I don’t remember when I first heard the ‘motorik’ beat – it’s one of those things that feels as if you’ve always known it. Over the last few weeks, having been listening to a lot of Bowie’s Berlin period, and reading Hugo Wilcken’s book on Low, I’ve been thinking about it a lot, revisiting favourite songs and albums that utilise it, from the progenitors like Neu! to latter day pretenders like The Horrors, and discovering new examples of it.
To clarify, the motorik beat goes like this:
If that doesn’t quite make sense, then think of it as dum-dum-dum-tsh-dum-dum-dum-tsh-dum-dum-dum-tsh-dum-dum-dum-tsh in perfect 4/4 time forever and ever.
An ILM thread has helped immeasurably in my quest for new examples, as has #motorik on Twitter, and this great article on The Quietus. I’ve come across a plethora of songs, some of which I already knew but had never thought of as motorik, and others which I’d assumed were faithfully motorik but which, on closer inspection, have turned out not quite to be. Some of them have been so faithful as to be redundant – Sons of Rother by Death In Vegas is a kind of weird Xerox of an idea of what motorik is, the electronic equivalent of Ocean Colour Scene writing a song called We’d Like To Be The Beatles – whilst others have demonstrated variations on the theme that have stayed truer to the spirit of the beat as I understand it.
As a result I’ve assembled a playlist of some 60 songs that use it, whether fastidiously or loosely – there are, I’m sure, many hundreds if not thousands more, and now the playlist is started I’ll keep adding to it in future. These following 10 songs, which I’m sure you can Spotify or buy from iTunes or wherever pretty easily, are just some of my personal favourites from that longlist. As usual, they’re in no particular order.
Kit and Holly – Echoboy
Not every song in this list is 100% faithful to the rigidity of the “pure” motorik beat. Kit and Holly varies the kick drum hits, but it’s no matter, because the spirit of the song – one of discovery, of progression, of propulsion – is entirely in keeping with the motorik beat. Echoboy is Richard Warren, former guitarist in retro Britpop also-rans The Hybirds, who seemed to have some kind of epiphany wherein he discovered techno, dub, and krautrock, and embarked on a solo career where he tried to meld all three together. Kit and Holly seems to be a paean to this epiphany (“I’ve gotta keep on runnin’ / I’m a 3-chord clown… I’m not a tough man / but I know the rules / I’ve gotta break ‘em / I’ve gotta start again”), icy synths and linear guitars embellished with filtersweep oscillations and echo, all underpinned by jittery, repetitious hi-hats and clockwork snares. And it’s a great little pop tune to boot.
Just Like Everyone Else – Field Music
If it’s not playing slightly ahead of the beat with excitational hi-hats, then a deadened, mechanical take on the motorik beat can become soaked with sadness, which is what happens in this beautifully vulnerable song.
Shoot Speed/Kill Light – Primal Scream
You’d think, for all their talk, that the Scream’s catalogue would be littered with the motorik beat, but it’s actually not all that common. This awesome, relentless, unstoppable climax of XTRMNTR uses it in excelsis though; it’s been just about my favourite moment from their catalogue for a dozen years now.
“Untitled” – Six.By Seven
A small, electronic motorik pulse sets “Untitled” on its way before real drums pick up the pattern and drive Six.By Seven, sans bassist at this point in their history, on a mechanised trip through their own contradictions and follies. Six.By Seven’s career is littered with other examples, from metronomic pop songs like I.O.U. Love, to full-on kraut workouts like Wallflower. This, brilliantly, falls somewhere in between.
Doors Unlocked and Open – Death Cab For Cutie
New to me from recent recommendations, this is almost the biggest motorik hit ever, like Ben Gibbard set out to find the platonic essence of the beat. Normally I’m not a fan of Gibbard’s voice or lyrics, but here he’s sublimated in the face of momentum and percussion, bass and guitars in service to the beat and him in service to all of it, the beat out in front, pulling everything else along with it.
Knickerbocker – Fujiya & Miyagi
A new discovery via this mini-project, Fujiya & Miyagi were a name I was aware of but knew literally nothing about – I had assumed they were an actual Japanese duo, and weird and experimental, like Keiji Heino or something, but actually they’re a gang of krautpopping Brightonians. This seemingly meaningless and chirpy pop groove (which almost pinches the chorus from Kokomo) about ice cream becomes intensely sad when you realise it namechecks Lena Zavaroni.
Spiders (Kidsmoke) Wilco
I like Wilco most when they branch out away from alt.country and do something different; this 10-minute kraut-verse, powerpop-chorus excursion has nothing to do with the Midwest and a whole lot to do with Europe, and is brilliant. The actual drumbeat isn’t pure motorik in pattern, but the formula they concoct atop it with guitar and bass gives it a deliciously metronomic feel. Glen Kotche is an awesome drummer.
Hallo Gallo – Neu!
This is, of course, the mother lode; I feel faintly silly including it because it’s so obvious, but clichés are only clichés because they’re truths that have become horribly apparent. Two related tunes, the little electronic shimmer of Heiße Lippen by Cluster and the chugging rock monster of Monza (Rauf Und Runter) by Harmonia, plus Mother Sky by Can (and about a dozen other Neu! songs, most probably Isi, Negativland or After Eight), were all vying for my token “actually German” choice on this list. But Hallo Gallo is the foundation and platonic essence of this beat, and it’s still fantastic.
Big Ideas – LCD Soundsystem
Like Primal Scream, you kind of expect that LCD Soundsystem would have oodles of pure motorik in their catalogue, but actually this tune from the soundtrack of a film that no one ever watched is their most faithful (Great Release follows the pattern closely, but is closer to Eno than Neu!, so loses out), and is also terrific. It was my go-to LCD track for playlists for an age. Which leads very nicely on to…
Roadrunner – Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers
I’ve been aware of Jonathan and his band for an age, but never investigated them. Until now. Roadrunner is terrific; not krautrock but still motorik, shot through with the feverish, can’t-sit-still spirit that informs the best rock and pop and punk. I’ll be digging further.
Stammtisch by Barbara Manning, Like Foxes Through Fences by American Analog Set, A Final Warning by Caribou, Bells by Electrelane, Touch Sensitive by The Fall, Honey Power by My Bloody Valentine, Sea Within A Sea by The Horrors, Destination Tokyo by Nisennenmondai, Got Nuffin by Spoon, Hard To Explain by The Strokes, Pric by Super Furry Animals, What Goes On by The Velvet Underground, and Forever by Working For A Nuclear Free City.