner had his legendary 'black boxes', effects pedals filled with tone and pulse generators and ring modulators, and right from the start developed the idea of continuous, live modification of the sound. The musicians could instantly modify what they were playing, and that of the others, live in the studio; the variations led to further variations. Evil, constantly-mutating, interactive results; one of the cornerstones of Faust music.

Score for the Hamburg Musichalle Concert, 1971It's also to Nettelbeck's credit that he maintained enough momentum to realise the release of the records, and persuaded the band to play a showcase concert at the Musikhalle. This went horribly wrong; they got the idea of an ambitious surround-sound system using 20 Dynacord speakers, perhaps not unaware of Stockhausen's ideas in that area. But the technology failed, and the venue failed, and they weren't able to deliver much more than a shambles. But the audience still have happy memories of it, and the shambolic approach was carried forward into the UK tours involving the TV sets, pinball machines, and pneumatic drills on stage. (The sort of shock tactics which, when attempted in the 1990s in London, was merely an exercise in nostalgia and pandering to the already clued-up audience. When people arrive expecting to be shocked, how can the situation progress? The 1990s model of Faust simply upped the ante and tried pouring on extra violence, to little or no effect.)

Faust circa 1972Faust remained obdurate and unco-operative when signed to Virgin Records in the UK, but that obduracy wasn't a one-way street. No-one here has a kind word for Richard Branson. The Manor studios failed to offer the same freedom as their experimental laboratory in Wümme, even though Graupner had been promised total control. More dope was consumed. Faust wasted Virgin's money the same way they wasted Polydor's, and were thrown in jail for non-payment of an expensive hotel bill. Faust IV, the record that resulted, is not part of this boxed set. Joachim Irmler, the organ player, was disgusted by the way things went at this point, and (shortly before leaving the band) made a passionate appeal to his fellow players to recall their misty origins, where it appears they made some dark Faustian pact at midnight while communing with Germanic tree-spirits. This is one of the few glimpses anyone has ever given into the truly deranged nature of this band. "Hell and night must give this monstrous birth to the world's light".

In spite of all the anarchy and mayhem, it's fair to state that the Faust project succeeded admirably; and not just because of the essential musical documents that remain. Did you realise the first LP sold 20,000 copies? Of course, that wasn't anything like the amount Polydor wanted - who were expecting something in the millions - but it compares favourably with today's etiolated experimental music scene. Many CDs sent to The Sound Projector are in editions of 500, although this is something to do with flooding the market; too many artists and labels chasing after too small an audience.

Also here in this box, to a certain extent, are fragments of the Wümme Studio story - it was home to interesting experimental music. Works were recorded there by Anthony Moore, Slapp Happy, Tony Conrad, the American band Moon, and Dieter Meier (who later became Yello). Faust were involved to varying degrees in these projects, as you'll know if you have heard the original Slapp Happy LPs and Conrad's Outside The Dream Syndicate. Blegvad and Moore enjoyed Faust's contributions; Tony Conrad didn't relish the experience much, and tried to overpower their rock sound with his mighty droning violin.

Quid multa? I assume if you're reading this then you already have all these records. I know I do, but I still bought them again. If you haven't, then here's your chance to get five crucial discs, and a big slice of important history, via a single purchasing action.

Ed Pinsent, "The Wümme Years 1970-73", The Sound Projector 2001

ref: Sound Projector