The Ambient Century

Mark Prendergast

Bloomsbury, 2000

"The Faust Tapes is well worth the effort for it's ability to amble along ambiently in the background."

Much loved by the British rock intelligentsia, Faust were one of the most extreme rock groups ever to come out of Germany. Unfortunately, the bulk of their music was and still is unlistenable. More a socio-political experiment in hippie and free-music aesthetics, Faust had the dubious honour of being the best 'krautrock' band of all time - an unattractive epithet which they nevertheless acknowledged on their fourth Virgin album, released in 1974. Their popularity in the UK stems from their adoption of the noise + melody + accident = cool music aesthetic of The Velvet Underground. As far as I am concerned their true importance lies in the use of tape-collage and chance, a sort of rock-soup meeting of Cage and Stockhausen and the fact that they sold 100,000 copies of these tape experiments in 1973 to an unsuspecting audience.

The background to Faust makes pretty funny reading. Two underground Hamburg groups meet a middle-class revolutionary magazine editor named Uwe Nettelbeck in the late 1960's. He has persuaded Polydor records that the sound of youthful unrest would sell. With two drummers (sic), the frenchman Jean-Hervé Péron on bass and guitar and various others on keyboard and tapes, the groups merge into Faust and are given money by Polydor. They get a house in the country and settle down to a diet of pure LSD 25 and electronic experiment. Polydor, thinking that more money will improve the sound quality, provide them with the means to convert an old school house in Wümme (between Bremen and Hamburg) into a state-of-the-art studio. Engineer Kurt Graupner customises synthesisers and sound effects into black boxes which can be triggered at will. Tape is the chief tool, and Gunter Wüsthoff its main manipulator. The group live in the studio, growing their own marijuana and recording in bed

Faust (Polydor 1971), marketed in clear vinyl with a clear-perspex sleeve, was the first result of Faust's collage-improv rock. It began with excerpts from The Beatles and The Stones and went downhill all the way to the end. So Far (Polydor, 1972) improved on the raggedness of sound, but sounded like the dope-rock it was. Faust's real strength lay in their studio experiments and their ability to collage these into a meaningful whole. Attracting the attention of American violinist Tony Conrad (who had played with the pre-Velvet Underground Dream Syndicate), they then recorded an experiment in repetitive music titled "Outside The Dream Syndicate" (Caroline 1973). Alienated from Polydor, they were picked up by the fledgling Virgin, who marketed The Faust Tapes (1973) for all of 49p. The album sold in six figures and brought German rock to a mass British audience. The album would be Faust's best stab at capturing the open experiment of their studio excursions. Not just a jumble of studio out-takes, instead The Faust Tapes seemed to lay out in a series of twenty-six edits the grand electro-acoustic sweep of their experiments.

Plagued by German revolutionary factions, the group opted to tour the UK in a disastrous on-stage experiment in pure noise. A final Virgin album, Faust IV (1973), was recorded in England at the manor but the game was up. A fifth album, was attempted in luxurious surroundings in Münich but the group folded, heavily in debt. Various sporadic albums of unreleased material appeared on the London-based avant-garde Recommended Label during the 1980's. Since 1990 Jean Hervé-Péron has led a slimmed-down Faust on various American and British concerts, all of which have featured various takes on 'performance'. In 1994 they played in Death Valley in California and in London for some gigs in 1996 they brought amplified power-tools, an arc-welder and hay-threshing machinery on stage.

Mark Prendergast, p284, "The Ambient Century", Bloomsbury 2000, © 2000 Mark Prendergast