When a book starts with the sub-title “The Düsseldorf School of Electronic Music”, it’s almost easy to dismiss it as YAKB (Yet Another Kraftwerk Book). Instead, this book surprised me with introductions to several new (old) bands, giving me context for bands I’d followed long ago, and helped me identify all the amazing music that came out of the city – and how far ahead of the curve it was.
What is it all about?
This is a book of interviews, and the cast of characters is quite impressive. In the introduction, we are treated to a discussion about the interviewees themselves, with the admission that not everyone chose to be interviewed – or were even alive to be interviewed. As you read through the book, you find that the missing voices are still echoed in the thoughts of their friends, colleagues and bandmates, providing a more-or-less complete picture of the Düsseldorf club, recording and creative scenes.
Because it is composed entirely from interviews, there is a fluid reality throughout the text; the reminiscence of each party is subject to revision by others. In these cases, author/editor Rudi Esch did an exceptional job of sequencing the interview content in a way that established the most likely truth while leaving plenty of room for ‘creative history’. This is important, since it is the way that the myths and legends of creative movements are built.
And Düsseldorf in the late-70’s through mid-80’s was an amazingly creative place. From the development of Kraftwerk, Die Krupps, Neu!, Liaisons Dangereuses and Propaganda, to the magical influence of producer Conny Plank and studio/electronics magician Werner Lambertz, things were happening that would have ripples throughout the modern musical landscape.
What makes it special?
Obviously, Esch has taken the opportunity to record the voices of the time. This includes some voices who are no longer with us: the late Klaus Dinger and Chrislo Haas - among others - provide insight into the heyday of Düsseldorf’s music development. Several of these people are incredibly important to the story line, and having their voices proves to be very important.
This is especially true given the format of the book: It is broken down into years, from 1978 through 1985. Each year is broken down into important themes from that year, but all further information is provided as quotations from people that were on the scene. Thus, a discussion of the impact of the Kraftwerk Trans-Europe Express album will include quotes by Wolfgang Flür, OMD’s Andy McCluskey, The Human League’s Martyn Ware, Mute Records’ founder Daniel Miller, scene-maker Jäki Eldorado and many others.
The result is a very eclectic – and sometimes contradictory – narrative of the time. In a way, this is perfect; if everyone’s memories aligned perfectly, it might not seem as honest. Instead, we get people’s perceptions of fact from their point of view. This includes (and sometimes highlights) emotions, slights and fights that still haunt the participants. The whole thing resonates, and allows one to experience – rather than just study – the history.
What did I learn?
First off, I learned a lot about the music that vectored out of this city. Frankly, other than Kraftwerk, I probably wouldn’t have been able to answer a $10 Jeopardy question about music coming out of Düsseldorf. I was quite amazed at how much music was generated! It was also interesting to hear about the influence of technology and production technique on this corner of the industry; between Connie Plank’s ground-breaking production concepts and the wacko electronic creations of Werner Lambertz, it was the engineers as much as the musicians that made things fly.
But the other learning opportunity for me was provided by a short section at the beginning of each ‘year’ of the book: it was a month-by-month recap of what happened in the Düsseldorf music scene – along with parallel development in the rest of the world. I don’t know how time had gotten warped for me, but I had no realization that Kraftwerk and Neu! were putting out records far in advance of the more adventurous Bowie and Roxy Music releases, and that so much of this action was happening before Georgio Moroder produced his first Moog sequence. Putting all of this in historic perspective really helped me better understand how ground-breaking this scene truly was.
The breadth, depth and narrative layout of Electri_City has blown me away. It’s a book that transcends a simple telling of a story, and instead puts you in the position of experiencing some of the excitement, disappointment, discouragement and amazement of a musical movement as it begins, grows, fractures and eventually becomes lionized.
The cast of characters is amazing – led by the author Rudi Esch (who spent his life in the middle of this scene). I’ve read a ton of these kinds of books; this is the one that I now recommend first!