A Young Person’s Guide to… Nina Hagen (Part I)

Nina Hagen (Part I)
By Tommy Mostalas 



At her most distinctive and therefore most frenzied Nina Hagen has the kind of vocal approach that can best be described as a combination of the hysterical and the theatrical, or better yet, as completely and utterly possessed. A victim to irresistible tendencies towards the sort of absurdist theatrics you’d be hard pressed to find outside of avant garde circles and/or institutes for the insane, Nina was saved by her wicked sense of humour and her playfulness as well as her commercial leanings, all of which  worked together to ensure that she never took herself too seriously: never ended up one of those sad and dreary narcissistic performance artist types that are always prancing about with their cheeks all sooked-in, far beyond the point where everyone else has gone home. 

One of the most important things that you’ll learn as you start to navigate Hagen’s rather uneven — and let’s be frank here, quite often underwhelming — discography in earnest is that unless you manage to connect with her very individual, very oddball brand of humour, you’ll almost definitely have issues in ‘getting’ her as a performer and appreciating her art. You see, Hagen’s goofiness is an integral part of her whole schtick; it is that which allowed her to perfect her own particular drunk-homeless-schizophrenic-ranting-to-herself vocal stylings without moving too far from the orbit of the mainstream. At the same time Hagen’s undeniable vocal chops — the result in part of her early operatic training  taken together with her strong avant garde leanings saved her from being perceived as a mere novelty act, on the whole — or, and what would have been a zillion times worse, from ever sliding into boredom or conventionality.  For most of her musical career she’s been associated with punk rock, a close spiritual kinship founded on her penchant for the outrageous and in particular her outre-trash fashion aesthetic. Nina would go on to proclaim herself the ‘mother of Punk’ on Prima Nina (although I’m pretty sure Patti Smith would have something to say about that).

Preamble over and on to the luminous Ms Hagen’s discography…

Nina Hagen’s first album with the Nina Hagen Band, entitled, rather unimaginatively, The Nina Hagen Band, is all conventional crunchy punk-glam guitars and fairly straight-ahead as far as it goes. The vocal operatics are reasonably subdued throughout, although thankfully Nina does let rip at certain points — cause I mean otherwise what the fuck is the point of a Nina Hagen record? Her squealing, sensualist German hectoring on ‘Auf’m Banhof Zoo’ is vivid and alluring, even if the musical accompaniment is fairly pedestrian. All in all, the few scattered moments of balls out Hagen, as appealing as they are, are insufficient to make NHB anything but a nice record, one that rarely manages to make it past the threshold of memorability. The kind of thing where it’s pleasant enough but that if you fall asleep part way through and wake up near the end, you won’t have missed very much. The punkiest thing on the record is Hagen clearing her throat — although to be fair that really is quite punky. (5/10) 

Nina’s second album with the Hagen Band is called Unbehagen, which puntastic title means ‘unease’ in German, and it’s here that Hagen’s crazed teutonic showboating finally starts to take off. The first track, the masterful ‘African Reggae’, makes for a perfectly Hagenesque album opener. Wobbly keyboard flourishes bubble up over gloopy reggae chords and a tight dub rhythm. This relative calm is punctured, and definitively so, a few seconds in as the mother of punk finally makes her entrance, squeezing and straining and sandpapering her vocal chords into unholy submission. Nina manages, in the space of one single song, to modulate her voice all the way from a babbling, uncanny sort of gremlin croak through to a teenage castrato tantrum to, yes, full on opera diva; the playfulness and tics intensifying to the extent of almost schizophrenia. It could so easily all just fall apart; good old Nina, though, cause she manages to hold it all together in the end, and not only that, she manages to seduce you completely into the bargain.  And that’s just the first track!

