New Fall Festival Tonhalle, © Andreas Schiko

Travelogue Sound of Düs­sel­dorf

The Pop-his­tory of Düs­sel­dorf - from then un­til now

As a pop metropolis, Düsseldorf is a phenomenon: the capital of Germany’s largest state should be much too small to attract international attention, but time and again it has fostered unusual music scenes, bands and movements. Kraftwerk, for example, is the prototypical German pop band that gave impetus to the emergence of new wave, hip-hop and techno. The long-forgotten NEU! has been named favourite German band by members of Blur, Radiohead and Stereolab. The Düsseldorf punk scene of the late 1970s was less embittered than its counterparts in Hamburg and Berlin, which led to more experimental styles of music. Der Plan, Fehlfarben, DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses and their avant-garde new wave attracted fans far beyond Germany’s borders. The Krupps were co-founders of the industrial music movement. And the homegrown band Propaganda became hit writers of the electronic wave in the 1980s.

For many music fans, the era of Düsseldorf as a pop metropolis ended in the mid-1980s when many members of the scene decided to take up bourgeois professions and lifestyles, or even left the city altogether. But time and again the city’s fascinating pop history and continuing artistic infrastructure has brought together new creative minds. Crucially, the Kunstakademie art college kept and keeps on attracting experimental musicians. Kreidler member Detlef Weinrich founded the club Salon des Amateurs, which remains the central meeting place for a young electronic scene that connects (Krautrock) tradition and modern music. Düsseldorf might no longer be the musical hub of the world, but every decade or so, great things happen here: in the mid-2000s, Hauschka introduced the concept of a prepared piano for the pop scene, and ten years later, Grandbrothers refined it. This enterprising streak was continued in hip-hop and punk with the Antilopen Gang and the Broilers.

Kraftwerk Konzert 2014, Washington, © CC BY 2.0 Janine and Jim Eden (Flickr)

It’s high time to set off on our journey. We have taken the regional train. On the journey to Düsseldorf, we listen to 25 tracks on our headphones that we’ve chosen to represent the sound of the city. First on the list is Dieter Süverkrüp, Germany’s most eloquent and poetic political singer-songwriter. Then come NEU! and Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”. These 22 minutes of pop history are inextricably linked to Düsseldorf. They conjure up the German motorway and international horizons, Krautrock and electronics, the machine-like chilliness of Kraftwerk and recording-mastermind Conny Plank’s warmth. In its best moments, the sound of Düsseldorf is a music of contrasts.

Timon-Karl Kalayta, lyricist and singer of the electro-pop band Susanne Blech, takes us through Düsseldorf’s old town. On the way, we pass multinational fashion chains and Rhenish dive bars, punks begging for change and the chic Königsallee. We see contrasts everywhere. In a café overlooking the Rhine, it does not take long before talk turns to the city’s most famous band. Kalayta, who caused a shitstorm by pulling Kraftwerk off their pedestal in his iconic song “1000 Jahre Kraftwerk” (“That stuff by Kraftwerk, turn it off or turn it down. Everyone sees it, no one says it: they’re the emperor’s new clothes”), is refreshingly irate: “They’re revered here like gods,” he grumbles. “It’s only right and fitting – they were pioneers and all that – but if everyone agrees on something, then there has to be a counter opinion, just out of principle, even if it’s wrong. In Kraftwerk’s case, the discussion has come to a comfortable end. No one in their right mind would say anything disreputable about electropop avant-garde from Düsseldorf without making a fool of himself. The pop references are obvious, case closed. Kraftwerk? Geniuses, of course! That’s the verdict.”

In fact, it’s almost impossible to take an impartial approach to Düsseldorf’s music scene. International superstars who have been influenced by Düsseldorf and Kraftwerk – from David Bowie to Simple Minds, Depeche Mode or the Chemical Brothers – are too numerous. And enough has been written about Kraftwerk to fill a small library with publications on the topic, while conferences and symposia on the subject are frequently held all over the world. Electri_City, the title of an oral history published in 2014 about the “Mecca of electronic music” (as the blurb states) says that the city’s pop-historical importance can’t be overestimated. And yet! Düsseldorf received its first crucial thrust from a man who was born in Kaiserslautern, was influenced by American troops stationed in German military bases, worked in Cologne and Hamburg and who spent most of his life far away from Düsseldorf.

Conny Plank was “perhaps the most important creator of the sound and mood of those years, one of the friendliest people in the world and certainly the greatest patron of geniuses and slobs; the hub around which Düsseldorf’s wheel spins,” said Michael Reinsch a while back in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. Plank recorded the first Kraftwerk album Tone Float together with Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970, who were still going by the name Organisation at the time, and explained to them how to use the equipment they had bought with their parent’s money. First in rented or provisional studios, then in his own production empire in Wolperath, he created the sound of their four following albums and spent night shifts tinkering with Kraftwerk’s sound on their first big hit “Autobahn”. From 1970 on, Plank also christened this genre of music, taking the name from his music publishing house Kraut. The biggest Krautrock bands of the era recorded their main tracks and albums with him – from Kluster to Ash Ra Temple, Guru Guru to Grobschnitt, and NEU! to La Düsseldorf.

