Conny Plank was one of the most radical sound-shapers of the 20th century. He was a driving force behind many of the pioneering German bands of the 1970s, including Neu! and Cluster. Plank engineered Kraftwerk's inventive early material; his fingerprints can be found on Autobahn (1974). He was a key element of records by Brian Eno, DAF, Devo, Ultravox, Les Rita Mitsouko, Whodini, and many more.
Plank, who was sometimes termed the ‘Lee “Scratch” Perry of Krautrock’, was an engineer's engineer, a producer's producer. When he died 25 years ago of cancer, aged 47, he left behind a rich musical legacy. Kraftwerk was recently enshrined in a flashy retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, accompanied by waves of flattering media hype. Portions of Can's legendary Inner Space Studios have been installed in Germany’s national Rock and Pop Museum in Gronau. Plank's famed studio outside Cologne, meanwhile, was recently razed to make way for faceless condominiums. His gear, much of it hand-built or custom-modified, was disassembled and sold to collectors. Plank’s studio lives on only in anecdotes, and in the radical sounds of the records made there.
Plank cut his teeth as a sound man to Marlene Dietrich and assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel before settling near Cologne, in the tiny town of Hütchsenhausen. There, he built his one-of-a-kind home recording studio from the ground up. Germany had several legendary studios in the 1970s – Kling Klang, Inner Space, Hansa – but Plank's was the most special of them all. ‘Conny's studio became the most important meeting point for groups and artists who were somehow new and “important,”’ remembers Holger Czukay of Can, one of Plank's closest friends.
Plank produced Neu!’s first two records – Neu! (1972) and Neu! 2 (1973) – before he had a studio. ‘He managed to create the sounds of the first and second Neu! albums with next to nothing,’ marvels Neu!’s guitarist Michael Rother. ‘When we were recording ‘Negativland’, I remember seeing Conny standing between two analogue tape machines, doing the phasing manually by slowing down one machine and then the other machine. He did that in a very physical way.’
For Plank, music wasn't interesting unless it was crazy. ‘Craziness is something holy,’ he declared in an interview with Musician magazine shortly before his death in 1987. Plank was tall and physically powerful, with a shock of red hair and a fiery personality. ‘He was healthily opinionated,’ remembers Brian Eno. ‘[Conny] had no hesitation in telling you when he didn't like something – and wanted to be surprised, to hear something new. This is the opposite of what a lot of engineers and producers are after: they want to make something that sounds like something else they've heard. Conny always seemed to enjoy the idea that something we didn't yet recognize would appear.’
Behind Plank's imposing frame and strong opinions lay a ‘friendly and warmhearted’ person, says Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster. ‘He cared about us personally. We lived for a while in his house in Hamburg and also in his place near Cologne. He believed strongly in what we did and he supported us a lot.’
Dieter Moebius, who collaborated with Plank extensively both in Cluster and in numerous solo collaborations, agrees. ‘He was like a third member of Cluster,’ says Moebius. ‘He also toured with us sometimes and helped us to carry around the cases, because he was big, tall, and strong.’
As an engineer, Plank was endlessly creative. ‘Conny would use anything to get the sound he wanted,’ recalls John Foxx, who worked with Plank during the making of Ultravox's Systems of Romance (1978). ‘Nothing was too much trouble. During the recording of Systems…, for instance, he recorded vocals outside and in the big barn, [and] he also put them through Marshall valve guitar amplifiers. On other songs he'd put them through a Hammond rotary speaker. He'd also play instruments into a speaker placed in the grand piano – to catch extra harmonics from the sympathetic string vibrations.’ Rother remembered Plank's key contribution to ‘Hallogallo’, one of the all-time classic Neu tracks. ‘I remember when I was in the recording room after Klaus [Dinger] and I recorded the basic tracks for “Hallogallo”,’ says Rother. ‘I was in the recording room doing some overdubs, and Conny decided to turn around the tape, and that inspired me so much. I love backwards-sounding music so much, and pitched-down music, slow music. That changed the whole scenery. I recorded new guitars, more guitars… and everything was turning around again. You end up with the backwards and forwards flying guitars that you hear in “Hallogallo”. That was a stroke of genius from Conny – at that exact moment, that was what I was looking for.’
