This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.
This is number forty two in the series of albums I’m featuring as part of an on-going retrospective of vinyl albums in my personal collection.
The series is called, “Cream of The Crate”, and they represent vinyl albums that I believe are of significant musical value, either because of their rarity, because they represent the best of a style or styles of music or because their is something unique about the group or the music.
Well, I have had a few surprises in these reviews, but I think this album stands out from all the previous in terms of straight out ‘strange’/weird, bordering on the bizarre.
The album is “Unbehagen” (Ill At Ease) by the Nina Hagen Band. This album was released by CBS Records in 1979 (SBNP 237475) and has been in my collection for almost as long.
Sometimes known as the “Mother of Punk“, I think the description is only partially on the mark!
Certainly Nina Hagen embraced the ‘punk movement’, but she had something many of her contemporaries didn’t have – a magnificent voice and supported admirably by a sense of the ridiculous!
The energy, excitement and insanity of her music certainly supports rthe album title of Unbehagen or, Ill At ease!
Before I go any further, I want to make it crystal clear, we are NOT talking about another German singer, the incredibly ‘light’ and semi-talented, Nena. She was the one with that one-hit wonder – “99 Luft Balloons”!
Nina Hagen is everything Nena is not.
Talented, rough yet seriously well focused in her music. She is driven, as a banshee is driven yet with a voice an opera singer would be proud of. How does she use her voice? Well needless to say it is focused but she uses in a way an opera singer could never have conceived.
So some background on this woman!
Nina Hagen was born on 11 March 1955 in what was then, Communist East Berlin. At age four, she began to study ballet, and was considered an opera prodigy by the time she was nine.
When Nina was 11, her mother married Wolf Biermann, an anti-establishment singer-songwriter. Biermann’s political views influenced young Hagen: she was “dishonorably discharged” from the Free German Youth group at age 12, and became active in political protests against the East German government.
Nina left school at age 16, and joined the cover band Fritzens Dampferband (Fritzen’s Steamboat Band.
She insisted the group add songs by Janis Joplin and Tina Turner to the “allowable” set lists during shows.
Her professional and government supported musical career in East Germany was cut short when she and her mother left the country in 1976, following the expulsion of her stepfather.
The circumstances surrounding the family’s emigration were exceptional: Biermann was granted permission to perform a televised concert in Cologne, but denied permission to re-cross the border to his home country.
Pictures of a young Nina Hagen
During a period when overburdening bureaucracy was the norm, and families divided by the Berlin Wall, meaning they had not seen one another in decades, Hagen submitted an application to leave the country.
In it, she claimed to be Biermann’s biological daughter, and threatened to become the next Wolf Biermann if not allowed to rejoin her father.
Just four days later her request was granted and she settled in Hamburg, where she was signed to a CBS-affiliated record label.
Her label advised her to acclimate herself to Western culture through travel and she arrived in London during the height of the punk rock movement.
Hagen was quickly taken up by a circle that included The Slits and the Sex Pistols. In fact Johnny Rotten was a particular admirer of her style.
Back in Germany by mid-1977, Hagen formed the Nina Hagen Band in West Berlin’s Kreuzberg district.
In 1978 the group released their self-titled debut album, which included the single “TV-Glotzer” (a cover of “White Punks on Dope” by The Tubes, though with entirely different German lyrics), and “Auf’m Bahnhof Zoo”, about West Berlin’s then-notorious Berlin Zoologischer Garten station.
Rear of the ‘Unbehagan’ album cover
Let me start by fleshing out the track listing!
- “African Reggae” (Bernhard Potschka, Reinhold Heil)
- “Alptraum” (Herwig Mitteregger)
- “Wir leben immer… Noch” (“We’re Still Alive””) (Lene Lovitch, Les Chappell)
- “Wenn ich ein Junge wär” (Live-Version) (Heinz Buchholz, Günter Loose)
- “Hermann hiess er” (Manfred Praeker)
- “Auf’m Rummel” (Bernhard Potschka)
- “Wau Wau” (Manfred Praeker, Bernhard Potschka, Herwig Mitteregger, Reinhold Heil)
- “Fall in Love mit mir” (Manfred Praeker, Bernhard Potschka, Herwig Mitteregger, Reinhold Heil, Hagen)
- “No Way” (instrumental) (Manfred Praeker, Bernhard Potschka, Herwig Mitteregger, Reinhold Heil)
The line up and credits can be seen on this picture taken from the rear of the album.
I have no hesitation in choosing what track to discuss first. “African Reggae” putting it simply, is an absolute ripper!
In previous album reviews, I have tried not to include both an audio version, and a video clip version of the same track.