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We meet up with Michael Rother to find out more about the time in the early 1970s when Düsseldorf first put itself on the music map. The guitarist and composer is one of the most exciting figures in the Düsseldorf music scene. As a member of the Kraftwerk line-up of three in 1971, and most importantly as the founder of NEU! together with the drummer Klaus Dinger, he shaped the early Düsseldorf sound like no other. Rother tells us in conversation that he came across some of his most decisive influences during a three-year stay in Pakistan from 1960 on. There he got to know Indian music styles. “It was just a very formative experience to hear that kind of music – not processing it intellectually, but letting it affect me emotionally,” he says. “Arabic and Indian music, with their melodies and rhythms carrying you endlessly forwards, and which I didn’t understand at all with my Central European ear, had a magnetic pull on me.” Repetition and infinity became important concepts to him.

When he moved to Düsseldorf in 1963, which was in the British zone of occupation, he let himself be carried away by the beat movement. “What the Beatles, Stones, Kinks and similar bands were doing was so fresh, new and inspiring,” he says. “I think every other person in my class wanted to make music and play in a band.” Rother became the lead guitarist of the school band Spirits of Sound, whose members also included the later Kraftwerk drummer Wolfgang Flür and the singer Wolfgang Riechmann at the end of the 1960s. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and especially Jimi Hendrix influenced Rother. In an atmosphere of aesthetic and political awakening from Beuys to Uecker, Mommartz, Kriwet and Brandt, his need for artistic independence and distinction increased from the late of 1960s on: “I didn’t just want my music to sound like British or American bands, but different to everything else that was playing in Düsseldorf, Munich or anywhere else too.”

The year 1971: was the year of a crucial meeting. During a political demonstration, another guitarist told Rother about a band called Kraftwerk and immediately invited him to come over to the recording studio. “I knew nothing, not even Kraftwerk. I wasn’t part of a network or scene, nothing at all,” Rother recalls, still sounding astonished. In Kraftwerk’s studio in Mintropstrasse, Rother met the band’s founders Ralf Hütter and Florian Scheider and the drummers Charly Weiss and Klaus Dinger. “I picked up a bass and started playing with Ralf. And that was the first time I had played music with someone, exchanged sounds, and played melodies back and forth that had nothing to do with blues. It was a completely new experience for me.”

When Ralf Hütter stepped down for a while afterwards, Schneider, Rother and Dinger played numerous concerts as a “Kraftwerk”-trio, including a legendary TV appearance for the “Beat Club” show; subsequently they failed to record a successor to Kraftwerk’s debut album with Conny Plank.

The band split into two sections: Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger left and started NEU! while Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider got back together and tuned their improvised Krautrock beginnings to structured electronic pop music. The fourth Kraftwerk album Autobahn climbed the international charts in 1974 and became the blueprint for the aesthetics and sound of the band. Kraftwerk became an inspiration for electronic music all over the world, influencing hip-hop pioneers and providing the impetus for techno. With Die Mensch-Maschine and Computerwelt, they created timeless masterpieces of electropop.

When you hear “Hallogallo”, the first track on NEU!’s eponymous debut album from 1972, there’s no need to explain why Rother and Dinger had to part from Kraftwerk. It is ten mesmerizing minutes of proto-punkish, hand-played music, a style that harshly contrasts to Kraftwerk. Clueless German journalists have called this sound “Motorik” (which translates as something like “motor function”), reducing it to its monotonous beat. You can hear the sharp clashs between autodidact Klaus Dinger’s impetuous temperament and Rother’s balanced character, illustrated by his delicate guitar work, both held together and guided by Plank’s production.

The album NEU!, like its successors NEU!2 and NEU!75, were released on the Brain label, Krautrock’s central distributor. The albums were not commercially successful: NEU! 2 even sparked controversy because Rother and Dinger filled the B-side with new versions of already released tracks – thus, some said, inventing the remix. “The reactions to the second album and the B-side were disastrous. People did not think it was legitimate. They thought we were having a joke at their expense,” says Rother. However, the effect of the band’s third album cannot be overestimated. NEU! 75! had a great influence on English punk. David Bowie, too, whose attention was brought to Düsseldorf’s music by Brian Eno, was partially inspired by NEU!’s third album to begin recording his Berlin trilogy. Bowie invited Rother to participate on his album Heroes, but unclear circumstances, perhaps a misunderstanding on the part of Bowie’s management, prevented their cooperation in the end.

Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother did not reap the rewards of their work until the end of the 1970s. Dinger became successful with his band La Düsseldorf, and Rother, after meeting Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius von Cluster in the mid-1970s and forming the supergroup Harmonia alongside NEU! in their studio in the Weser Hills, had a commercial breakthrough as a solo artist with his album Blazing Hearts in 1977.

