OHR: A Pioneering Label in Germany
Pictures: Google (lol)
As important as knowing how bands were formed and emerged from their respective cultural scenes is also knowing who were behind them and what reasons either helped or spoiled them making their way towards commercial success or into obscurity. This is no exception on the German underground scene, even though most bands didn't manage to have a long carrer and to release many albums. Only Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream reached international recognizement and commercial success. Other bands like Guru Guru, Amon Düül II, Can and Faust managed to attract some faithful followers around some countries in Europe and thus gaining a cult-status.
In the fall of the 60s, a time of a emerging countercultural movement against the standards of a society driven by bourgueois, moralist and religious values, a part of the German youth saw that historical moment as a opportunity for a cultural rebirth of their country after the World War II. Under these circunstances, uncountable experimental and psychedelic-oriented bands began to arise not only as a way of revolt but also to help put pop music into new standards and to create a new cultural identity for their country.
Before the beggining of the 70s, very few krautrock bands had either made a name for themselves or signed a contract with any record label. It would be suitable to exist a label willing to attend those alternative bands and that's how Ohr (ear, in German) was born, the very first 'progressive' label in Germany. The idea came in 1969 from the Xhol Caravan guys at Hansa Records who suggested their label boss Peter Heisel to create a subdivision only for progressive music. Heisel agreed and already in the beggining of 1970, a brand-new independent label Ohr was created, which is mistakenly stated to belong to Metronome Records, but as a matter of fact, Metronome just distributed the Ohr releases.
According to the Ohr catalog number order, Fließbandbabys Beat-Show (OMM 56.000) by Floh de Cologne was the very first album pressed by the then new label.
At first, Meisel needed someone to run the new label and Tom Schroeder, co-editor of Song magazine and who also worked with radio, was chosen, but as he couldn't attend to this job, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser, another recognized music journalist who also regularly published articles in some music magazines and who even wrote some books, filled in that gap. Besides, he was one of the co-organizers of Internationale Essener Songtage Festival, which happened from September 25th to 28th, 1968, in Essen, the very first German underground festival.
As soon as the new label began to work, they signed contracts with many bands, such as Guru Guru, Tangerine Dream, Embryo, Floh de Cologne, Ash Ra Tempel, Embryo and Birth Control. In a matter of several months, Kaiser began to be recognized and well-seen in the German underground scene. On the Ohr catalog there was a great variety of styles, ranging from psychedelic to folk and even electronic and abstract music, for example.
As the releases had as a target-public a small and very especific group of people, they were naturally pressed in limited numbers and were given new catalog numbers on the repressings, as well as, in some cases, modifications on the cover. The first releases had catalog numbers preceeded by OMM and always begging with 56 plus three digits. Albums beggining with 556 were in many times repressings. It is important to mention that the chronological order of the releases doesn't necessarily match with the catalog numbers due to several delays in the manufacturing process of some albums.
In 1971, Kaiser was also running the Pilz (mushroom, in German) label, a progressive subdivision of BASF, replacing Jürgen Schmeisser, who originally set it up. Thus, bands like Hölderlin, Wallenstein, Bröselmaschine and Popol Vuh were signed to this label and would occasionally have their albums released either by Ohr or by Kosmische Musik, another brand-new label founded by Kaiser in 1973.
Pilz was BASF's progressive and new label, also ran by Kaiser, but sadly it didn't last more than two years.
In 1972, Kaiser and his girlfriend Gille Lettmann, who was collaborating on his work, were introduced to LSD through their friend Timothy Leary and now things were starting get bad for their side as they became acid-addicts. Kaiser was becoming unable and hard to deal with his artists and work colleagues, so much that Bruno Wendel and Günther Körber, his most important collaborators, couldn't put up with him anymore and left their jobs to found Brain Records, a Metronome Records subdivision which would also become an important German progressive label. Many artists would also leave the label due to contract problems which would eventually made them fight in court for the rights. Maybe these reasons motivated BASF desactivate Pilz already in that year after 20 albums and 7 singles released.
In 1973, Kaiser went too further on his madnesses when he booked some sessions at the Dierks Studios with several of his musicians from different bands for psychedelic jammings. The musicians would presumably take part of these recordings in exchange of drugs, but there's another version of this story: Kaiser secretly added LSD doses in the drinks offered to the musicians as they arrived at the studio. Under the acid effects, the musicians would feel inhibited enough to jam freely and Kaiser recorded everything. Even Dieter Dieks, owner of the studio, took part of these sessions and also helped Kaiser mixing and mastering the tapes. Later on, he accumulated material enough to release - without the musicians consent - five albums in the fall of 1973 through 1974 on his own label Kosmiche Musik.
Kosmiche Musik was Kaiser's own and short-lived independent label.
Obviously that no one involved was happy with that as Kaiser and his girlfriend were cashing over their work, even though all the musicians who took part of the sessions were clearly showed on the album covers. In a especific case, Manuel Göttsching from Ash Ra Tempel and one of those who took part of the 'project', only got known about these albums when he heard it playing at a record store in Berlin and asked the seller what was playing. Klaus Schulze, another one on that 'project' and former member of Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel and already in a solo carrer, got so angry that he sued Kaiser after the release of the last album.
Ohr saw its end in 1973 after 33 albums and 12 singles released, much because of Kaiser's attitudes towards the artists and his work colleagues, which often resulted in many legal problems. Kaiser was in so many judicial troubles that he was forced to live Germany letting everything behind. The German court took cover of his flat and all of his belongings were stores in many crates and cases, a part was even left outdoors being subject to weather conditions and containing historically important documents and master tapes which were eventually destroyed.
In the early 80s, by the time the original Ohr, Pilz and Kosmiche Musik releases were becoming quite sought after collectors, Bernard Mikulski, the ZYX label owner, had plans to create reissues of those albums or at least the most important ones. As he couldn't track down Kaiser by himself, he acquired the rights for reissuing the albums from the artists which would be sold under a subdivision called Ohr Today. The first release would be a 3LP compilation of Witthüser & Westrupp, a folk duo, when suddenly Kaiser appeared wanting to cancel the release and fighting for his copyrights, which were assigned to a relative of his, maybe because of a loan. Luckily, these copyrights were later sold to Dieter Dierks, who had founded his own label, Venus, and whose studio recorded most of Ohr and Pilz bands.
Ohr Today was an attempt in the early 80s to reissue the original Ohr, Pilz and Kosmiche Musik releases.
Now most of the copyrights belong to Dierks nowadays and he fortunatly agreed in reissuing those albums. In the 90s, two other labels showed interest in reissuing those albums and they were the French-based Spalax Music, which brought some titles into CD format for the first time, and Think Progressive in Germany. Garden of Delights, which also arose in the 90s, reissued some titles, in despite of concerning themselves in even much rarer records. In the mid 2000s, SPV Records started to create remastered versions of some albums.
Nowadays, in despite of having desappeared, Kaiser's whereabouts are partially known. He's been living for some time in a mental home and is considered as 'legally incapacitated', along with Gille Lettmann, supported by a couple of friends. Although his attitudes happened to mess his life, Kaiser is probably the most important character of the German underground scene. Without his interest and support, many of the things on the early krautrock years wouldn't have happened, and he surely deserves a special place as a great figure in one of the most authentic musical and cultural movements of the history.
Sources: Discogs, Wikipedia and Xhol's Hau-RUK CD booklet.