One of the oddest Christmas records of all time came out in 1973 under the name Aamok. The single was put out by the label of the same name, which was short-lived and never quite got off the ground. There isn’t much information accompanying the package indicating who was responsible for the loopy 45, but we know just enough to put the pieces together—for the most part.
Conny Plank is the most famous producer associated with the Krautrock scene of the 1970s. He was behind the board for seemingly every German progressive release from the era, including the early Kraftwerk records, LPs by Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, and Guru Guru, as well as the three ‘70s albums issued by my personal favorite Krautrock band, Neu!.
In 1972, Plank’s imprint, Aamok, began releasing albums by way of the Spiegelei record company. Aamok then tried to go it alone, but folded shortly thereafter. One of the label’s only releases—and it might have been distributed only as promo—was the novelty holiday single attributed to the band Aamok.
“German Christmas Medley” b/w “Silence in the Night” was pressed up by Aamok in 1973. Another label, Linda, also put it out that year. On that version, the A-side song credit appears in German.
It’s been said that Conny Plank drew the demented-looking Santa on the cover. The beloved Mr. Claus is seen holding a bloody knife, with a gun on his hip, and a dead body in his bag. The only names on the 45 are Conny Plank, who arranged the A-side, and his business partner, Wilken F. Müller, who’s the listed writer of the flipside. “German Christmas Medley” is a piss-take on the revered Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” Presumably it’s Plank handling the vocal, and he absolutely destroys the melody, screaming the lyrics and deliberately singing waaaaay off-key. It’s a style we’d now call proto-punk. As it’s a “medley,” there must be other Xmas songs in there, but since the lyrics are in German and Plank’s delivery is so wonderfully obnoxious, I couldn’t identify any other tunes. Müller’s “Silence in the Night” (get it?) couldn’t be more different, yet it’s even more amusing. A mysterious voice, likely Müller’s, announces the track, which is followed by two-and-half minutes of—you guessed it—silence! Our narrator re-appears at the end to bid the track adieu.
Anyone who is looking to celebrate Halloween but insists on being totally “Kosmisch” (cosmic) about it, there’s a curious release that you’ve got to hear about. Holger Czukay of Can and Conny Plank, a respected Krautrock producer who also played frequently with Cluster‘s Dieter Moebius, teamed up in 1980 for a bizarre (and awesome) one-off project called Les Vampyrettes. Why they chose a French name is beyond me but it might have to do with Louis Feuillade’s silent Les vampires serials?
In any case, Les Vampyrettes are totally krautrock’s salute to the spooky, scary creepy-crawlies commonly associated with Hallow’s Eve. They even put a cute little image of a bat on the cover of the maxi-single, for Can’s sake.
Holger Czukay and Conny Plank, 1983
The opening lyrics to “Biomutanten”—probably don’t have to tell you what that word means—are creepy in a fun Halloween-y way. “Pass auf wo du stehst, pass auf wo du gehst, am tag und in der nacht, überall wirst du bewacht….” means “Watch out where you stand, watch out where you go, in the day and in the night, you are being watched everywhere….” The other song is called “Menetekel” and some will recognize that as a reference to the Belshazzar’s Feast episode from the Old Testament, in which Daniel literally reads the words “Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin” on the wall, the origin for the saying “the writing on the wall.” What I didn’t know until today is that Menetekel is a German word that actually means “early warning” or “foreboding.”
When Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart left The Tourists to form Eurythmics in 1981, they traveled to Cologne to work with noted German producer Conny Plank on their first album, In the Garden. Some of the musicians involved were Can’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit (billed as “Les Vampyrettes”), DAF’s Robert Görl and Blondie’s Clem Burke. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s son Markus was also on the album. (Annie Lennox would record a lot of the vocals—eight tracks—for Robert Görl’s 1984 solo LP on Mute, Night Full of Tension.)
“Never Gonna Cry Again” was the first single, and in the duo’s first TV appearance as Eurythmics, they played it along with “Belinda,” the second single release. Neither song would hit, but they became famous worldwide with their next album, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) in early 1983. Lennox and Stewart were joined by Burke and Czukay—who looks like an absent-minded old guy who just wandered onstage to jam with his French horn—when they debuted on television’s The Old Grey Whistle Test (In the album’s credits, Czukay’s include “walking.”):
A second Eurythmics recording with some even more decidedly avant garde co-conspirators than most people might assume would be a fit, was the darkly pulsating “Sweet Surprise” single they recorded with former Throbbing Gristle members Chris and Cosey, recorded in 1982, but released on Rough Trade in 1985. Lennox and Stewart are not mentioned on the sleeve which shows a photo of Chris & Cosey beside two familiar-looking silhouettes with question marks. They are credited on the label, however.
“When I was a lad…” well, it used to be at least moderately difficult to acquire music. Some stuff was really hard to find, even if you lived in New York or London and indeed this often meant paying beaucoup bucks for things back then. I’m frankly ashamed at some of the money I’ve spent on LPs and CDs over the years. I cringed with embarrassment when reminded that I’ve spent $100 on a soundtrack LP or a rare 12” dance mix. $80 for a 45 rpm single. It made sense at the time…
I mention this wistful old man shit by way of bringing up the most I ever spend on a single CD (times three): At some point in the late 80s, I paid $43 apiece for three Les Rita Mitsouko CDs that I special ordered at Record Runner on Bleecker Street. I was a huge fan of the band (Indeed I saw them play twice in New York and I think they probably only played three times, ever, in the US) but it was next to impossible to buy their CDs. So I special ordered them from France and spent $129 plus tax on three discs. It took about 3 weeks for them to arrive. Ridiculous I know, but it had to have them. The truth is that I think I’ve gotten my money’s worth over the years.