By that time, Marius Müller-Westernhagen already had a few years of small gigs under his belt. But it was still not clear whether he was going to follow a career in acting or singing. Born to a father, who was an actor in the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus ensemble and died early on, Müller-Westernhagen had gained experience acting and was intrigued by the idea to become a musician. In any case, Westernhagen junior had the talent for both. But he was still looking for the right role until he figured out, that both careers could work. He became an actor in one of Germany’s most successful movies of the 80’s Theo gegen den Rest der Welt (1980) [LINK RUHRGEBIETSTEXT] and recorded million-selling German rock albums such as Mit Pfefferminz bin ich dein Prinz (1978). His song “Freiheit” (“Freedom”) became the soundtrack of German unification 1989/90, albeit unintentionaly. Especially the lyrics: “All who dream of freedom, should not miss the celebration. Freedom is the only thing that counts” captured the spirit of euphoria and hope during that time.

When we meet Westernhagen in Berlin, he is preparing for his unplugged tour. Director Fatih Akin has shot a concert video for the eponymous live album. In our conversation, Westernhagen, certainly one of the three most famous musicians in Germany, among the most commercially successful in any case, dives deep into his musical past. “The crucial influence that made me want to sing, even before my voice had broken, was the blues,” he says. “I had heard R ‘n’ B because of what the Stones were doing. That’s the way I wanted to express myself. Then came the soul era with Otis Redding and James Brown. Then came Jimi Hendrix, who added a new dimension. None of that had happened before.”

Westernhagen’s interests made him end up in the same scene as Michael Rother in the mid-1960s. They sometimes even played together in the same bands. “He was in a band that was into sweet-sounding rock. We were more punk. I also played with Kraftwerk founder Florian Schneider. We did sessions together at the time. Back then a guy dropped in and asked, ‘Can I join you?’” Westernhagen recalls. Many of those who later put Düsseldorf’s name on the map were also around at the time including Karl Bartos, who later became Kraftwerk’s drummer and Bodo Staiger, who went on to have some of the early Neue Deutsche Welle hits with Rheingold. And Conny Plank was there too. “Conny Plank was still an assistant at a studio near Cologne. So he had the keys. We opened it up at night, completely stoned, and jammed. The tracks were basically 20 minutes long. Conny always said: ‘The tape’s rolling’,” says Westernhagen. But in this respect, conceptual differences were already showing. While Rother, Schneider, Hütter and Dinger were breaking the mould and inventing something completely new, Westernhagen fell back on tradition. “Ever since my earliest youth, my kind of music was American. That’s why I didn’t really take to it,” he says.

Illustration von Marius Müller-Westernhagen, © Marius Müller-Westernhagen - Illustration by Saskia Wragge

In 1978’s hit-record Pfefferminz Westernhagen sings about his early experiences as a rock ‘n’ roll singer in Düsseldorf. And this album proved, that he Westernhagen had what it takes to be a rock star. In later albums, Westernhagen crooned popular songs like “Sexy”, “Weil ich Dich liebe” and “Willenlos”, while his bitter hymn of an alcoholic “Johnny W.” became a party-hit. During these years he increasingly outgrew his home city of Düsseldorf, but has stayed in touch with his early blues influences to this day.

At the beginning of his career, Westernhagen had to face some decisions that all German pop musicians have to face sooner or later: the chances of attracting international attention are much higher if a German musician produces electronic music, plays down his or her personality and doesn’t write German lyrics. This dominant line of tradition in Düsseldorf from Kraftwerk to NEU! to Propaganda, Kreidler and Hauschka has been successful. Westerhagen refused, clinging to his mother-tongue and his love for the blues. In the end: Although the charismatic Westernhagen is one of Germany’s hugest pop stars and can fill stadiums, he’s hardly known in Austria. “I never wanted to be internationally successful, although people have often tried to persuade me. I think I’m in a really good position. I’ve been consistently successful on a large market, but it’s still manageable. When I travel outside the country, no one knows me,” he says. He has, however, at least experimented with styles outside his field. “I had a phase when I tried to work with electronics. That was interesting, and I tried to combine it with Kralle Krawinkel, who was, in the broadest sense, a blues guitarist. But: Whatever I’m looking for, music on stage can sometimes take on an almost spiritual aspect, and you enter a zone which you can’t influence but can only ride out. I don’t think you can do that with machines,” he says.

Doro Pesch, who is a good fifteen years younger than Westernhagen, took a very different path and made a name for herself in the city’s heavy metal underground scene in the early 1980s. With her band Warlock she took up influences from the first wave of British heavy metal bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. The result was a melodic, high-energy power rock with plenty of pathos. The Belgian music label Mausoleum Records were convinced by Pesch and her crew. With English lyrics they rode the wave of a steadily growing global metal scene and quickly became cult stars with their albums Burning The Witches, Hellbound and True As Steel. Part of their novelty was to have a woman singing in heavy metal band. Warlock were also part of the immensely successful metal-scene all over North Rhine-Westphalia. Doro Pesch was also the first woman to perform at the British festival Monsters Of Rock. But then there were disputes about the band’s concept. The record label interfered with their repertoire. Rudy Graf left the band to produce the smash hit album Triumph & Agony in 1987. Pesch used this international success to launch her own very successful solo career. Unlike Westernhagen, who became a German superstar from Düsseldorf without an international reach, Doro Pesch became an international superstar from Düsseldorf in a small but significant segment of rock music.

