Communing With Chaos: Amon Düül II

WHEN THE GERMAN rock explosion (now recognised as Krautrock) first hit these shores in the early 70s, the temptation to label it as a thriving and productive little European movement was too much for the music press of the day to resist.

In truth, the groups involved in making Krautrock happen were spread out across a vast land mass, and many of them were unaware of each other’s existence. Can were from Cologne, a city that has now grown almost to the size of Los Angeles. Dusseldorf, the industrial heartland of Germany, produced Kraftwerk, Neu! and Cluster. Berlin, the capital, was home to Tangerine Dream. And Munich, a remote Southern city situated in the magical kingdom of Bavaria, spawned Amon Düül.

“In Germany it was all intolerance and badmouthing each other,” explains founding Amon Düül II guitarist Chris Karrer. “We had to fight to be accepted by the people.” Amon Düül II and Karrer’s fight to be heard continues some some 30 years later with the release of a new record, Nada Moonshine#, and a reissue/tour programme that is slowly coming together and should start rolling during the next few months.

Of the original group, four members have managed to survive the various upheavals that have become an integral part of the Amon Düül mythology: Karrer, his longtime comrade and vocalist Renate Krotenschwanz Knaup, bass player/computer programmer Lothar Meid, and artistic supervisor/lighting director (and occasional synthesizer and keyboard player) Falk U Rogner. All agree that this time it’s break or bust for Amon Düül II…

“I never was a hippy! I accepted them but it was never my thing. I was a fighter. We were all fighters, not hippies”
– Renate Knaup

In the beginning there were three Amon Düüls. Amon Düül I was the infamous political/musical commune group led by Ulrich Leopold, the brother of drummer Peter. Amon Düül II formed when Chris Karrer broke away from the commune to concentrate on broadening the musical side of Düül. But before either of these, there was Amon Düül 0. Formed in 1966 and featuring Karrer on guitar, Lothar Meid on bass and drummer Christian Burchard (who would later form Embryo), AD0 was a short-lived experiment which indulged the trio’s early obsession with John Coltrane/Ornette Coleman-inspired free jazz. “I grew up in the 50s during the Elvis Presley era,” explains Karrer when I met the group in Munich last December. “At the age of ten I was into dressing up like Elvis, all that ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ shit. But the next giant step for me was when I saw John Coltrane in 1965 and everything I had seen or heard before suddenly seemed immature. I launched myself into the free jazz scene; we used to hang around jazz clubs in Munich and Barcelona, anywhere we could discover more about this music.

“The next stage in my musical education was when I saw Jimi Hendrix in 1967. I followed this girl to find out where she was going because there were no girls at the jazz club I used to visit. She went into this new club I hadn’t seen before which had a poster outside saying this guy Hendrix was playing there. It was such an event to see him perform in such a small club, standing on this tiny stage in front of these huge Marshall stacks, surrounded by 400 screaming mini-skirted girls and plucking this flaming guitar with his teeth. After Hendrix I went home and broke all of my jazz records.”

So intense was Karrer’s experience that he went in search of a new group that could recreate and extend Hendrix’s brand of freeform psychedelia. He found what he was looking for by stumbling into the communal camp of Amon Düül (I), a straggly bunch of politically-aware outsiders and freaks which at the time included Ulrich and Peter Leopold, together with Rainer Bauer. Later, the commune would expand to take in Bauer’s sister Ella (aka Elenora Romana), Helge and Angelika Filanda, Uschi Obermeier and numerous cats, dogs and children.

The music they made was equally sprawling and chaotic, an extended acoustic and percussive thrash which was recorded for posterity during a mammoth 48 hour improvised workout. A section of this was released in 1969 on the album Psychedelic Underground, while the rest of the session was shelved. When Amon Düül II began to attract attention, however, further unauthorised sections of the work began to appear. Eventually, a second single album, Collapsing – Singvogel Ruckwarts, and two double album sets, Disaster – Luud Noma and Experimente, were released, much to the displeasure of all concerned. According to a source close to Ulrich Leopold, the man responsible was Psychedelic Underground producer Peter Meisel, who “cut the tape up and added extra, unconnected sound effects and things to beef them up a bit”.

“I had nothing to do with that recording session,” claims Karrer when asked about his involvement with the project. “The only original thing from that period which hasn’t been released yet is a 1967 recording of the basic Amon Düül band.”

