Amon Duul – Germany’s Psychedelic Rockers – Part One Out Of One Marathon Recording Session They Produced Many Albums [Parts Two, Three and Four follow immediately.]
Amon Duul – there’s a name to conjure with! Dark, mysterious, foreign, and perhaps threatening. It was – and, amazingly, still is – the name of a German band born in the dawn of the psychedelic era, back in 1967. The original Amon Duul released only five albums, but the first had four entirely-differently packaged editions, under three different titles. And then there was Amon Duul II – who have released well over a dozen albums. Let’s sort them out.
Amon Duul began life as an anarchic musical commune in Munich, Germany, in 1967. It was founded by Chris Karrer with Ulli and Peter Leopold. Karrer had been a jazz guitarist. They issued a proud declaration: “We are eleven adults and two children which are gathered to make all kinds of expressions, also musical.”
Psychedelic drugs, free-love and a shared community were the core of the commune. So also was the new psychedelic music starting to come from the United States and Britain – especially the American band, Hapshash & The Colored Coat. The commune didn’t exactly form a band – it became a band. And in the early fall of 1968 they were booked to play at the Essener Sonntag Festival, a major music festival in Germany. On the eve of the Festival, simmering differences between Karrer (and the other real musicians) and the more politically-oriented members of the commune caused a schism. Amon Duul split into Amon Duul and Amon Duul II, with Karrer taking the musicians with him to Amon Duul II.
Amazingly, both groups performed the same night at the Festival. And Amon Duul II went on to international fame. But the original Amon Duul did make several albums, led by the Leopolds. Most of their records – all but one, in fact – came out of one marathon free-form performance and recording session, with the tapes more or less arbitrarily cut to fit.
In The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, a book on German rock by British authors Steven Freeman & Allan Freeman, Amon Duul’s music is described thusly: “Typical of commune bands, Amon Duul were often quite wild and free-form. They played a high-energy bare-bones aggressive rock that was totally over-the-top in the percussion department, with raw grating guitars and wailing vocals.”
In Cosmic Dreams At Play, Dag Erik Asbjornsen takes a less enthusiastic look at the group’s music: “Through their music they wanted to reflect their various drugs and life experiences. Judging by the music they all lived rather demented lives! A typical Amon Duul track (as featured on their first two albums) consisted of rambling, repetitive congas, distant and untuned guitars and all members chanting along (or more precisely: screaming!) like it was a kind of mystic ritual going on right there in the studio.” He adds, “The sound quality left something to be desired and the production was strange, as the largely improvised studio sessions were manipulated by strange echo effects and noises.”
Amon Duul released five albums, now much sought-after collectors’ items. The first album was originally untitled, but has come to be known as Psychedelic Underground. It was issued by German Metronome as MLP 15332 in 1969. It was subsequently released in the United States as Amon Duul, by Prophesy (1003) in 1970. This edition is, if anything, even rarer. In 1973 Metronome reissued it as This Is Amon Duul (200146). And as late as 1981 it was again reissued, this time by Metronome’s psychedelic subsidiary, Brain, as Minilied (40149). That’s an amazing number of editions for a nearly unlistenable album. In 1995 the Japanese Captain Trip label put it out on CD – in a flawed edition with 29 seconds missing (CTCDB-021).
Collapsing: Singvogel Ruckwarts & Co was also released by Metronome in 1969 (SMLP 012) – striking while the iron was hot. It was drawn from the same sessions which had produced Psychedelic Underground. In 1995 Japanese Polydor released it on CD (POCP-2400).
By this point Amon Duul (mistakenly) felt they’d finished with the useable material from their studio marathon and they actually went back into the studio to record a new album. It was Paradieswartz Duul, released by another of Metronome’s psychedelic subsidiaries, Ohr (Ear) in 1971 (OMM 56008). It was more relaxed, almost folky. It was also Amon Duul’s last trip to (or in) the studio, taking place in November and December of 1970. In 1995 Captain Trip put it out on CD (CTCD-017) with their only single, “Eternal Flow” b/w “Paramechanical World,” as bonus tracks.