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If you stroll through the centre of Düsseldorf today, not much of its seminal period in the early 1970s is visible anymore. Kraftwerk’s former Kling Klang studio in Mintropstrasse has vanished except for a faded sign saying Elektro Müller GmbH. Even the scene’s most important watering hole is not what it used to be. Creamcheese in the old town was the hangout for local musicians and artists up until the mid-1970s. It was where sculptors rubbed shoulders with filmmakers and musicians at a long bar with a rear wall of mirrors, surrounded by artworks from the Düsseldorf art scene. Today, the building hosts an agency for communication design and a modelling agency. Two blocks further on, you find yourself in front of an ordinary little rock concert venue called Stone, which offers an evening programme of “The best of indie rock, punk, 60s and 70s.” It’s hard to believe, that here, in the former Ratinger Hof, German punk and the Neue Deutsche Welle were brought to heights in the late 1970s.

“Although Ratinger Hof was a really small place, you knew that if you performed there, just by doing a gig in that little club, you’d made it – as absurd as that sounds. But that’s often what happened in the end,” says Gabi Delgado, singer and songwriter of the electro band DAF and today a solo electro/techno artist. We catch him for a few minutes before a concert in Krefeld. Delgado was part of the Ratinger Hof scene from the beginning and witnessed how the small neon-lit club became the centre of the Düsseldorf music and art scene by the end of the 1970s; how gigs by early punk bands Male and Charly’s Girls inspired others to take up instruments; how electronic pioneers like Liaisons Dangereuses or DAF developed their raw sound, or Der Plan or Fehlfarben reinvented German-language pop lyrics by writing a combination of poetry, Dadaism and ambiguous lyrics; how the independent label Ata Tak evolved from the scene around Ratinger Hof to shape an entire music genre and, when Fehlfarben signed with the EMI and the ska song “Ein Jahr (Es geht voran)” was a major hit, commercialisation gradually destroyed the scene.

DAF, © DAF - Illustration by Saskia Wragge
The Ratinger Hof, © Markus Luigs

Gabi Del­gado (DAF) about Rat­inger Hof

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At the outset, Ratinger Hof was a liberating space. But the only way to explain how it evolved into one of the birthplaces of the German punk and new wave is its proximity to the nearby Kunstakademie. Markus Oehlen, Jörg Immendorff and the anti-institutional Joseph Beuys in particular became regulars. Meeting these artists triggered a tremendous creativity among the DIY punk crowd. “They were interested in punks and punk people thought, ‘Who the hell are they?’ There was a reciprocal effect,” says Delgado. “And suddenly some 20 or 30 people thought, ‘We can do what we want’”. For DAF, whose signature style was Delgado’s extrovert performances and controversial lyrics combined with Robert Görl’s sequencer sound, this meant turning punk music to club music. That’s how they became crucial conduits for genres like EBM and electropunk.

Of course, we ask Delgado why DAF left Düsseldorf so quickly and went to London just as they were starting to get attention. “In Germany there was the Ratinger Hof, the Markthalle [in Hamburg] and SO36 [in Berlin] where you could play as a punk band. There was not a single label interested in music like ours,” he says. “And in London there were thousands of clubs! And thousands of punks! And thousands of labels! It was the place to be.”

Campino, © Paul Ripke

Campino on the Rat­inger Hof

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In an ice cream parlour far from the old town, we meet up with Ralf Dörper to find out more about this period of German music history. His musical career is impressive too. Starting out as a casual member of the protopunk band S.Y.P.H., his experimental solo single “Eraserhead/Assault” in 1980 was named “Single of the Week” by the influential NME and he was a pioneer of genres such as industrial and synth pop as a member of The Krupps, especially on their albums Stahlwerksinfonie and Volle Kraft voraus. Dörper’s follow-up project “Propaganda” became Germany’s most successful electropop export in the mid-1980s, after which he made a hit in 1989 with the track “Dr. Acid & Mr. House”, which was one of the very first European acid-house tracks. In the same year, a second phase of the Krupps began, whose fusion of industrial and hard electronics paved the way for the Neue Deutsche Härte (New German Hardness) with bands like Oomph and Rammstein.

Like Michael Rother, the British influence in Düsseldorf was also decisive for Dörper: “It really mattered that we were part of the English scene here in Düsseldorf,” he says at the beginning of our conversation. “We had BFBS and John Peel, and the barracks were full of English. And because of that, Düsseldorf was a focal point for concerts by major artists like David Bowie, The Who and Roxy Music.”

