The one and only true story about Neuschwanstein
As is often the case, the origins of this band lie in a school friendship. Thomas Neuroth and Klaus Mayer, who were both students at a local secondary school (with 6th form) in Völklingen (Germany), got to know each other there in the early 1970s. They quickly realised that they both shared an interest in the music of Rick Wakeman and King Crimson and, in addition, a passion for symphonic progressive rock. Due to their classical music training (Thomas Neuroth learned piano, Klaus Mayer flute) they appreciated the structures and lyricism of classical music in combination with rock elements.
The name should be German and sound romantic. I also don't want to rule out that I wanted the 'Neu' from my name in it.
— Thomas Neuroth, 2018
above left to right: Rainer Zimmer, Frédéric Joos, Roger Weiler, Klaus Mayer
below left to right: Thomas Neuroth, Hans Peter Schwarz
They decided to form a band together and gave themselves the name Neuschwanstein. This band name was no coincidence, as this castle, built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, represents the romantic era in its most impressive form.
Other band members (some from the same school) were quickly found: Werner Knäbel played bass, Peter Fischer drums, Udo Redlich guitar and Theo Busch violin.
At first, they made do with cover versions from the English standard rock genre, especially Rick Wakeman’s songs. Their later guitarist and lyricist Roger Weiler attended a concert of the early Neuschwanstein band and was particularly impressed by the band's synthesizer sounds on their excerpts from Rick Wakeman's The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Klaus Mayer studied electrical engineering straight out of school, which enabled him to build his own synthesizer, which was quite unusual in Germany at the time.
Finding the right drummer proved to be quite difficult for Neuschwanstein, because especially in the early stages there were frequent changes. Peter Fischer was soon replaced by Volker Klein, who in turn was replaced by Thorsten Lafleur in 1973. Uli Limpert took over from Werner Knäbel on bass the following year. Also in the same year, Thorsten Lafleur left the band and was replaced by Hans Peter Schwarz as drummer.
Hans Peter Schwarz
This success encouraged the band to broaden their musical horizons, which was facilitated in 1975 when a new guitarist joined the band, Roger Weiler. Their previous guitarist, Udo Redlich, had left the band shortly before. Weiler had first played in a local hard rock band and then in a French cover band, in which Frédéric Joos, the later singer of Neuschwanstein, was also a member. Roger Weiler was influenced by Genesis, among others, especially their song Supper's Ready, and played a double-neck guitar, with many pedal effects that allowed him to create a dreamlike atmosphere.
At the same time as this new guitarist, Ulli Reichert appeared on the scene, a local businessman with a profound knowledge of the rock business. He supported the group, also financially, and became Neuschwanstein's manager with the aim of giving the band the opportunity to record and market their music.
Alice in Wonderland
Very impressed by Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Neuschwanstein decided to compose a long piece of instrumental music and worked on the musical adaptation of the famous Lewis Carroll novel Alice in Wonderland. They chose this fairy tale for its atmosphere and fantasy, which lent itself to elaborate and evocative music. The idea and first attempts to realise the piece had already been born in 1970. The first performance of this 40-minute musical piece took place in 1974 at a local secondery school near their hometown. In 1975, Neuschwanstein used it to win a band competition at the Saarland State Theatre in Saarbrücken. They enchanted the audience with the orchestral and melodic richness of their arrangement.
In the new cast, Neuschwanstein not only honed their music but also devised an elaborate stage decoration as well as complex visual effects with masks and costumes, similar to those used by Genesis in Peter Gabriel's time. Even slides were projected at the back of the stage, with Limpert, and later Weiler, reciting the song sequences, interspersed with illustrations of the story. Even a forest decoration was set up on stage, with a printed curtain behind the projected illustrations. Phosphorescent colours were painted on the leaves of the trees so that they glowed in the dark. The musicians' masks corresponded to their roles in the story: Neuroth was the wizard, Weiler the griffin, etc. Although there was a constant lack of both time and money, Neuschwanstein's show was amazing and very professional for "local heroes".
We want to make music that is in contrast to the usual music styles, such as rock, jazz or the like. Of course, we let ourselves be influenced, but no more or less than any other musician who listens to a lot of music himself. With Neuschwanstein, there is no emphasis on improvisation. We see ourselves less as creative performers and more as creative constructors. Improvisations are mostly emotionally conditioned and do not always guarantee an optimum. Without copying Genesis or Wakeman, we want to present the audience with more than just a song, but a pleasure for the ear and the eye.
— Thomas Neuroth, December 1976
In April 1976, Neuschwanstein booked a small recording studio near Saarbrücken to record Alice in Wonderland on tape. Uli Limpert had left the band some time before and was replaced by the locally known bass player Rainer Zimmer, who also took over Limpert's vocal parts. This recording was intended as a demo tape for potential promoters. It was not until 32 years later, in 2008, that the French record company Musea Records released the demo tape as an album on CD for the first time. (If you want to know more detailed information about this album, click on the cover.)
Cherry Red Records had re-released the album on 18 November 2022. The recordings have been extensively restored and the original German lyrics have been replaced by English ones. The new lyrics are spoken by Sonja Kristina, lead singer of Curved Air. The label itself describes the album as "The only album in the ‘Narrated Rock’ genre to be unavailable in English until now."
The audience's reaction to the stage shows and the music was corresponding: it was the first time a German rock band performed such a long piece of music, with backdrops, costumes, masquerade and special effects. However, they were not spared from small mishaps. For example, at his very first concert with the group, Weiler had the misfortune to have his griffin mask with its large and heavy beak fall off. He had put the mask on too hectically before the performance and had not tied it properly.