Feeling somewhat discouraged and in need of adventure, Karrer teamed up with artist/photographer friend Falk U Rogner and together they made their way to London, primarily to meet up with another Munich colleague of theirs, Renate Knaup, who was working as an au pair in Muswell Hill.

“I was 16 and a half when I went to work in London,” Renate recalls, “and I remember telling a friend at the time that I’m going to be a singer and nothing else. Before I left Germany I was totally into The Beatles and Otis Redding. I knew Chris from Munich from that period; he was playing guitar in jazz clubs but he wasn’t really into doing that. When they came to visit me they were already talking about forming the group, so I came back with them to Germany.”

Meanwhile, Karrer discovered that London circa 1968 had much to offer the young musician: one experience in particular would have a lasting impact on the music of Amon Düül II. “While we were there we went to the Roundhouse where we saw a free jazz band playing on the same bill as Family, The Animals and some other bands,” he explains. “I thought to myself, ‘These English people are much further ahead than we are’.” When they returned to Munich both Renate and Falk were integrated into the original Amon Düül family, but the continuing chaos, political dogmatism and musical mayhem was becoming unbearable for Karrer and Knaup.

“Everybody was allowed to make noise,” remembers Renate with disgust. “I found this so ugly sounding that it made me clam up. If that was their idea of making music it was certainly not mine. I was an amateur too, but I wanted to bring another dimension to the band.

“There were also certain rules you had to obey and if you broke any you had to go in front of this tribunal and explain your actions to these fuckers! Even when I wanted to buy a new pair of stockings I had to ask the ‘cashier’ for money. This is why we split from Amon Düül I; they were too involved with this political shit.”

Chris Karrer, meanwhile, had another reason for wanting to go it alone. “Amon Düül I were going completely against this semi-professional jazz musician image which Peter Leopold and I had adopted. I was really astonished at the direction Ulrich Leopold had chosen to go; for me it was like listening to a bunch of amateurs.”

The crunch came when Amon Düül I and Karrer’s version with Renate on vocals appeared on the same stage at the infamous Essener Sonntag Festival in October 1968. The ensuing battle between the two groups caused a split, and Amon Düül I and the newly formed Amon Düül II parted company.*

There were now two communes of musicians, both leaderless, to worry the upright citizens of Munich. “We were hated so much by the normal people,” laughs Renate. “We were living in this huge flat with seven rooms in Prinzregentenstrasse; it was a house where Hitler once gave a speech from the balcony. In front was a taxicab rank with these drivers hanging around all day.”

“The normal citizen looked at us and saw a mixture of gangster, hippy, criminal and ape,” continues Chris. “Once somebody rang us up with a nice voice and asked if they could do a feature article on us about how a commune works. They came and asked us questions, took our photos and disappeared. One week later the article appeared and it said: ‘This kind of community stinks and if this is the future of Germany then we need Adolf back.'”

Another reason for the authorities and regular folks to be fearful was the opening in 1969 of a club in Leopoldstrasse called PN. It was soon to become a regular venue for Amon Düül II and their army of freaky followers.

“The guy who ran this club was 20 years older than us and from a totally different scene,” explains Renate, “but he sensed there was something going on that wasn’t just a fad but a movement. He accepted all these crazy people for what they were; everyone was allowed to express themselves in any way they wanted. At that time acid was the drug and many people took too much. To see them freaking out in front of you was worrying sometimes because they looked as though they were going insane. There were some really eccentric people there too. I remember very well this Russian guy called Anatole: everybody had long hair but he was completely bald.”

“He used to dance to our music in a very extreme fashion,” adds Chris. “Once I saw him at the front of the stage with this naked old woman and he was shoving his Vaselined finger in and out of her backside to the rhythm of the music while ringing this bell at the same time.” “We never had the police coming round,” smiles Renate. “There were never any fights.”

Amon Düül’s successive and successful appearances at PN soon aroused record company interest: in 1969, the group’s first album, the notorious Phallus Dei, was released by Liberty. By this time the group had expanded to an eight-piece: joining Karrer, Knaup, Leopold and Rogner were English bass player Dave Anderson (formerly of Kippington Lodge), drummer Dieter Serfas, Shrat on percussion and vocals, and guitarist John Weinzierl, whom Chris and Falk had liberated from boarding school in order to have him play in the group.

The music on Phallus Dei (aka God’s Cock) owes much to the shambling and hypnotic improvisations of the discarded Amon Düül I, only this time the playing is more accomplished and ambitious. Renate, however, felt that her talents were not being used to the full.

