Berlin, 1967. That was where the Agitation Free story began. That was when Lutz ‘Lüül’ Ulrich, Michael ‘Fame’ Günther, Lutz ‘Ludwig’ Kramer and Christoph Franke formed Agitation. This new band quickly established a reputation as one of the pioneers of Berlin’s underground music scene.
When Agitation played live, their sets were like the “happenings” that were popular in London, New York and San Francisco’s underground scenes. At clubs like UFO in London, Pink Floyd played against a backdrop of liquid projectors. So did Agitation, who were also establishing a cult following.
Crowds packed Berlin’s clubs to see Agitation play. When Agitation took to the stage, it quickly became apparent that their music was a fusion of disparate influences. They improvised, playing with a freedom during sets that featured innovative improvised pieces. Agitation seamlessly combined elements of free jazz, rock and avant garde with electronic, trance and world music. As they played, liquid projectors were used to show slides and short films made my members of Agitation. This added lysergic backdrop to Agitation’s set, which was much more than a concert. Instead, it was a multi-media event, or “happening.” Members of the audience and other club owners were captivated.
Berlin in the late-sixties had a thriving underground arts and music scene. New clubs had opened, including the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in West Berlin. It had been founded in 1968, at the height of the psychedelic era by Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Conrad Schnitzler. Soon, all the freelance musicians in Berlin made their way to Zodiak Free Arts Lab. This included members of Can, Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra and Neu! However, in 1968, the Zodiak Free Arts Lab’s new house band was Agitation. For what was a relatively new band, this was a coup.
Being the Zodiak Free Arts Lab’s house band lifted Agitation’s profile. It was where the great and good of Berlin’s music scene met. They were joined by artists, poets, writers, philosophers and sometimes, revolutionaries plotting change. Meanwhile, Agitation concentrated on honing their sound. A new member had joined the band.
This was vocalist John L. His addition meant that Agitation were now a six piece band. However, John L’s addition proved to be a controversial, and short-lived one.
John L was sacked by Agitation within a year. It’s thought that this was down to John L’s habit of taking to the stage naked. This didn’t go down well, and within a year, John L exited stage left. However, after John L’s departure, Agitation got the opportunity to play at a prestigious festival.
This happened in early 1970, when Agitation were invited to play at the First German Progressive Pop Festival, at the Berliner Sportpalast. By then, Agitation’s star was in the ascendancy. They had collaborated with John Cage, Erhard Großkopf, Peter Michael Hamel and Ladislav Kupkovi at The Electronic Beat Studio. So, it was no surprise that Agitation were invited to appear at such an important festival. It seemed the dawn of a new decade coincided with an improvement in Agitation’s fortunes. That proved not to be the case.
Instead, two original members of Agitation left the band during 1970. The first was Ludwig Kramer, who was replaced by Ax Genrich. Not long after he joined Agitation, Guru Guru asked if they could “borrow” Ax Genrich. Agitation agreed, but Ax Genrich never returned. To make matters worse, Christoph Franke left to join Tangerine Dream. He became the third departure from Agitation. They were looking for two new recruits.
The first was guitarist Jörg Schwenke, who replaced Ax Genrich. Then Gerd Klemke was drafted in. However, was only a member for a year, and in 1971, Agitation’s lineup changed again.
With Gerd Klemke heading for the exit door, two new names joined Agitation. The first was synth player Michael Hoenig. Next to join Agitation was drummer and vocalist Burghard Rausch. These two additions became the classic lineup of what became Agitation Free.
In the early seventies, Agitation discovered that there was another band with the same name. At that time, Agitation were due to play a free concert, and free was added to the name. This just happened to coincide with an upturn in the band’s fortunes.
1972 was the most important year in Agitation Free’s five year career. Agitation Free who were now a quintet, at last had a stable lineup. They were now regarded as one of the most innovative groups of the Berlin School. So much so, that in 1972, Agitation Free were sponsored by the Goethe-Institut, a German cultural association, to tour Egypt, Greece, Lebanon and Cyprus. This tour proved inspirational, and inspired Agitation Free’s debut album, Malesch.
On Agitation Free’s return to Berlin, they had been inspired by their journey to the Near East. Part of the inspiration was the sights and sound of their recent tour. Essentially, Malesch was a fusion of exotic Near Eastern sounds which were combined with Agitation Free’s trademark sound.
When Agitation Free entered Audio Tonstudio, in Berlin on February 25th 1972, they were joined by recordist Stan Regal and producers Wolfgang Sander and Peter Strecker. They would guide the five members of Agitation Free sound the recording process.
