The producer's name is synonymous with Krautrock, but a documentary co-directed by his son goes much deeper into his legacy
If pressed, most people, when asked what their earliest memory of music is, will recall a nursery rhyme or an omnipotent pop hit of the day that clogged the radio of their parents’ stereos. For Stephan Plank, it was the endless floating, driving and looping sound of Neu!’s ‘Isi’ being played at volume over and over again as it was being recorded in his family home, in a converted farmhouse on the outskirts of Cologne, Germany. “I was about two years-old,” he recalls, “I remember it so well because when you record music you obviously play things back hundreds of times and this really gets into your brain. It glues itself to something.”
Plank is the son of producer and engineer extraordinaire Conny Plank, and is also the co-director of a new documentary on his father, Conny Plank: The Potential of Noise. Whilst Plank’s work is now revered and celebrated in widening cult circles – with the help of releases like the 2013 4CD boxset of his production work – his early death at the age of 47 in 1987 has left a great deal of questions unanswered for many about who the man behind the music was, including his own son who was only 13 when he passed away. When his mother also died in 2006 Plank realised he wished to explore the life of his own father more thoroughly, to be able to understand both his parent and this celebrated producer. “After [my mother] died, I had to clear out the studio and it was a big farmhouse and there were a lot of things to take care of and I had to decide what was crap and what was art and so on. I came to realise that there were two Conny’s in my mind,” he says. “First of all there’s papa, my father who I grew up with and loved. And then there was Conny Plank, and everyone kept asking me about him and I was not sure that I had the right answers, like when people asked me things like how did he work and did he really work with Stockhausen etc. So I decided I needed to do something about it, and by making the film, I kind of managed to fuse these two separate entities back together again into one person.”
Plank’s work, on surface level, is synonymous with Krautrock. He produced Kraftwerk, Neu!, Cluster, La Dusseldorf, Guru Guru and Can. However, as both producer and engineer he would also go on to work with people and genres far beyond such German sounds that have come to be adored and emanated in equal measure today. Plank would work with Brian Eno, Devo, Ultravox, Killing Joke, Eurythmics and DAF, alongside a whole host of other names. As his career moved on, his work became less defined by a style or a genre but through a mark of quality and consistency, one that eschewed genre and stomped on predictability. This was an area of particular fascination for his son in making this film. “I was really interested in how he did his production and how he chose the artists he worked with. It was almost baffling to me how he made the distinction between who he could and couldn’t record,” Stephan tells me, referring to the eclecticism of his father’s work, such as weaving between gold disc productions (Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’) and obscure, largely forgotten British post-punk bands like Play Dead.
The key to unlocking such questions perhaps lies more in Plank’s personality than his sound, because one distinctive production trademark essentially does not exist. His production work was so unique because one of his biggest applications of identity was not just through sound or a recording method, or intuitive sampling, but through his ability to extract the potential out of the people he worked with (something that is the whole schtick of a guru producer like Rick Rubin, today). “He was ideal as a partner and creative mind and therefore became a third, silent, member of Cluster,” Remembers Hans-Joachim Roedelius, who would work with Plank repeatedly. As a result, Plank’s recordings feel utterly timeless because his recognisable sense of tone was as much down to his extraction method and desire to move forward as anything else, leaving the recordings free from date-stamped fashionable styles of the day.