Friday, 1 August 2008

Neue Deutsche Welle

Back in 1980 I was living in Herford, West Germany. Our local rock venue was a former cinema named the Scala, which in the 1960s had put on gigs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Who and the Cream.

The tradition continued, and I saw some great performances, mostly by visiting acts like UB40, Basement Five, Dillinger &c. The Cure were particularly fine – Robert Smith gave me some dexys before the show, and so many encores were demanded that they had to repeat songs they’d already played, since they’d run out of material.

But the gig I remember best was a mini-festival of six Neue Deutsche Welle bands.

For those who missed out on it, the NDW was a fabulous moment in rock history (starting around 1980), when German musicians embraced the spirit of punk and transformed it into something really quite special.

Part of the joy of the movement was that it covered such a phenomenal range of music. Unlike the earlier British incarnation of punk, there was no set of rules to which the bands were expected to adhere, no new orthodoxy. The result was a wide diversity of attitude and sounds, embracing not only new wave, but also electronica, scratchy funk, cabaret, ska and dub.

Very little of this travelled overseas. In Britain X-Mal Deutschland were accepted as part of goth, while the music press celebrated the austere industrialists in Einsturzende Neubauten, die Krupps and DAF. Curiously, though, the most authentic representative of NDW was Trio’s hit Da Da Da, which reached #2 in 1982. Not a record that was ever taken very seriously, of course (despite being covered by the mighty Elastica), but then, that was the point.

You see, it wasn’t all Teutonic grimness round these parts. What Britain missed was the humour and the playfulness.

To put it in context…

There was a charged political atmosphere at the time. The Red Army Faction had been defeated, and the election of Ronald Reagan as American president – which led to the rebirth of CND in Britain – was felt even more keenly in a country that was largely occupied by the US Army and that was touted as the frontline of World War III. When politicians blithely talked about battlefield nuclear weapons, Germany was the battlefield they had in mind.

Consequently NDW included a strong vein of left-wing sloganeering (Alternativ by the Front, Heil Reagan by Blitz), but it also saw a kind of rebirth of Dada, perhaps with the Residents as midwife. Groups like Reifenstahl, der Plan and Wirtschaftswunder gleefully mixed up nursery rhymes, out-of-tune horns and exaggerated vocal mannerisms, mocking the absurdity of the modern world. The very lack of overt politics felt like a political statement in itself.

It didn’t last, of course. Record companies, confronted with an upsurge of new talent, co-opted and compromised in time-honoured fashion and by 1984 were giving us the likes of Nena and Peter Schilling. All very well in their own right, but a bit like getting Toyah as a substitute for Johnny Rotten.

The band who really should have made it were Ideal, fronted by the movement’s sex symbol, the unfortunately named Annette Humpe. Essentially a straightforward new wave group, they had great tunes and even greater charm. They were briefly signed to Virgin in the UK, and were brought over for a showcase gig at the Venue in Victoria, London to promote their English-language single ‘Sex in the Desert’. It didn’t work. My brother and I were down the front, dancing with perhaps two dozen German tourists, but we were separated by acres of empty space from the handful of Virgin executives at the bar. I don’t think the press bothered to come.

Anyway, to return to that 1980 NDW gig in Herford. There were two stand-out bands. Toto Lotto shouted a lot and had an atonal sax honking away as they dismembered the Ramones’ Oh Oh, I Love Her So. And P1/E offered slightly disturbing little electronic love songs that were steeped in the history of pop music – like a cross between Kraftwerk and Suicide.

I bought singles by both bands that night, and got my copy of 49 Second Romance by P1/E signed by Alexander Hacke. Here he is revisiting the song many years later and adding in quotes from some other stuff that’s probably a bit more familiar:

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