Faust : The Greatest Gimmick of All
"The idea was not to copy anything going on in the
Anglo-Saxon rock scene - and it worked..."
Uwe Nettlebeck, 1973
The Sound of Yourself Listening
There is no group more mythical than Faust. I bought my first Faust record over 22 years
ago, but I could not tell you the names of the group members off the top of my head. And I
could not tell you the names of all their songs, though I know them all better than almost
everything else in my record library. I saw them live on their legendary 1973 tour, but
you could show me 10 photos of Krautrock musicians, and I could not pick out the five
members of Faust.
Faust worked under a conscious veil of secrecy akin to, and inspiring to, San Francisco's
The Residents. They were a conceptual band, and in isolation is how they were conceived.
By the end of 1970, it became clear to Kurt Enders, an A&R man for German Polydor,
that there was a place for the extreme new West German rock music in the international
rock'n'roll sphere. But no-one had yet attempted an entirely new sound that broke all of
the imported rules of the British and American scenes. He told this to the music
journalist, Uwe Nettlebeck, who was extremely impressed and wanted to lead just such a
And so Faust was born - as cold and antisepticatty as that. No, not really. It was a
fabulous challenge and showed how, very occasionally, visionaries in record companies have
been seen to get it absolutely right. Faust means 'fist', and a fist they were. Who the
hell knows what their rehearsals were like in the Spring/Summer of 1971. Uwe Nettlebeck
had spent Faust's large advance on building a studio at Wumme. This old converted
schoolhouse, between Hamburg and Bremen, became their place of learning (and de-learning)
a style which was fuzzy, funny and extremely uncommercial, yet busted out with weird
hooklines and extraordinary sounds. But when they made their debut at the Musikhalle in
Hamburg, the press hated it. The audience didn't know what to make of it, and so the whole
public thing started very badly for them in their home country. And when the LP was
released in late 1971, the sales were so poor as to be as legendary as the group would
some day become. Some sources quote under one thousand records sold in the first months of
Faust being released.
But Faust were good. In fact, they had made a very special first album. It just took time
to get it. And when Polydor released Faust in Britain, the strongest appeal of their LP
was that it was produced in clear vinyl, with a clear lyric sheet and a clear jacket,
emblazoned with a fist in X-ray. The effect was dramatic. And at a time when a hype could
kill a new band stone-dead, even John Peel wrote that when he first saw the album ".
. . regardless of the music within, I had to acquire one." Peel played the album all
the time, and my Krautrock mates and I would all bore ourselves stupid, re-enacting the
beginning of it, whenever we hung out together or took the train into Birmingham. It was
such a catchy bizarre sound. It sounded like music from some parallel universe suspended
in time and played through the oldest radio.
Extremely overloaded over-recorded synthesizers and radio static begin the album as
fractions of "All you Need is Love" and "Satisfaction" burst in,
followed by a vocal calling from another room, then a pretty schoolhouse piano (of
course!), into a very arranged Zappa-esque horn piece which comes over a bit Teutonic, a
bit Lumpy Gravy-ish. And in two minutes of music Faust has taken you into the most
inventive editing territory rock'n'roll has seen. Faust's unexpected success in Britain
prompted them to focus themselves here, and the second LP, Faust So Far, was actually
released here first. Again, it was a gimmick record - all black this time, with a black
inner sleeve, raised black lettering on the record-label, and a set of 12"x12"
prints that illustrated each song. But this album was somehow far more confident that the
first one. So Far opens with my favourite ever Faust song. "It's A Rainy Day
(Sunshine Girl)" is a Temptations call and answer chorus over a boom-boom-boom-boom
Mo Tucker one-chord trance-out. The rhythm guitar is on the same level as the Velvet
Underground's Live 1969, and the sax solo is my favourite on record. The production is
clean and wants to be heard. It's the same throughout the album, and proved that Faust cut
it as an un-straight pop band, the same way early Roxy Music did. Polydor also thought so,
and released "So Far" as a single. The B-side, "It's a bit of a Pain"
reminds me of something from the third Velvet's album. So where were Faust coming from?
