In this final part of my series “Great ways to learn German” I am writing about German music. When I was in my teens I wanted to know what my favourite band Depeche Mode was actually singing about and I started translating their songs. This certainly helped my English vocabulary as I learnt new words and phrases. If this helped me, surely listening to music in German can help learners of the language.
There’s more to German music than awful “Volksmusik” (the equivalent to country and western), opera, “Schlager” (really awful music – think the music of Stock, Aitken & Waterman, just with German lyrics), Krautrock and Techno.
I have to admit that since moving to the UK I kind of lost touch with what is going on in the German music scene, so I can only write about the singers and bands that I have in my CD and record collection. I tend to mostly listen to music sung in English and a lot of German bands such The Jeremy Days or Phillip Boa and the Voodoo Club, only sing in English (I guess to appeal to a wider market), but digging deeper you find great examples of German language music.
If you want to explore music with nonsense lyrics and German one-hit-wonders you will have a field day going through the music by “Neue Deutsche Welle” (NDW) acts. Some songs were really funny or told a proper story “Major Tom” and some were just a bit naff.
In the early 80s the German air waves were full of NDW acts. Here is just a short selection of the most famous ones – Nena of “99 Red Balloons” fame – in German it’s “99 Luftballons” and her hit “Nur geträumt”, Trio “Ich lieb dich nicht, du liebst mich nicht”, Geier Sturzflug “Bruttosozialprodukt”, Falco “Der Kommissar”, Hubert Kah “Sternenhimmel”, Joachim Witt “Goldener Reiter”, Ideal “Blaue Augen” , “Monotonie”, “Taxi”, “Eiszeit”, Spliff “Déjà vu”, “Carbonara” and Peter Schilling “Major Tom (Völlig losgelöst)”. You can find most of these songs on YouTube.
Some of the NDW acts managed to have enduring careers when the genre ended in 1984.
My favourite German bands and singers are Die Ärzte, Die Sterne and Germany’s Godmother of Punk – Nina Hagen.
Die Ärzte were originally formed in 1982 in Berlin by Jan Vetter better known as Farin Urlaub (which translated means go on holiday as in “Fahr in den Urlaub”, get it ;), Dirk Felsenheimer alias Bela B. and Hans Runge alias Sahnie. The line-up changed later when Rod Gonzalez replaced bassist Sahnie. A punk band at heart Die Ärzte specialise in funny lyrics such as their number 1 hit “Männer Snd Schweine” – “Men are Pigs”, controversial lyrics such as “Geschwisterliebe” – “Sibling love” but are also political “Schrei Nach Liebe” – “Cry for Love”. Furthermore they have developed quite an eclectic musical style – from punk to swing to pop and even country – they tackle every musical style with gusto. I have seen them live in the late 90s when they toured their album “13”and their live shows are pretty legendary. The gig was over 3 hours long! My little sister who is more than half my age is a big fan – she has most of their albums and has seen them many times. One of her last birthday gifts to me was the CD “Auch” – “Also” which you can see in the photo. Die Ärzte pay a lot of attention to their packaging and artwork. I listened to “Auch” when I was visiting my dad and sister in Cologne and totally loved the variety of the tracks – one my favourite songs from that album is called “Waldspatziergang mit Folgen” – “A Walk In The Woods With Consequences” – which is about religion. As you can see from that image the CD also functions as a board game – what’s not to love? The CD with the blue plush cover is also a gift from my sister called “Runter mit den Spendierhosen, Unsichtbarer!” (pretty difficult to translate – Spendierhosen anhaben means to be in a generous mood, Hosen are trousers, so taking the trousers off means the opposite while Unsichtbarer means someone who is invisible).Who said titles have to make sense? While writing this I realise that I should give them a good listen again.