But the tapes from their original studio venture were far from used up – four full LP’s worth was yet to come. In 1972 BASF issued a double-LP appropriately named Disaster (29 29079-4). It was harder to sit through than Metal Machine Music. In Japan, Captain Trip issued the CD in 1995 (CTCD-022).
But the bottom of the barrel had not yet been scraped. That occurred in 1984, when the Swiss Timewind label put out Experimente (MDB 950142). This double-LP came with its tracks labeled only as “Special Track Experience Nos. 1 – 24.” Captain Trip issued it as a CD in Japan in 1995 (CTCD-014).
I should note that I’ve been using here the release dates given in the Freeman brothers’ The Crack In The Cosmic Egg. Asbjornsen’s Cosmic Dreams At Play offers somewhat different dates: He has Collapsing coming out in 1970, Disaster in 1973, Minilied in 1978 and Experimente in 1979.
While undoubtedly psychedelic pioneers, Amon Duul struck many listeners as self-indulgent and unmusical. It may well have been more fun to be Amon Duul than to listen to them. Yet, they paved the way for many more talented musicians and bands to follow – among them Amon Duul II.
Part Two: The Original Space Jammers Issued Sprawling Double-LPs
Amon Duul II is one of Germany's more interesting bands. Formed as a commune in 1967, the original Amon Duul had one main recording session, an epic affair which resulted in hours of acid-trip jamming, many of the participants non-musicians who just found something to bang on in a vaguely rhythmic fashion. This session has resulted in a number of albums, described here [above], the best-known of them the well-named Disaster. A year before that session the commune had broken into two groups – musicians in one, the non-musicians in the other, which kept the original name. The musicians formed Amon Duul II.
They were led by Chris Karrer (guitar, violin, soprano sax, some vocals), and were formed in the fall of 1968, on the eve of a major German rock festival to which “Amon Duul” was booked. Both Amon Duul and Amon Duul II played that festival on the same night.
“Their first gigs were very erratic,” Dag Erik Asbjornsen says of the group, “as some of the members had just started playing their instruments. This lack of conventional musical experience helped Amon Duul II to establish themselves as one of the major underground acts in Germany. Their reputation grew fast and they soon secured a signing with Liberty,” a German branch of the American Liberty/United Artists record label. In early 1969 they recorded their first album, Phallus Dei, released later that year in Germany (LBS 83279) with a gatefold sleeve. In 1970 a British edition was released with the same catalog number, but in a single sleeve. Two CDs have been released of this album, one on the French Mantra label (012) in 1989, and another on the German Repertoire label (REP 4274-WY) in 1993.
Steven and Allan Freeman, in their The Crack In The Cosmic Egg, take a more positive point of view, describing the band this way: “For a while, a more or less stable nucleus of six musicians was forged, whilst many others came and went. Although they were all ‘stoned out of their minds,’ during those early years, it’s quite obvious that the musicians in Amon Duul II were of the highest calibre.”
The Freeman brothers say, “Their debut album, Phallus Dei, contained a charged and purely innovative music, with bizarre structures, almost operatic and crazed (male and female) vocals, with lots of distinctly Teutonic angst, tons of percussion, dueling violins, Eastern-scale guitars, and all really tripped out to the point of excess.” They also describe the album as “like a hybrid of High Tide, Hawkwind and Third Ear Band,” referencing three British psychedelic or experimental bands. Interestingly, an English musician, bassist Dave Anderson, played at different times in both Amon Duul II and Hawkwind. Personally, I found early Amon Duul II albums not so different from those of the less musical Amon Duul – but they have a devoted following to this day.
Their second and third albums were both double-LPs, a sign of Amon Duul II’s prodigious playing. According to the Freemans, “The following two albums, both doubles, are regarded by many as the finest Amon Duul II music, extensively featuring lengthy tracks and side-long segued suites, full of musical invention, surprises throughout. The albums were Yeti (Liberty LBS 83359/60 in Germany; Liberty LSP 101 in Britain), released in both countries in 1970 – and Tanz Der Lemminge (German Liberty LBS 83473/74) released as Dance of the Lemmings (United Artists UAD 60003/4) in Britain, in 1971. Peter Leopold left Amon Duul to join Amon Duul II for the Lemmings album. Yeti has been released on CD by Mantra (010) in France in 1989, and by Repertoire (REP 4275-WY) in 1992. The U.K. version of Lemmings was released by Mantra (014) in 1989, while the German version was released by Repertoire (REP 4276-WY) in 1992.
