Saturday 5 February 2022


“Another one! What's the matter with everyone, wanting to make a museum piece out of Dada? Dada was a bomb... can you imagine anyone, around half a century after a bomb explodes, wanting to collect the pieces, sticking it together and displaying it?”
-Max Ernst

Burning Rules Fuel Their Fire

Nobody Knows if It Ever Happened’ was the title of one DVD of the great Krautrock band Faust. Which about sums it up for me. For they had long seemed creatures of legend, scarcely less so than the folklore figure they were named after. Had they ever actually happened or were they more like Captain Swing and Ned Ludd, whose influence had been vast but who existed only in the telling? For in my day you couldn’t get hold of their records, and it had taken all my ingenuity to get some stuff taped from friends. And so they seemed not just an inventive band, to my eager mind they came to represent untrammelled creativity itself.

There were sometimes groups of kids at school, always in older years than me, who looked not just cool, not just smart, but ahead. As my classmates bragged and fantasised about fast girls and hot cars I’d gaze at them across the age gap, imagining the places they’d been before me, picturing them casually making conceptual breakthroughs which left others stymied, feeling that they weren’t just sharper than me but more alive. I’d dream of joining them, while knowing I could never keep up. By the time I was a year older, they’d be even further out. And that’s how I came to feel about Faust.

Then, quite out of the blue, 2001 brought my first chance to see them.

I knew nothing at all about their post-reformation existence and was conflicted over going. What if you got to see creativity ltself, only to find it creatively spent? It would be like going out for a drink with Bacchus, only for him to yawn and announce an early night. In fact, as the first old hippy climbed on stage I found myself with a sinking feeling. A few seconds later I was enthralled.

Their attitude seemed to be: “Everything you thought you knew about making music, we shall now tear it to shreds before your eyes.” Burning rules were the fuel of their fire. I walked home through a mighty windstorm, which my over-stimulated brain started to parse as something conjured up by the gig, Prospero-like.

Their third album, ’The Faust Tapes’, was famously compiled from their home studio work tapes, somewhere between a precis, a collage and an aural sketchpad. But, as it flies from one bonkers notion to the next, knowing neither rest nor mercy, in a sense all of Faust is just an extended version of this. It may not necessarily be the best Faust album, but it’s the *most* Faust album. It’s like Faust to the power of Faust. So if it’s the best-known Faust album, that’s probably the thing working as it should.

If Black Sabbath’s power riffing was like a neolithic stone axe, something which worked for centuries without need of improvement, Faust are like a Swiss army knife. Well, whatever the German version is, anyway. Unrelentingly inventive, they can seem to point in every conceivable direction at once; styles and approaches which other bands could have built whole careers from are taken up and discarded again within minutes.

A while back, I talked myself into writing a series on my Top 50 albums. With Can I did have some trouble choosing between ’Monster Movie’ and ’Tago Mago’. (My final choice lies here.) With Faust, like a kiddie in a sweet shop I found the whole deciding business impossible and just had to give up on it. More Faust music just adds to what existed already, like one of those ever-expanding Kurt Schwitters environments that straddle rooms.

At War With Good Taste

Krautrock was the first popular music movement to be influenced by Modernism, and this collage approach was a clear descendent of Dada. Can had their tape-splicing moments too. But reduce them to their essence and you’d have five guys in a room playing together. Whereas Faust live in the edits and splices, the zigzags and joins, the brazenly audacious segue, their spirit residing not in the cloth but the stitch marks. They’re more in the spirit of Raoul Hausmann than the Rolling Stones.

Dada was audacious and iconoclastic, but contained an ambiguity which it held close. It was wilfully negative and ruthlessly destructive, it offered no answers and scorned those who claimed they did. Yet the anti-art they created was more vital, more real, and in many ways more artistic than most so-called art. Bakunin’s celebrated dictum, “the urge to destroy is also a creative urge”, wasn’t coined about Dada, but could have been.

Similarly, when Faust took the history of music as fodder for their shredder, the same ambiguity arose. Was music to be found everywhere, in each and every chance combination of sounds, as John Cage had long insisted? Or was it to be found nowhere, a house of cards that had long needed blowing down? It’s the dichotomy at Dada’s heart which they willing reproduced, deliberately left unresolved, and served up to confound and disorient a whole new generation.

Words are one example. This was the time Rock music was first insisting its lyrics were meaningful, man, and diligently transcribing them on album sleeves for home study. Faust responded with fervent Dada nonsense poetry - “Daddy, ate the banana, tomorrow is Sunday!” - delivered with fervent urgency.

Most German bands sang in English, the lingua franca of rock music. Faust gave main singing duties to Jean-Herve Peron, who was French. And they commonly toured both Britain and France, finding a better reception than back home. But listen to the combination in ’Jai Mai Aux Dents’ - the backing vocals complain in French, alternately of a pain in the teeth and the toes, while the lead vocals make no more sense in English… it feels like something of a mission statement. (Post-reformation Faust would expand the range still further, to Polish, to Japanese and more.)

And multiplying and overlaying languages as a means to reduce the whole thing to a babble was a Dada device, going back to the founding Cabaret Voltaire. The repeated breathless intonation of those backing vocals gets repeated mantra-like until it becomes just part of the music, rinsed clean of meaning, sonic mulch.

