Music The Faust Tapes: the unique sonic experiment that infiltrated British homes is...

The Faust Tapes: the unique sonic experiment that infiltrated British homes is as vital, confounding and groundbreaking as ever

1971 in Wuemme Jean-Herve, Rudolf, Hans-Joachim, Kurt Graupner (credit Bureau B)
Faust in Wuemme in 1971, Jean-Herve, Rudolf, Hans-Joachim, and Kurt Graupner. Credit: Bureau B

In public, my teenage listening habits were fairly conventional in a “rebellious” fashion – indie, metal, punk, alt rock – the usual “alternative” fodder, but in private my palette was wider delving into soul, trip-hop, acid house, electronica and the like.

By 2000, starting university and bored of most punk and indie, I’d started exploring post-rock, things that spiralled from Warp records and retro-futuristic bands like Broadcast and Stereolab. “Convention” was boring, and the discovery of one band, Faust exploded convention more than most others.

“Krautrock” was brand new to me in the autumn of 2000, but with Radiohead’s mentioning of Can I had listened to Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi and was blown away, and had heard Neu! But the weirdest was to come and would re-shape my ideas of what music could be.

Having been rugby tackled in the Odeon cinema foyer by a man called Dan, simply because he liked my Jon Spencer Blues Explosion t-shirt, we became friends (or at least he decided I was his friend) and he started leaving cassette tapes outside my flat door. These tapes were packed with all manor of great music and oddities – tRANSELEMENt, Trans-Am, Beach Boys, Monks. One cassette simply had the words ‘Faust Tapes’ written on it, with no other information.

I put it on, sat down with a beer, and was transported into a strange musical universe where rules simply did not exist. The Faust Tapes is an aural collage of found sounds, samples, strange effects and moments of melodic genius – nothing makes sense, yet it all works. Where did this alien noise come from?

With a bit of digging, and asking around (with one conversation with Erotic Volvo of Misty’s Big Adventure who lived in the same block as me, being particularly illuminating) I discovered that Faust was German contemporaries of Can and Neu, and that even in the cannon of Faust releases this is an oddity. One with a fascinating story.

It spawned from a release called ‘The Faust Party Tapes’ which had only been heard by the band’s nearest and dearest, somehow making its way into 60,000 British homes in 1973! How did this warped masterwork become a minor hit for a band unwilling to engage with the commercial landscape?

Dropped by Polydor for this exact reason, who released their innovative but poor-selling debut album Faust, the band were snapped up by nascent label Virgin records, who were looking to take advantage of the critically-acclaimed music coming from Germany. Branson and Co cooked up a genius marketing ploy, making the album just 49p (the usual price of a single). Thousands flocked to buy the record and were perplexed by the results. Imagine your average glam rock fan banging their speakers trying to get the record to play properly. This was Faust, the cult band infiltrating the mainstream.

It is easy to understand their confusion, rarely has a stranger record been laid down on wax, for some it was a headache, for me and others it remains a consciousness-expanding work that opens up unique possibilities for music.

Despite cuts like ‘Dr Schwitters’ with its dissected fragments of dissonant process music and haunted vocal takes, the echoed voices of ‘Beam, Me Up Scotty’ and the proto-industrial drills of ‘Elerimomuvid’ being seriously challenging stuff, there are also moments of proper songs like ‘Flashback Caruso’ Byrds-like psych jangle and the mutant-funk workout ‘Two Drums, Bass, Organ’. There is always just enough of the familiar to keep any listener engaged amongst the snippets of weirdness.

By the time fragments of prepared piano, power tools and tape echo come together to form the final three tunes in ‘Stretch Out Time’, ‘Der Baum’ and ‘Chere Chambre’, the band’s ability to infuse even the most conventional of song structures with their own unique chaos is wholly apparent. These tracks, like many other moments on the album, are totally accessible, which is The Faust Tapes biggest trick. 

I experienced this confusion first hand when on our late night radio show, The Psychic Dancehall, myself and Erotic Volvo played most of the first side of the record on vinyl to emails suggesting what we were playing was “broken” and one plea to “stop playing this weird shit”. That night it became more of a favourite, a masterpiece that not everyone would “get”. A special kind of album.

It would be easy to dismiss Faust Tapes as a musical in-joke, a conceptual prank but that would be to deny its brilliant balance between the experimental and the mainstream, and the many accomplished moments it contains. Faust displayed a capability to write the biggest of hits and also the stubborn will to not do so. It’s a massive middle-finger to the idea of fitting moulds, and for those with open minds to the possibility of sound a welcome to a new world, an inclusive wonder.

For me, it opened the door to free-jazz, kosmiche music, musique concrete and noise rock but nothing to date sounds exactly like this cacophony of ideas. Whether it is a widely known album (strange for the amount of copies it sold) The Faust Tapes DNA can be heard across music by the likes of Butthole Surfers, Cardiacs and even, in the cut and paste experimentalism, DJ Shadow. 

Both challenging and accessible, The Faust Tapes is an album that anyone who appreciates experimentation, and boundary-pushing, will fall in love with. It is possibly the greatest “hit” record that few people know and love, which makes it unique.

The Faust Tapes is reissued by Bureau B on CD, vinyl and digital on 12th August 2002.

Listen on Bandcamp now

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James Thornhill
Editor of Bloop magazine


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