Most Americans and Brits have probably never heard of France’s greatest ever pop band (Air are great, sure they aren’t as good as Les Rita Mitsouko and they know it themselves). Even Francophiles who love them some Serge Gainsbourg don’t know much about Les Rita Mitsouko and this is a damned shame.
The group was comprised of lead vocalist Catherine Ringer and multi-instrumentalist Fred Chichin, who died suddenly in 2007 of cancer. There’s not a lot about written about them on the Internet, although there are tons of videos on YouTube of various French TV performances (including appearances with Sparks and Iggy Pop) and their incredible music videos, which more than lived up to their music. Their records were hard enough to find, but somehow I also managed a near complete collection of their music videos on 3/4” U-matic videotapes. Oh the youthful insanity, but truly they are a group worthy of fanatical fandom, as ye shall see…
Les Rita Mitsouko, although they predate both bands by a few years, are in the same general category (to my mind at least) as Dee-lite or Japan’s Pizzicato Five. Aside from the music, the visual component of the group, like with these other two bands, was fashion forward and extremely well art-directed. Contributors to their videos included famed director Jean-Baptiste Mondino, and superstar fashion designers like Thierry Mugler, Agnes B. and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Their first album, produced by Conny Plank (Kraftwerk, Neu!, Brian Eno, Ultravox) at his studio in Germany. Rita Mitsouko was named the 20th greatest French rock album in the French edition of Rolling Stone magazine. (The “Les” was added afterwards to warn off people from the idea that the name was Catherine’s). The follow-up, Les Rita Mitsouko Presentent The No Comprendo, AKA The No Comprendo, was produced by the legendary Tony Visconti and was #7 on that same Rolling Stone list.
Visconti remarked about the group “I never thought I would hear a French rock band rival an English or American one.” If you don’t believe me, the guy who produced Electric Warrior and several of David Bowie’s best albums, ought to know, right?
The song that you might know if you’ve heard any song by Les Rita Mitsouko, is “Marcia Balia,” a paean to a choreographer/dancer friend of Ringer’s who died young. This was a huge dancefloor hit in New York nightclubs in the mid-80s. I saw them do an absolutely dazzling live show at The Saint, a cavernous gay club known for its great sound system and laser show (formerly it was the Fillmore East) when this song was breaking in NYC.
Okay, so did you clock just how incredibly sexy Catherine Ringer is? How insanely hot hot hot she was/is? Of course you did. It’s rather difficult not to notice, isn’t it? She’s a rare beauty, a hyper-intelligent, gifted woman, one half of arguably the greatest French band, ever and…
Well, years later I found out from a French friend that Ringer, who was apparently a junkie in her youth (and perhaps beyond, when I met her in 86 or 87 she seemed somewhat disheveled and that’s putting it kindly), had made a number of specialist porn films in the late 1970s, early 80s. The types of films for a certain subset of porn connoisseur, if you know what I mean, and chances are, that unless you’re thinking of something really dirty, you don’t…
Apparently during the time of the band’s initial burst of mid-80s notoriety, theme dinner parties were held to all over haute Paris to watch some of Ringer’s filthiest XXX antics—some filmed when she was just 17—filmed under the nom de porn names of “Betty Davis,” “Cat’ Gerin,” “Claudia Mutti,” and “Lolita da Nova.”
I doubt that they served any chocolate pudding at such soirees, let’s just say. No lemonade, either, kay?
If you happen to have a spare 3000 clams laying about you can potentially own the legendary German über-producer Conny Plank’s rack mounted digital delay unit ! There are other, less exciting items from the great man’s studio also for sale, but this particular unit was well used in the early 80’s and probably never more effectively than on this stellar 1981 12” single duet with Holger Czukay under the name Les Vampyrettes. One of my absolute favorite records of all time.
In 1974 heavy duty German classical label Deutsche Grammophon issued a 3LP over-view of European improvised music (pictured above) featuring a full two sides each from a French combo (New Phonic Art), A British trio (Iskra 1903 led by guitar titan Derek Bailey) and the focus of this blog posting, the German ad hoc ensemble known simply as Wired. The truly notable thing about Wired is that it featured super-producer Conny Plank conducting the entire very delicate and minimal affair from his mixing desk. The other players here are Harry Partch disciple Mike Ranta on percussion, guitarist Karl-Heinz Böttner on stringed instruments and Mike Lewis on Hammond organ. Have a leisurely listen to the entire thing, it’s quite a lovely and slowly unfolding bit of primitive soundscaping :
Wired Side One
Wired Side Two
The reason I sought out the above rarity is that the above rather handsome box-set has just been released. Recorded a mere month after recording the Wired LP by the same group (minus Böttner) but previously unreleased, this sounds pretty wonderful. Then again nearly everything Conny Plank had a hand in is worthy of celebration.
Phew is the name of the Japanese punk chanteuse who first came came to notoriety as singer in the band Aunt Sally. These tracks from her 1981 self-titled LP are most notable, however for her backing band: Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit of Can and always brilliant producer Conny Plank. This is some wonderfully austere stuff from a period in which our man Holger could virtually do no wrong. And what a prescient sound this is. Any number of current backward looking bands would give their eye teeth for the vibe and drum/synth groove made by this unlikely combination of middle aged German gents and adorable art-waif.