Barbaric, Mystical and Bored: The Miracle of Neu!’s ‘Hallogallo’

How a West German band created the anthem of infinity.

April 24, 2018 5:00 am
Neu! perform in Rome. (Photo by Simone Cecchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)
Neu! perform in Rome. (Photo by Simone Cecchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)
Corbis via Getty Images

Barbaric, mystical, and bored.

Every idea, every lie, everything mundane or artful, hurtful or halo-given, circles the globe seven and a half times a second. Barbaric, mystical, and bored. Your grandparents, who you become more and more like each groaning second of your life, were on one side or the other of the most cataclysmic war ever fought. This makes everything in your life political, every scratch of existence reactive, whether it’s Pet Sounds, Pynchon, or Charles in Charge. Barbaric, mystical, and bored.

According to a character in The Tin Drum, written by Gunther Grass 57 years ago, this is the name of our last century: Barbaric, mystical, and bored. And this, too, is a fitting name for our new century, rapid, screeching, bleeding, distracted, trivial and apocalyptic: Barbaric, mystical, and bored.

And the song of these barbaric, mystical, and bored centuries is “Hallogallo” by Neu!.

I am not interested, not terribly, anyway, in the cultural confessions to be found in lists on social media, but I’ll play along, if only for one song. “Hallogallo” changed everything about the way I hear music; and I return to it, again and again, because it always teaches me something. It is living, as all great recordings should be, it resists death via familiarity, it refuses to stay on the wall of the museum, it insists on leaping off the canvas and dragging you around. It is a portal to endless discovery, invention, reinvention, and examination.

“Hallogallo,” a patient yet urgent exercise in perpetual rockband motion in the age of man-machine, was recorded in 1971. It is the first track on the first album by the revolutionary and profoundly influential minimalist West German avante-rock band, Neu!, a duo comprised of Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger.

“Hallogallo” is the anthem of infinity. Hallogallo is the anthem of infinite possibility, infinite imagination, infinite industry, and infinite invention. Its ticking, buzzing, chug-chug-CHICKa-chug-chug-CHICKa wraps the listener in the cocoon of a dream car, seal-colored and sealed tight; the cherry-black interior glows bioluminescent blue, and it takes you to the future while whispering, I am the ancient drone and stomp and hum that you know deep in your seeds. I am barbaric, mystical, bored. I am “Hallogallo.”

Even if it’s exquisitely strange (there are no vocals, no true chord changes, and it’s just over ten minutes long), “Hallogallo” is instantly familiar. That’s because we are all acquainted with the whirr and the rhythm of the mechanical age: the shuffle of the railroad, the tick-tock of the clock, the persistence-of-vision Muybridge-isms of the highway center strip, the traversal reversal A to B and back again of the 0’s and 1’s that wrap around all of us, always. HumClickHumZeroOneZeroOne, this is the new mantra of nature, HumClickHumZeroOneZeroOne; where once man heard birds, streams, the rumble of the growing, creaking angry earth, even the opening and closing of flowers as the smogless sun hit them, we now hear the high tinnitus whine of electronics, the low hum of the high-steel fridge, even, when we listen closely, the wrapping and unwrapping of the binary ribbons that circle the world in two blinks.

“Hallogallo” is a song played by guitar and drums (I have never detected a bass, but did King David need bass when the bone-horns of the Addax led his armies into battle? More pragmatically, Klaus Dinger’s four-to-the-bar kick drum provides a more than adequate bottom for the track).

It fades in, as it should, since it has always been there–“I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb”–so, of course, it fades in. It is a fantastically simple song, formed out of just a few elements: a tic-tock wah-wah, almost like a click track, so endless and persistent that it appears to vanish from perception; an adamant yet muted melodic/rhythmic guitar line that spells a complimentary, interlocking cadence; a gentle choir of backwards and forwards fluty guitars, maybe played by e-bowed, or perhaps it’s just sweetly/neatly controlled feedback; and underneath, locked into the guitars, we have the definitive meridian-line of the motorik beat, played by snare, kick, and hi-hat, with the emphasis on the 3rd beat. Meshed together, with space and patience and urgency, the few but full elements of “Hallogallo” sound like the second hand on the watch of the creator, like both a commentary on the Industrial Revolution and an anticipation of the binary clock.

