Although virtually everyone recognizes Kraftwerk as the godfathers of electronic dance music, few people are familiar with Neu, another influential '70s German group that blazed the trail for the electronic styles so many of us love today. With their hypnotic beats and droning guitar textures, Neu were perhaps the first real cross between rock, electronic music, and minimalism. They're cited as influences by Tortoise; David Bowie; Stereolab; Sonic Youth; Trans Am; Mouse on Mars; and Placebo, whose Brian Molko states that “without them, there would be no dance music.”
Molko's comment might be a bit of a stretch, but without Neu there certainly would be no Placebo or Stereolab, whose music owes a gigantic debt to drummer Klaus Dinger's clean, driving rhythms. Even Brian Eno credited Dinger with developing one of the “three great beats of the '70s.” What makes Neu important to dance music as we know it is their reliance on repetition, textural (rather than melodic) invention, and dead-solid grooves. There's not a loop within earshot on any Neu record, but the beats, bass lines, and sound effects in songs such as “Hallogallo,” “Negativland” (yup, that's where that band's name came from), and “Super 16” sound as though they're looped. The final result comes across like a rock band pulling off Richie Hawtin's entire Decks, EFX, and 909 album in real time.
“Neu's longer tracks are far closer to the future of house and techno than [to] guitar rock,” says Stereolab's Tim Gane. It's hard to argue that point, though Neu guitarist Michael Rother's austere, phase-shifted wah-wah filtering; toney eighth notes; and backward effects were a primary template for the “guitar-as-synth” tradition exploited by players from Adrian Belew to System 7's Steve Hillage to Gane himself. But the techno parallel is apt: extended, open-ended jams were the order of the day in the early '70s — and a staple of German bands from Tangerine Dream to Can — yet few performed them with the restraint; head-nod factor; and machinelike, motoric consistency of Dinger and Rother. Ironically, both musicians were early members of Kraftwerk before splintering off to form Neu in 1971. (Dinger later formed La Dusseldorf.)
Neu's name means “new” in German (it's pronounced noy, as in annoy), and listening to their first three records — recently reissued by Astralwerks — it's uncanny how fresh and current they really do sound. As Radiohead's Thom Yorke puts it, “Neu's music is like a brand-new motorway, and you are the first person to drive along it.”