13 March 2013
By: Sam Murray
Welcome to another edition of Union of Sound, a unique exploration of Popular Music in Europe taking in music from acts that innovative, creative and exciting. Last week I talked about music that is exciting me from France and this week we are going to the land of Oktoberfest, Schlaeger and Bratwurst. Germany is a country that has been crucial to the modern history of Europe being a dividing line between east and west, facing all the odds to become the most financially successful nation in Europe. In terms of music German provided us with the setting for some of the greatest albums ever made including the back catalogue of German electro superstars Kraftwerk alongside foreign artists recording in Berlin such as Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and ‘Low’ records recorded at Berlin’s infamous Hansa studios situated near the Berlin Wall during the cold war. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall has become one of the most enduring images of the twentieth century sound tracked by David Hasselhoff who claims full credit for the events of that night. Germany has had recent musical successes be it one-hit wonders, mass consumed electro or winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2010. Germany may not be traditionally thought of as a strong musical nation but it has one of the largest music markets in Europe and there’s some pretty incredible sounds being made across the nation.
My first experience of Germany came in 2011 when I visited dear friends of mine Laura and Arne in Dusseldorf to attend the Eurovision Song Contest after Germany’s landslide victory from a young singer called Lena Meyer-Landrut, a singer plucked out of obscurity in a nation-wide talent search for someone to represent them in Eurovision. Germany has had a tough old time with its image in Europe, but when you go there and meet the people, not only will you find efficient service but you feel warmly welcomed with a wonderful sense of humour. Dusseldorf is a stunning city on the Rhine with stunning architecture from the like of Frank Gehry placed alongside more classical architecture. The city was a wonderful host of Eurovision embracing the full spirit of its mission to unite Europe in song. This is where my German musical journey will begin.
If we turn the clock back to 2010 to Olso, Norway, Lena Meyer-Landrut won Eurovision with a simple hooky pop song called Satellite written by American Julie Frost and Dane John Gordon. The song was best in the field due to its simplicity in song structure and performance eon stage relying on the power of pop as opposed to the campy affair the event usually commands. When the contest came to Dusseldorf, Lena had just about made one of the best albums to come out of Germany: ‘Good News’. Good News is a collection of the various songs proposed for Lena to use in defence of her Eurovision title, in fact Lena is only the third Eurovision winner to defend their title the following year. While the song ‘Taken by a Stranger’ may not have been the best choice it certainly created a beguiling new sound for Germany mixing dark electro pop with swingy ideas. The song I would have loved Lena to use is the motown-esque soul riff laden ‘Mama Told Me’ which seemed very en vogue with the rise in new soul from the likes of Amy Winehouse, Nina Zilli and Aloe Blacc. Aloe Blacc in fact made his own contribution to the record writing for Lena with soul jam ‘At All’ full of intriguing harmonic progression and simple laid back soul instrumentation and rhythms, it feels a little R Kelly in some places. This record is so diverse with intended direction for Eurovision and is a pure overview of zeitgeist of pop at the time from the recitativic street pop making reference to the likes of Kate Nash (heard on A Million and One) to intimate emotional ballads (Push Forward). Listening to this album in retrospect of Eurovision 2011 where Lena placed 10th you wonder if another song was used could Lena have done the double? Bringing Lena’s story up to date she has become a very successful singer in Germany and still producing fantastic quality pop. Her song Stardust is a wonderful pure indie-pop song that is full of twinkle and charm. It has become a big hit in Germany in this year winning her ECHO and MTV EMA awards and getting to number 2 in the charts. Lena’s story may be reminiscent of the typical talent show narrative by her music is quirky and original fitting her personality perfectly. Lena’s voice itself is wonderfully quirky and has been described as being close to Bjork in quality and tone. I know I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Eurovision has also fostered brilliant male talent from Germany. One of my favourite all time Eurovision Songs has to be ‘Can’t Wait Until Tonight’ by Max Mutzke a wonderful souley ballad that didn’t get the attention is deserved in 2004 overshadowed by Xena Warrior Princess styled Ruslana. Max’s brand of German soul is wonderfully tender with his gravelly voice offering his listeners heart-felt and honest tales of his romances. After his tender early output Max got edgy with his 2010 album ‘Home Work Soul’ that included tracks full of attitude and swagger. Album opener ‘High on Your Love’ is pinned down by a wonderful 60s riff with blues tinges from harmonica and slide guitar. ‘Y.O.U’ is another album highlight with its tight production and wonderfully cheesy lyrics spelling out Y.O.U to prove why the object of this song works for Max. Not since YMCA or DISCO has an audacious song spelling been so good. I personally would love to see Max come back to Eurovision with his edge and throw gravel in a few faces, it would be most enjoyable. Another man who made a wonderful Eurovision impact was Roman Lob who was Germany’s last promising shot at victory in 2012 with the Jamie Cullum penned ‘Standing Still’ that was a most perfectly crafted pop song once again overshadowed but this time by a behemoth of a dance tune that couldn’t have lost the contest even if it tried. Roman once again showed Germany’s edge in simple pop and presented a hipster track that should’ve seen a top placement. He has released a record that’s not been accessible in the UK yet so hopefully that will trickle through as it is sure to be pop hipster heaven.
