Shine On: Conny Plank

by coldwarnightlife

When the RocknPop Museum in Gronau, Germany, incorporated Can’s studio into a working exhibit, they acquired a mixing desk made for the band by the legendary producer and engineer, Conny Plank. They also made an exhibit of part of Plank’s kitchen. Another mixing board might have provided the functionality of Conny’s Studio, but its heart was where the engineer gathered with musicians to talk about music and life. Its significance is clear in the story that Plank’s son, Stephan, told The Quietus about the recording of Die Kleinen und die Bosen, the first album on Mute Records:

[…] when they did the first D.A.F. album on MUTE [Editor: This was in 1980.] Daniel Miller made a deal with my father to record the album in four days. So my father spent the first day talking to Robert Görl and Gabi Delgado [of D.A.F.] discussing music. Daniel said, ‘Well, they’re going to record for the next three days.’ And the next day, they spent talking about music, eating good food and being very philosophical about it and didn’t record anything. Daniel was getting very nervous at that point. On the third day, when they were really supposed to start the album, they talked some more about music and went for a long walk and nothing was recorded. Now, Daniel was really afraid of losing his money. On the fourth day, in the morning, they had a really nice breakfast, went to the studio and recorded the album.

Plank’s appearance in photos is of a slightly unkempt, bearded and amiable man, often clad in a woolly jumper; perhaps a little like Michael Caine’s character in Children of Men. The former Stockhausen technician was famed for living and working in a cloud of smoke and taking his artists to unexpected places, sonically and otherwise. Brian Eno, who borrowed Plank’s sound for Bowie’s Berlin albums and worked with Plank on his first overtly ambient album, Music for Airports, has his own anecdote that he told to the art magazine, Frieze:

‘I recall one evening, after we’d been working all day, [Conny] said “Do you feel like a ride into the forest?”’ says Eno. ‘That seemed like a nice idea on a warm autumn evening, so we jumped into his lovely old Merc and set off. We were in the forest after about 20 minutes, sitting in the car in a sort of clearing, just birds and breeze around us. We sat talking for a few minutes. “Do you want to hear something on the radio?” he asked. I said “Why not” – though I thought it was a bit odd that he’d want to put the radio on in this bucolic place. He switched on the radio – and it suddenly broadcast the piece we’d been working on all day!’ ‘It turned out that Conny,’ Eno continues, ‘in another brilliant technological stroke, had rigged up a transmitter at the studio so that he could hear the day’s work in his car – he thought, and was right, that that gave a different perspective to the music. I was impressed, not only by the idea, but by the fact that he must have secretly synchronized watches with somebody at the studio so they started playback at exactly the right moment – That was very Conny!’

It was Plank’s unassuming but technically forward style that attracted a number of experimental artists to his studios outside of Cologne. He was at the center of the Krautrock universe, helping to shape the sound of Neu!, Can and Cluster, and the producer of choice for Ultravox, Killing Joke and Eurythmics. Moebius and Roedelius saw him as an unofficial member of Cluster, and he played and toured with the band. Not all of his artists were as willing to recognise his contributions: having pushed Kraftwerk in the direction of synthesizers and added the vital delay to “Autobahn” while the band were out of the studio, they in-sourced their production work and froze him out of future albums. Plank’s reputation was undiminished, and the story is told that Brian Eno suggested him as the producer of U2’s Joshua Tree album – an idea that Plank himself rejected with characteristic directness, simply saying, “I cannot work with that singer.”

Plank once explained his approach in these terms:

The job of the producer – beyond the technological aspect – is, as I understand it, to create an atmosphere that is completely free of fear and reservation, to find that utterly naïve moment of ‘innocence’ and to hit the button at just the right time to capture it. That’s it. Everything else can be learned and is mere craft.

Plank passed away in 1987, after the cloud of smoke that he lived in had caught up with him. Conny’s Studio continued to be run by his partner, Christa Fast, until her own passing in 2006. The kitchen is on display in Gronau.


10. Organisation – Tone Float

Before there was Kraftwerk, there was Organisation – or, if you prefer, Organisation zur Verwirklichung gemeinsamer Musikkonzepte. Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider were the group’s core, and it was in this guise that they first worked with Plank. Like AMM in the UK, Organisation were influenced by the improvisational practices of jazz artists and the indeterminacy of experimental composers like La Monte Young. Under Plank’s guidance, they created an album, Tone Float, in 1970, that was loosely structured and by today’s standards sounds a little naïve. At Plank’s urging, RCA released it in the UK, where it failed to make much of an impression, but a ball had started to roll for Hutter and Schneider, who quickly refocussed their efforts on Kraftwerk.


