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Whilst the band members have long gone their separate musical ways, they still exist as a kind of family, and events transpired in 1989 to put most of them back on stage together, in London and Italy, for the first time in over ten years. To catch up with events, I spoke separately to guitarists John Weinzierl and initially, Chris Karrer (with a little help from the master of ceremonies Dieter Serfas).
Nowadays Chris divides his time between music and painting, the two being neatly combined in his forthcoming LP in collaboration with fellow artist Ernst Fuchs (famous Austrian painter). He's also re-joined jazz-rock group Embryo, plays with the Italian group Militia, and continues his long standing interest in Asian and African music ('World music' was of course no mystery to the more visionary bands of some twenty years ago).
Despite his original comments, Chris seemed happy to reminisce, and it soon became clear that he has retained his ideals: a natural musician, still pushing at the boundaries, but without the slightest hint of pretentiousness. He's a true giant of the psychedelic.
Chris formed the original Amon Düül circa 1967 (memories are a little blurred!), with drummer Peter Leopold, bassist Lothar Meid, and singer Rainer Bauer.
D.S:- They didn't release any records, but Chris was already an inspirational player, and there's a tape in existence that's still worthy of release.
CK:- Yes, we're thinking of releasing it.
We had many influences, such as Hapsash and my own jazz background. We also felt that presentation was very important, I remember there was one night when our bubble machine went into overdrive and engulfed each member of the band in a giant bubble. You should make an effort with the visuals, unlike jazz musicians, who go on stage in old pullovers.
The German music scene was very conventional at the time, so we naturally became a focus for any alternative organisation, and Amon Düül soon became not a group, but a community.
They really did! The Amon Düül community eventually existed in a mansion outside Munich, and a house in the lakeland area near the Austrian border.
There were three revolutions happening at this time; the musical, the sexual, and the political. Amon Düül were originally part of the musical revolution, but as the community grew, the politics began to take over, and the original creative spirit was getting submerged. The last straw was when it was 'decided' that everyone in the commune was a musician, including the children, irrespective of the results.
Chris, his original vision lost, had some kind of a nervous breakdown at this point.
CK:- I spent two weeks in bed, during which time I composed one side of Phallus Dei in my head. I knew I had to return to Munich and get back to the music.
Chris returned to the commune, but named the band Amon Düül II, as their vision was solely musical. They then started their own very successful club, on Leopoldstrasse, and again became a focus for the 'underground' movement. The growth of the underground meant that they now had sufficient commercial viability to be signed up by Liberty / UA, resulting in the release of Phallus Dei in 1969. The line-up at this stage consisted of Chris and John, vocalist Renate Krötenschwanz-Knaup, drummer Peter Leopold, Falk Rogner on keyboards, Dave Anderson on bass, Shrat on bongoes and percussionist Dieter Serfas.
It was a tremendous debut, with all of what were to become Amon Düül II trademarks: Renate's soaring vocals, the 'tribal' atmosphere combining with an 'other-worldly' feel, and the bursts of excellent instrumental work. Even the side-long title track holds the momentum, being a trip into the cosmos, unlike many kinds of jam session. The lyrics and sleevenotes were pretty mysterious too, even to a German speaker.
CK:- I was, and still am, greatly influenced by the surreal, and the titles reflect this. We got a lot of stick in Germany for singing in English, but this was the language of international communication, especially in music. On the other hand, some of our lyrics were deliberately not in any language; we were trying to remove barriers by singing meaningless songs. The music of those days allowed great freedom, which I dearly miss.
How true! Chris was also responsible for the wonderful sleeve, which reappeared on the German re-issue a few years back, but it's hard to find an original British copy which had a different equally annoying sleeve. The Sunset reissue with yet another (less interesting) sleeve is however very common.
Around this time, some LP's were released in Germany under the name of Amon Düül: Psychedelic Underground, and Collapsing and later Disaster. These were not, as is often said, the work of the pre - Phallus Dei line-up, but the result of the non - Amon Düül II members of the commune (including Rainer Bauer, interestingly) obtaining a record contract on the strength of Amon Düül II's LP. According to Chris, they recorded all three LP's (one a double) in one night! This is believable, as they consist of massed repetitive percussion, distorted guitars and noises, including the children, of course. Worth a listen, if you get the chance, in order to make up your mind whether you agree with Chris that they're "rubbish", though none are easy to find. Collapsing is actually quite listenable, consisting of far shorter tracks than the others, whilst Psychedelic Underground has a great sleeve, which disappeared when it was reissued. The reissue of Disaster also had a new outer sleeve. Another album called Paradieswarts, recorded in late 1971, is a more laid-back affair similiar to "Sandoz In The Rain" (from Yeti). The non-LP single is presumably from the same sessions. Another album, Experiment seems to be a bootleg of different takes and unreleased material.