“When I joined Amon Düül II I started to really get into the music. I never had any problems with experimental music: I loved Ornette Coleman, but the problem I had in the beginning was self confidence. It was difficult to be the only woman involved inside this macho, musical mafia. Phallus Dei had no words for me to sing. I only did these oohs and aahs for the vocals. I wanted to be a soul singer, in the same way that Hendrix was a soul singer.”*

The second Amon Düül II album, Yeti (1970), gave Renate a more prominent role and boosted the rest of the group’s confidence in the recording studio. With a mixture of short songs and cosmically-tuned improvisational tracks, Yeti can be heard today as one of the cornerstones of both Amon Düül’s career and the entire Krautrock movement.

“We were satisfied with what we had done,” suggests Renate. “We felt proud about Yeti and we were among people who loved us. Nobody could harm us any more.”

As well as the feeling of well-being which the recoding of Yeti produced within the group, it also offered the opportunity to hold out an olive branch to the surviving members of Amon Düül I, who had also just recorded their second album, Paradieswarts Düül. Rainer Bauer, Ulrich Leopold and flautist Thomas Keyserlingwere were invited to contribute a track to Yeti entitled ‘Sandoz In The Rain’, a gesture of friendship which produced one of the record’s most precious and exciting moments.

“We had some free time while recording Yeti, so we asked them if they wanted to do something,” explains Chris. “After Yeti was released, the Sandoz Pharmaceutical company in Switzerland wrote us a letter wanting to know if it was their company we were singing about [it was in the Sandoz laboratories that Albert Hofmann discovered LSD 25]. We wrote back saying, ‘No, it’s just an English code name.'”

There are two more reasons why Yeti is an important Krautrock icon. Firstly, it features the group’s most popular song, ‘Archangels [sic] Thunderbird’, which was composed by Renate and based on the tune to a favourite hymn she used to sing in her local church choir.

“They recorded the music track in the studio and I had to record the vocal on top. I went into my room with the Revox and for two days I rehearsed. When I was ready I went into the studio and sang it once and everybody went, Wow! This was the way I had to do it. This was always a man’s band and if any of them could have sung properly they would never have chosen me, a girl, to be their vocalist.”

Chris listens to this with a bowed head, but then he looks up and says, “I’m a big fan of Renate; she’s more creative than even she thinks. She knows how to write a melody in her head, and that’s composing.”

Yeti‘s second important component is Falk Rogner’s mystical and haunting gatefold sleeve design, one of many images he designed for the group using a mixture of collage and photography.

“For the Yeti cover I used an image of Der Sensenmann [The Grim Reaper], who is often depicted in old German woodcuts,” he says. “At first I didn’t intend to use this photo for the cover. I had been taking some photos with a member of the Amon Düül I commune called Wolfgang Krischke who was the sound man for Amon Düül. Some months later he was found frozen to death near his parents’ house; they said he had taken some acid and fell asleep in the snow. He was a very good friend to Renate and me and an outsider member of the Amon Düül scene. When he died I thought that the photo would be a perfect tribute to his memory. He never managed to find his way into Amon Düül properly when he was alive, so maybe his image as Der Sensenmann will work as a strange cover image and he could be remembered as a magical person.”*

Later on that same year Amon Düül II produced a second double album, a sequel to Yeti of sorts, entitled Dance Of The Lemmings. Here the group’s exploration of their new found musical power was slightly less focused, causing side-long tracks, with titles like ‘The Marilyn Monroe-Memorial-Church’ and ‘Restless-Skylight-Transistor-Child’, to blunder along in a cosmic fog of freefalling improvisation; as a result Renate’s vocal was lost.

Lemmings did, however, introduce a couple of important new players to the group’s complex sound tapestry: Alois Gromer (an old boyfriend of Renate’s) on sitar, and an American ex-GI and jazz keyboard player called Jimmy Jackson, whose contribution to Lemmings and the three Amon Düül-related records that followed involved him playing an extraordinary church organ that would become a crucial component in defining the group’s sound.

