Jean-Hervé Peron, former bassist and vocalist with Faust, would like to get something straight about his old band – specifically, the period in the early 1970s when they were living in a commune in Wümme, a rural area outside Hamburg. Faust’s time in Wümme is one of the great sagas in the history of experimental rock, which begins with their wily late manager, Uwe Nettelbeck, somehow convincing Polydor that they were signing not a recently formed collection of Hamburg musicians who would prove to be the most uncompromising band in an uncompromising era for German rock – even by the standards of fellow travellers Can, Kraftwerk and Amon Düül II, Faust’s eponymous 1971 debut album was a provocative, revolutionary, flat-out weird listen – but “the German Beatles”.
Faust’s keyboard player, Hans-Joachim Irmler, thinks their manager played on the fact that Polydor had lost both the actual Beatles, who had been signed to the label for a year while still performing in Hamburg, and Jimi Hendrix “because they didn’t care enough”, concentrating their attention on the lightweight, upbeat brand of Mitteleuropean bubblegum pop known as schlager. Having extracted a reputed DM 30,000 (roughly £160,000 today) out of the company, Faust decamped to an old school in Wümme, at which point the story gets more legendary still. Vast quantities of drugs were taken and the wearing of clothes was optional. Meals were frequently taken in the nude and the band’s original drummer, Arnulf Meifert, rode a donkey naked through a nearby village.
The German police turned up at one point, in the mistaken belief that the girlfriend of one band member was Gudrun Ensslin, co-founder of the Baader-Meinhof group. Even visiting musicians were suitably disconcerted: the American avant garde composer Tony Conrad reached for the adjective “strange” to describe life in Wümme, and claimed that Faust’s members were so stoned that none of them could actually remember making the collaborative album Outside the Dream Syndicate during his stay.
The thing is, says Peron, the stories about Wümme are so lurid they overshadow how much work Faust did there. “Of course, we had a grand time, and we were naked. We were stoned a lot, we had a lot of good times. But most of the time, we were in the studio. We never practised, but we always jammed, improvised, recorded music: 80% of the time, we were in the studio. We had an opportunity and we used it. I mean, it’s not like we did fuck all and just enjoyed the money. We didn’t have money. That’s another myth about Faust: that we had thousands of marks thrown at us. It went into the studio, paying for the sound engineer and new equipment. We drove an old rusty car and sometimes ate dog food – things like that. No stardom there. But we had a good life.”
In fairness, this does slightly contradict Irmler’s suggestion that Faust were “the laziest band ever”. One Wümme story has Irmler hooking up his keyboard via a long cable, so that he didn’t have to leave his bed to contribute to recordings. But you can’t argue with the sheer visionary potency of the music. Five decades on, 1971’s Faust and 1972’s So Far still sound incredible. They’re part of an epic new box set of their music in those early years. The former is a crazed, three-track torrent of tape experiments, synthesized noise, distorted guitar jamming, abstract piano interludes and marching band music. The latter is “poppish” in Irmler’s estimation, which is very much a relative term: while more straightforwardly structured, it still careers from Velvet Underground-ish drone rock to avant-funk to ominous ambience.
Faust’s members came from diverse musical backgrounds – Peron was a folkie, Irmler an electronics enthusiast who built his own keyboard – but they agree that Faust’s revolutionary sound was born out of the specific cultural landscape of postwar Germany and, in particular, the political and social tumult sparked by 1968’s student protest movement.
“Hitler destroyed music,” says Irmler. “It was forbidden to play this and that, so after the breakdown of the Third Reich, there was nothing left to build on except the very fantastic English and American musicians. We thought, ‘Let the British do what they are able to do, because they are brilliant, but we don’t have to make the same – that’s bullshit.’ I can’t see why I should try to play like Cream or whatever. So Faust is a unique idea, because we didn’t want to follow the common music ideas.”
“We didn’t care about conventions and we were not looking for stardom,” says Peron. “We were looking for our own music, and when I say our own I mean European, more specifically German – a music that would express all the needs and worries and dreams of German youth at the time. The three-chord blues and rock thing was not what we wanted. As I am French, I have the same problems on a French level with the war in Algeria. We don’t have such a beautiful history either. And the French popular music of the time was not satisfying. Except for the great songs – Brel and Piaf, those people – there was only bullshit. There was nothing. Somebody had to do it. We wanted to do it.”