“African Reggae” represents everything I admire about Nina Hagen and her music.
The vocal delivery shows the power and amazing range of her voice, whilst having that ‘sneering’ edge to the delivery that all great ‘punk’ music of the era had. The backing is fantastic, and while she always gathered very good musicians around her, this line-up that was the Nina Hagen Band represents the best combination.
In fact after this album, her backing musicians formed the fabulous German ‘underground’ group – Spliffe.
I have a Spliffe album (actually I have a great collection of German electro/electronic music from the period) and they are a most interesting group that received little or no airplay in Australia.
In fact many of the German Electro/Electronic music group failed to get airplay so they probably deserve it’s own series in regard to post-reviewing, and I’ll give some thought to that.
So, if you enjoy great electro-rock, better known colloquially as ‘Kraut Rock’ then the Nina Hagen Band certainly provides it – while I’m not providing a sample, “Herrmann Hieber” (Herr Hermann was his name) has some superb pieces of electronics so check it out if you get the chance!
The music drives Nina Hagen into a frenzy!
Nina Hagen drives the group into a frenzy!
What comes first? Is it the chicken or the egg? What the hell, the music speaks for itself and as in most things in life they drive each other into an amazing musical lather.
Incidentally, the You tube clip below was recorded a few years after this album was recorded, and she does have different musicians and a slightly different edge – but it is worth watching.
Did I warn you? This is a drug laden referential track, just resist the temptation to roll up the cover and smoke it!
Well that was an easy track to pick, but from here on in, is almost impossible.
Every track is a winner! OK, so I’m one-eyed when it comes to Nina and others might nominate a weak track on this album – but it’s difficult, although the last track on side 2 sounds a bit like it was a ‘left-over’ and put in for fun!
So, to choose the other tracks I put the names into a hat, literally, and pulled out another three tracks.
Working in order of appearance on the album, the next track for your aural edification is, “Alptraum” (which the online German to English converter tells me means “Nightmare“).
It’s a solid track with a driving synth beat supplemented by a great piece of guitar work and Nina? She is as ‘demented’ as can be!
It’s the passion with which she sings, along with the ‘guttural’ sound of the German language, that would result in ‘Granny’ having a lot of nightmares. Probably best you don’t play it to nan eh?
Keeping the pace and intensity up is track #3, “Wir Leben Immer Noch” (We’re Still Alive)!
Yer, well I’m not sure if this is a threat or a statement.
The music kicks off with a simple kick drum beat, tad of synth and, panting – before Nina kicks into immediate overdrive!
What is she singing? We have the translation sheet but who the hell cares. We aren’t going to sing along that’s for sure, but dance? Absolutely!
You could be forgiven thinking she only has one speed – and it aint slow.
More great synth mixed with stunning guitar work and a rock solid drum/bass combo and Nina really rocks until the whole track climaxes into a space opera that disintegrates into infinity!
Incidentally I give in, here is a little of the lyrics (in English “Stark naked we wander into infinity, hovering into the path into eternity, we believe what we know and are filled with dread, appalled that someday we must be among the dead, we are the living and strive to be alive.”
Personally, I prefer it in German!
Wir Leben Immer Noch
So to the final track that I provide for you to consider.
“Wau Wau“ or simply, Bow Wow is probably my second favourite track.
Damn it if it isn’t even more frantic, or maybe frenetic than anything before it! Jeez these guys must have been as skinny as rakes because there is no way they could keep this pace night and not loose a lot of weight.
A simple riff, to a driving beat, with sampled and ‘effected’ dog barks and Nina going to the edge of insanity. It’s only a tad over 2:00 minutes and I’m not surprised.
Why do I like it yet I can’t claim it’s a brilliant composition. I don’t know – it just appeals to the growing insanity within me!
Well, I still believe what I wrote earlier that you are either going to love this album or really hate it!
I can’t imagine anyone sitting in the middle. On the surface you be forgiven for thinking Hagen is just plain crazy and her band simply ingested too much speed. But behind this wonderfully expressive and theatrical voice is an opera singer with a great vocal range.
She ignored the ‘finer’ arts to embrace her own craziness and the punk ethos of the day and along with her band left an album with us that surely stands out.
The album has been re-released on CD, but there are some copies of the LP available for between Au$25.00 and $35.00 and in my world, vinyl rules!
There are some fantastic video clips featuring Nina Hagen and I have provided you with the best. So find time to settle back and watch theatre and listen to music, the way Nina Hagen is compelled to provide.
African Reggae 1985
Auf’m Bahnhoff Zoo
Spirit in the Sky
Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:
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