Neuschwanstein suffered a bitter disappointment at a festival in Sierck-les-Bains, France, in 1976 when in front of an enthusiastic audience of around 10,000, and the musicians feeling like big stars, only to suddenly realise with disillusionment that the crowd began to leave after only a quarter of an hour to attend the "flaming wheels" ritual of the St. Jean festival (summer solstice). By the time the audience returned, Neuschwanstein's show was over.
Neuschwanstein live performing Alice in Wonderland, 1977
1976 was to become another milestone for their future development. Frédéric Joos, who had just completed his service in the French army and was a former band colleague of Roger Weiler, was invited by Thomas Neuroth to take part in a small tour on the Moselle. Neuschwanstein carried themselves with the intention of achieving a more lyrical and vocal style and for this Joos seemed to be just the right singer. His vocals were strongly reminiscent of Peter Gabriel, but comparisons were also drawn with The Strawbs’ singer Dave Cousins.
New material was collected, with song themes written by the individual musicians before being arranged and generally fleshed out by the whole group during rehearsals. Joos' first concert with Neuschwanstein took place in Saarlouis, Saarland. On stage, the group presented itself rather reservedly and only used costumes for parts of the "Alice" adaptation. Joos was dressed entirely in white, which was supposed to give him a kind of "angelic aura". However, he refrained from "stage acting" in order to concentrate entirely on singing and the acoustic guitar he played on most of the tracks. However, an elaborate light show and dry ice continued to be used extensively.
Between 1974 and 1978, the group increased their profile by performing in their home Saarland in support of bands like Novalis and Lucifer's Friend.
Due to a friendship of their manager Reichert with Herman Rarebell, the drummer of the Scorpions, the band then dared to take the next step and booked a studio in Cologne to record an album under the direction of Dieter Dierks, producer of the Scorpions. The recordings took place between 21 and 31 October 1978. The band had perfected their technique and presentation at concerts over the years and adapted easily to the studio. They kept their favourite numbers for the recordings, although some pieces, including A Winter's Tale, composed by Joos and written by Weiler, had to be omitted. Joos took over all the vocal parts, with the exception of
Battlement, which was written and sung by Rainer Zimmer. During the recording of the opener Loafer Jack, Herman Rarebell did the honours on drums. The Scorpions had booked the neighbouring studio at the same time and manager Reichert hired Rarebell as drummer for this track, as he expected greater commercial success from his notoriety. However, the group was not at all enthusiastic about this decision, especially since Hans Peter Schwarz had already recorded a much more subtle rhythm pattern for this track and Rarebell recorded a classic rock drum kit. (If you want to know more detailed information about this album, click on the cover.)
Neuschwanstein "Battlement" cast:
Thomas Neuroth, Frédéric Joos, Rainer Zimmer, Roger Weiler, Hans Peter Schwarz (behind), Klaus Mayer
The band has often been accused of being a copy of the Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett era. But the compositions are much too independent for that, even if of course the voice of singer Frédéric Joos is similar to that of Peter Gabriel in certain passages and the guitar playing of Roger Weiler is definitely inspired by Steve Hackett.
The album Battlement was released in 1979 and sold 6000 copies, a remarkable success for a self-produced band without a record deal. Especially because interest in progressive rock was waning at the time, with New Wave and post-punk on the rise. Despite the considerable popularity of Neuschwanstein, the success of the album failed to materialise, even despite a good distribution deal with a small local label called Racket Records. The rather more commercial song Midsummer Day was recorded but not included in the album. The band intended to release it on two sides of a promotional single, but financial obstacles prevented them from doing so. It was only through the 1992 CD release of Musea that this track appeared as a bonus track, so to speak. On the occasion of the CD release, the entire band met at their manager Ulli Reichert's place, where a reunion was also considered. Due to logistical difficulties, however, this did not happen in the end.
No new albums were released after Battlement. Frédéric Joos left the group even before the album was released because he had a different future in mind than that of a rock singer. He was succeeded by Rainer Zimmer. Joos returned to France and became a successful children's book illustrator. Michael Kiessling from Trier (near Luxembourg) and Wolfgang Bode from Saarlouis were brought on board to replace Frédéric Joos and Rainer Zimmer respectively. Michael Kiessling tried to make the group's stage show more theatrical again by reintroducing costumes and generally enhancing the visual appeal of the performances, and also gave the musical direction a more intimate style.
In the autumn of 1980, however, the group finally disbanded, as some band members felt compelled to continue their professional careers. There was also a general feeling of discouragement. Thomas Neuroth and Michael Kiessling decided to continue their musical careers, Hans Peter Schwarz and Klaus Mayer had finished their studies and wanted to pursue a career outside music. Roger Weiler returned to his original band, Nightbirds, and played Sixties cover versions. Wolfgang Bode joined a jazz band. In 2019, Michael Kiessling passed away.
Neuschwanstein last cast
above Roger Weiler; mid l. Hans Peter Schwarz, r. Wolfgang Bode;
below l. Thomas Neuroth, m. Michael Kiessling, r. Klaus Mayer
Lack of success, the rise of New Wave and the general disdain for progressives discouraged most members of the band, which eventually broke up in 1980, but this thoroughly respectable album remains as a testament to what might have been... And that is frustrating.
– Marc Moingeon, review in KoiD9 - magazine rock & progressif, France, issue Nr. 62, July 2007
In 2016, after a break of 37 years, a new album by Neuschwanstein, Fine Art was released. Basically, Fine Art is a "one-man project" by the only original member of Neuschwanstein, Thomas Neuroth. With the help of numerous musician friends, Neuroth created a remarkable album that hardly sounds like Neuschwanstein's original music - despite intensive use of flute - nor like their earlier role models such as Genesis, but much more like the combination of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, classical, romantic and progressive hard-rocking complexity that occurs in the form of a suite. (If you want to know more detailed information about this album, click here.)