[Interlude 01]: Einsturzende Neubauten

What the hell does Dazzler have to do with Einsturezende Nuebauten?
Roll with it.


As promised - or threatened - last time, a bit of a break is in order before I continue my march through the classic rock canon ....from a post punk perspective.  May is interlude month.  Below is something I wrote for an art history course.  We had to discuss an early artistic influence and track how our perspective on it has changed over time.  Felt like it was worth sharing with a wider audience.


As a teen in the 1980s, my circle of friends were drawn toward post-punk music. This style flourished during the late 1970s and early 1980s, feeding upon the new energy of punk, but funneling it into music somewhat more concerned with quality musicianship, a wider sonic palette, and lyrics leaning toward the political or self-reflective. Bands like Gang of Four, Bauhaus, Joy Division, and Wire could be fairly abrasive at times, but this artfully moderated dissonance felt appropriate to disaffected youth of the 1980s who sought to reject what Bruce Springsteen and Phil Collins were producing.  

German ensemble Einsturzende Neubauten emerged around this time. They took discord to unheard of levels. Their instruments included sledgehammers on metal, chainsaws on oil drums, and guitars abused in ways that would make Les Paul weep. All of my friends had Neubauten records, but no one ever listened to them. Neubauten were just too relentlessly abrasive, even for their target audience. They had dispensed with harmony, melody, rhythm, or any sense of musical structure, and were making music by applying power tools to chunks of concrete salvaged from collapsed buildings.

Nonetheless, this band became a symbol for a subculture across the western world. It was less about Neubauten's art, and more about what their work represented. Neubauten's distinctive logo was many people's first tattoo, and was painted on many a guitar case or leather jacket. But no one could name one of this band's songs. Woe be the poseur, however, whose record collection was devoid of the token Neubauten album: always the first and most visible in the stack of records, but always last on the playlist.

And yet, I sensed that there was something more in Neubauten, something hidden, something that I wasn't quite getting. And this difficult German name?  What does it mean?  Turns out that Einsturzende Neubauten translates to "Collapsing New Buildings". Destroying structures.

Here, they perform "Autobahn" at one of the construction 
sites for the then-new titular German super-highway.


While exploring Berlin in the 2000s, I developed insight about Einsturzende Neubauten, who - at that time - I hadn't thought about for quite a while. A deeper reading of the subtext revealed that the group's members were born in the shadow of the Berlin wall in the late 1950s. After the defeat of Germany in World War II, the division of their nation into two politically different entities, and an occupation by no less than four foreign governments, the country began to rebuild. Fast cheap housing was needed for those displaced by the allied bombing of Germany's cities. These high-rise concrete apartment blocks came to be known as "neubauten". That's literally "new buildings", but in context, it refers specifically to post-war German housing developments. Block after mile of them, none built to last. In essence, "neubauten" - in mid-century German vernacular - was equivalent to "the projects" in the U.S. This certainly adds intrigue. We're not just talking about any "new buildings"; we're talking about "the projects" and all the baggage that comes with that.

Reading into "einsturzende", or "collapsing", are we simply observing that these cheaply built post-war neubauten were rotting (collapsing) by the late 1970s, or are we actively taking part in physically destroying the depressing results/reminders of a nation's dark past?  Is "einsturzende neubauten" a complaint about urban decay, or a manifesto toward change? Both?


As an adult in the 2020s, it has become clear that Neubauten's early work was more than just abrasive noise. This was assaultive performance art, every bit as valid as that of contemporaries such as Marina Abramovic (who had emerged just a few years prior). The video of Neubauten essentially performing a construction site (not performing "at" a construction site) is a demonstration of their frustration: growing up in poverty under the thumb of the occupying allied forces, born of parents who had been terrified children when Berlin was being bombed, and probably dealing with the shame of having some number of Nazis as ancestors (remember, however, that not every German citizen was a member of the Nazi party). 

"Autobahn" should therefore be read as a performance piece about post-war urbanity, about the creation and destruction of the urban environment - and by extension the environment - and about industrialization, occupation, and poverty. Of course these angry young people wanted to "collapse" what they saw around them. Variations on these feelings are universal even when circumstances are vastly different: "Destroy the Projects" seems like a perfectly apt name for an American hip-hop album today.

Although Neubauten were marketed like a "band", nothing in the "Autobahn" video supports that perspective, aside from the guitar hung around the vocalist's neck (which he only plays for a moment). They're dressed like construction workers, and one of them is even "playing" a shovel (I dig it!). Perhaps if they'd prioritized positioning themselves in the art world, we'd be studying them as part of a pantheon that includes Luigi Russolo (author of the 1913 Futurist manifesto The Art of Noises), Pierre Schaeffer (inventor of musique concrete in the early 1940s), controversial composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, and yes, John Cage (in the sense of, say, his works for prepared piano), or confrontational performance artists of the era such as Carolee Schneemann or Abramovic. (It should be noted however, that in ensuing years their work became increasingly musical and accessible).

As for Neubauten's influence, it is only in the past year or two, after being aware of them for nearly four decades, that I have begun to understand the legacy of my early exposure to this work. Instead of tolerating it for social status as a teen, and then ignoring it for a very long time, I now respect and admire it, and perhaps even draw inspiration from certain conceptual aspects of this art.  Some of my own art is made of sounds that "dispense(s) with harmony, melody, rhythm, or any sense of musical structure". Sound familiar?  Scroll back up to my third paragraph. 

I've always felt that effective sound art doesn't need to be abrasive (although so much of it is), so the dissonance and implied violence of Neubauten is not at all appealing to me. But it might be said that Neubauten planted a seed that helped foster a desire to reject traditional musical forms, and to start looking for a sonic muse beyond just music. There was more to sound, it appeared, than Kraftwerk (another German act who wrote a far more accessible but equally influential piece of music about the Autobahn), or Depeche Mode. It seems clear (in retrospect) that growing up among the collapsing industry of the rust belt while being exposed to Neubauten's ideas and working methods had a slowly creeping philosophical influence that I didn't recognize or understand for several decades.

[Interlude 02]: Electric Light Orchestra, a rather epic-length appreciation.

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