CK:- The only member of Amon Düül II involved was Peter Leopold. He soon realised his mistake, and returned to the band, whilst Ulrich Leopold, the number one 'head' of the time, is now a very respectable organ and guitar teacher.
Amon Düül II followed Phallus Dei with their two classic double albums, Yeti and Dance of The Lemmings, each adorned with unforgettable covers, and with the mix of shorter tracks and improvisations being developed to near-perfection - and well produced, too. Both come unreservedly recommended,
Yeti includes their best - known song "Archangels Thunderbird", the inspired madness of "Eye-Shaking King", and the side-and-a-half long title track, which may well feature the playing of some extra - terrestial guests; certainly there was magic in the air when they recorded it. If there has to be such a thing as the greatest LP of all time, this is as good a candidate as any.
Renate stayed with the yetis awhile, so was missing for DOTL (Dance Of The Lemmings), a comparatively tightly constructed album, featuring Chris and John's little stories on the first record, and a wonderfully spacey instrumental on the second.
CK:- I still like the sound of those records, at least in parts. Dave plays like an angel on Yeti, although we then had some trouble with him, and he left the band, being replaced by Lothar for DOTL. The "Chamsin Soundtrack" on DOTL won a film music award in Germany. At the time all the German bands had agreed to charge the same amount for soundtracks, then Can undercut it, so of course they got all the film work after that. I could see the ideals were disappearing.
I'd have been happy for Chris to discuss the LP's for hours, but he seemed keen to move on. However, I had one question last about them; "Who was the guy on the front cover of Yeti ?". The answer was sadly bizzarre.
CK:- That was Kricka, our sound man. A little while later, he disappeared and we didn't know why. Eventually his body was found in the woods, frozen and half eaten by wild animals.
After four more excellent LP's, (Carnival In Babylon, Live In London, Wolf City and Vive La Trance) which included extra drummer Danny Fichelscher, Amon Düül moved to Atlantic, and released Hijack, which marked a radical change in direction.
CK:- We were being pushed towards making our sound far more commercial - there was a definite attempt to crack the American market. Somehow we let it happen, even my original sleeve for the album was rejected by the record company. I saw much the same thing happen with Roxy Music... Their first two LP's were very good, very original, but it sounds to me as if they then became subject to the dictates of the record company.
Also, the original method of Amon Düül, to work together around musical ideas, was disappearing. Now we were being pulled apart, musically and personally. I still had my own corner, I got to include my stuff on the records, and at the time I was happy with that. But it was out of control; we lost control of Amon Düül!
The next LP was a double Made In Germany, which has some great moments, but bears witness to the growing tensions in the band.
CK:- I was not happy with the way it portrayed such strong nationalist overtones, which must have bewildered what fans we had left in Germany. We even sent a film to WEA, with Peter playing Hitler, Renate was Eva Braun, and Falk played a Jew. This was not exactly exotic, not my idea of Amon Düül at all. In America it was only a single LP, which lost the concept anyway.
Few people were aware that Amon Düül II even existed after Made In Germany, and Chris certainly doesn't enthuse about the ensuing '70s LP's, as Renate, Falk, and Lothar dropped out. The music, whilst not at all bad, is not typical Amon Düül II, and new listeners should concentrate on the first three releases.
CK:- We were getting fewer and fewer gigs, and were making LP's because someone was prepared to release them, but by the time Only Human was done, even John had left the band, he couldn't face the charade. It was so ridiculous that at the last gig we played there two Amon Düül's on the bill, mine and Peter Leopold's! So, without formally ending Amon Düül, I released a solo LP in 1980, then made a final attempt to rekindle the spirit of Amon Düül with Vortex. Renate, Falk and Danny played on the record, with Jörg Evers on bass. But there were no gigs, and little interest in the band, so that proved to be the end.
