AT ONE TIME, it seemed like everyone in Germany was in Amon Duul.
As the counter-culture shockwave rippled out across the Continent in the late ’60s, the group’s communal lifestyle and free-form freak-out music suddenly became the very acme of hippiedom for the hippest of the country’s hip, and they acquired hangers-on like a runaway snowball. Originally based on free-living art communities such as The living Theater, the Amon Duul commune was at the very cutting-edge of the zeitgeist, and while the presence of famous names like the model Uschi Obermaier brought a certain cachet, the communal principles on which the group was run inevitably brought its own problems. For one thing, nobody would shut up.
“In the first Amon Duul tribe, everybody was playing something,” recalls Falk Rogner, the band’s keyboard player and graphic designer. “There were only four musicians, but there were 20 people on-stage who were doing something!” Mostly, what they were doing was playing bongos, but even this least taxing of musical tasks required a rudimentary sense of rhythm beyond the capabilities of some of the stoned communards. Everyone could be a musician, but not everyone could play, and so the group was always running at the speed of its slowest member.
Worse still, as the more musical members of the commune were growing increasingly disgruntled, the more political members were starting to flex their authoritarian muscles. Chris Karrer, guitarist/violinist (and probably the band’s best musician), remembers the aggressive libertinism of the commune, in which people were brow-beaten and cajoled into taking drugs and having sex. “They asked me, ‘You haven’t fucked for four weeks – are you gay, or impotent?’ I had to take a woman and fuck her there on the floor, where 20 people could see.
If things were bad for Karrer, then they were absurd for Renate Knaup, the band’s eccentric singer. “It got to the point where I had to ask the others for five marks to buy a new pair of tights, because we had put all the money in one cache. It was like Communismus, you know?” A split was inevitable, and when Knaup and Rogner took off for a break in the South of France, things came to a head. “When we returned after two weeks,” recalls Knaup, “Wolfgang Kriske, the guy on the Yeti cover, came to the station to pick us up and warned us that the others would be really heavy with us, because we hadn’t asked their permission to leave the house! That was it!” By October 1968, there were two versions of Amon Duul playing at the Essen festival, and. two communes.
Ironically, though Kriske chose to stay with the original AD, he later became ADII’s strongest iconic presence through Falk Rogner’s astonishing sleeve photo for their double-album Yeti, which features him looking uncannily like Iggy Pop wearing a dress and wielding a scythe. “It’s a symbolic German figure, Der Schnitter – the Harvester – who cuts down people’s lives,” explains Rogner. “It’s a very strong figure in German mythology. Two months after the split, Kriske was dead: he went to his parents’ home in the middle of winter, took an acid trip, fell asleep and never awakened. So I said, ‘Kriske has to be the figure on the next AD cover’.”
Rogner’s covers are often the most enduring thing about the group’s albums, which can be frustratingly patchy as regards their actual content. A trained photographer, he developed his own style, using six slide-projectors and other light-show equipment and photographing the resulting projections, which gives the pictures their densely-layered but ethereal feel. He admits sometimes trying to photograph the incredible images he saw while tripping, only to find nothing there on the developed film. “It’s like trying to photograph God, as Dali said. You can’t do it, you can’t photograph dreams. Not yet, anyway.” Nearly three decades later, he’s still trying.
At the time in Germany, communes of various types were considered the one-stop solution for all society’s ills. As well as music communes like the two Amon Duuls, there were art communes and sex communes, and some in which the two combined. “There was one woman, she was really small, but she had tits like this, and she made art out of them,” recalls Renate Knaup with wonderment. “She made plaster casts of her breasts and sold them on a big vernissage. It was crazy, avant-garde. People were communicating, which direction to go, what to do, inspiring themselves…
It seems dottily idyllic, but Chris Karrer sounds a note of caution at regarding commune life in too rosy a light. “It seemed so positive, but there was also a very negative side to it,” he recalls. “There was so much pressure – the police would come round every day, and sometimes you had to drive 20 kilometres to buy food, because local people wouldn’t serve us. Plus, our system was fucked-up – we never organised to take away the garbage, so the rubbish was just growing, growing, growing, until the rats came and somebody decided that maybe sometime in the next few weeks we should find somewhere to dump the rubbish…”
A year and a half of constant gigging later, there was such a clamour for an Amon Duul II album that the band were signed up by jazzer Olaf Kubler, who secured them a deal with Siggi Locke, head of the German arm of Liberty/UA. They recorded Phallus Dei – that’s God’s Cock to you, sunshine – and started to build an international reputation. Andrew Lauder, more recently MD of the Silvertone and This Way Up labels, was head of A&R at the company’s British office at the time, and he recalls how the Munich office would constantly send cheesy MOR records over to the British arm, hoping to secure them a wider release.