The problem was that nobody wanted to listen to it, at least not in early 1970s Germany. The increasing alarm of Faust’s record label that the German Beatles were selling minuscule quantities of records was intensified by their first gig in Hamburg, a grand reveal complete with quadrophonic sound system, which degenerated into chaos. The sound system didn’t work properly and the technical problems were compounded by the fact that each member was equipped with a black box that not only provided electronic effects but had the ability to turn any other member down if they didn’t like what they were playing.
“If I think about that these days, it’s unbelievable,” shrugs Irmler. An onstage sculpture made of tin cans was “completely destroyed at the very beginning” of the show, rather than at its climax. Peron loved every minute. “Experimental music, man!” he laughs. “Not all experiments come to success! The experiment in itself is interesting. There wasn’t much music, but it was a happening. It was a beautiful disaster.”
Polydor cut their losses: Faust decamped to the UK and a new deal with the fledgling Virgin label. They gave Faust the run of their bucolic studio The Manor to record Faust IV. “One of the girls who worked there said her boyfriend was a musician and asked if he could use the studio when we were sleeping,” recalls Irmler. “And that’s how Mike Oldfield recorded Tubular Bells.”
In the interim, they released 1973’s The Faust Tapes which was, if anything, even more challenging than their debut: 26 fragmentary, wildly contrasting tracks crammed into 43 minutes. But it sold 60,000 copies, perhaps because it retailed at 48p, Richard Branson having proved strangely resistant to the band’s idea that the album should be given away for free. “We were extremely pleased,” says Peron. “In Germany we were ignored. When we arrived in England, they opened their heart, their ears, their arms, they greeted us in the street.”
Certainly, a series of gigs was rapturously received despite – or maybe because of – the band’s extraordinary approach to live performance. At one gig, Irmler remembers, their bus was held up by roadworks. The band got out and asked a workman with a pneumatic drill to join them onstage that night. He declined, but a pneumatic drill nevertheless became part of their onstage arsenal, as did a pinball machine fed through a synthesiser, all fitting with Peron’s belief that “a live performance should not only reach the audio centres. You should see strange things, like a tenor singer being put on a scaffold and the scaffolding catching fire. In your subconscious, something becomes imbalanced, and that’s when you become receptive. Then you start asking, ‘Why?’”
He laughs. “We were accepted! People sometimes gasped, ‘What the fuck is happening out there?’ We were playing pinball machines in the dark and there was no ‘Boo, get off – you’re shit’ like in Hamburg at our first gig. Great Britain, and specifically London, is where Faust came to life, the cradle where we could grow.”
Yet it all went wrong: manager Nettelbeck quit and returned to Germany, as did Irmler, synth and sax player Gunther Wüsthoff and guitarist Rudolf Sosna. Peron recalls: “A guy who was our first roadie, Ruud Bosmer, said ‘Faust were their own worst enemy’. As soon as we got close to something nice, we tended to negate it, to destroy it. We were too much trouble for Virgin. Richard had enough, and I think I can’t blame him. We were a very difficult band to handle. We didn’t make money, we didn’t want to compromise.”
Faust regrouped in Munich for one last hurrah: Irmler convinced producer Giorgio Moroder to let them use spare time at Musicland Studios “after Donna Summer went home at night”. They recorded an album that is now being released for the first time as Punkt; it’s part of the new box set. When Virgin declined to pay the band’s bills, says Peron, “We split, we disappeared. We had no money, no goal any more, nothing. And that was the end.”
But it wasn’t. Faust’s music proved hugely influential, on post-punk and beyond: a list of their admirers would include everyone from Stereolab to Simple Minds, from rapper-producer Madlib – who sampled 1974’s The Sad Skinhead – to Radiohead, who paid homage with the title of 2007’s Faust Arp. Sonic Youth, Dalek and Nurse With Wound all collaborated with ex-members or latter-day incarnations of Faust. Despite all that, Peron dismisses talk of the band’s importance. “I was never aware of that. Never – and still not now. When I hear some groups telling me, ‘Ah, Faust changed our band’s life, you inspired us so much’, of course it’s a warm feeling. But my most beautiful moments are when my grandchildren seem to like some of our songs. To me, that’s great. But of course, most of the time when they hear Faust it’s ‘Argh! No! No! No!’”