Endless Highway

Klaus Dinger never called the drum beat/rhythm he created “motorik,” as musicians and music critics have referred to it ever since. He found the term, a neologism which translates roughly as “motor-music,” unflattering. He was once quoted as saying that he called it the “Apache beat,” but in another of the few interviews he gave he says he calls it by another name: “endlose Gerade,” a German term for a road that seems to stretch endlessly on and on straight ahead. That’s what it sounded like when Dinger played drums.

Born in Germany in 1946, Nicolaus van Rheim was working-class and a contrarian at an early age; though he sang in school choirs, he rebelled at more formal musical training and returned to music later on his own terms. Caught up in ’60s counterculture, he dropped acid and dropped out of architecture school to play drums. Fellow Dusseldorfers Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider soon recruited him for their fledgling group Kraftwerk. By this time known as Klaus Dinger, he played on Kraftwerk’s debut album and toured briefly before grabbing fellow Kraftwerk draftee Michael Rother and leaving to form his own group.

NEU! means “new!” and that’s what Dinger was all about: new sounds, new approaches, a new start. The name was also an acid, Pop-Art-influenced play on advertising slogans, typical of Dinger’s sardonic sensibility. Rother layered sonorous, trance-like guitar into melodic peaks and valleys while Dinger drove the music with his own idiosyncratic style: He stuck to straight 4/4 and played fluidly but largely without accenting one beat over another or varying from bar to bar, keeping time while providing an expansive sense of musical eternity. The duo funneled its attack into three albums of experimental groove rock — 1972’s NEU!, 1973’s NEU! 2, and 1975’s NEU! ’75 — though by the final album Rother’s laid-back personality and musical approach clashed with Dinger’s restless experimental agitation so much that they each took a side of the LP for their own work, splitting the group itself soon after.

As with the Velvet Underground, whose driving beats influenced Dinger, NEU!’s albums sold poorly but the copies that circulated made it into the right hands. Dinger’s sleek, obsessive rhythm was soon underpinning music made by peers such as Kraftwerk, Can, Faust, and Hawkwind; his nothing-to-do-with-the-blues beat and occasional musique concrete/proto-punk bashings influenced the rising punk/new wave scene, too, inspiring everyone from David Bowie to Public Image Ltd. In the years to come, the likes of Sonic Youth, Tortoise, Negativland (which is named after a NEU! song), and Radiohead, as well as hundreds of lesser-known acts, would bow to NEU!, in interviews and in their music. (Dinger’s minimal hand-scrawled cover art for NEU!’s LPs proved influential as well.)

Dinger kept playing music, first with his brother Thomas as La Dusseldorf and briefly with Rother for an ill-fated reunion in the ’80s. Indeed, Dinger spent much of the past 20 years wrangling with Rother over NEU!; their albums circulated only as bootlegs until proper CD reissues were released in 2001. Discussions over new NEU! music were halted by ongoing arguments, and ultimately by Dinger’s death March 20, at age 62. But his beat goes on and on and on and on and on ...