39 Clocks
De Stijl

It seems like De Stijl dig the deepest when it comes to reissues, or re-introducing, or in the case of Hannover, Germany’s 39 Clocks, handing over a lost artifact to Westerners for the first time. There’s likely a small circle of cretins in the States who were hip to the Clocks in their initial 1976–87 cycle, but for the most part, Zoned is unheard, and upon hearing this you’ll wonder why a compilation hasn’t surfaced sooner. As such, 39 Clocks seemed to exist in a time warp. Here we get prime album cuts and singles played in reverse chronological order; they didn’t start recording until 1980 and eventually split in 1987.

With a little history lesson and a listen to their later sides, one can imply that the duo of Christian Henjes and Juergen Glueu came full circle by the time they imploded. In the beginning they were more performance pranksters than the proto-punks they would become. Often linked to Dadaist groups in Hannover, the two would be more inclined to incite riot and chaos or make aural terror via circular saws and vacuum cleaners than put forth a legitimate show. In that regard, their closest cousin was Faust, promoting a situational anti-music until eventually getting obsessed with Lou Reed and Martin Rev. That disregard for form and function is felt in their later work, as on the speed-up hoax of “Fast Cars” or the endless sonic tinkering in “Rainy Day Insanities.” 39 Clocks went out of their way to make uncomfortable music, even including samples of goose-stepping and air-raid sirens to rough up the blow.

It’s when “My Tears Will Drown the World” appears that the duality of 39 Clocks is revealed, and that Jekyll-and-Hyde switch is wholly a German attribute: to either present the audience with a nihilistic blitzkrieg of industrial clatter or deconstruct the constructs of modern culture and rock, again, with an only half-serious nihilistic amateurism. What they tend to tear down on songs like “Shake the Hippie” and “Psycho Beat” is the preconceived vibe of Nuggets-era garage rock, and in re-building, give it a leering dread with suffocated synth-lines, slacker diction and a war-issued drum machine. There was even a Teutonic demolish of “Twist and Shout” in their oeuvre. Had the aforementioned Faust took things beyond “The Sad Skinhead” and became a legitimate Top of the Pops contender, it might have sounded like this evolution of the Clocks.

Sifting through the best of Zoned, there tends to be a fine line between a mocking imitation of their influences and the searing apathy that informs their repetitive, but engagingly grotesque, invention. “Heat of Violence” is Transformer-era Reed, cocksure brutality, preferring protest to smack. “New Crime Appeal,” on the other hand, is their closest inching towards pop, but could be interpreted as the Fall getting lost in Bavaria. And “DNS,” the earliest track here, shows the duo’s true love, Suicide, as this is ghostly glamour cloaked in the Clocks’ Wagnerian chromaticism.

Said and done, 39 Clocks may not have the same cache as their Kraut-predecessors or their American proto-counterparts, but this peek into their world is essential, and essentially they had the foresight to combine these two elements, whether as their own personal revolution or as one elaborate joke.
Kevin J. Elliott