We ask him for his view of the scene at Ratinger Hof and his answer relativises the image of a subcultural scene living in harmony. Dörper emphasises that the initial phase was dominated by an emulation of London trends. “Generally speaking, Ratinger Hof was like a fancy-dress party lagging behind London. Punk started in Düsseldorf when it was already over in England,” he says, citing the example of the legendary NRW Punk Festival at Düsseldorf’s Carsch House in 1978: “All the bands sounded like English punk bands, and they had to sound like that, otherwise they wouldn’t have been invited.” DAF, Der Plan or The Krupps, for example, were the only truly innovative bands, who were striving to be as good as late-1970s Anglo-American post-punk and electro bands like Pere Ubu, Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire rather than trying to sound like the German Ramones. Still, in Dörper’s view, the scene in Ratinger Hof was always at risk of losing touch with the musical zeitgeist, even if it managed to create a public image with the help of journalist Alfred Hilsberg. “Elbows were out, there was a lot of pushing and shoving. It was about who was on top of the pile. And when success led to money, things got really bad,” says Dörper.

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Jürgen Engler, who was part of the Düsseldorf scene as a member of Male, played together with Dörper in the Krupps and now lives in Austin, Texas, confirms this view: “The Ratinger Hof was the CBGB of Düsseldorf. In the old town, everything was distilled into a microcosm where the whole world met and made plans. Initially it was like a home,” he says. “The scene in Düsseldorf itself was very small. At the beginning, between 1977 and 1979, the audience for the bands playing there was just members of other bands.” Engler also emphasises the antagonistic atmosphere of Ratinger Hof: “There was a lot of rivalry on the scene. I don’t know what caused it. People ridiculed each other and there wasn’t much cooperation. I’d put it down to the scene being quite German on the whole: rivalry, mockery, elitism and pushing others out of the way. It ruined a lot of things.”

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Perhaps it was these tensions – between art academics and musicians, ostracizers and harmonizers, money and the lack of it, Düsseldorf locals and visitors from Solingen, Krefeld, Hagen or Wuppertal, punks, rockers, electronic fans, anti-commercial punk and success-oriented new wave – that sparked so much creativity. This led to the recording of some of the most important German-language rock albums – Fehlfarben’s Monarchie & Alltag – as well the electronic Dadaism of Der Plan or the hardcore electro of DAF’s “Tanz den Mussolini”. As the first hits came, however, the music industry pounced on the sound of Düsseldorf, over-commercialising and destroying it. But for Engler this isn’t enough to explain why the scene came to an end: “The generation living under chancellor Helmut Kohl ushered in a completely different vibe. Suddenly, none of the punks and new wavers wanted to go to the Kunstakademie anymore but chose to study business. Then it was all over. Suddenly, the guys who had been strutting around looking tough got themselves decent haircuts. People who had built up a united front with us did a U-turn and started doing office jobs,” he says. “I really think that a new conservative era washed over the whole scene and destroyed everything. Suddenly there were no people who thought, ‘We need to change something!’ All of a sudden, everyone thought that everything was really good.”

Düsseldorf didn’t quite manage to retain its status as a major player in German pop music. The period of the late 1980s and well into the 90s in particular was a time of boredom. Too many innovative musicians left the city and there was a lack of musical infrastructure. It was not until the mid-1990s that creative people like Detlef Weinrich, Alex Paulick, Andreas Reihse and Thomas Klein from Kreidler, which was founded in 1994, managed to put Düsseldorf back on the international pop map. “I’m actually from South Germany and ended up in Düsseldorf for my year of national community service,” says Reihse. “I thought ‘Great! Düsseldorf, yeah, that’s where Kraftwerk and all that post-punk stuff comes from.’ And then I got there and there was nothing!”

In reaction to this, Kreidler, who fused electronic music with analogue instruments and created a unique mixture of avant-garde electronica, dub, techno and post-something, set up their own structures over time. From 1999 onwards they ran the artist’s and musician’s association “Innenstadt Mainstream” at Düsseldorf train station, which also included the artist group hobbypopMUSEUM and the underground club Ego; later, Weinrich became one of the operators of the Salon des Amateurs.

Vladimir Ivkovic at Salon des Amarteurs, © Markus Luigs

Salon des am­a­teurs

When he vents about the topics of the city and pop music, time and again Weinreich’s ambivalent relationship to Düsseldorf clearly shows through. On the one hand, his bar is one of the main places that connects Düsseldorf with the international pop developments. On the other, he resists the role of being put in cardboard with the label “Sound of Dusseldorf”. At a reading of Sound of the Cities in Düsseldorf’s Solobar this becomes very clear when a guest asks him about the artistic subculture of the past. The gist of Weinrich’s angry response is that the city is ungrateful because it doesn’t acknowledge how the artistic freedom Düsseldorf enjoys today is thanks to a great deal of effort and hard work by creative individuals of today. Many who still talk about the greatness of avant-garde of the 1970s and 1980s, for example, would not come to the Salon to experience and appreciate new sounds, he diagnoses.

