It is the mid-1980s and a British colleague introduces a German producer to a band from Dublin, Ireland. The Brit is convinced the German is the right man to produce the band’s next album. However, after a brief meeting with the band, the German comes to a completely different conclusion. “I cannot work with that singer,” he says, turning the job down. “That singer” was Bono Vox, the band U2, the album The Joshua Tree, the British producer Brian Eno and the German producer Conny Plank. This story is typical of Conny Plank. His contemporaries describe him as an extremely amiable producer, yet he could quickly forget all graciousness when it came to issues like work ethic and the ignorance of the media and the music industry.
Conny Plank was a name anyone who grew up with cutting-edge music in the 1970s and early 1980s was bound to be familiar with, particularly if he or she read the small print on record covers – a habit not at all uncommon among music enthusiasts. The phrase “Produced by Conny Plank” could be found on dozens of record covers. Many of these albums – from bands like Kraftwerk, Neu!, La Düsseldorf, Kluster, Michael Rother, Ash Ra Tempel, Scorpions, Brian Eno, Can, Ultravox, DAF, Devo, Eurythmics – are now considered classics.
Konrad Plank was born in the town of Hütschenhausen in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany on 3 May 1940. In 1963 he began working in the Cologne studio of Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR, West German Broadcasting). He later left to become an assistant producer and sound engineer at Cologne’s Rhenus Studio, where he oversaw recordings by a diverse range of artists, including Marlene Dietrich, Duke Ellington and Karlheinz Stockhausen. At the end of the sixties and in the early seventies he worked as a freelance producer on such albums as Tone Float, the sole recording from the Kraftwerk forerunner band Organisation, the first two Kluster LPs Klopfzeichen and Zwei Osterei and Kraftwerk’s debut album of the same name. Things proceeded from there. Conny Plank became the driving force behind the most important 1970s German experimental bands. Yet he, with his incomparable modesty, had a different take on things. In one of his rare interviews from the February 1982 edition of Musikexpress, Plank is quoted as saying, “The job of the producer – beyond the technological aspect – is, as I understand it, to create an atmosphere that is completely free of fear and reservation, to find that utterly naïve moment of ‘innocence’ and to hit the button at just the right time to capture it. That’s it. Everything else can be learned and is mere craft.” This is a massive understatement that completely ignores Plank’s passion for musical experimentation, his willingness to take risks, his propensity for breaking through established paradigms and his search for new forms of musical expression. Midge Ure, singer and guitarist of Ultravox, gives us a perfect anecdote regarding Conny Plank’s radical approach to his work. While recording their 1986 album U-Vox, Ultravox had Beatles’ producer George Martin write an orchestral arrangement for the song “All in One Day”. As Midge Ure tells it, “Conny took that very expensive arrangement and ran it through a distortion module because he felt that was how an orchestra should sound. That’s how Conny was, he transformed things into something unique. He was a musician, an artist.”
Conny Plank was a star producer at a time when such a thing did not actually exist. There is no question music producers heavily influenced artists in the 1950s and 1960s: Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound technique, Sam Phillips’ discovery of Elvis and, in particular, the aforementioned George Martin, who redefined the producer’s role by taking the Beatles’ sound to the cutting edge of popular music. Yet they all operated behind the scenes. Star producers – like Rick Rubin, Steve Albini and Danger Mouse – were a phenomenon born of the 1980s. Since then many different types of producers have emerged. Some feel it is their job to capture the most authentic sound possible at a recording and spend hours recording with the microphones put in exactly the right position; others exert varying degrees of personal influence on the music itself. Conny Plank did a little of both. He was, in-effect, the third member of the band Cluster (Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius) and an equal partner and creative partner to many others. But one thing he never did was dictate a specific sound to any artist. “Everybody earns the sound they end up with,” he insisted in the interview quoted above. He felt his task was to act as a medium between musicians, sound and the audiotape.
