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The man who turned down Bowie and Bono

Conny Plank at work by the mixing desk in the control room of his recording studio at Wolperath in 1982 - Credit: Redferns

Remembering Conny Plank, the music producer who helped define an essentially European sound.

There are music producers who become famous in their own right. Joe Meek, Rick Rubin, Jerry Wexler, Stephen Street, Quincy Jones: most of us could probably reel off a list of mixing desk maestros who have helped change or define the sound of a band, a genre or even an era. Some, like Phil Spector, have a recognisable sound, others become almost an extra member of the band, like George Martin did with the Beatles. There are even producers whose presence is so strong they come up with an entire sound of their own. The members of Joy Division were startled when they first heard their debut album Unknown Pleasures, produced by the brilliantly eccentric Martin Hannett, because it sounded nothing like their live sound. They weren’t even sure they liked it.

Then there are producers whose names don’t trip so easily from the tongue, whose influence prevails from quietly in the background. Producers who guide artists rather than impose themselves on them, the scale of their influence sometimes only becoming clear years later.

Some would argue that it wasn’t until Julian Cope’s 1995 book Krautrocksampler, a detailed history of German experimental music from the late 1960s onwards, that the name Conny Plank became known outside a tight circle of grizzled European music business veterans and a scatter of nerds. Yet few people had a stronger claim to helping define an essentially European sound in popular music than the quietly spoken wizard of the studio whose production CV spanned Marlene Dietrich, Duke Ellington, Kraftwerk and Eurythmics. Modest and unassuming, it’s only when looking back on Conny Plank’s body of work that the extent of his influence becomes clear.

Plank was perfectly content to remain in the background. It wasn’t his style to insert himself into a recording or a band’s musical direction. There wasn’t even a distinct Conny Plank sound. What made him such a successful producer was that he made records that sounded how the bands wanted them to sound, not how the producer thought they should sound.

“I’m not a creator who has a character and stamps it on every note,” he once said. “I’m a channel between musicians, sounds and tape.”

Plank wasn’t interested in an artist’s influences. Sometimes if a band mentioned the name of another act when describing the kind of sound they had in mind Plank would turf them out of the studio altogether, wanting them to recognise the specific creative flair in themselves that he’d seen, seeking to draw out the very thing that made them stand out. He sought experimentation, not imitation, defining it as a kind of innocence.

“The producer’s job, as I understand it, is to create an atmosphere completely without fear or reservations, to find the naive moment of ‘innocence’ and then press the button in time to capture that moment,” he said in 1982. It was locating that moment, however bizarre it might sound when it emerged, that inspired Plank, and the more outlandish it was, the better. In an interview given not long before his death he said: “craziness is holy”.

Once he’d set up his own studio in a remote farmhouse at Wolperath in the countryside outside Cologne, Plank would welcome artists into his home for what was effectively an audition. Whoever they were, global sensation or up and coming youngsters, the everyday relationship was as important to Plank as the music they would produce: the musicians would be staying in the family home and eating at the table with Plank, his wife the actress Christa Fast and their son Stephan.

Not everyone made the cut. During his creatively groundbreaking Berlin period in the mid-1970s David Bowie made the journey to Wolperath and spent hours courting Plank in the farmhouse kitchen before the producer informed Bowie that they wouldn’t be working together. In the 1980s he met U2 with a view to producing what would become their Joshua Tree album but decided, “I could not work with that singer”.

When he agreed to produce an artist the results could be spectacular, unleashing creative depths the musicians barely suspected they possessed.

“With us, he was a collaborator, a co-musician, in a way,” recalled Dieter Moebius, who first worked with Plank as part of Cluster and went on to collaborate with him on a number of projects. “When he got his own studio he bought all kinds of new things that we couldn’t afford. We could use his synthesisers, all the new gadgets. We would make tape loops, stretching tape all around the room, 20 metres long, and sample things from the radio.”

Such openness to innovation and experimentation had been instilled in Plank from a young age. He grew up in postwar Kaiserslautern at a time when US soldiers were still stationed in West Germany in significant numbers. Plank would attend the jazz concerts put on at local clubs to entertain the troops, giving them a taste of home, a brief escape to the familiar. Watching the servicemen dancing and losing themselves in the performances sparked in Plank an early sense of the power music could evoke, as well as causing him to marvel at the improvisational gifts of the musicians. When he developed a passionate interest in audio technology that built on a natural curiosity for trying new things, the building blocks of a career in production were already there.

He found an early job as a broadcast technician at Europawelle Saar but the lack of challenges it presented saw him depart for Cologne and the Rhenus studio under engineer Wolfgang Hirschmann, who would become his mentor. Under Hirschmann, Plank recorded Marlene Dietrich and the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, an eclectic range of experience that made him fearless in the kind of music he wanted to produce.

In 1970, for example, he recorded a session with Duke Ellington, who used the Rhenus studio to prepare his band for European tours. One afternoon Plank suggested switching on the microphones and recording three versions of two tunes, during which he coaxed the jazz master out of his comfort zone and took him to experimental places he’d never been. The results were so unorthodox it would be 45 years before the recordings were released. “Young man,” said an energised Ellington during the session, “you’re doing a great sound.”

Plank also produced the debut album of German hard rock band Scorpions, who went on to become the biggest-selling German band of all time, and guided Ultravox through three albums and their worldwide hit Vienna. He co-produced Eurythmics’ debut In the Garden alongside Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, introducing guest musicians such as Blondie drummer Clem Burke and bass player Holger Czukay from Can, helping the band define the distinctive sound that would turn them into a global phenomenon.

It was the new progressive electronic sound with which he became most associated, however, helping acts like Neu!, Cluster and Kraftwerk find their own distinctive voices. For Kraftwerk he produced their first four albums culminating with Autobahn, the record that launched the Düsseldorf quartet to international stardom and paved the way for the kind of electropop that would define European music for decades.

These bands were part of the first post-war generation of Germans keen to shake off the dark legacy of the past, creating their own sound free of the influence of anglophone music from the US and UK. With Plank’s gift for technical and musical innovation he became the perfect guiding hand behind a musical revolution, with the only clue he was ever there the words ‘produced by Conny Plank’ tucked away in the corner of an LP sleeve.

“It was a time of big changes in Germany,” said Neu! guitarist Michael Rother, who recorded three hugely influential albums with Plank in NeuNeu! 2 and Neu! ’75. “There was a postwar generation reacting against the past. It was a time of unrest, of struggling to find your own identity and to enjoy being different in every possible way.”

Plank’s death from laryngeal cancer at the age of 46 robbed European music of one of its greatest innovators. What he had was a special kind of genius: technical brilliance and a personal modesty that combined with a finely-tuned instinct for bridging the void between the individual creative brilliance of an artist and what their audience wanted to hear, of finding that moment of ‘innocence’. Ultravox’s Billy Currie recalled a key moment when the recording session for Vienna had stalled.

“I did a violin solo that was overly vibrato and romantic,” he said. “Midge [Ure] felt a little uncomfortable because he’d only just joined the band and thought we were being a bit arty-farty. ‘This means nothing to me,’ he said.

“Conny Plank replied, ‘OK, well sing that then’.”