Lena Willikens, © Lena Willikens, Illustration by Saskia Wragge

In this respect Weinrich’s relation to Kraftwerk and NEU! is highly ambivalent: “Personally, I would like to distance myself from all that because I’m tired of always being asked about Düsseldorf’s past. And because, over the past few years, there has been an idea, held up mainly in Berlin, that Düsseldorf is a centre of music. This idea tends to be artificial,” says Weinrich, who spins discs under the name of DJ Toulouse Low Trax. What’s important for Kreidler and their predecessors are ties to Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie. Klein emphasises “the art world’s habit of finding niches and temporarily occupying places, thereby creating a subculture that attracts other people or draws attention to itself.” And Weinrich states the importance that creative influence needs underground places in order to develop. “There was always a connection in Düsseldorf between the Kunstakademie and a good bar. If these hang-outs hadn’t existed, much less would have happened. In the 1970s, it was Creamcheese and Ratinger Hof, and perhaps for a short time the Salon was a place everyone talked about. In between there has been the Ego and different kinds of music. It might have to do with the fact that people said ‘No, I don’t want to have anything to do with the city as it is. A kind of anti-stance,” he says.

No matter how ambivalent Detlef Weinrich’s relationship is to the city, from the outside – meaning not only outside Düsseldorf but outside Germany too –Düsseldorf as a music city is seen today through the filter of the Salon des Amateurs. The sound of DJs like Cologne-based Lena Willikens who operates as the Salon’s resident DJ along the spectrum of modern electro and avant-garde Kraut is regarded as the new Düsseldorf school. The Salon itself has meanwhile become a founding myth several times over. “In ten years of bookings for the Salon, I have always made sure that seventy-five percent of the people we present are from abroad. I don’t let all my friends play. And some people have resented me for that. Recently I’ve become more open, perhaps because I’ve become lazy. But it’s really important to me to have a window on what’s going on elsewhere by inviting artists here,” says Weinrich.

Performance of artist Gigi Masin in 2016, © Markus Luigs

Gigi Mas­in play­ing at Kunstakademie, 2016

The Oscar-nominated pianist Hauschka is another example of how Düsseldorf stil often generates an impetus that reaches far beyond the borders of Germany. He was born in 1966 as Volker Bertelmann in Kreuztal near Siegen. Around the region he refined his idea of the prepared piano. In the early 2000s, he began to compose piano music. He released his first tracks on the label Karaoke Kalk as well as his 2005 album, Prepared Piano – a highly influential, groundbreaking work.

In the supposed no-man’s-land between contemporary classical music, pop and electronics, a scene began to form. Musicians such as the German-born Brit Max Richter and the Hamburg-born Berlin-based Nils Frahm composed piano pieces, wrote film soundtracks and gave concerts that were influenced by minimal music and often used distorted piano sounds. Hauschka became one of the central figures of the scene. Records like Ferndorf (2008) and What If (2017) received critical acclaim. In 2017, he and his American composer colleague Dustin O’Halloran were nominated for an Oscar for the film soundtrack to Lion. But it was a year of tough competition: the duo was not able to contend with the musical La La Land, one of the critics’ favourites of that year.

Hauschka’s idea of the prepared piano, in which the piano strings are manipulated by objects and in doing so change their sound, originated from the American avant-garde composer John Cage in the 1940s. His goal back then was to create percussive effects for a modern dance piece with limited resources. In pop music of the early 2000s, the British experimental techno musician Aphex Twin was one of the first to take this ball and run with it. Hauschka in turn adopted and refined the concept over the years. On his 2017 album What If , there are moments of mastery. It has echoes of role models such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Sometimes tango rhythms set the pace, while at others, you feel transported back to Berlin at the turn of the millennium with its understated minimal techno. And all of it is produced on the piano.

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Grandbrothers main photo, © Tonje Thilesen


After all we have discovered about Düsseldorf as a pop city, it’s no surprise that its latest export success is, once again, and example for what distinguishes the city: its proximity to the fine arts, its avant-garde, experimental atmosphere and international connections that outgrow the existing local music infrastructures.

The Düsseldorf duo Grandbrothers, a German-swiss duo who met while studying here, has developed a sound over two albums that combines the most exciting elements of modern electronics, prepared pianos and American minimal music tradition. Their highly acclaimed performances fill large indie clubs as well as churches and concert halls, international critics rave about them.

Erol Sarp (*1986) and Lukas Vogel (*1986) moved from Wuppertal and Zurich to Düsseldorf in 2007 to study sound and video technology at the Institute of Music and Media. Phillip Schulze, a lecturer in Acoustic Music and Media Time Forms, was a particular inspiration to them. “We experienced a lot of creativity and freedom to try out what we wanted. That’s how things worked at the institute and we started to tinker around. Schulze was an important influence. We were able to let our hair down,” says Sarp.

He works the piano, operating the keys which are connected to the prepared strings; Vogel processes the sounds with a laptop. Düsseldorf’s long electronic tradition, from Kraftwerk to NEU!, Propaganda and Kreidler, lives in their work, even though it was a difficult legacy for both of the musicians. “It was cool to know that bands like these formed here and were among the pioneers of electronic music. But for us there was a more specific factor connecting it all,” explains Sarp. “Hauschka! He was here ten years before us and deliberately named one of his album Salon des Amateurs. When we met him for the first time, he was very obliging. We did our first gig at his festival”.

