My rejected submission for 33 1/3 Books: The Faust Tapes

A friend mistakenly told me that the deadline for submitting a proposal to 33 1/3 books had passed before it truly was. By the time I figured out that I still had time to submit, I had about four days to do everything.

Worse still, during the first two days, as I crammed through every bit of good source material I could find to help me write my introductory chapter, I realized that my initial concept, Judas Priest’s British Steel, wouldn’t fly–author Neil Daniels had juuuuust written one in 2011 for a similar book series, meaning there would be no need for a new one. 33 1/3 would not be friendly towards publishing a copycat book no matter how good I thought my retelling of its events might be.  

Rather than “scream for vengeance,” I thought frantically about some kind of proposal I could pull off in 48 hours. And then it struck me–what could be more pivotal in the world of weird esoteric rock, the kind beloved of 33 1/3 fans,  than The Faust Tapes, the first album released on Richard Branson’s fledgling Virgin Records in the early seventies, a full album priced at the value of a mere single which marked a turning point (for good or ill) in the careers of German weirdos Faust as well? It doesn’t hurt that I had interviewed Faust last year and had some choice, original quotes that most music nerds might not think to ask of their prospective choices.

Well, apparently the 33 1/3 folk didn’t give a shit about my idea. Today I received a depressingly boilerplate reply from Publishing Director David Barker over at Bloomsbury, saying my proposal “hasn’t made it to the second round.” Maybe they balked at my execution–due to my friend’s mistake, and my own stupid refusal to go with my gut id instinct as I would normally do and and check things out for myself immediately online just for the chance to say “nah-huhh,” my whole proposal looks super rushed.

And yet, and yet … goddam it, is the below really such a shambles? Should I re-run this next year, or move on to a new idea, or rewrite this? Or maybe this is too off-topic for a first chapter in a book about The Faust Tapes? I wrote this and a bunch of other materials literally in less than 48 hours, so I won’t get my feelings hurt if you think this sucks … please, give me the feedback that 33 1/3 was too busy to provide.


AN INTRODUCTION: JAIL AND THE ANGRY VIRGIN

Even considering the strangeness of early 70s Germany, Faust was always the odd man out in the German progressive rock scene. Perhaps that has something to do with the outlandishness of the stories told about them: the nudism, the cultism, the police, the guns in the face, the construction equipment on stage, the smashing of parking gates with cars, or the subsequent nights in jail—added all up, their legend lent them a bratty, petulant public persona, with an immaturity quotient that exceeded all the other screamers and electronic knob-twiddlers of their oeuvre. And just like the band, that gleeful id never quite went away, somehow surviving the ravages of age largely intact into the 21st century. Even now, if somehow you’re able to corner a member of Faust at one the farmhouses and hotels where they’ve been spending their old age, you won’t need to coax him into recounting his youthful hijinks with a proud wink and a nudge.

Yet it was the music that always set Faust apart, a consciously eclectic style prefabricated with more deliberate intent than even the robotic drum machine beats of Kraftwerk, yet which hit the record shelves with more anarchic glee than a shocked music-buying public had ever expected to receive from Teutonic origins. Not even Faust’s own countrymen could abide them, which is why they were one of the first of the “krautrock” bands to head west, towards the sunnier shores (figuratively) of the UK.

With Kraftwerk being the possible exception, there’s a myth about krautrock bands among the casual rock enthusiast, which is that they all sound the same. Even fans who know better often attempt to dispel that myth with the opposite myth, that somehow bands like Can, NEU!, Cluster, and Guru Guru are not even connected, and that there was no scene at all from which such seminal bands sprung. And it is true that each band seemed to originate from a different town, be it Cologne or Düsseldorf or West Berlin.

But a look through the recording schedule at Conny Plank studios proves this second myth to be just as false, as do the shared band members/collaborations/Eno associations that trickled through the krautrock world consistently from the start of the movement until its dissipation in the late 70s. Krautrock was a fake term but a real musician’s clubhouse, and only a few bands bucked the trend of working with Plank and the extended diaspora of his professional friends. The most famous of these was Faust.

“We didn’t have any contact whatsoever with other German bands from this time,” drummer Werner “Zappi” Diermaier recounts adamantly from the present day. “We met Brian Eno once, but that’s the end of the story.” And at least stylistically, Faust thrived in isolation, first in the small town of Wümme, and then after their subsequent expatriotism to England, where the bright eyed optimism of Virgin Records was there to take care of them. If only they hadn’t complained so much about the lack of a German cook.

———————–

In the end, it was a room service tab that finished off the band.

It was 1975, and Faust, long after moving to England, and having more recently concluded an oddball tour that saw the band hemorrhaging original members, decided to reshuffle the tarot deck of their misfortune by going back to the fatherland: Munich, and Giorgio Moroder’s Musicland studios. There, without any tacit thumbs up from their label, Virgin Records, they’d started laying down session recordings they intended eventually to package as their fifth album—their fourth hadn’t gone over so well, and now their combo had been whittled down to just bassist Jean-Hervé Péron, guitarist Rudolph Sosna, and organist Hans Joachim Irmler.

Broke, but technically still under contract with Virgin, the trio and their compatriots in Munich spent the majority of their nights and most of their days at a nearby hotel that also owned the studio—and that meant they could tell the staff to put virtually everything “on Virgin’s tab.” Emulating the rock stars they occasionally hobnobbed with (they’d famously partied with the Rolling Stones, who also recorded in Munich) the band spent a good portion of their time eating in, ordering bottles of wine, and indulging in the kind of extravagant hospitality that they’d seen their more successful rock and roll party pals afford on a consistent basis.

