One might assume that postwar Germany had better things to worry about than the quality of its radio. Still, when it came to German pop music, the radio was mostly Schlager, pop schlock based on (often nationalist) folk tunes. Fortunately, Germany did find its musical voice through the work of Austrian producer and engineer Konrad “Conny” Plank.
Plank remains little known, but with a career that stretched from the 1940s until the late 1980s, he was instrumental in realizing the sound of not only Krautrock benchmarks but also its ambient ambassadors David Bowie and Brian Eno — not to mention the new wave and new romantic bands, as well as techno precursors, that followed.
Plank first established himself as a sound engineer at West Deutsche Rundfunk, Cologne's primary radio station. There, composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen recorded major works, and Plank immersed himself in the possibilities of sonic exploration. But by the late 1960s, Plank began looking to the primitivism of pop music for inspiration.
It was in this environment that Plank first met up with Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk leaders Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider found an apt collaborator in Plank, a master of psychedelic effects, such as phased drums, and an inventor fascinated by new technology, such as rhythm boxes.
“In Conny's hands, a simple tool always turned into a sophisticated instrument,” recalls Petrus Wippel, who worked as Plank's assistant during the mid-1970s. “For instance, a few channels on the [mixing] deck had a quadstick instead of a pan pot, but not because he did many quadrophonic mixes. He used them in his own way: routing the front channels into the main mixing buses while using the back ones to drive an effect such as an echo machine. This way, he could pan an instrument left and right, as well as dry and wet, with only one fingertip, thus making a guitar solo fly through time and space during a mixdown session.”
That pull between the ambient and the mechanical, the direct and the complex, typifies Plank's best work. And in producing four Kraftwerk albums, including the breakthrough Autobahn (Philips, 1974), Plank helped steer the band from Pink Floyd — inspired psychedelia to a musical rigor verging on the electro of Afrika Bambaataa.
By now one of Germany's most prolific producers, Plank rented an old farmhouse (the hog pen was the recording room) in Neunkirchen, Germany, near Cologne. Conny's Studio hosted almost every German band of any importance, from Ash Ra Tempel to Grobschnitt. But his work with two bands in particular reflected his skills as a collaborator as much as an engineer: Neu! and Cluster.
When Kraftwerk drummer Klaus Dinger and guitarist Michael Rother split to form Neu!, they turned to Plank for guidance. Dinger was an extrovert given to aggression as inspirational as it was crazed; Rother was quiet and studied, a master of minimal melody. Plank mediated between beauty and beast, and with Neu!'s first album (recorded in four days, the first two allegedly useless), they created the Krautrock template, developing what came to be called the Motorik beat — the resolute, hypnotic, almost inhuman propulsion associated with Krautrock. With Cluster, Plank helped the band realize increasingly ambient territory.
That relationship attracted Bowie, who had become obsessed by Krautrock, particularly Neu! (“Heroes” is taken from the Neu! song “Hero.”) And Eno, inspired by Cluster, was moving in the ambient direction. So when Eno produced Bowie's brilliant Berlin trilogy, it was not in Berlin, but in Neunkirchen. And when Bowie and Eno became interested in new wave, they brought Devo to Conny's Studio.
“[Plank] looked and dressed like a Viking,” remembers Devo's Gerald Casale. “He laughed and played and worked hard like a mad scientist. We amused him, and he amused us.”
The new-romantic movement aside, Plank had become increasingly interested in industrial sounds. He collaborated with Cluster's Dieter Moebius and produced bands such as Killing Joke and Freur, which later transformed into Underworld. However, Plank's work with DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses started pushing those industrial sounds into what came to be known as electronic body music (EBM), which eventually mutated into German techno.
Sadly, Plank did not live to see the techno revolution he helped foment; he died of cancer in 1987. But in his work, one can see not only the pathway of German music during the past 30 years but also the trail of all modern experimental music.