The albums continued at a steady pace. Carnival in Babylon was released in 1972 by United Artists (UAS 29327). The Freemans say, “Reputedly, Carnival in Babylon was also planned as a double, but due to difficulties within the band, and obviously United Artists’ pushing for an album that would sell a lot after their new-found success in Britain, it appeared as a single LP with shorter song-based tracks.” Asbjornsen says of the music on this album, “It had a more melodic and accessible style.” The 1991 Mantra CD (063) duplicates the LP, but the 1995 Repertoire CD (REP 4581-WY) has two added “bonus” tracks, “Light” and “Between the Eyes,” the B-side of a 1970 single and the A-side of a 1971 single, respectively.
That same year saw the release of two other albums as well. The first was Wolf City (United Artists UAS 29406) – on which no two tracks featured the same lineup of musicians, due to the instability of the band, through which various musicians were passing at a great rate. Mantra released a CD of this album (013) in 1990; Repertoire released a CD (REP 4596-WY) in 1995.
Because the band had wanted to make Wolf City a double-LP, they recorded additional material with three musicians from the original Passport, and it was issued as Utopia – by “Utopia” (United Artists UAS 29483 in Germany; United Artists UAG 29483 in Britain). This album has been reissued on CD in France by Spalax (14878) in 1994 as an Amon Duul II album, with the addition of three bonus tracks by Amon Duul II. It was a bit jazzier (Passport nominally played jazz of the “fusion” sort) and bluesier than most of Amon Duul II’s work.
In December of 1972 the band played in Britain and a recording of their concert was released in 1973 as Live In London (United Artists UAS 29466 in Germany; United Artists USP 102 in Britain), although, as the Freemans point out, it was “actually recorded in Croydon.” Most of the material played – in “radically different versions” – was drawn from Dance of the Lemmings. A CD was released in Japan by Captain Trip (CTCD-035) in 1996.
1973 also saw the release of Vive La Trance (United Artists UAS 29504). The Freemans call this “The last true (and really creative) Amon Duul II album,” but add that it “continued this trend of musical simplification,” and was “an album of songs,” rather than spaced out tripping music. What was happening was that the musicians in the band were becoming more disciplined and more professional. They were learning to play structured music.
Part Three: The Psychedelic Rockers Turn Pop
Amon Duul II began its existence as a communal band, but as it became successful it began moving away from its early tripping, freak-out music, developing some instrumental professionalism and polish. As Steven and Allan Freeman put it in their book, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, “When the acid-haze faded, in the cold light of the mid-70s, with greater pressure from record companies, further Amon Duul II albums moved to ever more accessible mainstream rock realms.” In the mid-Seventies the band changed direction, and begin writing music that had melodies and harmonies.
This was first obvious on the 1973 Vive La Trance, discussed at the close of Part Two. This album was notable in another way: It was the first of three Amon Duul II albums to be released domestically in the United States. It was issued here in 1974 by United Artists (UA-LA198-F). Could the German band crack the American market? Well, their American record labels tried, but without an American tour to back them up and create an American presence, it didn’t happen.
In 1974 Amon Duul II left United Artists and went to Telefunken’s Nova label in Germany and Atlantic in Britain. Their first album for these new labels was Hijack (Nova 6.22056 and UK Atlantic K 50136 – although it came out in 1975 in Britain). The Freeman brothers say of it, “Hijack lived up to its title, and ‘hijacked’ from various different types of music, tangos and Bavarian folk music amongst them. It was a more trendy side-step from the songs on Vive La Trance.” The European versions of the album had gatefold covers, but the American edition, on Atlantic subsidiary Atco (SD 36-108) had only a single sleeve with art that wrapped around both sides. A CD of the album was released by the British Castle label (CLC 5009) in 1991.