While Eurovision came to Dusseldorf it also gave Germany a chance to show its musical credentials through the fringe events surrounding the contest. I witnessed one of these events in a square by the river where German soul sensation Cassandra Steen performed and my word could she sing. Cassandra is an ECHO award winning soul singer whose records are pure bliss. You may not think the German language can compliment sensitive soul but Cassandra handles the language with delicate care to project emotion. You only have to listen to the stunning record ‘Darum Leben Wir’to hear Cassandra combine perfect soul ballads with gospel inflections that show case her range to tell you story that although you may not understand the language you certainly feel.
Germany has its own unique version of Eurovision called the Bundesvision Song Contest where all 16 German states compete for the contest title. The contest was started by Stefan Raab a comedian who also has entered Eurovision for Germany as well as be involved in its selection process until a couple of years ago. It was through Bundesvision I found a true remarkable rock.indie musician Thees Uhlmann. There is no greater joy than putting on the first three tracks for Thees’ self-titled debut and listening to the tracks in succession from the piano dream rock riff of ‘Zum Laichen und Sterben ziehen die Lachse den Fuss hauf’ or ‘Salmon move up the river to spawn and die’ (yes really! It is an awesome rock track and not novelty as you may think), to the dense drum fill intro of ‘Die Nach War Kurz’ to the oo’s of ‘& Jay-Z Singt uns ein leid’ which features a wonderful rap from Casper with the lyrics ‘meine ketamine meine amphetamine’ showing immense reactions to the rap of Jay-Z. Thees’ rock is purely anthemic and will resound in stadiums and at festivals and it is exciting to listen to, you feel the energy rushing through you as you become uplifted. When I got this record in 2011 I was blown away by it and listened to it on repeat for several weeks dissecting how Ulhmann has managed to be a saviour of a genre at risk of becoming boring. This is a record I will always treasure, although I need to get a physical format as I could only get hold of the mp3 version. Thees is definitely on my ‘to see live list’. I seriously urge you to pick up a truly remarkable rock record you won’t be disappointed. This year saw Thees release #2 which from what I’ve heard of it so far is edgy and riffy as ever, this will certainly be a future investment for me when my lifestyle has stopped making me impoverished!
While Thees keeps rocking out the indie tribe have heroes in the form of Wir Sind Helden, conveniently translating as We Are Heroes. Finding Wir Sind Helden was oen of my proud esoteric pop finds of my misspent youth and to receive the approval of Laura my go to on all things German was a pretty great feeling. Wir Sidn Helden is an unashamed pure indie rock band that flirts with images on their album covers that look like Tin Tin books. Although the band went on an indefinite hiatus in 2012 their music is still relevant and so freaking groovy! Whether it’s the disco indie of ‘Von Hier an Bind’ or the the jaws hip led bounce of ‘Zuhalter’ Wir Sind Helden are a treat for the ears. Their track ‘Guten Tag’ was seen as their European breakthrough and it is full of poppy synths that sound almost like Pulp with a racing pulse like a video game. My favourite track by Wir Sind Helden has to be ‘Gekommen Um Zu Blieben’ with its angular guitar riffs, palm muted bass and rhythm guitar and lounge jazz trumpet moments. The band seems to realise on this track the power of the rhythmic consonance of the German language with little cheap snippets of English with lines such as ‘Face the final curtain’. They have rhythm down to a tie and can create such glorious indie. Here’s to hoping they reform and continue such an important indie legacy in Deutschland.
You can’t even begin to write an article about German music without paying homage to Kraftwerk, the pioneers of Krautrock and most electronic music in existence today. Kraftwerk are astonishing in what they have achieved aurally. Sounds you have never heard anything like compiled in a way to bring visual elements to life. Kraftwerk have sound tracked The Autobahns, the Tour de France, the trains, the atomic age, the catwalk and pop itself. Never once have they managed to not be original with their compositions. Born at a time of intense musical exploration there is something accessible about Kraftwerk more than any other band at their time, and this accessibility is key to their popularity. Their commitment to music is evident in their lack of personal appearances often option for robots to replace them onstage or if they appear on stage they are disguised by the light as not to distract from the music distribution unfolding. It is hard to decide which of Kraftwerk’s songs to put forward as my favourite as it can change but at present I have a strong affinity with Autobahn and Tour de France. As a fan of the Tour de France to hear it musically represented is intense and exciting from the almost orgasmic mechanical exhales at the beginning to its travel lite synth hook and harp like arpeggios that are majestic. A few years ago the group performed the whole Tour de France album at Manchester Velodrome as part of the Manchester International Festival, I was sad not to go but from the reports on it the physical music/bike relationship in full flow was stunning as members of the GB squad rode around the track while Kraftwerk performed in the center. Autobahn is a sonic soundscape of German motorway complete with car noises and a riff that makes you feel like you gliding down a motorway at constant speed. I was particularly drawn to this track by a unique cover version of the song by German DJ Senor Coconut who created a cumbia version of the track that really works. In fact Senor Coconut pays a latin based homage to Kraftwerk in his record El Baile Aleman giving Kraftwork a make-over reimagining them in Latin contexts, pure genius. Kraftwerk helped soundtrack a post-industrial technological and creative world and have created such influential music that is a pure gift from Germany to the world.
German Pop is important and it’s great! Whether it’s Cassandra, Thees, Max or Lena there’s something for everyone! Don’t forget the one hit wonders Germany has offered the world. Where would be without Nena’s ‘99 Red Balloons’ or Lou Bega’s ‘Mambo No.5’? Heck Boney M were even German, yes it’s true go look! So come embrace the music of Germany and join an exciting trip through your imagination!