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Article

Faust

Faust

Words by Elsa Hill
9 months ago

By 1970, the world of Pop/ Rock music was in a real state of churn and change.  When The Beatles unleashed the epochal Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album on the world in 1967, the parameters and possibilities of pop music seemed to be shattered.  By 1968, when they released what became known as The White Album, the band were as far removed from the four moptops that exploded to international consciousness in 1963 as was possible to imagine.  The gauntlet of musical innovation had been thrown down, and it was up to the rest of the world to catch up. 

The dominance of American and British rock bands had never really been challenged, however, in West Germany, bands such as Can, Kraftwerk, Amon Duul, Neu, Popol Vuh and many others – including Faust - had started to make inroads into the Anglo-American rock and roll hegemony.  Less focused on the standard Blues-Rock musical shapes, German rock bands embraced a different rhythmic and sonic palette, engaging with and utilising electronics, as well as exploring the recording studio as an instrument in itself. 

Somewhat sarcastically dubbed ‘Krautrock’ by the music press of the time (in Germany, the term ‘Kosmische Musik’ was preferred), the new music originating from Germany in the early seventies could be alternately complex yet playful, accessible yet esoteric, austere but inclusive.  As the UK ‘Progressive Rock’ bands such as Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and others seemed to be making increasingly arid music, ‘Krautrock’ bands opened up possibilities that were musically ‘progressive’ – in that there was an originality at its core, and occasionally a certain musical complexity could manifest itself, but there was a feeling of greater free rein than in the musical mainstream of Anglo American rock music.  

It is also worth remembering that Germany then was a divided country, and the post-war settlement included an at times uneasy mix of survivors of the Nazi regime – indeed, many who served in the regime were now in government on National and Local level – and those born in the war and the years immediately after, who were influenced by American rock and roll and youth culture.  And of course, West Germany was also the home to huge American military bases, and that presence spilled out into German society; and always, underpinning this was the fact that West Germany was the interface between the West and the Warsaw Pact countries, with all the Cold War tension and uncertainty that this proximity entailed.  Like Britain, France, and the US, West Germany also had a radical student sub-culture that developed through the sixties and on in to the seventies that was most manifest in the likes of the Red Army Faction.  These were febrile, frenetic times, and, as is often the case, out of this came an era of remarkable creativity in Germany in film, art, literature and music. 

Born in 1940, Uwe Nettlebeck was a left wing journalist and critic who was one of the mouthpieces of this new mood of dissent – he had briefly worked on konkret, the same magazine for which future terrorist Ulrike Meinhof also wrote.  He was also conscious of a new awakening in German underground music.  Nettlebeck put together members of two groups, Nukleus and Campylognatus Citelli - and merged them into one, Faust.  The name Faust was a reference both to the pact-making Doctor and the German word for ‘fist’, as demonstrated on the extraordinary x-ray cover of their self-titled debut album (released on clear transparent vinyl). 

After recording three albums for Polydor with limited success, the band had been dropped but they managed to secure a deal with Virgin Records, then a fledgling outlet for music that was largely regarded as somehow outré or avant-garde, the home for Art Rock in its multifarious forms.  Virgin MD Richard Branson (with whom the band did not get on) was unwilling to pay the kind of advance that Nettlebeck had prised from Polydor, but countered that with an offer for the band to record at the Virgin-owned, state-of-the-art recording facility at Manor Studios, where they could actually reside whilst recording.  And so came Faust IV, their first album proper for Virgin, released in September, 1973.

As seems somewhat par for the Faust course, the story starts to get messy.  Nettlebeck intervened, compiling what would be the finished IV album from the Manor sessions (as well as from some previous sessions in Wumme, Germany), without involving the band, which impelled founder-members Hans-Joachim Irmler and Rudolf Sosna to leave the fold.  The remaining members – Jean-Hervé Peron, Zappi Diermaier and Gunther Wustoff – were to recruit members of Slapp Happy and Guru Guru to supplement the band for their touring commitments to promote the ‘IV’ album on its eventual release.  This may suggest that the album is, in some way, a disjointed, random, unfocused and ill-conceived mess but it is, in fact, a far more accomplished and coherent recording than its troubled birth infers. 

Although Faust IV was a failure, sales-wise, and the band were soon to be dropped by Virgin, the album has only grown in stature and appreciation in the years since its initial release.  Its often brittle, often witty, and always engrossing soundscape continues to enchant, despite the passing years.  Like many innovative recordings – such as Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart, or  A Wizard, A True Star by Todd Rundgren, it is not something you would necessarily play every day, but a few times a year, only it will do. 

With thanks to Alan Robinson

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