Then in 1975 came a new double-LP, Made In Germany (Nova 6.28350). Dag Erik Asbjornsen, in his Cosmic Dreams At Play, tells us, “Due to bad sales, the original [album] was soon withdrawn and replaced with a condensed single LP version in a different cover.” The single-LP Made In Germany (Nova 6.22378, UK Atlantic K 50182, and US Atco SD 36-119) was song-oriented, but it lacked the scope and indeed the overall concept of the original album, which dealt with the history of Germany, and had one track in which an American-sounding MC "interviews" (in English) Adolph Hitler, whose responses (in German) are taken from recorded speeches. Interestingly this was the first Amon Duul II album to use an outside producer, Jurgen S. Korduletsch, who added strings and brass to some tracks, and wrote the original album’s introductory “Overture.” He produced the following three albums as well. Castle released a CD (CLC 5019) in 1991 of the abbreviated version of the album. In 1996 Repertoire released “The Complete Double LP on 1 CD” (REP 4631-WP), making it available again for the first time in twenty years.
After Made In Germany, lead singer Renate Knaup left the group. The Freemans tell us, “Even before the departure of Renate Knaup (she moved on to Popol Vuh) there had been hoards of changes in personnel. And, now again, it was all-change time!” They describe a number of these fluctuations and then add, “And then there was also pop singer Stefan Zauner!” Zauner (who did two solo albums, released in Germany only, in 1976 and 1977) was a keyboards player and a soft-voiced singer whose solo work sounded like a cross between the Beach Boys (vocals) and Genesis (instrumentally). He brought a fresh and strong melodic approach to Amon Duul II which completed its transformation into a song-oriented band. His first album with the band was the 1976 Pyragony X – the tenth Amon Duul II album. It was also the first not to be released outside Germany. The LP was issued by Nova (6.22890) for the German market, but, surprisingly, this – their most accessible and delightful album yet – was not picked up by Atlantic for either Britain of America. Amon Duul II had ended their attempt to crack the American market, whether they wanted to or not.
Founder-member Chris Karrer (guitar, violin, soprano sax, some vocals) says of Pyragony X: "I well remember this album which we did in 1976. ... This album was done at a time when I was asked by the record company if I would do an Amon Duul album alone, and I said, 'No, I can't do this alone.' Amon Duul was always a community thing. It was very anarchic and there was no band leader. So this one was done by the producer who started with us on the Made In Germany album." One gets the impression that this album – and the two which followed it, after which the band broke up for a number of years – is not regarded highly by the band, although Karrer admits the current (l990's) band still does the opening song on this album, "Flower of the Orient." Certainly the tight melodic focus of most of the material on this album (as well as the next two) is highly atypical of the bulk of Amon Duul II's music. I credit this to the presence of Zauner, although he is credited with only two songs of the eight on the album (not counting "Flower of the Orient," which is credited to all the members of the band including Zauner). The lyrics on the album are English, telling you the market they were seeking. Castle released a CD (CLC 5020) of the album in 1991 and Repertoire did a German CD (REP 4632-WY) in 1996.
In 1977 the band put out Almost Alive (Nova 6.23305). Although all the songs on the album are credited to the band as a whole, the obvious influence of Zauner continues, and this album is if anything better than Pyragony X. Castle released the CD (CLC 5021) in 1991.
In 1978 the band released their final album in this incarnation, Only Human (Strand 6.23561). It was a direct continuation of the previous two albums, but the band was down to a quartet and dwindling fast. Castle released it on CD (CLC 5022) in 1991. It was indeed ironic that this version of Amon Duul II was the one that the British and American record companies had been looking for – five years earlier. But it had appeared in 1976 – a watershed year in the music industry, the year of the Sex Pistols, punk rock, and a return to the music’s basics. It was too late for Amon Duul II to make the switch to a more popular form of rock; they’d been passed by.
Part Four: The Psychedelic Rockers Attempt A Revival
Amon Duul II began life in the late Sixties as a spin-off from Amon Duul, a commune which had formed a loose-knit band (as detailed in Part One of this series). By the mid-Seventies the psychedelic, spaced-out music of Amon Duul II’s early records had evolved into structured songs and Amon Duul II had become virtually a pop band. As Steven and Alan Freeman put it in their book on German rock, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, “Not surprisingly, all of this tore the Amon Duul II sound apart, losing their identity entirely. Yet it must be said that all later ‘70s Amon Duul II albums contained at least something of excellence.”