Eno remembers visiting Plank's studio several times, notably during the making of Music for Airports (1978). (Plank's wife Christa Fast provided some of the vocals for the album.) ‘The first piece on Music for Airports – “1/1” – I made in England with Rhett Davies,’ says Eno. ‘Conny helped me make the rest, though I'd pretty much decided how I would do them beforehand. However, where he really made a contribution was in recording all the source material from which the loops were made. The piano, the voices, and the ARP synthesizer that I used all went through Conny's little magic Panzer preamp – he looked after all of that for me and it was really only several years later that I realized how important that had been. That record sounds good, still now, and a lot of that has to do with the recordings themselves.’
Foxx, who was in and around Plank's studio during the time of the Airports sessions, recalled some intriguing details. ‘I remember Christa and the women working around the studio, who Conny and Brian asked to sing the notes – they were to be the choir which Conny built up through that loop system, from layering just two or three voices… There were certainly lots of long tape loops running right around the control room.’ The tape loops, which wrapped all the way around the studio, were balanced precariously on pencils. The centerpiece of Plank's studio was his custom-modified mixing desk, which he played like a live instrument.
‘I think he was interested from the very beginning in making a different kind of sound,’ says Moebius. ‘And he was very interested, of course, in technology.’ Plank’s use of technology was fluent and prescient. ‘He was from that generation of engineers – like John Wood or Rhett Davies in England – who worked with quite a limited palette of technology, compared to now, but knew it so well that he could exercise great finesse and originality with it,’ says Eno. Plank also used his mixing desk as a sampler. ‘He anticipated digital sampling by at least five years,’ says Foxx. ‘He would isolate certain notes, record them onto a stereo tape machine, loop these so they played continuously, then re-record these extended notes onto separate tracks of multi-track tape. Then you could replay all the notes selectively, through the console, by using the faders. By this method, he literally turned the mixing desk into a musical instrument – in fact, it was the complete anticipation of a polyphonic sampler.’
Plank also rigged a special system to take a photograph of the entire mixing console, to ‘save’ his work in the days before digital. ‘He was an inventor,’ says Eno. ‘When I was working there he'd developed an early automation system which consisted of a specially developed camera lens mounted above the console, so that you could take a picture at the end of the session of the state of the console. Then if you wanted to set the desk up in the same way at some point in the future, you'd project the picture you'd taken down through the same lens so that the image perfectly lined up with the desk. Thus you could move every knob back to its original position. It was an insane idea that probably only a German would have a) thought of and b) made work.’ Plank's virtuosity at the mixing desk knew no bounds. ‘In Conny's hands, a simple tool always turned into a sophisticated instrument,’ Plank's erstwhile assistant Petrus Wippel explained to John Diliberto in Musician in 1987, detailing how Plank had re-routed the channels on his mixing desk in order to ‘pan an instrument left and right, as well as dry and wet, with only one fingertip, thus making a guitar solo fly through time and space during a mixdown session.’
Stephan Plank, who was 13 when his father died, remembers a parent with a dry, gentle sense of humour. (He is now working on a major documentary about his father’s life and work.) As a small child, he says, he would sometimes hear his dad speaking to him through a vocoder, piped through a hidden speaker. On his fifth birthday, he remembers, Plank gave him a pocketknife and a box of plasters to go with it, just in case.
Jalil Hutchins, a member of the rap group Whodini, recalls the culture shock of coming to Plank’s studio in Hütchsenhausen from New York in the early 1980s. ‘Two young black guys out of Brooklyn,’ he says. ‘This might have only been my third time away from home… and I’m in the countryside of Germany.’ But he says Plank tried to make them feel comfortable in the small German town. ‘His studio was like a magic land,’ marvels Hutchins, who recalls, laughing, that Plank hid all of his gold and platinum LPs in the guest bathroom.
Plank’s ingenuity in the studio extended far beyond its walls. ‘I recall one evening, after we'd been working all day, [Conny] said “Do you feel like a ride into the forest?”’ says Eno. ‘That seemed like a nice idea on a warm autumn evening, so we jumped into his lovely old Merc and set off. We were in the forest after about 20 minutes, sitting in the car in a sort of clearing, just birds and breeze around us. We sat talking for a few minutes. “Do you want to hear something on the radio?” he asked. I said “Why not” – though I thought it was a bit odd that he'd want to put the radio on in this bucolic place. He switched on the radio – and it suddenly broadcast the piece we'd been working on all day!’ ‘It turned out that Conny,’ Eno continues, ‘in another brilliant technological stroke, had rigged up a transmitter at the studio so that he could hear the day's work in his car – he thought, and was right, that that gave a different perspective to the music. I was impressed, not only by the idea, but by the fact that he must have secretly synchronized watches with somebody at the studio so they started playback at exactly the right moment – That was very Conny!’
First published in Issue 148