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Monday, October 26, 2009


Reminded of her thanks to an amusing YouTube clip that I watched a few days ago and unable to get her out of my head since then, I just had to post an image of one of my favorite singers, operatically-skilled punk rocker/world class weirdo Nina Hagen, and in no time that simple image inspired the following train of thought.

Nina Hagen, circa 1987.

While watching the clip I thought back to when and where I first heard Prima Nina's music and was shocked to note I've been listening to her for nearly thirty years, discovering her not long after finding my beloved Devo and having my musical perceptions completely blown out of the water and thus opened to checking out new things. Hagen was an especially easy sell to me, thanks to her genuine talent, unbridled and fully embraced weirdness, a real sense of style and charm, plus a glamorous but somehow anti-glam image that stood in direct contrast to the plastic and interchangeable pop singer chicks of the late-1970's/early-1980's.

The 1980 EP that made me a believer.

When I first heard the four-song EP that compiled tunes from Hagen's first two German-release LP's — NINA HAGEN BAND and the excellent UNBEHAGEN — during the fall of 1980, I was mesmerized by her voice's stunning operatic capability and just how hard "TV Glotzer" (roughly translated as "Glued to the TV" and also a German language re-write of the Tubes' "White Punks on Dope") rocked, compounding its Third Reich-meets-arena-rock ambiance with the song's finale having Hagen let out a Valkyrie-like shriek as the world ends in what sounds like the mother of all thermo-nuclear strikes. The rest of the EP is a lot of fun, but that song completely kicked my ass six ways to Sunday and remains among my favorite recordings from that confused and awkward period of my youth.

Music is an interest that is much more fun when shared with the like-minded and the only person I knew at the time who also appreciated Nina Hagen's musical stylings like I did was my dear friend Matt, a guy whose musical tastes almost completely jibed with my own. I'd known Matt since junior high but he moved a few towns away as our second year of high school began, yet that didn't stop our exchange of music; in fact, Matt's moving away yielded the unexpected bonus of him having a number of interesting mom & pop music stores in his new territory that allowed him access to stuff I could never have gotten my hands on in Westport, nor even at Fairfield County's sole bastion of extensive punk and new wave selections at the time, New Music. It was Matt who introduced me to several groups and performers that I came to love and during this musical exploration he was the person who managed to get his hands on Nina Hagen's then-new albums, the first of which to cross our path was NUNSEXMONKROCK (1982).

Though quite aggressively weird, this album's songs examine religion, science, matters of social concern and other assorted topics, each propelled by Hagen's amazing vocal range and sense of humor/satire. (When I encountered Mercyful Fate and King Diamond some two years later, I immediately wondered if King's all over the place vocals owed more than a little to the infinitely more talented Hagen's sonic template.) Definitely not an album for listeners raised on the safe, homogenized radio or MTV product-rock of the early eighties, this album is like a stark staring glimpse into the mind of someone who's gone irrevocably mad, but when you have tunes that kick as much ass as "Born in Xixax" or the hypnotic "Iki Maska," utter madness can at times be seen as a refuge.

Next up was 1983's ANGSTLOS (released in the U.S. as FEARLESS), a mostly mediocre offering that remains in my collection solely because of the transcendent majesty of the incredible "Zarah."

When Matt first played it for me he'd managed to snag the German version of the album from one of the arcane record shops in the boonies to where he'd been re-located, and when the needle hit the vinyl and allowed "Zarah" to cascade out of the speakers we were completely and utterly blown away. We both considered Nina Hagen a songstress of considerable merit, but "Zarah" allowed her Teutonic uber-pipes to let loose with a song that was simultaneously beautiful and infused with all the power one would expect from a record cut by a particularly talented Valkyrie when she wasn't out harvesting warriors' souls to populate Valhalla. The English language version of the song is pretty good, but "Zarah" must be experienced in German to feel the raw energy Hagen transmits when giving it voice. No lie, that song sends chills up my spine and when possible I play it as loud as I can.

Continuing the trend of her gifts being lent to albums of very much hit or miss quality, 1985's IN EKSTASY featured another mixed bag, including a cover of "My Way" (done to much greater effect by Sid Vicious some seven years previous) and a listless version of Norman Greenbaum's seventies hit "Spirit in the Sky."

IN EKSTASY is not a total loss though, containing as it does the bleak "Atomic Flash de Luxe," but I can't really recommend it to anyone other than Hagen purists (one of which, despite my love of her, I am not).

