An edited version of this article appeared in the April 2003 edition of Mojo.
On the night of September 12th 1970, Dr Timothy Leary escaped from jail. He climbed a tree in the exercise yard, jumped onto the roof of the cellblock, and shimmied along a telephone wire until he was over the fence. Half way along the wire his glasses fell off, and a patrol car drove underneath him, yet somehow his escape went undetected. Within days he would be flying to Algeria, with a fake passport in the name of McNellis and a bald head as his disguise. The California Men’s Colony-West at San Luis Obispo was a minimum security prison, but it was still a brave and daring escape, especially for an ex-Harvard Professor of Psychology just a few weeks shy of his 50th birthday. The authorities were shocked to find him missing; he was in the minimum security prison because his psychological profile showed a docile man who was not an escape risk. But Leary had found it easy to trick the psychological tests, as he had written them himself many years before. He was embarking on a fugitive life that would be full of glamour, excitement and danger. And, although he could never have guessed it at the time, he was going to record one of the era’s strangest and most ambitious albums: Seven-Up, with Ash Ra Tempel.
Ash Ra Tempel were formed in Berlin in 1970, thanks in part to the impressive size of Pink Floyd’s old speakers. Schoolfriends Manuel Gottsching (guitar) and Hartmut Enke (bass) had been playing together since they were 14. They called themselves the Steeplechase Blues Band, and originally covered British bands like the Beatles, Small Faces or The Who. Before long their music would evolve and they would concentrate on improvised blues instrumentals.
The Berlin music scene was tiny at the time, so when it came time to get some new equipment, Enke set off for London. Here he found four massive speakers that had previously been owned by Pink Floyd. Somehow Enke managed to single-handedly load these huge cabinets into taxis, trains and a ferry, and get them back home. “From that moment on we had the biggest equipment in Berlin!”, Gottsching remembers with evident glee.
Klaus Schulze (drums) had recently left Tangerine Dream when he stumbled into Enke and G??ttsching’s rehearsal room. Upon seeing the size of their cabinets he immediately suggested that they form a band together. The three went straight to a pub and within half an hour Ash Ra Tempel was born. Schulze not only gave the trio their new name, but he introduced them to the co-owner of Ohr Recordings, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser.
“When we started there was no audience for German groups in Germany”, Kaiser told the International Times in 1974. “The business was controlled by British and American groups. In Germany it is illegal to be a group’s manager. After three weeks [of starting Ohr] I got asked to go to the government office and they said, ‘You do something which is not allowed. If you go on you have to pay 30,000 marks fine'”. The problem was that a manager tries to find work for his band, but in Germany only the Arbeitsamt, or labour exchange, is allowed to arrange work for people. Even today a manager can only operate with special permission from the Arbeitsamt. Kaiser managed to get around this problem by going into business with Peter Meisel, who then ran Germany’s biggest music publishing company.
But it wasn’t the lengths that Kaiser went to create a music industry that made him such a revolutionary figure in German music. It was the type of music that he signed. The German bands that did exist copied English and American rock. Kaiser believed that it was possible for German musicians to create an entirely new sound of their own. “In 1970 there were no German record companies interested in German music”, he explained, “We showed the German People that they can trust their own music”.
Ash Ra Tempel had dropped the blues influences from the Steeplechase Blues Band, but they had kept the love of improvisation and experiment. They signed to Ohr and released their first, self titled LP before Schulze left the band to start a successful solo career. Schulze was eager to leave the drum kit behind and experiment with the emerging technology of synthesisers. But he remained on good terms with Gottsching and Enke, and they would collaborate again many times in the future.
Wolfgang Mueller took over Schultze’s drumstool and the band recorded their second album, Schwingungen (‘vibrations’). By now it was clear that something special was happening. The music flowed from the blissful and serene to the urgent and dark. It seemed forward looking, concerned with a bright future rather than an ugly past, and it justified Kaiser’s belief in a new and original German music. English journalists would later group Ash Ra Tempel together with many varied and different German bands under the dismissive term ‘Krautrock’. But soon Kaiser found his own label for the new sound. This was Kosmische Musik, and it was the music of Paradise.
When it came to producing a follow up to Schwingungen, the band had the idea of collaborating with an American underground hero of theirs. “We wanted to make an album with Allen Ginsberg”, remembers Gottsching, “because we had some text by him on the sleeve of our first album. But Allen Ginsberg was nowhere to be found!”
Meanwhile, Leary had arrived in Switzerland, the birthplace of LSD. Switzerland is comprised of a number of semi-autonomous districts called Cantons, and as long as Leary kept moving from Canton to Canton, without staying in the one place for too long, he knew he would be safe from extradition to the United States.
To the outside world, it seemed that permanent exile in Europe could have appealed to Leary. “In Europe we have been contacted by several elitist, aristocratic, thoughtfully decadent drug taking groups of older people”, he told Oz magazine in 1972, “who follow traditions which trace back through French poets, German mystics, elegant hashishines, silk-satin opium adepts. It’s a deep, wise old continent and quite together at the moment”.Continue reading