In new interviews, Conny Plank ’s collaborators – including Brian Eno and Holger Czukay – remember the radical music producer.
Conny Plank, holding his son Stephan Plank, and Dieter Moebius at Plank’s studio, 1974
Conny Plank was one of the most radical sound-shapers of the 20th century. He was a driving force behind many of the pioneering German bands of the 1970s, including Neu! and Cluster. Plank engineered Kraftwerk’s inventive early material; his fingerprints can be found on Autobahn (1974). He was a key element of records by Brian Eno, DAF, Devo, Ultravox, Les Rita Mitsouko, Whodini, and many more.
Plank, who was sometimes termed the ‘Lee “Scratch” Perry of Krautrock’, was an engineer’s engineer, a producer’s producer. When he died 25 years ago of cancer, aged 47, he left behind a rich musical legacy. Kraftwerk was recently enshrined in a flashy retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, accompanied by waves of flattering media hype. Portions of Can’s legendary Inner Space Studios have been installed in Germany’s national Rock and Pop Museum in Gronau. Plank’s famed studio outside Cologne, meanwhile, was recently razed to make way for faceless condominiums. His gear, much of it hand-built or custom-modified, was disassembled and sold to collectors. Plank’s studio lives on only in anecdotes, and in the radical sounds of the records made there.
Plank cut his teeth as a sound man to Marlene Dietrich and assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel before settling near Cologne, in the tiny town of Hütchsenhausen. There, he built his one-of-a-kind home recording studio from the ground up. Germany had several legendary studios in the 1970s – Kling Klang, Inner Space, Hansa – but Plank’s was the most special of them all. ‘Conny’s studio became the most important meeting point for groups and artists who were somehow new and “important,”’ remembers Holger Czukay of Can, one of Plank’s closest friends.
Plank produced Neu!’s first two records – Neu! (1972) and Neu! 2 (1973) – before he had a studio. ‘He managed to create the sounds of the first and second Neu! albums with next to nothing,’ marvels Neu!’s guitarist Michael Rother. ‘When we were recording ‘Negativland’, I remember seeing Conny standing between two analogue tape machines, doing the phasing manually by slowing down one machine and then the other machine. He did that in a very physical way.’
For Plank, music wasn’t interesting unless it was crazy. ‘Craziness is something holy,’ he declared in an interview with Musician magazine shortly before his death in 1987. Plank was tall and physically powerful, with a shock of red hair and a fiery personality. ‘He was healthily opinionated,’ remembers Brian Eno. ‘[Conny] had no hesitation in telling you when he didn’t like something – and wanted to be surprised, to hear something new. This is the opposite of what a lot of engineers and producers are after: they want to make something that sounds like something else they’ve heard. Conny always seemed to enjoy the idea that something we didn’t yet recognize would appear.’
Behind Plank’s imposing frame and strong opinions lay a ‘friendly and warmhearted’ person, says Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster. ‘He cared about us personally. We lived for a while in his house in Hamburg and also in his place near Cologne. He believed strongly in what we did and he supported us a lot.’
Dieter Moebius, who collaborated with Plank extensively both in Cluster and in numerous solo collaborations, agrees. ‘He was like a third member of Cluster,’ says Moebius. ‘He also toured with us sometimes and helped us to carry around the cases, because he was big, tall, and strong.’
As an engineer, Plank was endlessly creative. ‘Conny would use anything to get the sound he wanted,’ recalls John Foxx, who worked with Plank during the making of Ultravox’s Systems of Romance (1978). ‘Nothing was too much trouble. During the recording of Systems…, for instance, he recorded vocals outside and in the big barn, [and] he also put them through Marshall valve guitar amplifiers. On other songs he’d put them through a Hammond rotary speaker. He’d also play instruments into a speaker placed in the grand piano – to catch extra harmonics from the sympathetic string vibrations.’
Rother remembered Plank’s key contribution to ‘Hallogallo’, one of the all-time classic Neu tracks. ‘I remember when I was in the recording room after Klaus [Dinger] and I recorded the basic tracks for “Hallogallo”,’ says Rother. ‘I was in the recording room doing some overdubs, and Conny decided to turn around the tape, and that inspired me so much. I love backwards-sounding music so much, and pitched-down music, slow music. That changed the whole scenery. I recorded new guitars, more guitars… and everything was turning around again. You end up with the backwards and forwards flying guitars that you hear in “Hallogallo”. That was a stroke of genius from Conny – at that exact moment, that was what I was looking for.’
Eno remembers visiting Plank’s studio several times, notably during the making of Music for Airports (1978). (Plank’s wife Christa Fast provided some of the vocals for the album.) ‘The first piece on Music for Airports – “1/1” – I made in England with Rhett Davies,’ says Eno. ‘Conny helped me make the rest, though I’d pretty much decided how I would do them beforehand. However, where he really made a contribution was in recording all the source material from which the loops were made. The piano, the voices, and the ARP synthesizer that I used all went through Conny’s little magic Panzer preamp – he looked after all of that for me and it was really only several years later that I realized how important that had been. That record sounds good, still now, and a lot of that has to do with the recordings themselves.’
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