Though their influences are ultimately unimportant, when a group is as original as Faust,
it's impossible not to be overtly inquisitive as to how they came to this fabulous sound.
And so to catch certain glimpses of other people's attitude in their music is to heave a
sigh of relief that, yes, they were human after all.
Outside The Dream Syndicate- The Roots of Faust
But if Faust ever ripped-off something, then they did it the way all the greatest artists
rip-off - that is, directly. They took the Soft Machine's "We did it Again"
(which is just The Kinks' "You Really Got Me" in any case) and called it
"Baby". Faust even used the Mothers of Invention's own archetypes, to the point
of copying Zappa's most annoying habit of playing "Louie Louis" on distorted
organ a la Uncle Meat. It made sense to Zappa & the Mothers. By 1966, they were
already old gits who'd gone through endless bar bands playing "Louie Louie"
every night for 25 years. When the Mothers played "Louie Louie" on distorted
organ they were laughing at the sheer boring ridiculousness oh
-ha-ha-ha-I-can-play-this-with-no-hands-I'm-so-fucking-jazz. But when Faust played it,
they loved it. When they heard the Mothers' crap slack double-album Uncle Meat, they heard
"Louis Louis" and vibed on it for real... They loved rock'n'roIl to death. There
was no irony at all. The Western Music scene was a mythical and ancient currency to be
plundered. And they were certainly music fans of a very high order. The last part of
"Miss Fortune" is very similar to the Velvet Underground's "The Murder
Mystery", sonically and also in the way that the song is achieved. But then they were
clearly so in love with all things Warhol that their 1972 collaboration was with Tony
Conrad. In the very early '60s, Conrad had been John Cale's cohort in the Lamonte Young
New York ensemble, The Dream Syndicate. They played epic unchanging chamber dirges with
intellectual perfection combined with lots of pre-Hippy Fuckoff! Outside the Dream
Syndicate was a heavenly marriage. The LP was recorded at Wumme, now a successful
recording studio in its own right, in October 1972, and released on Virgin's budget price
Caroline label for 1.49 in early '73. This long unchanging mantra was epic,
dignified and strung out. Like the huge grey and white photo of him on the LP jacket, Tony
Conrad was a ghost upon his own record. His violin hung like a spectre over the whole
album, but never did it even dip or sway. Much more minimal even than John Cale, here was
a musician with a quest from the beyond.
It: was ironic, then, that the next Faust LP, The Faust Tapes, was one whole pound cheaper
than the collaboration with Conrad, sold 10 times more than all their other records, and
was their best album - an unconditional stone-classic! But Virgin Records had licensed the
LP from Uwe Nettlebeck, as part of the new recording deal now that the Polydor contract
had run out Steve Lewis at Virgin had worked out that they could sell The Faust Tapes for
49p, and not lose money. It would continue the heavy Faust trip in fine style, whilst
simultaneously boosting the credentials of the very young record company. With a Bridgit
Riley op-art painting on one side, and a bunch of reviews picked by Uwe Nettlebeck on the
other, The Faust Tapes was an overnight phenomenon. Everybody bought it. Not everybody
loved it. When a record is so cheap, it's sometimes hard to see the real value. But I dug
it to death. It was their best by far.
Not only because of the songs, or even the editing (which is the finest in rock'n'roll -
heavily influenced by, but streets ahead of, Zappa's hung-up eavesdropping little muse),
but because a true rock'n'roll Moment was Created, and the music still utterly cuts it 22
years later. Faust were really out and about by now. The music press was full of them and,
in March 1973, Uwe Nettlebeck explained the basic Faust intentions to the N.M.E. thus:
"They're not professional in that sense... We've always liked the idea of releasing
records which lacked conventional 'finish' in terms of production... the music should
sound like bootlegs, as if recorded by someone who passed a group rehearsing or jamming
and then cut the recorded material wildly together."
