Neu! 4…such an ambitious title. The first three Neu! albums are all must-listens of course, despite some questionable stretches here and there. But the band was such a flash-in-the-plan, forged by conflict and their dire financial situation, forcing them to think creatively. The fact that they even recorded a third album is a minor miracle, given that Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother were essentially polar opposites, both of whom had their sights set on other things as early as 1974 (La Dusseldorf and Harmonia, respectively).
Certainly a reunion must’ve seemed out of the question for a while, especially with Dinger finding some success with La Dusseldorf. But here’s the thing about Klaus Dinger: his ideals and bullheadedness often caused him to sabotage himself, and things fell apart for the band quickly. By the mid-80’s, he was unable to even legally use the La Dusseldorf name, causing every project he would work on from there on out to fall into obscurity. Rother’s career was hitting diminishing returns as well, thanks to a series of increasingly lightweight New Age guitar albums. Not a lot of synergy between the two by that point. But still – the Neu! reunion did happen. Recording details are sketchy, but by the few accounts out there, it was brief and didn’t really work out, with only a few tracks being actually completed. The tapes were shelved and that was that.
Fast forward to 1995. Rother receives a telegram congratulating him on the release of the fourth Neu! album. What the hell happened? Long story short – Dinger got desperate. Not only were his own record sales far away in the rearview mirror, but he also found himself unable to complete an agreement with Rother for the release of the three original Neu! albums. As a result a sketchy label called Germanofon wound up releasing bootleg copies of them, right as they were starting to get big-upped by bands like Stereolab and Sonic Youth (and later Radiohead). Obviously Dinger wasn’t getting a cut so he decided to release two Neu! albums on Captain Trip – Neu! ’72 Live in Dusseldorf and Neu! 4. Both of these album titles are misleading, of course, especially given that Rother never approved their release. ’72 Live in Dusseldorf isn’t really live – rather it’s a badly recorded rehearsal tape. And Neu! 4 is…not really much of an album. Strong statement for a band who once recorded an entire side of an LP by screwing with the RPM settings on the record player, but there’s something off about this.
Where to start? The first thing you’ll notice is that half the tracks use the same four-chord melody (roughly Pachelbel’s Canon), and that many of them sound like remixes. Plenty of repetition and some crude remixing, usually just looping and throwing reverb over a musical phrase. Lots and lots of phaser effects, maybe to cover up the lack of variation – most of it doesn’t go anywhere, starting and cutting off at totally arbitrary spots. Most of it is based off “Good Life”, a track that doesn’t appear until the album’s nearly over. Two takes on the German national anthem, with the second one (which strangely closes out the album) being just the first one in reverse. Some of it is actually quite good, or at least amusingly goofy – “La Bomba” and “Daenzig” are both what you probably think they are, a bit heavy on the remixing (like everything else, neither tune really goes anywhere), but they mostly work. Some odds n’ ends too, like “86 Commercial Trash” (a three-minute collage) and the bouncy, exceedingly pleasant “Bush Drum”.
What it adds up to is less than the sum of its parts – perhaps more pleasant than the infamous flip side of Neu! 2, but also much longer. The main issue is that there’s not really much of an edge, sounding a lot more like a combination of La-D’s Individuellos and Rother’s solo work, full of Fairlight and drums loaded up with gated reverb. The other main issue is that there’s just no flow to anything – “Crazy” gets things going after a boring intro, but all momentum is promptly lost thereafter. So as an album it’s a failure, but if you listen to the individual tracks – “Crazy”, “Good Life”, “Schoene Welle”, “Daenzig”, “Bush Drum”, and yes, “La Bomba” – you can sort of salvage something out of it.
For several years, Dinger saw Neu! 4 as the only “official” Neu! album you could get on CD, even saying as much in the liner notes. In most shops it was the only one you could get, which must have confused the hell out of anyone who had heard of the band from Krautrocksampler or whatever. Luckily things changed in 2000 when Dinger and Rother finally came together to get a deal done to reissue the original three Neu! albums on Groenland, and both 4 and the live disc became little more than strange footnotes in a strange career.
At least until now, that is. Rother has always brought up the idea of doing a Neu! boxset, but again negotiations with Dinger never went anywhere. It wound up happening in 2010, “thanks” to Klaus Dinger passing away in ’08, leaving control to his wife, who apparently was much easier to work with. Yeah, it’s unsavory, but it’s also payback for ever releasing this stuff in the first place. Of course, it meant something had to be done with Neu! 4 and Neu! ’72 Live – can’t exactly have a “complete box set” without them, cuz the genie’s out of the bottle on that one. So Rother went about salvaging these releases, greatly culling and remixing the live disc into something more listenable (mostly by making it a lot shorter), and rejiggering Neu! 4 entirely as Neu! 86.
You can definitely say this – Neu! 86 feels like an actual album. It comes in at 44 minutes, about a quarter-hour shorter than 4 was, and mostly gets rid of the repetition and unnecessary remixing in the original. He was able to do this mostly because he had access to more tapes than Dinger had, which is why there are entire tracks on here that don’t appear on the original. Amusingly enough, one of those, “Drive”, is the only good ol’ fashioned motorik jam in the whole set, the one track that connects this back to the band’s original recordings. Keep in mind this is not Michael Rother Presents Neu! 4 – he tries hard to do well by his late bandmate, deleting out a lot of the stuff that sounded like it could’ve been on a Rother solo album, including two of the prettiest tracks (“Schoenne Welle” and “Bush Drum”). Some elements of those appear elsewhere (“Paradise Walk”) but they are still very much missed. There is some actual sequencing involved, doing just enough to almost make you forget how samey so much of it is. But for what he had to work with, it is most certainly a success – maybe not a patch on what they did in the 70’s, but at least it’s something you can listen to more than once.
I’m not sure what got me listening to this again – I think something about the overall strangeness of Neu! 4 really stuck in my craw, as like so much of Dinger’s material, you really wonder what he was thinking. And yet, sometimes it all feels alright, if you just want to spend an hour basking in reverb, Fairlight, and questionable decisions. Neu! ’86 is a better album of course, but in a way it’s a more forgettable. I am glad that “Drive” came to light – in a way it is the final Neu! track, something that really does do their legacy justice. And it is good enough to listen to alongside those first three discs. Fraught with tension and drama, it is an album that never should have been, but that is the epitome of what Neu! was about.