Mixing board at Salon des Amateurs, © Andreas Schiko

The event they are talking about was the Approximation festival. Hauschka and the visual artist Aron Mehzion launched it in 2005 at the Salon des Amateurs. Over the years, they have invited many important interdisciplinary classical and electronic avantgarde artists to Düsseldorf. These included Max Richter, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Steve Reich, Barbara Morgenstern, Howe Gelb, Jan Jelinek, Kronos Quartet, Bugge Wesseltoft and Múm. The festival sees itself as “an experimental platform that brings musicians from different generations, nations and scenes together – a forum for the contemporary exploration of piano and keyboards.” Students, amateurs and artists come together to collaborate with composers from completely different genres.

Overall, the Salon des Amateurs was a place of intense exchange for Sarp und Vogel and other creatives. They performed twice there as Grandbrothers and celebrated the release party for their first album Dilation in 2015. From here on out, their first single “Ezra Was Right” was picked up and frequently played by the influential London-based DJ Gilles Peterson, quickly turning Grandbrothers into an internationally acclaimed phenomenon. Although they only lived in Düsseldorf for a few years (Sarp now lives in Berlin and Vogel in the Ruhr area) they regard their time there as a period of crucial inspiration and still refer to themselves as Düsseldorf musicians. “I haven’t been to the Salon in a while, but back then it felt really intense. It was very formative, because there weren’t many alternatives in Düsseldorf. That’s where the scene and its sound are concentrated. There are many musicians in the crowd, often closely linked to the Kunstakademie,” says Vogel. And the scene’s appeal goes far beyond the city limits, ensuring that Düsseldorf continues to have a reputation as a music hub. “Detlef Weinrich and Lena Willikens are known worldwide. They take the sound of the city out into the world,” says Sarp.

Meanwhile, their prepared piano has been set up in a rehearsal room in Bochum after short-lived stays in Recklinghausen, Gelsenkirchen and a “creepy department store” in Herne. “The Grandbrothers project wasn’t affected by these moves, because by then we had our own sound,” says Vogel. In Bochum they are not part of the scene – as often happens with musicians who have worked out their concept and no longer need the inspiration and support of the setting they work in. There is no doubt that their trailblazing second album, Open, is the work of two established artists with their own signature – shaped by Düsseldorf but the result of their own vision.

Whether you look at Hauschka, Grandbrothers and Kreidler – or bands like the electronic musician Stabil Elite, who make unmistakable references to Krautrock in their lyrics, aesthetics and music, and who consciously released their first EP on Klaus Dinger’s death – none of the present-day Düsseldorf bands are conceivable without their forerunners. “I am a big fan of structures. One structure forms, then another, without anyone being able to say exactly where it began. Path dependence is what it’s all about!” explains Timon-Karl Kalayta at some point in our conversation. And it’s remarkable how much his own band Susanne Blech is a Düsseldorf band overall, although the members are all from outside the city and Kalayta swears he completely lacks musical training. Like many of their forerunners, Susanne Blech are bold, experimental and have been shaped by electronic influences. Without ever having been to the Ratinger Hof, Kalayta sees a compatibility between electronics and punk, sees music as a means of self-empowerment, and the fusion of art and music as the basis of his work. And he likes experimenting in unusual ways: Kalayta has set up an Institute for Contemporariness, runs a publishing house for never to be published books and organises exhibitions. Above all, however, Susanne Blech constantly blur the lines between political seriousness and postmodern irony, between affirmation and distance, regional localisation and international orientation, surface and depth. “For me, there is only one relevant principle when I write: delete every letter of kitsch and pathos! Eliminate it 100 per cent,” Kalayta explains at the end. The constant tension of moving between two poles has always characterised the sound of Düsseldorf from the outset and makes it extraordinary to this day.

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But, not only the electronic tradition has left lasting traces in Düsseldorf. The Toten Hosen, one of the Ratinger Hof era’s later bands, are an institution nowadays. With over 14 albums since Opel-Gang in 1983, they have popularised German punk – and trivialised it too in the eyes of their detractors. In the early 1990s, after successful albums like Auf dem Kreuzzug ins Glück and Kauf mich! they began to tour to packed stadiums. Despite their German lyrics, they also created a fan base abroad, as shown by their well-attended tours in Latin America. Lead singer Campino is a public figure who appears on talk shows and does not only talk about music. The rise of the contemporary punk band Broilers, who have in recent years become something like the younger version of the Toten Hosen, has shown that supporting younger musicians is a winner– Die Toten Hosen signed the Broilers to their JKP label.