Watch Die Aerzte on YouTube:
It’s not really that far from Berlin to Hamburg – and the next band that I like are Die Sterne, from Hamburg. I actually interviewed them for the English Program of Radio Deutsche Welle in 1997, which was a strange experience as I interviewed them in English. I don’t know how to describe their music best – I suppose just German Indie music. Die Sterne was formed in 1992 by Frank Spilker, Thomas Wenzel, Christoph Leich and Frank Will. They have released 11 albums so far. I don’t have all their albums, but can highly recommend their 1996 album “Posen” – “Poses” with “Scheib auf deutsche Texte” – “I Shit On German Lyrics”, “Zucker” – “Sugar”, “Was hat dich blob so ruiniert” – “What Has Ruined You So Much” “Trrrmmer” (properly spelled: Trümmer) – “Rubble” and “Swinging Safari” – actually it’s one of those albums you can listen to in one go –all killers no fillers.
I can also recommend “Wo ist hier?” – (Where is here?) from 1999 with “Ich variiere meinen Rhythmus” – “I Am Varying My Rhythm) , “Big in Berlin” and “Nichts wie wir’s kennen” – “Nothing As We Know It” and “Von allen Gedanken schätze ich doch am meisten die interessanten” from 1997 with “Die Interessanten” the song of the same long title (meaning: of all thoughts I appreciate the interesting the most), “Abstrakt” – “Abstract” and “Kannst du dich nicht endlich entscheiden” – “Can’t You Make A Decision At last”. This is really a good reminder to dig out all those CDs!
Watch Die Sterne on YouTube:
And then there is Nina Hagen – Germany’s Godmother of Punk – the woman who showed the nation how to masturbate on day-time telly in the 70s and who is one of the most versatile singers in the world. She can easily slip from opera (she has operatic training) to blues, swing, punk and Schlager. Nina was born in East Germany and came over to the West in the 70s with her mum, actress and singer Eva-Maria Hagen, and her step dad, songwriter Wolfgang Bierman. Her first band in the East was called “Automobil” who had a big hit with “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” – “You forgot the colour film”. Once settled in the West she started the Nina Hagen Band supported by members of the band Spliff (Spliff formed after they split up). This collaboration only lasted for a couple of albums. Nina, who is very politically active, had a very colourful and interesting career and you can find out more about her here and here.
I have to admit that I have only four of her albums and they are all on vinyl (oh yes, I still have my record player and my vinyl collection, though I mostly listen to CDs these days). The self-titled “Nina Hagen” from 1988 in which she sings in English, “Nina Hagen Band” from 1978, “Unbehagen” (a play on her name – Unbehagen means discomfort in German) from 1979 and “Angstlos” from 1983. The latter three albums have some cracking songs including a German version of “White Punks On Dope” – “TV-Glotzer” -“TV viewer”, “Rangehn” – “Go for it”, “Heiss” –“Hot”, the opera parody “Naturträne” – “Nature tear”, “Auf’m Bahnhof Zoo” – “At Bahnhof Zoo” and her feminist anthem “Unbeschreiblich weiblich” – “Indescribably feminine” which is about woman’s right to self-determination and her body.
“Unbehagen” has a German cover version of Lene Lovich’s “Lucky Number” called “Wir leben immer noch” – “We are still alive”, a reggae called “African Reggae” and a song about a junkie called “Hermann hiess er” – “His Name Was Hermann”.
The very poppy, Georgio Moroder produced “Angstlos” was a big success for Nina Hagen and it’s easy to see why. “Zarah” is Nina’s homage to Zarah Leander’s “Ich weiss es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen” -“I Know One Day A Miracle Will Happen” and still holds up today. Her love letter to New York – “NewYork/N.Y” opens with the memorable lines: “New York City ist die heibeste Stadt, wenn man einen neuen Boyfriend und ein Hotelzimmer hat” – ( NY Is The Hottest City When You Have A New Boyfriend And A Hotel Room). The album was also translated into English and released as “Fearless”.
Nina is still very active and you can find her Facebook page here.
I hope you found this selection of German sung music interesting and even discovered songs you like. Please let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading. 🙂
Watch Nina Hagen on YouTube – here’s a selection:
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