A brief return to form came in 1987 with the release of the PUNK WEDDING EP, a gleefully goofy celebration of Hagen's marriage to an eighteen-year-old punker boy named "Iroquois."

Old school punk rock was once noted for its sense of humor and this EP is proof that people from Germany can be fucking hilarious when they want to, as evidenced in the title song (German and English versions are provided) and especially on "Hardcore Rebell-Hochzeitsparty," a ditty that to this day makes my friend Smokey crack up over how "extra stoopid" it is. The whole record is a raucous madhouse but the bit that truly makes it is the moment when, amidst much noise and chaos, a priest interrupts the proceedings and engages in the following exchange with Nina:

Priest: Do you, Nina Hagen, take this punk to be your lawfully wedded husband?
Nina (sweetly): Ja...
Priest: Do you, Iroquois, take this superstar to be your lawfully wedded wife?

Iroquois (sounding exactly like a completely wasted Sid Vicious): Oh, yeah...

Priest: To have and to hold, in sickness and in health, to honor and obey, 'til death do you part?
Nina (confused): What?!!?

Back cover to the PUNK WEDDING EP.

I've done the research and can find no concrete info on Hagen's subsequent relationship with that Iroquois guy, so I'm inclined to think the whole thing was some kind of elaborate joke that few of us have been let in on. If anyone reading this knows different, please don't hesitate to write in with an answer.

Following PUNK WEDDING's all-too-brief blast of kickass silliness, I graduated from college and spent the next few years concentrating less on music and trying instead to get acclimated to the realities of earning a living, thus not encountering Fraulein Hagen again until 1993's REVOLUTION BALLROOM.

Her voice was still there but some undefinable element was missing from the recipe, so as a result I have given Hagen's releases a miss from REVOLUTION BALLROOM on, a policy that saddens me. I am however curious to give a listen to her 1999 album OM NAMAH SHIVAY!, a completely serious rendition of the Hare Krishna mantra.

Even during the days when I listened to her stuff as it was coming out, Hagen came off as a spiritually restless eccentric, first embracing what appeared at the time to be Born Again Christianity (as noted in the lyrics to "Born in Xixax": "Well I believe in Jesus/I preach it loud and stark") and then traveling a path of enlightenment that seems to have at one point culminated in Krishna Consciousness. Whatever the case may be, Nina Hagen continues to fascinate me, both as an artist and as a human being, and I hope she stays around for a long while, being here to intrigue, inspire, and incite mass confusion wherever she goes. A true beauty, possessed of a vast and compelling intellect, brazen enough to demonstrate female masturbation techniques on a live Austrian talk show in 1979 (while clothed, but nonetheless something I would have loved to witness from the audience) and by far the most intentionally funny German I have yet to encounter, she's just plain awesome.

The photo that hung on my bedroom wall from sometime in 1981 through when I left for college in 1983. My mom was simultaneously quite displeased and rather confused whenever she glimpsed it.


John Bligh said...

I had forgotten about the sublime idiocy of "Punk Rock Wedding"... It must have been goof. :)

Anonymous said...

The source of all the obscure music for me during that time was a little place in Waterbury, CT. Somehow I found the name of a store in Waterbury owned by an ex-high school teacher known only as The Professor. I stopped into his store and was amazed at the amount of material he had. A week later I went back and the place was closed, but a note on the window gave directions to his new location which turned out to be down the street in an apartment on the second floor. His whole collection was there in a space about 12' x 20' stacked across the walls with a couple foot-wide paths for passage. He knew every album in the place: 45, EP, LP (of course this was before CDs). I still have a few picture discs from there. Sometimes I wouldn't go in for a month or two but when I returned and asked what was knew he remembered what I liked and could tell me the stack to look in (and tell me how far down or across within 6 inches or so). He never charged me in advance for special orders, but when I went to pick them up he often had a few extra items he knew I would want.

Steve, did you ever go to this place with me?

- Matt

Satyrblade said...

I'm curious: Have you ever heard/ heard of Emilie Autumn, or Katie Jane Garside of Daisy Chainsaw and Queenadreena? Although they're not in Hagen's league as innovators, their quirky and occasionally balls-out insane performances and personas might be of interest to you - especially Garside, who's somehow managed to teeter on the edge of self-annihilating stage-and-studio antics for almost 20 years.

Xtina said...

I am going to have a Nina Hagen music night thanks to this post. Thank you for reminding me how awesome she is!