Perfect Sound Forever

Agitation Free

Agitation Free photo from Lüül's website

"Music was our adventure"
article and interview by Michael Freerix
(October 2007)

Lüül, born Lutz Ulbrich, toured Japan this past February, reunited with his first band‚ Agitation Free. Ulbrich was born in 1952 in the Berlin district of Westend, an upper-class part of the city. In kindergarten, he met Christoph Franke, with whom he later made 'beat' music. Lüül heard his first Beatles song and decided on the spot that he wanted to make music too. His dad bought him a guitar on the condition that he would take guitar lessons. He shared his guitar teacher with Manuel Göttsching, "who stayed with the lessons for more than five years; I only lasted two and a half," says Lüül, who founded his first band at age 13.

He cannot answer the question of how Krautrock was born, although he was deeply involved in shaping it. "It's always complicated with categorizations. Primarily, we saw ourselves as a rock band, as psychedelic rock. We never called it 'krautrock.' There's a nice explanation in France, 'musique planante,' which means 'music of the spheres.' Maybe it's just experimental rock music."

By joining forces with Franke, Lüül founded his first band. They played at school parties. "We called ourselves The Tigers or The Centries, and played standards like 'C. C. Rider' or 'Poor Boy.'" But being a cover band didn't satisfy them at all. They wanted to play their own music and then changed their name to The Agitation, a word they found in a dictionary.

Franke played trumpet, but wanted to be a drummer. "Christoph is from a musical family: his mother teaches violin. Once he became the drummer of The Agitation, it became a real band." This happened in 1967, the year of Sergeant Pepper. At the same time, the commune K1 was a hotly discussed topic in the German Federal Republic. The members of the K1 commune lived together according to anarchist ideals. They shared everything from bed to breakfast-15 people working toward a totally new model for living based on relationships between people, not couples. Lüül had direct contact with this commune: "We had a guitarist, Lutz Kramer, who was our leading figure. He was the first one with long hair, and he was only 17 when he left home to move in with the K1 commune. He had a revolutionary air about him, and he was the first one to use drugs. He had spent his summer vacation in London. When he returned he'd heard Pink Floyd and we were already experimenting with rock music. When we heard Pink Floyd, we knew we had to find our own style."

Lüül got in touch with Thomas Kessler, an avant-garde composer. He had just established the Beat Studio, a small sound studio with recording equipment and three microphones. The band was allowed to rehearse there. "Agitation Free was the first band at Beat Studio; after that came Tangerine Dream, then Ash Ra Temple and in 1969, Curly Curve, a blues-band." The Beat Studio was set up in the cellar of a school in the Berlin district of Wilmersdorf. It was quite primitive; just a big room for rehearsals and a small one with three Akai tape recorders.

The Beat Studio became something akin to the center of experimental music in West Berlin. And at a time when sound recording was very expensive, it became a hot spot for the music scene. "We were working with tape loops and started improvising to these loops. There are people who say Agitation Free are the foundation of what became Krautrock. Well, I don't think like that. The Can already existed in Cologne. They were a little older than we. And then there was Amon Düül and Xhol Caravan and some other bands all over Germany, who musically had already escaped being just another cover band."

During the late 1960's, avant-garde music was not played on the radio. There were few venues for live performances. Agitation Free – as they renamed themselves – played mostly at school parties. "At the end of the '60's there were only about ten clubs where you could perform; youth centers, the old university canteen, which you could rent for shows, and the Quartier Latin. There were hardly any places for local bands. They played school parties or youth centers."

But all that changed when Conrad Schnitzler opened up the Zodiac. It was the first underground hangout in Berlin: a square cellar underneath a theater. It was more or less an art space, with live music ranging from free jazz to multi-media performances. The shows started at 11PM, after the end of the theater performances. "The Zodiac became an overnight sensation."

Schnitzler belonged to the art scene and was a member of Tangerine Dream. Agitation Free performed regularly, alternating with Cluster, Curly Curve and Tangerine Dream. Often Lüül didn't come off stage until dawn and then he would doze off during school the next day. "We were friends with Schnitzler. We used to hang around at his apartment, because he was cool. An interesting, older man, but, musically speaking, a dilettante."

The young rock musicians spent most of their time in rehearsal spaces. And because there were so few opportunities to play live, people often ran into each other. "The exchange between musicians was very helpful too. Everybody would listen to each other and organize their own concerts."

Even at this early, very experimental stage, the music of Tangerine Dream was different from the other band at the time. They were much more ambitious than the others. "I remember hearing about Tangerine Dream for the first time. I drove to Lankwitz with Christoph Franke. They were playing at a school. We saw them play and thought, 'Wow, this is really different from our stuff!' Edgar Froese was (a) little older than we were and had a totally different concept. At this stage – around 1970 – we sounded much more tame."