A listen to Vortex demonstrates the irony of the situation.It's a brilliant LP which perfectly adapts the Amon Düül sound to the '80s; John and Lothar even make guest appearances. But Amon Düül in 1981? Maybe three years later and it would have got the attention it deserved, but at least they bowed out in style.
CK:- We spent a lot of money on our records, and now I'm broke. We could have been millionaires if we'd saved money! (Laughs)
That was the end of Amon Düül II until the 1989 gigs, although the name was kept alive by the British 'Amon Düül' LP's, of which more will be said later. In 1986 posters for the Hawkwind tour promised 'special guests Amon Düül III', but this was no more than a whim of the promoter, and no such band appeared. Chris had never heard anything about it! But what about Amon Düül in the future?
CK:- After Italy I'm sure the enthusiasm is there to play some more European dates, probably not Germany, though. The spirit of the band is very much alive, the magic still exists. And I'd be happy to record a new Amon Düül LP. It's very nice that there are still people who care about us.
The fertile musical mind of Chris Karrer continues to evolve: apart from Embryo, Militia, and the Ernst Fuchs record, he continues to explore other avenues. He's recorded with Afghan musicians, and recently was in Cairo recording with an Egyptian group. "Perhaps I'll go to Cairo and play flamenco in the streets", he chuckled.
Psychedelic to his very bones.
PART II - John Weinzierl
JW:- When I was about 13 I had a band, playing Shadows' stuff - The Merseygents, y'know, all dressed up in matching black trousers and red shirts. Everyone was playing Beatles' songs then, and we became one of the first to cover the 'Stones. That's my background, '60s pop, very little original material, while most of Amon Düül had a jazz background, which I wasn't into. I got a few things out of the jazz side, such as rhythms from Dieter.
FB:- How did you come to join Amon Düül II ?
JW:- There was this rumour about people in Munich called 'Hipsters', who were looking for something different, new ways of being together, different kinds of drugs. Drugs were very important. There was a different attitude then - today kids just get bombed, which is the wrong way to do it. We were looking for another way, it was like a holy experiment. You prepared people for it.
I was at boarding school, and one of my room-mates was Falk's brother, so he brought news of Amon Düül. Sometimes we'd escape by car to Munich, and go to the commune. Amon Düül was a symbol: it was the band at all the sit-ins and happenings, the megaphone of the movement, not a 'rock band'. Sometimes they were carried around on the shoulders of the crowd, real heroes.
FB:- Where did the name come from ?
JW:- The intention was not to have a German name, nor an English one, it was to be international. The spelling varied; sometimes Dyyl, sometimes Düül. For six months we had a similiar, but different name at every performance; Oma Düük, etc.
At school they told me I was a genius, so I thought "I'm a genius, I don't have to do anything", so of course I blew it. I squeezed the alarm clock into a lump one day, and went to Amon Düül. I had my audition with Chris then; I didn't know what to play, because they didn't play songs. It was a very positive, creative pool, they just went 'vrooom' and something happened, it was fantastic.
The entourage consisted of about twelve people, and film makers and people like that would pick us up and give us somewhere to live, until we got our first place. In Germany in '68 you could get killed for having long hair, and we had to stick together to survive. We weren't part-time hippies or anything; we lived it and we didn't give a fuck, although we weren't mean or bad about it. It wasn't theory, it was there, you could feel it, and we fed off the energy. We had professors coming and telling us we were a revolution in sociology, and we thought "Are we?". In '68 things seemed to be happening everywhere, without marketing, but of course business jumped on the bandwagon.
The minute we had our first LP out, the big cheat started - "You need a publishing company", so we signed, in a very stoned way, and lost 50% of our earnings.
Of course we wanted to make records, but not in any conventional way.
FB:- Like the use of German, English, and nonsense language?
JW:- Yeah, and we used opposities. Like "Henriette Krotenshwanz" on Phallus Dei, it's a very sweet sound, but the lyrics are a slow-motion description of how a steering wheel goes through Henriette's chest.
FB:- How did it become Amon Düül and Amon Düül II ?
JW:- The ideology side of Amon Düül were saying "We want to change the world", which basically at that time everybody wanted, but how? Some people believed if you drop a bomb it might be effective, because nobody listens to us, so groups like Baader-Meinhof started burning down warehouses, and all this shit. The music people in Amon Düül said "We want to make music, and if somebody wants to listen, fair enough. But we don't want to drop bombs, it's just ridiculous to do that." We weren't interested in having legal fights over the name, we were supposed after all to be brothers, so to make a difference we became Amon Düül II.