Without a producer, recording Malesch would’ve proved difficult. Malesch was Agitation Free’s debut album. They also planned to use an eclectic and exotic sounding selection of instruments on Malesch. This was perfect for their purpose.
Guitarist Jörg Schwenk was joined by Lutz Ulbrich on zither and keyboards. Burghard Rausch played drums, percussion and added vocals. Michael Hoenig switched between synths, keyboards and steel guitar; while bassist Michael Günther also took charge of live tapes. This mixture of tradition instruments and technology would play their part on the seven soundscapes that would eventually feature on Malesch.
Malesch was released later in 1972, on the Music Factory label. The critics who reviewed Malesch, were immediately won over by what his hailed as an innovative, genre-melting album. Elements of free jazz, rock and avant garde, rub shoulders with ambient, progressive rock, psychedelia, electronic, world music and Krautrock. However, it’s not just musical genres that combine.
Layers of music intertwine on Malesch, resulting in spacey, intricate, leisurely, luxuriant, exotic and sometimes smooth and sumptuous music. Other times, the music’s mesmeric, or there’s an element of drama. Especially as guitars duel, in what seems like a fight to the death. Always, though, the music is innovative, as Agiation Free push musical boundaries. Despite this, Malesch wasn’t a huge commercial success.
While Malesch was a popular album, it seemed as if Agitation Free were destined to be forever, an underground band. That was until they were invited to perform at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Playing at the Munich Olympics meant that people from all over the world heard Agitation Free’s music. This was publicity money couldn’t buy. However, Agitation Free were no strangers to playing live.
By 1972, Agitation Free had been constantly touring Europe for the past few years. This was the only way to build an audience. It was also the only way to promote Malesch. So Agitation Free embarked on arduous and gruelling tour.
In early 1973, Agitation Free were in France, on their first French tour. For two months, Agitation Free played in concert halls the length and breadth of France. Then on their return home, Agitation Free were asked to join the biggest names in German music.
The German Rock Super Concert was due to take place in May 1973, in Frankfurt. Agitation Free were asked to appear. This was a huge honour, and meant that Agitation Free’s music would be heard by a much wider audience. This was perfect timing, as Agitation Free were about to record their sophomore album 2nd
Agitation Free decided to record 2nd during July 1973. It had been a busy year for the group, with their two month tour of France and preparing for German Rock Super Concert. Then there were other live appearances in Germany. So finding time to record an album, wasn’t easy. However, found time during July 1973, where they locked themselves away in the studio.
This time, Agitation Free decided to head to Munich, where they recorded 2nd at Studio 70. It was the first recording session with the latest member of Agitation Free, guitarist Stefan Diez.
He had replaced Jörg Schwenk, who had left the band. This was unfortunate timing, as Agitation Free had a settled lineup. Now the latest recruit would have to earn his stripes in Agitation Free’s rhythm section.
For 2nd, Agitation Free’s rhythm section featured Burghard Rausch on drums, percussion, mellotron and vocals; bassist Michael Günther; and guitarists Stefan Diez and Lutz Ulbrich who also played bouzouki. Michael Hoenig, the final member of Agitation Free played keyboards and synths. Unlike Malesch, 2nd was produced by Agitation Free, and released later in 1974.
For Agitation Free it was a familiar story. Critical acclaim accompanied the release of 2nd, but the album failed to sell in vast quantities. Agitation Free seemed destined to forever be a cult band. That sadly, proved to be the case. It shouldn’t have been, given the quality of music on 2nd.
First Communication opens 2nd, and almost explodes into life. It’s like being in a rock as it heads for a distant galaxy. Especially with a myriad of sci-fi sounds flitting in and out. Meanwhile,urgent flourishes of keyboards are joined by slow, crystalline guitars. They’re joined by keyboards as the lysergic arrangement meanders, lazily along. Guitars are panned left and right, complimenting each other, while the rhythm section provide the heartbeat.Stealing the show is the guitar panned right. It soars above the arrangement, a spellbinding, searing solo. As it shimmers and bristles, a Hammond organ enters, adding another layer. Soon the chiming guitar panned left enjoys a moment in the sun. Fingers fly up and down the fretboard as another stunning solo takes shape. It’s aided and abetted by the second guitar, which interjects, but is played tenderly and subtly. By then, every member of Agitation Free has played their part in sound and success of this eight minute epic, where musical genres seamlessly unite.
A dramatic crash of a piano opens Laila, Part 1. After it dissipates, a chiming guitar enters. Gradually, the understated arrangement changes course. Searing rocky guitars join the rhythm section as Agitation Free freewheel into a glorious slice of timeless rocky music.