“By and large, we didn’t put out anything from France or Germany, and they used to get really upset,” says Lauder. “Until one day, the first Amon Duul album, Phallus Dei, arrived, and it was, ‘What the hell is this?’ We were intrigued enough to release it – UA at the time had put out things like Hawkwind and High Tide and the Beefheart and Canned Heat albums, so we were fairly adventurous anyway. By the time they got to Yeti, I thought that was a really good record, so we put that out unchanged, as a double album. It did OK, not huge figures but well worthwhile, so we put everything out after that.” (And subsequently the earliest Can and Neu releases.)
Emboldened by their burgeoning international success, the group took to writing and singing in English, and released a succession of further LPs: the double-album Dance Of The Lemmings was pretty poor stuff, but the subsequent Carnival In Babylon and Wolf City raised the quality level again, shifting uneasily between folk-rock and progressive rock.
“For Wolf City, we all took acid and used Florian [Popol Vuh] Fricke’s great Moog synthesizer,” remembers Falk Rogner. “We recorded for five hours, and used perhaps seven minutes, for the tune ‘Wie Der Wind Am Ende Einer Strasse’. A friend of ours overdubbed sitar, but apart from that it was all improvised. It was the only time we recorded on acid: we realised that it was a waste to spend five hours on five minutes of music.
“On-stage, it was often the case in Amon Duul that every musician was on a different drug – I was on whisky, Chris on hashish, [drummer] Peter Leopold and [bassist] Lothar Meid on cocaine, Renate on a little bit of everything. One day we said to ourselves, ‘This can’t go on, let’s try an experiment where we all take the same drug at the next concert!’ We chose whisky – and it was a brilliant concert! But the others didn’t like the whisky.”
Despite such chemically-assisted methods, the more free-form nature of the earlier records increasingly became a thing of the past as the group grew more accomplished, though their communal lifestyle continued to attract fringe elements, such as the fugitive Red Army Faction member that Renate still insists was not an arms dealer.
“His father was a hunter,” she explains, “and he was in love with a woman in the RAF. She persuaded him to steal his father’s weapons, with which she robbed banks. They found out who the weapon was registered to, and came after him. So he came to us. We told him to have a sleep, then go to the police and explain the situation. We had been asleep about an hour when this woman burst in saying, ‘Good morning! Get up!’ Machine-guns and everything! It was crazy! Thirty policemen for 10 people – they were so afraid of us! They were so stupid, they thought there would be acid in the coffee machine!”
It wasn’t the only time the group had a brush with the German terrorist underground. Returning from a gig early one morning in their old Cadillac, the band were, like the Three Bears, outraged to find strangers had broken in and were sleeping in their beds. Angrily, they kicked the intruders out.
“We didn’t know who they were,” admits Chris Karrer. “They escaped, got in their Mercedes and went to see the lake nearby. We ended up having to pull them out of the lake with our Cadillac, then we went back to sleep. The next morning, someone told us they were terrorists…”
“He’s telling it wrong!” cries Renate. “I came back from tour, went to the room I shared with Falk, and said, ‘Who the fuck is in my bed? Get out!’ It was Andreas Baader lying there, in my bed. Chris came down, he had found Gudrun Ensslin in his bed. He said, ‘She won’t get out!’ I went up, said, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are, get out of here!’ But eventually, we were so tired, we just moved them into the living-room and left them there while we slept. They stole all the guys’ new clothes, and disappeared!”
“The next day,” adds Karrer, “we found out they had heavy weapons and were very dangerous…”
Ironically, the police always believed Amon Duul II had strong political contacts with the terrorists, although the group’s infrequent brushes with politicos usually left them chastened by the experience. There was, for instance, the time they were in Berlin for a jam session with Tangerine Dream, after which they visited K1, the first Berlin political commune, famed for its satirical ‘happenings’, and a leadership which included such activist-stars as Fritz Teufel and Rainer Langhans. Everything was fine until, well into the night, the communal loft was invaded.
‘A bunch of rockers crashed in, put the record player at full volume, and smacked everybody down,” recalls Karrer. “It was a big massacre – my teeth were broken, and people had knives and guns, so nobody could escape. There was another political party called the Tupamaros, who lived downstairs and were the landlords, and when they wanted to put the rent up they sent the rockers up to the loft. It was completely by accident that we were involved; they didn’t know that we were just visitors. That kind of violence never happened in Munich. Munich was gentler, more sunny and funny.” (“We have a certain type of air, the Fohn wind that comes down from of the Alps,” explains Renate. “Suddenly, it’s like Rome, and people go a little nuts.”)
But at least they never had to suffer the tribulations of the East. Karrer remembers playing a festival in East Berlin, where the group were allotted a paramilitary group, the Blue Skirt People, as guardians. “After a while they grooved in with us, but they were naive: they didn’t know what a joint was. We rolled a big joint for everybody, and smoked it, then one of these guys came up to us shyly and said, ‘I didn’t know you were so poor in the West that three people have to smoke one cigarette!'”.
© Andy Gill, MOJO, April 1997