FB:- What do you remember about the recording of Phallus Dei?
JW:- I was tripping in a record shop with Peter Leopold, and suddenly the building started collapsing. We managed to get to the car, so I was very happy to leave these falling buildings behind, and back at the house everyone said "Hey, we're going to make a record". I was very pleased because the house was all flowers. Off we went to the studio, and we recorded it in two days, on shoelaces.
FB:- What happened after Phallus Dei ?
JW:- Nothing changed, except we had money and could get things together, but we weren't suddenly pop stars. The record company was smiling, so we went on to make Yeti on 16-track. We weren't sure what to do, so we spent 1-2 days improvising and that was one LP, so we said "Let's make it a double". If I wrote a straight song it had to be 'AD'ised' to make it different, like "Archangels Thunderbird", which happened near the end of the recording.
We were getting better reactions outside Germany, where we were just Amon Düül. A lot of really good musicians hated us because nobody was listening to them. We had the PN Club on Monday nights, and when we set up our own equipment; they were laughing at us. But we filled the place, and they stopped laughing.
Also, it was very nice to go to London, because you could actually have long hair and strange clothes and not get beaten up.
FB:- Were you aware at the time how many great ideas you were coming out with on the first three LP's?
JW:- We were certainly trying to push the boundaries, yes. That sort of thing is very lacking today. Even in my own stuff - very good musicians, but... I love to hear the old tapes. We had very bad instruments at first, and the sounds that we made weren't always intended. But then the reviews would praise all these wonderful exotic sounds, but it was an accident. We also tried to paint sound pictures, like "Metropolis", I miss that.
Or, like, I sometimes work as a studio musician in Sydney, which needs a certain attitude, compared to which the Amon Düül gigs in '89 were unreal. Like now we can speak and communicate with real words, but this doesn't happen with Amon Düül, it's just a crazy mixture. Although I like to have things organised, Amon Düül is a creative tank. Few other things can work like that. We could make an LP now, but somehow with Amon Düül it just doesn't happen, even though money could be made. Like the Italian gig, we met four times and had a 25-minute set rehearsed, that's all we exected to play. We got there to find we were the only ones on the bill, so we played 1-1/2 to 2 hours, and everyone went wild. It's not business, is it?
FB:- What's happening on the first two sides of Dance Of The Lemmings?
JW:- "Restless Skylight - Transistor - Child" was an attempt at an extra - terrestial view. A being from another-planet comes to our castle - "Landing In A Ditch". Somehow he gets into you - "Little Tornadoes", and all that. The idea didn't get through to people, but if you listen to it very stoned, you can understand it. We wanted to make a film about it, but it got fucked up by money grabbers. On "Syntelman's March" - Chris and I exchanged ideas and really vibed. Those were the days, music was really happening, but as usual the businessmen bought it and turned it into advertising.
FB:- Carnival In Babylon suffers from poor production.
JW:- Yes, and the decay was setting in. We were getting a lot of money and we didn't cope very well with it. We had 'friends' in the castle who we didn't know. The original Amon Düül idea was also being lost, it was now much more dependant on individual ideas. For instance, there was a change on Wolf City, as Lothar wrote quite a lot of the music, and Vive La Trance shows a lot of my influence, with shorter numbers, influenced by John Lennon, I think.
FB:- Still good records, though.
JW:- Yes, the real change came with Hijack. We had to do it to pay the rent. It was an attempt to professionalise Amon Düül and of course it killed the music. So we didn't become a commercial success, and also lost many of our original followers. We'd been ripped off and we needed the money. The new record company bought it, but it was artificial.
FB:- Made In Germany was different again.
JW:- It was meant to be a new start. We were planning to move to America in a Zeppelin, but there was all this Nazi stuff in it, which I hated, it was a gimmick. That's why I did all the fairytale things, to counteract it, and Chris did different numbers. But the producers said, "You need money, do this."
We were interupted at this moment by a moment of Amon Düül magic. John's cat, Ocelot, took a walk across the sampler, producing a pretty cool space instrumental. It's on tape, and I'm threatening to release it if we never get another Amon Düül LP.