Uwe Nettlebeck is clearly overstating his case here, but then he can never have foreseen
explaining the workings of such a bizarre Musical-unit to the popular press. Now was the
right time for Faust, and they decided at last to tour Britain...
The Faust Tour
"In the midst of Faust-mouzik time ticks like a
From Faust's free 1973 Tour-handout.
It's hard to explain the excitement that the Faust tour brought. In mid-1973, nobody had a
clue who they were, or even if they existed at all. The name Uwe Nettlebeck was constantly
heard, and rumours in the press abounded. The tour took on a sort of 'underground event of
the year' vibe and even some of my hard-rock mates came to Birmingham Town Hall to see
them. In the foyer were free Faust manifestos handed to everyone, and free Henry Cow
posters. It was ironic, but perfect really, that Virgin had chosen such a lame bunch as
Henry Cow to support. They played their wacky Cambridge University Degree music on
bassoons and time-changes galore, and the guitarist ran to the side of the stage and put
headphones on, and pretended to listen to the band in a jolly way. Ho-hum.
But then it was all change as the road drills and hand-painted upright piano came on
stage. And the two pinball-machines, one on each side of the stage, facing outwards and
connected to synthesizers. And the lights were all intense white, with extremely
directional strobes that lit up the high ceiling of the Town Hall. It was 1973, and
musicians usually soloed and looked to the audience for applause, and great ugly guys
nanced around in cheese-cloth singing about fucking nothing at all. And then Faust walked
on - longhairs without flares, wearing those pale European straight-legs you'd see on hip
German students over here in the early '70s. I couldn't believe it - they opened with
"It's a Rainy Day (Sunshine Girl)". One played the drums, one played the piano
and sung, one played acoustic guitar and sung, and the two others played pinball machines
that triggered synthesizers - backs to each other on either side of the stage, as strobes
caught the strings of the finest rhythm guitarist since Lou Reed. It was epic, it was
brilliant, it had attitude enough to raze cities and it ruined every show I went to for at
least two years after. At times they caught snatches of their songs and flung them about a
bit, but they had concrete on stage and big road drills and their very Stooges' Ur-punk
presence awed me and shocked me.
Faust IV and the End of the Line
After that, Faust were inevitably in a corner. They had become a part of mid-teenage
British culture and The Faust Tapes was subjected to Monty Python-like rituals in the
schoolyard, to see how much of it we knew and sort out the real Heads. When Faust IV came
out it was an enormous letdown. Ican't think of anyone who bought it. The packaging was
weak. The songs had real riffs, and there was a reggae song on it! That song, "The
Sad Skinhead" is now one of their best, but I couldn't see it at the time. And
neither could anyone else. Faust IV, certainly as great as all but The Faust Tapes, was
given the thumbs down. In truth, "Krautrock", the classic 12-minute epic that
opened the album, is really just a continuation of their whole trip They followed it with
amazing songs; "Jennifer" and "GiggySmile" are Krautrock classics. But
I suppose Faust IV didn't have the innate sense of Moment that all their previous
events/releases had. With hindsight, the sleeve was vastly inferior to all the others and
maybe they should have stayed in Wumme instead of recording it in the Manor, in
Oxfordshire. But hindsight does no one any good, and when Faust 5 was rejected by Virgin,
Uwe Nettlebeck lost interest and Faust disappeared just as mysteriously as they had first
But the story did not end there. Faust were guaranteed immediate legend status for what
they had achieved and, like Neu! and Can, were highly inspirational to the soon-coming
British punk-scene. New albums of old songs have surfaced from time to time, Munic &
Elsewhere, The Last LP, and 71 minutes of Faust all contain unreleased songs in various
configurations. But, greater than all their records, Faust tell of an heroic time when
reaching for the stars did not have to include getting the stars in order to be