Faust: Breaking all the Rules


Audion, 13 Nov 1989

Audion is a well regarded magazine covering many topics of interest to fans of 70's German avant-rock. You can contact Audion at Audion, c/o Ultima Thule, 1 Conduit St, Leicester LE2 0JN, UK

A lot of mystery has surrounded the band Faust, like 'Who were they?', 'What happened to them?', 'Are they really all driving taxis?'. But seriously, the mystique that surrounded the band was totally intentional, calculated for maximum impact, their music and the presentation of the albums caught the public awareness almost instantly without any concerts or hyped publicity.

Faust (German for "fist") were the brainchild of journalist Uwe Nettelbeck, who was approached by a Polydor A&R man with the idea of doing something new, unlike anything in the Anglo-Saxon rock scene. To boldly go where no band has gone before! With a large advance from Polydor they converted a small school hall outside Wümme (between Hamburg and Bremen) into a Faust circa 1972well equipped studio. Along with the help of engineer Kurt Graupner the 6 specially recruited musicians began to play, record, isolate themselves from the world and develop a sound that was uniquely their own.

Score for the Hamburg Musichalle Concert, 1971After 6 months or so Faust made their debut live performance in Autumn 1971 at the Hamburg Musikhalle. Reactions to this concert were very mixed, the music press gave Faust the critical thumbs down whilst audience reaction was one of startled curiosity or bewilderment.

It may not be surprising then that when Faust's debut album appeared in Germany in late 1971 that it too was slagged off by the press. Initially sales were very poor, reputedly well below the 1,000 mark. Contrastingly however, when Faust was unleashed upon the British public, with its totally clear packaging (album, sleeve and insert) and eye-catching clenched fist design, amongst the wave of German weirdness, the likes of which were being imported by Virgin and Fox Records, it gained a lot of reaction. To quote John Peel: 'When I saw their extraordinary first LP with its equally extraordinary sleeve and felt that, regardless of the music within, I had to acquire one'.

The word 'extraordinary' sums up Faust quite nicely, 35 minutes of excessive invention, a bewildering yet exciting blend of rock, weirdness, parody, and lots of things no one had ever heard before. Opening with distorted electronics and static, snippets of "Satisfaction" and "All You Need is Love" break the airways, a piano link brings in an offbeat brass band which in turn is joined by strange collage and vocal effects, and that's just the first 3 minutes! From here on things get even stranger. Even by todays standards Faust is still a weird album.

Due to their success in England, the next Faust album So Far was released here first. Again the packaging was novel, nigh-on all black with a portfolio of art inserts (one representing each track). So Far presented a very different Faust, with proper tracks and songs - well, kind of. Here, Faust's humour comes across most strongly, the lyrics to No Harm - 'Daddy take a banana, tomorrow is Sunday' - are sung repeatedly with such conviction, the listener is always left with the feeling 'do these lyrics really mean anything, or is it all a joke?'. Whatever So Far covers a lot of ground and is a most intelligently produced and performed album, featuring a lot more frenzied rock riffing than previously, more textured arrangements, and lots of off-the-wall ideas that work incredibly well.

It seems that Polydor (in the UK) began to think of Faust as a pop band, releasing an alternative version of the So Far track as a single. An excellent little record, it sadly went by unnoticed.

In the meantime, Wümme had become a renowned studio. Alcatraz, a one album wonder, recorded an album undoubtedly influenced by Faust, yet more towards heavy blues rock (a la Frumpy etc). Vampire State Building is well worth the attention of all Faust devotees. Also, the international trio Slapp Happy recorded their debut "Sort Of" there, and were aided by 3 Faust members.

Technically the third Faust album, "Outside the Dream Syndicate", was a collaboration with American avant-gardist Tony Conrad. This featured just one very long track per side of monotonous, though not tedious, linear music for violin, bass, drums and electronics. The blending of minimalist styles and Faustian rock is a most successful exercise.

Now with the newly founded Virgin Records label, Faust come to England for a debut performance in London. A most curious album followed shortly afterwards: The Faust Tapes, part of Virgin's massive publicity campaign, was released at the price of a single (then 48p!) - understandably it sold well. A collection of various archive recordings, The Faust Tapes is an inventive and bizarre collection of weird songs, off-the-cuff ideas, freaked out improvisations, wild montages, electronic onslaughts and more, all cleverly segued and edited. As an introduction to Faust, everyone should start here.

To record their fourth album, Faust were invited to The Manor Studios in Oxfordshire. The resultant album Faust IV was very different to its predecessor proper So Far, obviously due to the change of surroundings! Even more deeply rooted in parody, the opener Krautrock is 12 minutes of fuzzed out of proportion rock, relentless, evolving and growing. The Sad Skinhead is a whacky lop-sided reggae song that initially sounds out of place, but as the album develops one sees it as a logical part of the Faust jigsaw - radical but just in the right place.

After further tours with a rapidly changing line-up, Faust eventually disappeared. Rumour's are that Nettelbeck lost interest in the band after Virgin (due to a change in policy) refused to release their fifth album. Other rumours abound that they are still together in Germany doing small shows where they invite audiences to join in. Whatever, if this was the end of Faust historically it wasn't the end as far as releases and public interest went.

In 1979, due to the growing rarity value of Faust albums, the newly formed label Recommended Records reissued the first 2 albums with their original packaging, and later a repackaged version of The Faust Tapes. Also material from sessions known as "Faust Party #3" was issued on two 7" records as well as a track on the Recommended Records Sampler. These limited editions were later to form the aptly titled The Last Album.

Prior to this however, a collection of unreleased live and studio recordings, nicknamed "The Faust Tapes #2", was issued as Münich and Elsewhere. The title seemed to confuse some people, believing that Faust had in fact reformed, but not so! The recordings help fill in a few more gaps of the Faust puzzle, giving a glimpse at the intensity of their live work as well as some more extreme facets like the crazed Sixties parody Baby. The Last Album appeared early this year, strictly a limited numbered edition of 1,988 copies, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Recommended Records. it's another excellent collection of tracks that show the extreme diversity of talent that existed in Faust. A few tracks are alternative takes of older recordings, some of the new compositions display hitherto unheard Faust styles.

As far as releases go that's the end of the Faust story, except that rumour has it that the "Faust 5" tapes still exist, and there's also an excellent John Peel session recorded in 1973.

So, even though Faust never made it big in their homeland, as was part of Polydor's original intention, their international reputation and popularity no doubt exceeded expectations for at least a short while. Today, Faust are a highly revered legend, a landmark in German rock history, worthy of everyone's attention.

Audion, "Faust: Breaking all the Rules", Audion 1989