How Did the Small German City of Dusseldorf Change Electronic Music Forever?
In conversation with the musician and writer Rudi Esch.
This article appeared originally on THUMP UK.
Berlin may be universally known as the clubbing and electronic music epicentre of the world but it was another German city that arguably gave birth to it several decades earlier. That city, sat equidistant between Cologne and Dortmund, is Dusseldorf.
The musician and writer Rudi Esch has just released the English language version of Electri_City: The Dusseldorf School of Electronic Music. The book paints the city of Dusseldorf—home to Kraftwerk, Neu!, La Dusseldorf, DAF and many more—as a mecca for electronic music in the same way Memphis is for rock and roll. Largely told through the words of those who were there, it charts the rise of the city's electronic boom period from the 70s onwards, from the birth of the motorik drum beat to what happened when four German blokes with penchants for the flute disappeared into robotic aliases and changed the entire world.
Alongside the traditional accompanying CD release (which features numerous pivotal artists alongside some lesser known but just as incredible acts from the city) Esch has curated an an annual conference and festival to celebrate the legacy of the city's electronic music scene. Taking place this coming weekend, the event sees the likes of John Foxx and Steve D'Agostino, Daniel Miller, Martyn Ware, Eric Random, Cult With No Name, Mark Reeder and more paying the city a visit.
Esch is a long-term member of Die Krupps, the German band that have traversed across electronic, industrial, EBM and metal over their thirty-year-plus career, and he was even briefly in a band with Neu! and La Dusseldorf's Klaus Dinger. Which means he has serious kraut-credentials. We spoke to him before the weekend's activities about growing up in Dusseldorf, the impact and legacy of the music the city gave birth to, and how he went from being a punk-rock Kraftwerk-hating kid to someone who has seen them play thirty times in the last four years.
THUMP: What gigs did you go to early on, as young person in Dusseldorf?
Rudi Esch: We went to Ratinger Hof because there was no entry fee. It was a perfect hang out for punk rock kids. The gigs themselves you had to pay for though, and we didn't have much money. The only shows we saw were at the Phillips Stadium when we found out that for the encore they opened the doors, so we went to every show and waited until they opened the doors. We saw bands like Roxy Music and The Cure but only ever for the last twenty minutes. I bought a ticket for the Stray Cats, Lou Reed and The Cure again. Nothing too electronic though. The funny thing is we didn't even go to see Kraftwerk and today I am very sorry I missed them in their own town. I didn't go in '81 or '91, so stupid me.
How were Kraftwerk treated in Dusseldorf in the early 80s? They were huge around the world so were they local heroes or did people resent them?
In '81 they played Dusseldorf in June and December and that was the first time they played in the city since '71. June was when "The Model" went into the top 10 in England, so we all knew they'd broken it big but it in Dusseldorf there wasn't a huge crowd following them, Wolfgang Flur [ex-classic line-up Kraftwerk member] told me recently it was kind of embarrassing because his parents came to the show and they didn't even sell it out, it was half full and they had technical problems. I don't think the band liked the Dusseldorf shows too much and on the other hand a lot of Dusseldorf people only went to make sure they weren't as great as England thought they were. In hindsight I wish I'd been there in '81 to see the classic line-up twice in one year.
Is that because you were still a punk rock kid at this time?
That's true, yeah. In '81 we were punk rock kids. I was into the Clash or Wire or Buzzcocks. We didn't like the old school electronic music, not back then. We thought it was old people's music, these guys are old and boring, that's what we thought at the time.
Did David Bowie and Brian Eno's love of the music being made in Dusseldorf add much to its legacy growing up?
It's something we were aware of and chances are if you knew anything about Kraftwerk, it was that David Bowie loved them. So you were aware of Bowie playing Radioactivity on his tour in '78. Instead of having a support band he played the entirety of Kraftwerk's Radioactivity album.
Did you see the Kraftwerk guys around Dusseldorf a lot?
They were part of the city's nightlife scene but it wasn't like the cool places you would go, at least not for us. If you were a little bit older you probably really loved Kraftwerk, but we saw them driving around in Mercedes and it was kind of fancy but it's not like you wanted to get in touch with them. We wouldn't even go to the same places because you'd think 'if they go there it's probably boring'. They didn't go to Ratinger Hof. They went to fancy discotheques to meet models like in their songs. We just didn't go there.
When did you start to come around to electronic music?
For the first half of the 1980s I was the punk rock kid and then I loved Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Cure and all the post-punk stuff. I was in a band called Stranger Than Paradise and we played English guitar music like Joy Division. Then after six months of that I formed a new band with Klaus Dinger. By the time I worked with him, he'd already done those La Dusseldorf records, which to us was electronic music. Klaus thought that was all over and didn't want to work with machines. He didn't want to record with a drum machine or too much synthesizer. Klaus Dinger was very pissed when I left in '88 to join Die Krupps because to him Die Krupps were an electronic band and working with machines was evil—that's what he said. He didn't like Die Krupps and when we started that band we were an electronic band, we started working with synths, sequencers and it was the first time we bought computers. Then in '89 we made our first record with Nitzer Ebb and that was the first one we really programmed, so I just got more and more into the electronic field.
How was Klaus Dinger to work with?
He could be quite difficult. He was 20 years older than us and he had six great records he brought with him, three from Neu! and three from La Dusseldorf. We'd only released a few 7"s. We thought 'this guy knows how to make a great record'—he had all the equipment and the experience, so he was the master. We thought with Klaus we would take one major step forward but then he was a little difficult because I think in the mid-80s he was in a huge crisis, because he didn't know where to go. He had these great records but he didn't work with Michael Rother any more. He was drugged dependent and complicated as a person. He wanted to rule and yet he didn't know where to go so it wasn't too easy but we were young and we tried.
Were Neu! a bit of a forgotten thing by the mid-to-late 80s in the city, or were they revered?
That was probably their low point I think. Neu! wasn't too popular here. In the best instance you knew the logo, you knew that orange 'Neu' with the exclamation mark but many people knew it but didn't always know it was a band, some people thought it was an advertising company or something. If you liked Neu! you had to be a bit of a hippy, long-haired type in your mid-40s. I went and bought all the Neu! records from a flea market, they were all so cheap because nobody wanted them. It was the same with La Dusseldorf. I remember not being that excited by it at the time though; it just felt like instrumental music in a way. But basically everything that's great about those records now didn't look that great in the 80s. There was no reputation.
Most people know Neu!, Kraftwerk, La Dusseldorf, and DAF, but Wolfgang Reichman is a bit of an unknown treasure from Dusseldorf you have written about in your book. What can you tell us about him?
He made an album in 1978 that managed to sound like the 1980s, it was a huge discovery for me. Thankfully Wolfgang Flur was very close friends with him, so I was able to find out a lot about him and his life and I also met his brother and interviewed him too. He was in the band Spirit of Sound, he was the singer, Michael Rother was the guitar player and Wolfgang Flur was the drummer. Reichman, I think, is the blueprint for Gary Numan—the way he looks and sounds. I think if he had continued working on electronic music he would have been very big, it's a very unique sound and it's very distinctly him. He died before the release date of the album, he was stabbed in Dusseldorf by two drunken bastards. There was no reason, they just stabbed the guy and he died three days later in the hospital and then three weeks later the album came out.
So, what's your relationship with Kraftwerk like now after writing this book, have you ever got to see them play live?
The first show I saw was at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 2012, playing Man Machine in full. I've now seen about 30 shows since then. I'm a huge fan now. I think they make great art.
The Electri City conference takes place this weekend in Dusseldorf. More information can be found here.