It’s all change on Laila, Part 2. Washes of Hammond organ provide a backdrop that’s been inspired by progressive rock. With the rhythm section and guitars playing as one, there’s no showboating. That’s until the first guitar solo. The guitar panned left takes centre-stage, as the rest of the band provide a driving backdrop. Then the second guitar steps forward. It seems to have been inspired by the first solo. What follows is a game of daring do, with each guitarist trying to outdo the other. At one point, jazzy runs are tinged with hints of rock. By then, the second guitar is augmenting the first guitar. Their performance inspires the rest of the band, as they head for home, having combined elements of jazz, progressive rock, psychedelia and rock. As they do, Agitation Free show why in 1973, they were considered one of the leading lights and innovators of the German music scene.
As In The Silence Of The Morning unfolds, it’s as if a code is being tapped up. Birdsong interjects as Agitation Free experiment. They combine ambient and avant garde, before slowly, the arrangement takes shape. Burghard Rausch keeps the beat playing just the ride. Meanwhile, a slow, probing bass, washes of Hammond organ and dual guitars combine. Agitation Free play slowly, creating a moody groove. Still, the sci-fi sounds punctuate the arrangement. So does a crystalline guitar solo. The second guitar plays a supporting role. His time will come. By now, Agitation Free are combining jazz, rock, avant garde and progressive rock. This results is a track that’s variously laid-back, melodic, mesmeric, innovative, futuristic and cinematic. That’s thanks to multitalented, musical alchemists Agitation Free.
A Quiet Walk finds Agitation Free putting their trusty tapes to good use. They’re augmented by a bass, guitar and synths. For just over four minutes, they’re part of what sounds like an ambient soundscape. This allows the listener to let their imagination run riot. Understated and minimalist, sounds and instruments drift in and out. It’s up the listener to supply to pictures to this soundtrack as they enjoy A Quiet Walk. Then as futuristic, sci-fi sounds beep and squeak, and a dramatic, droning organ plays, this is a signal that things are about to change. Agitation Free are stirring. An acoustic guitar plays, adding a Celtic influence. A bristling, searing guitar flits in and out, wah-wah-ing, while a hand drums is panned left. They’re playing supporting roles to the urgent acoustic guitar, and compliment it perfectly on what’s not just A Quiet Walk, but an enjoyable one.
Closing 2nd is Haunted Island. From the opening bars, there’s an eerie, otherworldly sound. Especially when the haunting, whispery vocals enter. They sound as if they belong on an early seventies progressive rock album. Soon, though, the vocals drop out, and what sounds like gusts of wind join a droning organ. They sit well together, as Agitation Free head for the Haunted Island. Later the rhythm section join keyboards, and the vocal returns. Synths strings, a bounding bass and blistering guitars are added. Soon another solo is underway. What follows is a guitar masterclass. It seems to lift the rest of the band, as they head for home on what’s been a career defining album…2nd.
Agitation Free should’ve built on 2nd. However, by 1974, all the years spent touring was beginning to take its toll. Agitation Free had also taken port in an experimental radio program, which was a forerunner of reality television. This “fly on the wall” documentary gave listeners an insight into life within Agitation Free. Sadly, all wasn’t well.
In 1974, the band split-up, and the five members went their separate ways. Agitation Free’s swan-song was 2nd, released in 1973. 2nd was a groundbreaking album where the Berlin based musical alchemists released what was a career defining album.
Partly, that was because Agitation Free refused to stand still. Instead, their music changed on 2nd. It was a very different album from Malesch. Elements of ambient, avant garde, electronic, jazz, progressive rock, psychedelia and rock are combined by Agitation Free. The result was an album that should’ve transformed Agitation Free’s fortunes.
That wasn’t the case. When Vertigo released 2nd, it pass record buyers by. Just like so many German bands of this era, commercial success eluded Agitation Free. The relentless and gruelling touring schedule had all been for nothing, and in 1974, Agitation Free went their separate ways.
Despite the demise of Agitation Free, a third album, Last, was released in 1976 on the Barclay label. By then, the five members of Agitation Free had embarked on solo careers.
When Last was released in 1976, Agitation Free part of Germany’s illustrious and rich musical history. Last was a reminder of what Agitation Free were capable of. Agitation Free were the nearly men, who could’ve sat at the top table of German music. Malesch and 2nd are a reminder of that.
- Posted in: Avant Garde ♦ Free Jazz ♦ Krautrock ♦ Prog Rock ♦ Psychedelia ♦ Rock
- Tagged: 2nd, Agitation Free, Last, Lutz 'Lüül' Ulrich, Malesch, Zodiak Free Arts Lab