But it was too large an IOU for a second-tier German prog rock band to float for long. When the hotel management put its foot down, roughly demanding immediate compensation for the studio time, its beds, and its room service tab, the band discovered that their expenditures had come out to 30,000 Deutschmarche-by comparison, that’s about $12,000 in mid-seventies dollars, or $60,000 today. Faust swiftly called long distance to London and to the Virgin Records office.

But Virgin Records had grown sick of it, and wasn’t about to pay for the overseas extravagances of a bunch of ingrates whose best-selling album had only sold as a gimmick, and whose most recent album hadn’t sold at all. Virgin wouldn’t even pay for the new Munich recordings the band claimed to be doing. There would be no fifth album, at least not with Virgin.

—————–

This was not something they’d expected from Virgin. The decision to abandon Faust to their fate was an admission of failure that went all the way to the top. Just two years before, Faust had been a flagship band for the fledgling label. “They were our very, very first signing,”[i] Richard Branson recalls today. But despite an ambition that reached literally to the stars, the young blonde-locked visionary at the helm of Virgin had not been able to fuel the fire that might have propelled rocketship Faust into popularity the same way he did with esoteric albums such as Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Since Faust had found a home in England and with Virgin, they had succeeded only at two things: recording chaotic, visceral music interspersed with humble contemplation, and partying with an excess that was less self-destructive than it was cost-ineffective. Sadly, only the latter had involved large quantities of money, and that had flowed in the wrong direction.

“We can’t blame Richard Branson for dropping us,” admits Jean-Hervé Péron, Faust’s bassist, who still plays with Zappi in an iteration of Faust to this day. “I remember him being a very pleasant, very nice person. We took advantage of their kindness, I think. We were always having orgies and throwing parties, and we always left the bill with Virgin.”

From Virgin’s perspective, all that partying, with lack of concern for the bottom line, had gone too far, beyond even the significantly widened boundaries that 70s labels allowed for. And Virgin’s boundaries (and, according to band members, Virgin’s secretaries) were the “loosest.” Branson and Virgin may have had some meddling “suggestions” for Faust regarding their material, but by the standards of most record labels, they’d supported Faust from start to finish, even after the last supporters in Faust’s inner circle had called it a day.

Virgin even outlasted Uwe Nettelbeck, who quit long before Munich. The manager and unsung first member of the band (unsung except for within the band, the press, and in historical documents like this one), Nettelbeck was a former radical leftist who had manufactured Faust at the behest of Polydor Germany, Monkees style: he’d hustled members from two different bands into a studio built from an old schoolhouse outside Hamburg and merged them into one entity, which went on to do two albums for Polydor. Again in 1973, when the deal with Polydor had gone sour, Nettelbeck had shown incredibly shrewd business acumen for a  communist sympathizer: he was the impetus behind the Virgin deal that allowed for Branson to transition the band smoothly from Polydor to his own label with minimal costs on both sides.

But now Faust were on their third strike, and Nettelbeck had abandoned them to Branson. And with Nettelbeck went engineer Kurt Graupner, shortly followed by founding band member Arnulf Meifert. The shrinking band had been playing England with borrowed help from members of Gong and Slapp Happy, but now in Germany, even Zappi had left, and they had no one to turn to.

So perhaps they felt cornered, or maybe the tinge of revolution still hung in the air. After all, Faust had at one point harbored members of the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang in their schoolhouse years before, and they’d eluded the police then. In a fit of criminal inspiration, after grabbing their gear and recordings from Musicland studios, Faust piled into cars and literally smashed their way out of the hotel parking lot.

“We had to leave like thieves!” claims Péron. “I remember driving away, smashing through a post that blocked our way. Joachim and Rudolf got caught and jailed, and their parents had to bail them out—we are still in debt with them!”[ii]

It was a humiliating finale, both a bang and a whimper. How had these stars in the Virgin pantheon sunk so low as to need a bailout from mom?

—————

Only two years before, Faust had pulled a similar trick, leaving Polydor with practically stolen goods in the virtual dead of night as they absconded for new shores. But in 1973 it had worked. Their piracy allowed them to snatched victory from the jaws of defeat successfully, and they’d arrived in England as avant-garde kings, and even helped launch one of the wealthiest personal fortunes in history. The album that got Virgin Records in the press, the one that became “the social phenomenon of 1973”[iii] as Julian Cope famously said, was The Faust Tapes.

For many bands, their earliest work is the most memorable, or there’s a latter-day masterpiece that uses all the lessons they’ve learned and puts it into one great opus, but few bands hit one out of the park on their third try, right in the middle of their greatest era.

But The Faust Tapes were not normal. Like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, there was the sense that this was a put-on, or a dare. Like an unfinished work by Kafka, or a lost work by Petronius, there was a sense that this work was a reference to something bigger outside itself, something that was forever lost.  And of course, there was the fact that it was a marketing gimmick, sold cheaply, at the price of a mere single, in order to boost the name of Faust to an unsuspecting public. But then again, that had been the plan for Faust all along, ever since Nettelbeck had assembled them in the late 60s to take advantage of an upcoming revolution. Which revolution he’d intended is still up anyone’s guess.


[i] Washington Post, September 12, 2011

[ii] “Having a Smashing Time,” Andy Gill, Mojo, April 1997

[iii] Krautrocksampler, Julian Cope, 1995

D. M. Collins

D. M. Collins is a journalist and writer based in Los Angeles.

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