9. Neu! – Hallogallo

Klaus Dinger had been recruited to play drums on Kraftwerk’s debut album. Michael Rother joined the band as guitarist after completion of the record. For a short time, Kraftwerk was the trio of Dinger, Rother and Florian Schneider, following the departure of Ralf Hutter. An attempt to record an album together failed, however, and Hutter rejoined Schneider while Dinger and Rother split off to start Neu! Both Neu! and Kraftwerk worked separately with Plank, creating uniquely influential recordings.

The first album from Neu! contained this track, which embodies the Motorik rhythm that became one of the most influential elements of Krautrock, as well as soaring guitar lines. The opening riff still echoes in the work of dance acts like System 7.


8. Cluster – Für die Katz’

Cluster was the project of Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius. The pair enjoyed a close creative and personal bond with Plank, who was identified as a member of the group on their first album and provided them with material support. Plank is credited as a producer and composer on 1972’s Cluster II, from which this track is drawn. A cosmic swirl of noise and electronics, it is 2,000 light years from any recognisable song structure, but both anticipates industrial music and makes use of the studio as an instrument.


7. Brian Eno – 2/2

Roxy Music’s former keyboard player had already recorded much of Ambient 1 – Music for Airports in the UK before he arrived in Germany to work with Plank. Eno’s ambition was to write music for public spaces, which could be interrupted, wouldn’t interfere with conversations, and was sufficiently long that changes would not be jarring. He had already created several albums of ambient music, but this was the first time that he consciously applied the label to a release. With Plank, he recorded “2/2” using loops of tape that were wound around chairs and were layered together.


6. The Meteors – Together Too Long

The Meteors were one of the new wave of artists who made their way to Conny’s Studio, seeking a touch of his magic, following the success of his Krautrock projects. Plank is credited both as producer and as a composer for this track, taken from the Dutch band’s 1980 album, Hunger. Plank’s commercial successes enabled him to continue working on less financially viable projects, but the story goes that he kept his awards in the studio’s bathroom.


5. Rita Mitsouko – Marcia Baïla

One of the most popular French pop songs of the 1980s, “Marcia Baïla” was Rita Mitsouko’s tribute to their dancer, Marcia Moretto, who had died from breast cancer. The sound was shaped by Plank into a squelchy, synthetic hit.


4. Phew – Signal

Take Can’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, throw in a Japanese vocalist who sounds like an art-punk refugee, mix with Plank’s studio skills, and you get this rare release from 1981. It’s a great example of Plank’s experimental side, but it also owes something to the sound he was shaping for DAF at the time. Phew is musical Marmite, but it’s certain that he had moved past his early work for Marlene Dietrich or Duke Ellington.


3. Ultravox – Quiet Men

Ultravox recorded 1978’s Systems of Romance with Plank, lured by the prospect of working with Kraftwerk’s former producer. On “Quiet Men,” the Roland TR-77 rhythm box mimics the Motorik drum style of Neu!, while synthesizers play string and lead roles. John Foxx was impressed by Plank’s use of the studio as an instrument, including his creation of an analogue sampling system that allowed the mixing desk to be played like a polyphonic keyboard. Foxx later summed up Plank’s significance this way:

He’d ditched all the boundaries between engineer, producer, artist and equipment, and reinvented the whole environment into something human, organic and intelligent, rather than received or conventional. The best operators do this – George Martin to Lee Perry. Conny was equally important. He’d discovered and recorded an entirely new genre of music – allowed it to retain complete integrity and made it available to the world. Without him, most of that might have remained undiscovered – may have been disregarded, misconceived, or lost completely.


2. Kraftwerk – Autobahn

Autobahn was the album that took Kraftwerk global. It marks their transition from electro-acoustic experimentation to electronic pop music, and Plank’s influence can be heard by comparing demo recordings to the final studio versions. This was the last Kraftwerk album to incorporate flutes and violins, as their new EMS, Moog and ARP synthesizers became the key to their sound. Plank is credited with pushing the band in this direction, but it was the last recording they made with him.


1. DAF – Ich und die Wirklichkeit

Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft made three and a half albums with Plank: the studio side of Die Kleinen und die Bosen for Mute and Alles Ist Gut, Gold und Liebe and Für Immer for Virgin. The last three were released in a burst of creative energy over a short period, between the beginning of 1981 and the summer of 1982, after the duo of Gabi Delgado and Robert Görl had reduced the band to its minimalist core. With Görl’s tight drumming and concise synthesizer programming providing a framework for Delgado’s vocals – now menacing, now purring – the sound of DAF became taut and angular, while drawing rich emotions from simple waveforms.

“Ich und die Wirklichkeit” [EN: “Me and Reality”] is from 1981’s Alles Ist Gut album. The background sound, rumbling like a radio astronomer’s tape archive, gives the track a sense of space a million miles from the bombast of a Trevor Horn production, but the final bars lift the track into the stratosphere.

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