During this period the band’s songs were all written and recorded with English lyrics, but, ironically, none of them were picked up for release in Britain or the U.S. and sales slipped steadily. After 1978’s Only Human Amon Duul II broke up.
Chris Karrer attempted to reform Amon Duul II with Renate Knaup in 1981, recording Vortex for Nova’s parent label, Telefunken (6.24874). Of it, the Freemans are dismissive: “Vortex sounded like a MOR return to Vive La Trance.”
That was the effective end of the German group for almost twenty years. But the name did not die. Guitarist John Weinzierl, who was on the band’s first album and stayed with it through Almost Alive, formed a British incarnation of the band with Dave Anderson, (who had been with Amon Duul II for their first two albums and then joined Hawkwind) and various pickup musicians. The Freemans describe their records: “Their releases confused at first, being billed as ‘old recordings’ when they were no such thing. Of their four releases, the largely improvised albums, Hawk Meets Penguin and Fool Moon are highly recommended to all fans of the early Amon Duul II. A compilation, Airs On A Shoestring, also features excellent unreleased work.”
There is a lot of confusion surrounding these early-Eighties albums. Hawk Meets Penguin was released in 1982 as an LP on the tiny British Illuminated Records label (JAMS 24) in a small pressing (of less than 1,000). It was issued on CD by the Magnum Group’s Thunderbolt label (CDTB 102).
Another album “recorded in four days, 1-4 September, 1982” is Meetings With Menmachines Inglorious Heroes of the Past also from Illuminated (JAMS 27), and including Van Der Graaf Generator alum Guy Evans. It was issued on CD as Meetings With Menmachines Unremarkable Heroes of the Past on Thunderbolt (CDTB 107) with one track retitled as well.
Fool Moon (Magnum CDTL 011) and Airs On A Shoestring (Thunderbolt CDTB 043) are not albums I’ve ever seen on LP, although they were probably issued. In addition, Magnum issued Die Losung (CDTL 009) with “Special Guest” Robert Calvert, formerly of Hawkwind, on their The CD Label. None of these Magnum CDs are dated, but all probably draw on material recorded around 1982.
In 1992 Windsong released a CD in Britain, BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert Plus (WINCD 027), which drew upon 1973 BBC live broadcasts by the band while they were touring Britain. The “Plus” were three studio outtakes from the 1971 Dance of the Lemmings sessions.
In 1993 the French Spalax label released a compilation album, Surrounded by the Bars, on CD (14810 MSI). The first ten tracks are 1993 re-mixes of early-Seventies recordings, and the final two were newly recorded in 1993. The Freemans call them “embarrassing, a couple of almost disco-styled new numbers.”
Then in 1994 Chris Karrer reformed Amon Duul II, and in 1995 released a new album, Nada Moonshine #. It was released in Germany on Indigo (3065), in Japan on Captain Trip (CTCD-038), and in Britain by Mystic Records (MYSCD 106) with three extra tracks in 1996. “It seems Chris Karrer was convinced that he could make a new version of Amon Duul II work, and 1995’s resurrection attempt, Nada Moonshine #, with its high-tech focus, has gained very mixed reviews. Excepting Karrer’s ethnic influences it sounds more like a stylish pop Renate Knaup solo album,” the Freemans say.
They add, “Playing international gigs led to the release of Live in Tokyo, which is not so good.” This was released in 1996 by Mystic Records (MYSCD 108).
In 1997 Mystic released Flawless (MYSCD 113). The latter, a new album, was released in celebration of the thirty year history of the band, and seems to mark a full circle to their original style of spaced-out tripping music and includes many of the musicians who passed through Amon Duul II in its early days. Mystic has also re-released Live In London (MYSCD 128) with an added two bonus tracks.
The saga of Amon Duul II is probably not over, but for most collectors the treasure is in their first decade of recording.