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The Broilers were founded by singer Sammy Amara and drummer Andreas Bruges in Düsseldorf when the two were still teenagers. Besides the Toten Hosen, The Clash and Bruce Springsteen are two of the band’s main influences, whose sense of belonging is rooted in the Oi! punk movement - a wave from England, which sees itself as anti-racist and takes inspiration from ska, reggae and pub rock. Amara also used to work as a graphic designer for the Toten Hosen. So the band became aware of him and his group. Then, after playing as their support band, the Broilers became very successful very quickly. In 2011 they recorded the album Santa Muerte, which climbed to No. 3 in the German charts. And their subsequent albums, Noir (2014) and (sic!) (2017), even made it to No.1. Sammy Amara and his band are superstars from Düsseldorf in the tradition of the Toten Hosen and they define how punk rock from Germany sounds in the 2010’s.

The Broilers had their major breakthrough when they started being managed by JKP, where the Toten Hosen were also signed. Three years later, the hip-hop band Antilopen Gang joined this label. That crew brings together members of the Düsseldorf and Aachen hip-hop scene, united by intellectual, political lyrics that are often ironic and quite controversial. Antilopen Gang’s sound is very different from the widespread German gangsta/hip-hop pop: real instruments, sophisticated rap and a decidedly left-wing attitude. With their song “Beate Zschäpe hört U2” (Beate Zschäpe listens to U2), they denounced German bourgeois extremism and in “Baggersee” they suggested detonating a nuclear bomb in Germany to replace it with a man-made lake. “Drop an atomic bomb on Germany, that’ll shut everyone up,” as the provocative first verse of the chorus goes. In 2013, the suicide of their depressed band member NMZS almost brought their music-making to an end. But changing to the JKP label brought them success. The album Anarchie und Alltag, which is further proof of intertextual references within the Düsseldorf scene with its obvious allusion to Fehlfarben’s Monarchie & Alltag, made it to No. 1 in the German charts in 2017 and won the Echo Music Award in the category “National Critics’ Prize”.

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In recent years, Düsseldorf has again developed into an exciting hub for live music. The patron of the Open Source Festival, which takes place annually at the racecourse, is none other than the city’s lord mayor. In 2018, Cigarettes After Sex and Joan As Police Woman are booked as headliners. And since 2011, the New Fall Festival has also taken place each year, whose initial concept was to stage stylish music acts in a dignified setting. The Tonhalle Düsseldorf, the Symphoniesaal and the former planetarium are used as venues, as well as the Robert Schumann Saal and the in-house concert hall of the Museum Kunstpalast. In the very first year, the spectrum of artists ranged from the chamber pop artist Ólafur Arnalds to the reggae stars of Gentleman and indie poppers Nouvelle Vague. Such regular events ensure that the younger generation in Düsseldorf still receive a steady supply of international material, which might someday become the source of their dreams and creative outbursts- just like in the mid-1960s when Marius Müller-Westernhagen experienced his R ‘n’ B idols up close.

Open Source Festival, © Sebastian Wolf
Entrance with flair: The Museum Kunstpalast, © Düsseldorf Tourismus GmbH

Düsseldorf is very much aware of its impressive pop history in a way that is fascinating and often puzzling to outsiders. There are symposiums exhibitions about Düsseldorf’s grandes in pop, and Kraftwerk themselves were celebrated as legends during their concert at Ehrenhof in 2017. But at the same time, a feeling of satiation has spread, especially in subcultural contexts, encapsulated by Weinrich’s statement that Düsseldorf has bred an artificial idea of itself as a city of music. The journalist Philipp Hollstein from the Rheinische Post wrote a clear-sighted article, in which he claimed that Düsseldorf could only celebrate itself as a pop city if it became receptive to new influences.

But there is probably no way it can escape seeing its former heroes in museums. Kraftwerk, who have long since performed without its central members Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür, and now only consists of Ralf Hütter and three much younger musicians, have become art exhibits. In 2012, they performed their entire work since the album Autobahn in the New York’s MoMA, repeating this the following year in their hometown of Düsseldorf and in London’s Tate Modern. Meanwhile, their former patron Conny Plank has received the recognition he deserves. Herbert Grönemeyer’s label Grönland, which re-released the three NEU! albums, paid tribute to the producer in 2013 with a comprehensive LP and CD box set called Who’s That Man: A Tribute To Conny Plank. Four years later, his son Stephan Plank dedicated an intimate documentary film to him with the title The Potential Of Noise.

If Düsseldorf does not want to rest on its laurels, it has to learn, like other major pop cities, to cope with the simultaneity of museum heroes and new avantgarde forms of music. Otherwise, its impressive tradition lies like a layer of dust over everything to come. With its small old town,and the Kunstakademie, the city has ideal conditions to constantly attract fresh creative minds, who create exciting pop music with new ideas. But cultural scenes age and need fresh input to give space for growth. Places like the Salon des Amateurs show how this can be done: by an uncompromising, resistant and uncomfortable attitude that does not settle for maintaining the status quo. This attitude is the prerequisite for keeping Düsseldorf on the music map - the international one.




This text is the revised, extended version of the chapter “Düsseldorf: Menschmaschinen and Alstadtpunker” from the book “Sound of the Cities. Eine popmusikalische Entdeckungsreise”, Kein & Aber 2016, ISBN: 978-3-9540-3091-0. Reprinted with kind permission from Kein & Aber AG, Zurich.

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