“It was a large, ancient Mellotron-type instrument that had been designed by some crazy instrument builder,” Renate explains. “For every key on the keyboard he had made a tape of that note which had been sung by a real choir. It wasn’t sampled or anything.” Chris adds: “He devised a system where he took about 150 matches and stuck them in the parts of the keyboard that didn’t work. He painted these with different colours so he knew which keys he could play. It was the first such instrument in the world and Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh used it for his soundtrack music to [Werner] Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath Of God. It’s in a museum now.”*

Amon Düül were now on United Artists, the label that had signed Can in 1969. A certain rivalry existed between the two groups, and because of the publicity it generated, was allowed to flourish. Years later, Chris is still laughing about how Can’s attempt to sabotage an Amon Düül II show in Barcelona by doping their guitar player John Weinzierl with cough mixture failed miserably. “We went on and played so well that most of the audience went home after our set. Of the 5000 people who were there, only 500 stayed to watch Can play.”

More damning is Karrer’s account of how Can succeeded in cornering the film soundtrack market, an act of self-promotion that, according to Karrer, caused the first real rift in the German rock scene. “The new German film makers like Wim Wenders and [Rainer] Fassbinder wanted music for their films. They came to bands like Can and Amon Düül and asked us to compose something. We all made a decision to say that we would need ten per cent of the budget for the music, which was about 20,000DM. But Can said whatever price the other bands have decided upon, they will do it for less. After that there was no scene, and even today there is no solidarity between the bands.”*

In 1971 Amon Düül II went back into the studio to record Carnival In Babylon, which featured Danny Fichelscher of Popol Vuh on drums, Lothar Meid on bass, Joy Alaska on backing vocals and their trusted producer Olaf Kubler on sax. One of Carnival‘s highlights is a John Weinzierl song entitled ‘Kronwinkl 12’, a semi-autobiographical piece which referred to the group’s newly rented commune in the country, paid for by the advances and royalties from United Artists. Kronwinkl was a huge Gothic guest house attached to a castle and with its own private chapel. It became an open house for freaks and hangers-on: often the group were unaware of who was inhabiting their country retreat. Renate remembers one particularly memorable encounter:

“We came home very early one morning after finishing the final gig of our German tour. Falk and I went to our room and found to our astonishment that someone was asleep in our bed. I screamed, ‘What the fuck is going on, who are you?’ Then we saw it was Andreas Baader of the Baader-Meinhof gang. At the same time Chris yells out, ‘Whaa…someone’s in my bed!’ And it was Baader’s accomplice Gudrun Ensslin. I went upstairs and said to Frau Ensslin: ‘Would you be so kind as to explain why you broke into our house?’ We were political but we weren’t into carrying guns and killing people like they were. We were into making things change through our music. Everybody thought that Baader and Ensslin were being taken care of by someone else, so we all went to sleep. When we woke up the next afternoon, we discovered that they had stolen all our newly-bought clothes.”

The following years saw the group back in the studio and undertaking a series of extensive European tours to promote such records as Wolf Cry and Viva La Trance. Prior to this they had taken part in a project called Utopia which had been masterminded by producer Olaf Kubler, the resulting album was an interesting but ultimately messy-sounding experiment which smacked of self-indulgence.*

“We tried to be more commercial on Wolf City and Viva La Trance,” Renate sighs. “Wolf City was the best album as far as I’m concerned, but after that something changed.” “We were very anti-German. We did not want to be German, we wanted to be multi-cultural” – Chris Karrer*

The classic Amon Düül period ended shortly after the release of Viva La Trance in 1973. When their contract with United Artists was terminated, the group signed a new deal with Atlantic/Atco, a move that would eventually tear it apart and scatter its members across the world.

From the start there was trouble when news was leaked that the German branch of the company was seriously considering renaming the group Olaf And His Swinging Nazis. The records that followed were equally dodgy sounding. Hijack and Made In Germany (a double concept album that claimed to be “Deutschland’s Erste Rock-Oper”) were supervised by a producer called Jorgen S Korduletsch, who added an army of professional session musicians to the basic Düül sound and buried it under an avalanche of string arrangements and studio gimmickry. The only interesting tracks on Made In Germany are four solo synthesizer pieces recorded by Falk Rogner while the rest of Amon Düül II were out of the studio.

“I felt it was important to experiment and do things for me,” he explains. “The little electronic things I did for Made In Germany were like short films; you hear Techno and electronic crossover things today, but I was doing that 15 years ago. At that time Lothar wouldn’t touch a machine and Renate refused to sing along with one. I always listened to that kind of music in my studio: I listened to Suicide. Made In Germany was the single worst concept that came out of the head of Jorgen Korduletsch and the rest of Amon Düül knew that. It was a period when the producers started to take over.”