Mostly, “Hallogallo” just runs in front of you, runs after you, reaches up within you and records your heartbeat and holds a race between that and your pulse, and creates a kind of horizon-to-horizon focus. There is a sense of the music following linear perspective to a vanishing point and taking you along, which is to say this track is to rock what Paolo Uccello or Brunelleschi were to art and architecture: “Hallogallo” creates lines and depth and the insinuation of eternity where earlier there had only been a world without dimension. It is an inimitable blend of serenity and tension, it is poised like the future’s toaster at the end of the bathtub, it coils, winds, and unwinds slowly without release, causing us to visualize a highway disappearing into the horizon with no clear destination, demanding us to attend to the journey: mystical, barbaric, bored.

I have never, ever felt that “Hallogallo” needed a proper chord change. Neu! want us to understand that the sound of this one chord is infinite, that the harmonic sequence it implies spirals into infinity. “Hallogallo” reminds us of the sound of the ram’s horn echoing off the walls and columns of the Old Temple — can you still hear it? Can you still pray in the cradle of its harmony? It reminds us that there is an old tree on the outer banks of North Carolina, a crepe myrtle whose brittle wood is beard-gray year round, and there is a woman-shaped crack on a side of the tree that still holds the reverberations of the spitting engine of the first Wright Brothers flight. “Hallogallo” reminds us of the river bridges that still reflect the sound of Towers’ crashing, and it reminds us of the stretch of the Union Pacific line between Orem and Provo where the Canyons are so full of angles that the sound of the railroad never, ever fades. We listen to “Hallogallo” and we may even recall those hysterics and academics who say that inside the Arc of Covenant we will find a sound, a noise, sonic weapon, or maybe just a whisper, telling us the true name of god.

I feel every single musician or would-be musician, regardless of genre or expertise, needs to study this recording. “Hallogallo” teaches non-attachment to everything but eternity and possibility. See, we have been taught that rock’n’roll and pop music is one thing or another: taut or clever, commercial or strange, black or white, this or that. But that kind of perception is stasis, and stasis is death. Everything you know about pop music is just a beautiful distraction; the future will be unlearned. See, “Hallogallo” taught me that rock’n’roll can reflect what’s in our primordial memory: ageless prayers, bone flutes and animal skin drums, whirring looms, the hiss of gas light, the silence of the big bang, Surfin’ Bird.

Do you remember, friends, when rock’n’roll was just a rumor? When you had heard the word, but did not know the sound? Try to remember that time, on the autumn playground, or in front of the Motorola, or in the bathtub, or while eating Chicken’n’Stars, when you first heard the word. And you imagined what it might be: Was it oh, motorcycle engines revving up, or leaf blowers screaming? Was it the threat of sex in the reflection of a greaser’s leather jacket? Was it the wind whupping your ears when you stuck you head out of the car? Was it the excitement you felt when the screaming stopped?

“Hallogallo” reminds us of what we thought rock’n’roll would be before we were told what rock’n’roll was.

“Hallogallo” says, “I am the sound of the highway heard from the crib, whistling and dopplering in the distance; I am the reassuring sound of the refrigerator humming, sometimes in the old kitchen on an afternoon when you are just home from elementary school, sometimes in the beer fridge at the bodega down the street; I am the sound of the furnace in the basement, a low rumble that lets you know that industry will keep you warm; I am the unseen sound of every word and number, all trade and all trivia, chopped up into zeroes and ones; I am the echo of the chop-chop squeak of your sneakers on the middle school gym floor, and your grandfather’s sneakers on his gym floor, and your granddaughter’s sneakers on her gym floor.” And this is Hallogallo; it takes in every possibility, it is our DNA set to the sound of electric guitars.

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