Some time later, the two bands bumped into each other as Tangerine Dream were rehearsing at the Beat Studio. They met regularly, on and off-stage. "You saw a lot of different bands and thought about what you could make a part of your own sound." Christoph Franke played drums with Agitation Free on occasionally until finally joining Tangerine Dream. He left school at 16 to become a professional musician, realizing they were the right band for his long-term goal of making a living playing music. Manuel Göttsching, on the other hand, wasn't quite sure what kind of music he really wanted to make. "He was recording with Hartmut Enke as The Steeplechase Blues Band in the Beat Studio. One year later they became Ash Ra Temple. His album Inventions for Electric Guitar inspired me so much that I really wanted to work with him. We made an appointment at Mixed Media Studio, turned on our echo chambers and it worked. That's how we became a duo."

Through their acquaintance with Thomas Kessler, inventor of the Beat Studio, Agitation Free were connected to a musical avant-garde they didn't really understand. "Kessler gave us some notes, each one of us got a melody or a rhythmic pattern, which we were supposed to repeat whenever we felt like it. Playing according to notes was something new for us, and playing a repetitive melody was too. We did it and that was recorded. We listened to the recording and found it quite funny. But then Kessler played the composition once again. It had been released on record. It was Church of Anthrax by Terry Riley, played by Riley and John Cale. That was really amazing, listening to the original recording, which was totally different from what we had played. That experience had an enormous effect on our musical development."

Within the band, there were many different ideas about how Agitation Free's music should develop. "Our drummer was a Slade fan, our bassist was an absolute Grateful Dead fan, while our guitarist liked the Allman Brothers and stuff like that. There were a lot of different musical tastes in our music, but somehow we managed to compromise." For Lüül, Amon Düül were also very important in those days: "Amon Düül were very, very wild, full of energy. That fascinated me."

In the early seventies, the members of Agitation Free decided play their music without traditional song structures: "Usually we'd get on stage and just improvise. We didn't have a musical goal. There were tracks where we followed a musical idea, but most of the time we'd just get stoned and start to play. Only later on, we would improvise around melodies. Music was our adventure."

Although Agitation Free were one of the first bands in Berlin with this approach, they were the last ones to get a recording contract. In 1970, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser asked them to release one record on his Ohr label, but two members left the band at the same time so they had to pass up that opportunity. Michael Hönig became one of the new members: "Höni had an art background, he wasn't a musician. He liked bands like Soft Machine. First, he appeared with a sound generator, and made noises like uuuuuuuiiiiiiiiii... iiiiiiiiiiiiiuuuuuuuuu. In the beginning, he was just a disturbance, but an interesting one." Despite all their success and status they had among musicians, Agitation Free were frustrated to see all the other bands releasing their first records. "Ash Ra Temple had existed for just one year before they put their first record out."

But in 1972, Agitation Free finally got their chance. A bigger label, interested in the musical avant-garde, signed the band: "It was quite difficult to cut a record. Our improvisations had a lot of empty spaces in them, which we needed to develop. That was part of our concept. But now we had to cut a record with only 20 minutes per side." It didn't work in the beginning. The sound engineer couldn't cope with their spontaneous way of making music. "We sat on the floor of the studio and started meditating. A visiting friend told us 'to imagine flying to a desert island.' After a while, one of us got up and started to play. One after the other joined in. A very quiet, beautiful, absolutely relaxed music started to develop. Suddenly we heard, 'Should I record this or what?' through the studio speakers. We were devastated. Getting things done in that atmosphere was a big problem."

Despite such difficulties, their first record was released that year. And at the same time, there was a unique cooperation among Berlin bands. Again, Conrad Schnitzler was the master of ceremonies: "He had the idea for a kind of super-group with the name Eruption. Musicians from Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Temple and Agitation Free shared the stage. Klaus Schulze and I stood in the middle, the audience around us, with the other musicians on either side. That was a totally new way of making music in front of an audience. We had something like six or seven concerts, but never made a record. Maybe Schnitzler has some live recordings."

There was an exchange of ideas among the bands of the so-called Berlin School, but the development of a common sound or similar musical goals never happened. "You had your own enclave with the band you were with."

Last year Lüül released his autobiography (Lutz Ulbrich – Lüül) and is currently negotiating for a CD re-release of three Agitation Free albums, Malesh (1972), 2nd (1973) and Last (1976), this year. He released his first solo album in 1981 and is currently working on his next one, Spielmann, to be released this autumn. He has played banjo with 17 Hippies since 1995, and will be touring the United States with them this autumn.

Also see our 2015 interview with Lüül and his 2022 tribute to his old bandmate Manuel Göttsching

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