JW:- Not bad... That's Amon Düül for you, even the cat is a musician!
After Made In Germany the Amon Düül system was breaking down; we weren't living together, there were crises all the time. Everyone had hassles. Amon Düül had been a family, but disillusion had set in, lot's of different line-ups. Then we had a situation of producers wanting Amon Düül to produce music; they didn't understand the idea of the band, that it was the mouth of something. But as usual, business bought it all - all the youth movement was bought up, and it died as a result.
FB:- Didn't you fight it?
JW:- We didn't have the freedom. Things were happening that were beyond our control.
FB:- Did you realise what was happening?
JW:- Yes, it was very painful. We were making a living, but when we stopped living together the energy parted, and of course it's much more expensive to all live apart, so we needed the money the system provided. Chris and I didn't keep enough control, and we weren't providing enough material. Producers were coming with music business ideas; I like commercial ideas in a way, as a means of getting in touch with people, but you have to fill it with something worthwhile. But one of my worries is that today you play a number and it's very deep, but no-one understands, because they aren't looking for that anymore. But I'm still trying to produce something of value, that's what I'm trying to do with Think-Tank, but it's very hard to get that accepted today.
FB:- You left the band after Almost Alive.
JW:- Yes, it was like a bad marriage. Then I accidentally shot myself in the head. A real classic. I pointed the gun and pulled the trigger; so I was out of it for several months. I started to enjoy myself for awhile. I didn't have the money to start a new band of the type I would like, but for the first time I got my own life together. After living in my family, and then the Amon Düül family, it was a new experience. I had to get out, and I was happy to do so.
Then I formed a tour agency, called Hallucination Company, and a music theatre group, similiar to The Fool, from the sixties.
FB:- So how come you appeared as a guest on Vortex ?
JW:- I didn't think reviving Amon Düül was going to work, and my agency was going well, so I couldn't commit myself to it. But I was glad to have some involvement.
FB:- It turned out to be an excellent LP.
JW:- Yes. But you should hear the rough mix - it's the best Amon Düül I've heard.
FB:- You then made the LP's with Dave Anderson (the Demi-Monde releases).
JW:- Hmmm. Hawk Meets Penguin was actually based on old Amon Düül II tapes. We improvised around them. Yes, I thought it was OK to do that, but no other original Amon Düül members play on the Demi - Monde records.
FB:- It's a very good album.
JW:- Yes it is. I'm not keen on Men Machines though, and those other two LP's shouldn't have been released, they aren't even finished.
Hawk consists of two fairly laid back improvisations, and shouldn't disappoint anyone into the Amon Düül vibe. Men Machines is a more conventional record, although John turns in a thundering "Burundi Drummers' Nightmare". The release of Die Lösung and Fool Moon, has caused a massive row between Dave and John. Dave declares them to be finished products, but the conflict is likely to keep him out of any forthcoming Amon Düül II activity, unfortunately.
JW:- We were going to record Robert Calvert and Chris together. You should have seen those two in the studio - real freaks. I don't mean that in any stupid way - It was magical. Bob shouldn't have died, he was one of the brothers. So I was going to play at his memorial concert. I had it planned, to be carried on to the stage by a couple of girls waving peace signs; "Hello my friends, good to see you all again". I was working on the show, but talk got around to doing an Amon Düül gig. I didn't think it would work, so I planned my show, but Chris, Renate, and Peter amazed me by being there. So with some friends we did "Archangels Thunderbird", "Eye - Shaking King", "Metropolis" and "Flower Of The Orient". After that we did the Italian gig with Lothar and Falk. On the way the old Amon Düül tensions started to appear, but that's part of the dynamic of the group, we argue a lot. Chris and I inhabit two different worlds, but in Amon Düül it all comes together. I wondered if we could still do it, perhaps Wham or somebody had got it, but it was magic in Italy. We were stopping on the way and kids were asking for our autographs. it seems that the old ideas are here again after all, at least for some people. Perhaps we can build bridges to help to bring them together. So maybe we could revive Amon Düül, but it will happen in it's own way, you can't force it. But if it seems possible, I'd love to do it - the spirit won't die.
On that optimistic note, I left John to his guitar.... Think Tank and
his session work are on-going, but he's clearly sensed that there are
vibes in the air, giving us the exciting prospect of some nineties magic
from one of the truly great bands.
© Andy Whittaker - 1997