Worse was to come, however, with Pyragony X, Almost Alive and Only Human, on which the group was reduced to a five-piece rock outfit that bore little relationship to the massive, brain-pulsating beast heard on Phallus Dei and Yeti. Amon Düül II was now reduced to a name, and for many of the key members, it was time to do other things.

Renate was one of the first to make a decisive move: she sent in search of a vocal teacher who could show her how to breathe properly so that she could develop as a singer. “I did that for a year, and then through Danny Fichelscher I met Florian Fricke and got more and more into his music. I experienced a lot through Florian’s music. What I did with Amon Düül was spontaneous and, apart from by myself, I didn’t rehearse. Florian’s music makes you feel stoned when you sing it; the repetition makes you high. He always sat next to me and we sang it through together until I had it right. I found a closer sense of what it means to sing.”

As the 70s collapsed into the 80s, Renate began to record with Fricke’s group Popol Vuh, while Chris Karrer was trying to salvage what was left of Amon Düül II for one final recording. In 1981 every member of the original line-up came together with new producer Jorg Evers to record Vortex, a new set of songs that attempted to edge the power of Amon Düül’s past music into a new decade.

Vortex was a tribute to Renate,” says Chris. “She did some of her greatest work on this album. [But] because there was no real interest after the record was released, everybody was disappointed and went their own way again. Renate went back to Popol Vuh, John went to Australia, Jorg Evers the producer tried to form a punk band, and I went to record and tour with Embryo and [Viennese fantasy painter and musician] Ernst Fuchs.”*

Another attempt to resurrect the Amon Düül name was put into action by guitarist John Weinzierl and bassist Dave Anderson at the latter’s Foel Studio in Wales during the mid-80s. What started off as a viable project, however, turned sour when Anderson, reportedly unknown to Weinzierl, began to release records complete with pictures of Karrer, Knaup and Falk circa 1969 on the sleeves. The rest of Amon Düül II were outraged, and as a result Weinzierl and Anderson were ostracised. Anderson had also teamed up with Hawkwind lyricist Bob Calvert for one of his Amon Düül projects, and when Calvert died in 1989, a ‘gathering of the clans’ event was organised at the Brixton Academy in London. Those from Amon Düül II who showed up were John, Chris, Renate and Peter Leopold; Falk was also expected but he missed his plane and failed to appear. A similar event was held in Italy later that same year, but after that the group drifted apart again.

What brought them back together was not another reunion attempt but the threat by a German businessman to use the name Amon Düül for one of his ventures. This galvanised the group into making a stand. The original six members got together, sued the businessman, and managed to settle out of court in their favour.

Following this legal success, the group was further encouraged by the interest that was generated by the release in 1992 of a set of live BBC recordings from 1973. The record was the pet project of Düül disciple Phil Burford, who believes that this was the point at which Amon Düül began to re-evaluate their potential.

“I think this was the catalyst,” Burford explains. “When they saw how Live In Concert went down with the press, that sudden strength they had at that time gained momentum. They played a concert in 1992 and the following year they went into the studio to record Nada Moonshine#.”*

With the release of Nada Moonshine# last year, Amon Düül are back on the track they wobbled off so many years ago; only this time they are going in another direction. And, unlike previous detours, it is a direction which those involved are happy to pursue.

“Lothar is using a computer, which has long been a fantasy of his,” says Renate. “Chris didn’t like Lothar’s machine sound at first and he boycotted it. Eventually he saw that it was just another way of composing music and getting things done. I now think that he has finally bitten into the technological apple and he likes the taste of it. I think it’s a wonderful combination when he acoustics of the instruments and the vocals come together with the heavy sound of the computer programming.”

It would seem that, finally, everything is falling into place for Amon Düül II, but chaos is never far away whenever the group decide to do something creative together. After recording Nada Moonshine# it was decided to remix the title track for a video. Unfortunately, the record company involved in releasing the album had neglected to pay the studio and the tapes were confiscated until payment was received. Eventually it was decided to go to another studio and re-record the track. “It came out perfectly,” Renate beams, “it moves much more than the original did.”

Hearing such ramshackle stories brings to mind the taloned, Lovecraftian stormtrooper that leaps out of the cover of the group’s 1973 Live In London album. The crawling chaos that this monster represents still seems to haunt Amon Düül, while at the same time providing the context for its still unique, psyche-warping music.

“I’d love not to have so much chaos,” says Renate. “For me chaos is destructive. But yes, chaos could be the thing that makes Amon Düül the band it is today. Without chaos it would be boring.”

© Edwin PounceyThe Wire, February 1996

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