On the original ’Faust Tapes’ cover, were the two sides intended as a visual comparison? Between those teeny lines of text and Bridget Riley’s black-and-white Op Art, word reduced to image? No? Just me then…

And, perhaps above all else, Faust inherited Dada’s sense that the driver of everything should be humour, particularly that infectiously irreverent brand of humour. They weren’t doing what they did to create great and lasting works of art, they were doing it because it was fun. And why wouldn’t you want to make what you were doing fun? That live gig where I first saw them involved such pranksterish events as half the band holding down a metronomic grinding noise, where the other half ran around the audience with megaphones, bellowingly advising us not to worry as (in their own words) “this is just a test.” The next gig they held aloft a goldfish bowl while intoning solemnly “listen to the fish”.

Modernism had long passed from cultural threat to heritage industry, something else to stick on tea towels. But Dada was set against making itself so palatable, and while great reassemblers Faust were never citational as so many others had been. What they inherited was the irreverent spirit of Dada, not its detritus. 

Andy Wilson’s ’Faust Stretch Out Time' is in all honesty not a great book. But it does hit on something important: “Not afraid to go the whole hog in their assault on instrumental reason, they share with punk and early rock and roll a love of the purely negative, the primitivism and hooliganism progressive rock wanted to repress as messy and demeaning.”

So, even as Faust assembled crazy sonic collages, they had the insight that Dada and rock music didn’t need stitching together in a shotgun marriage, that they could find the Dada in rock music and vice versa. Both were a visceral assault on the senses, both were at war with good taste. As Hugo Ball said of Dada: “Every word that is spoken and sung here says at least this one thing - that this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect.”

Rock music… even mainstream Rock music was always supposed to have something absurd about it. Mick Jagger’s prancing on stage, the sort of thing they might make into a BBC4 documentary these days, was absurd and was meant to be taken as absurd. The absurdity was beloved to us but also necessary, a skin of prickles to inoculate ourselves against being absorbed into mainstream culture. We didn’t want them to start taking us seriously. We wanted them to stop being able to take themselves seriously. And Faust just upped the ante on all that.

(Look back at that list of characteristics and the band most akin to Faust wouldn’t be Can or even another Krautrock outfit, but Boredoms.)

I would swear to all the above on a stack of Bibles. And yet…

Their Home The Borderlands

And yet Faust were well-known for their innovative album sleeves, almost as much as for their innovative music. Which, despite their Dada debt, weren’t at all collagey and overloaded, but stark, minimal and modernistic. Less akin to Frank Zappa, for all that they were fans, closer to the Velvet Underground.

And there was always that side to Faust musically, where tracks could be just great slabs of sound. They most obviously exulted in the glow of the held-down chord on ’Outside The Dream Syndicate’, the album they made with Tony Conrad, but it’s an element that was always there. When they wanted, they could be as serene as they were deranged. A German Swiss Army knife, remember?

And yet we’re still not done with the “and yets”. Faust weren’t a band to play by anyone’s rules, including their own. Though often portrayed as irrepressible mavericks, who blasted off for lands unknown, it would be more accurate to say that they hit a sweet spot. In something which they do share with Can, they proved remarkably adept at writing great songs packed with catchy hooks, better in fact than most who think of that as their day job. Faust could combine being insanely catchy with being just plain insane. (Presumably how, combined with manager Uwe Nettlebeck’s patter, they were able to sucker Polydor into signing what they sold as “the German Beatles.”)

However influential Krautrock became, individual tracks are rarely covered. Perhaps some Kraftwerk numbers, showing how far from their roots they ranged. Radiohead did Can’s ’Thief’, but they’re dreadful so it doesn’t matter much. Whereas Faust songs have seen covers. Simply because they’re such great songs! ’Baby’ is a swipe at a Sixties pop song and a perfect pop song at one and the same time, much like the Fugs’ ’Crystal Liaison’ or Zappa’s ’Let Me Take You To the Beach’.

It was like they operated from some secret lair which lay between the wild country of free impro and the ordered Kingdom of songwriting, and, innate outlaws, regularly staged bandit raids into both. Their home turf was the borderlands. You learnt you couldn’t expect anything from them, not even the unexpected. Take the opening of ’Rainy Day Sunshine Girl’, where a metronomic industrial grind transforms before your ears into a catchy song, without you ever being sure exactly when or how it does it.

(For that reason I’m less keen than others on their first album, which maxed out on sound collage and minned out on songs. Rush-written to placate an anxious label, it has a faintly homework-done-the-night-before vibe.)

As we’ve seen, and like most music scenes, Krautrock came from a specific time and place. Inevitably, what gave it a birth also gave it a death. Many of those involved went on to other great things, but they were other things. Yet Faust packed up, then picked up again fifteen years later, right from where they’d been. And continue today, undeterred by the blandness and homogeneity of our times. You can’t kill the spirit. At least, not *their* spirit…


  1. "Unrelentingly inventive, they can seem to point in every conceivable direction at once; styles and approaches which other bands could have built whole careers from are taken up and discarded again within minutes."

    This sounds exactly like the kind of thing I love.

    But now I am terrified to actually listen to it, because it can only disappoint.

  2. Fair warning, Faust are *very* Dada, and I'm no sure how Mike Taylor Dada is.

    That said, as an entry point I'd suggest either the second album, 'So Far', or the fourth one. Called, with uncharacteristic literalism, '4'.