In the aforementioned interview, Plank comes across as someone who consciously stayed in the background, someone to whom modesty was a virtue. At the outset of the conversation he requested the interviewing journalist give him “a convincing reason” why readers should be interested in a story about him, as he was merely, “someone who turned nobs and moved equalizers around.” Later in the interview, Plank tells us that he has hung all of this Gold records in the loo – an ironic act of quiet rebellion against the badges of honour the music industry showers upon itself. A few lines later, he foreshadows his reasoning for turning down the offer to produce U2: “For half a year now I’ve been in a position to produce only what I want to produce for the first time ever. So now I can turn down production jobs that would be very lucrative if I don’t want to do them. I’ve done that twice in the last six months.”
Conny Plank was always a step ahead of the studio technology of his time. He employed self-made devices and equipment and a modified mixing console to realize his artistic visions on tape. Using a complicated recording technique, he created the effects of a polyphonic sampler before its inception. Brian Eno was right when he called him an “inventor”. Midge Ure emphasizes Plank’s fondness of sounds. “He was much different to other producers I had worked with before because he was constantly musing over sound. He created wonderfully unique atmospheres.”
Michael Rother, who worked with Conny Plank for many years as a solo artist and as member of the bands Kraftwerk, Neu! and Harmonia has his own memories of Conny: “There was no other sound engineer or producer in the music scene besides Conny who would have guided us in our search for a new form of expression and our own musical identity the way he did. Our partnership with Conny was just natural. He had this immense talent to intuitively grasp our intentions and to create fantastic soundscapes, despite the limitations of recording technology at the time.” Plank loved the sound of electronic instruments. “I like synthesizers when they sound like synthesizers and not like instruments. Using a drum machine for electronic music is okay, but not if you try to make it sound like a real drummer,” he once commented.
In the summer of 1974 Plank opened his own recording studio 35 kilometres south of Cologne, in Wolperath, 35. It was located on a farm in a former pigsty. In the years that followed it would become a favourite meeting place of musicians. “It was brilliant, and so relaxed. We lived there. It was like our home. It was great, the place had a very creative atmosphere,” recalls Midge Ure.
Dieter Moebius also worked with Conny Plank over the course of many years in various constellations: with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Conrad Schnitzler as a member of Kluster; then with the follow-up band Cluster – with a “C” – formed after Schnitzler left the band; with Harmonia and in the duo Moebius & Plank. According to Moebius, “Chance was a big part of our work. The first take was the best take, we didn’t have to polish it up much. We focused on the work that came later, post-production, editing. Conny even edited 24-track tapes, and that is a very special craft. We would tweak it a bit on the mixing console, but perfecting it wasn’t the priority at recording sessions.” Michael Rother confirms this first-take policy when discussing the recording of the track “Hero” for the Neu! 75 album: “The first take usually has a special magic to it. When Klaus Dinger recorded the vocals for ‘Hero’ I was sitting in the control room with Conny. Klaus was screaming his lungs off with rage and despair. Conny and I looked at each other thinking, ‘This is right on.’ But Klaus said, ‘No, no, we have to record that again.’ The second take was indeed ‘more correct’, in the sense that it wasn’t as powerful and absorbing as the emotion-filled first take, which still fascinates me and many other people today.” Rother gives Plank the greatest compliment a musician can give to a producer. “I’ve been doing loads of interviews around the world in recent years. And if an interviewer doesn’t mention it, I cut in and tell whoever it is that we have to think of Conny Plank, we and the fans of our music have to remember his crucial creative contributions and be thankful to him for them. Only mentioning the band and the musicians isn’t enough. Without Conny we wouldn’t have managed a lot of things, and not just the Neu! albums.
Conny Plank died of cancer on 18 December 1987. He did not live to see the day when music producers would be celebrated as if they were superstars. The “hippie, the big bear who delved into his creative manias with unbelievable energy and passion” (Michael Rother) would be a superstar himself today. One can only assume he would care less and simply hang up a few more gold records – in his loo.