Unfortunately, the rest of the album doesn’t come anywhere close to African Reggae: the problem being that the rather prosaic musical accompaniment can never really keep pace with Nina’s far out vocals, and she ends up musically forsaken, being the most interesting thing on the record by far too wide a margin. And what’s perhaps worse is that Hagen herself, sensing the incongruity, seems far too often to be in the midst of reigning herself in, trying to tone down the crazy. But then if you ignore Nina’s sometimes superlative vocal excesses and judge Unbehagen on the basis of the more orthodox record that it’s so clearly aching to be then it quite simply falls flat, not least due to the sore lack of any decent melodic hooks. (6/10) 

And now we come to Hagen’s magnum opus, NunSexMonkRock: the one where she stopped pandering to the usual tedious rock mores and decided it was time to finally let us have it with both barrels. Because make no doubt about it, when it came to NSMR, Nina Hagen was daring absolutely everything, giving vent and release to whatever form of sonic excess or ostentation she felt her very singular talent merited and crossing the threshold into a state of true frenzied avant-rock bliss. In that respect then NSMR can be considered Hagen’s Trout Mask Replica, her Tilt or maybe possibly even her Metal Machine Music — even if it’s never achieved anything like the levels of journalistic acclaim or notoriety that other similarly iconoclastic works have enjoyed in the past. But a big fat what-the-fuck to all that, because Hagen deserves her due. 

This isn’t a record for the weak of stomach; there’s no half measures with NSMR. The chief effect of the first twenty or so listens — cause jeezo it takes a while to get into this record, more than I ever needed with say Trout Mask Replica or the Shape of Jazz to Come — is a sense of complete disorientation. What you get is a densely layered vocal chaos of high-end squeaks, screams, babbles and mouthwash rinsing, along with random snatches of quasi-decipherable lyrics and a blitzkrieg of keyboard effects, all of which apparently leads nowhere and seems to lack any density or anything sufficiently low-end to ever anchor it to the ground. That is, it doesn’t just come across as a total disarray, but a curiously insubstantial sounding disarray.  Actually, and you’ll have to really trust me on this one, it does eventually click into place, taking root and resolving along the messy lines of its own nervy, haphazard (anti-)logic. It helps to play it loud as fuck, and to be honest I wouldn’t swear off partaking of additional psychoactive stimulants to get you into the appropriate headspace either — only if you’re that way inclined, mind. Nevertheless Nina’s flamboyance and her freakish exuberance will help to tide you over until the point at which you too can, by a moderate force of effort, tilt the pleasure-pain ratio definitively back into your favour. Hagen’s deliriously upbeat sense of humour — counterbalancing, as always, a pathological want of a melody and in the case of NSMR curiously thin sounding production — makes everything, makes all her experimental excesses as well as some of her later ropier rock/pop excursions, that much more palatable. If I do harbour one remaining medium sized reservation about the album it’s that, with all the dizzy, permanently switched-on, effervescence of NSMR you start to miss the earthier, laid back sensuality of her earlier work — but part of that has to be down to the fact that she sounds goofy in English in a way that she doesn’t (seem to) in German. 

In the end, far out, audacious, and in matter of fact essential (9/10).

So where the fuck do you go music-wise after releasing a record the stature of NunSexMonkRock, how can you even attempt to top something like that? Well if you’re Nina Hagen you don’t even try — which is a wise enough decision given the maniacal originality of that album) — instead you proceed to record a fairly uninspired, fairly insipid, disco-pop album with Giorgio Moroder. Well, it’s really two versions of the same album, one is in German and the other in English. The English album has the title Fearless and is a much more fun, much less stodgier affair than the German one. This is due in large part to the high NRG candy rush that is ‘Flying Saucers’: a song almost fabulous enough to redeem the whole album by and of itself, almost but not quite. Interestingly enough it’s the self-same track that makes you realise just how much of a tightrope walk Hagen’s punk-new-wave-pop-diva act real was after all. ‘Flying Saucers’ teeters dangerously close to novelty song status, and if you didn’t know better you’d swear it was aimed primarily towards 8-year-olds and below. (Really though, those are just your preconceptions, dude, because it’s a brilliant song, and one that chimes in perfectly with Hagen’s bizarre, very joyous and very zany brand of theatricality: a song that makes me light up in a smile whenever I hear it. It’s well fizzy.) But — and this is a big but — if you’re trying to make a case for yourself as a serious artiste is it really the kind of thing you want to be releasing a lot of? Fearless — like a depressingly large percentage of her other recorded output — seems to suffer from Nina’s inbuilt proclivity towards a kind of unfocused, pointless garishness, and the sort of banality that ultimately stems from the lack of a real pop sensibility. ’Flying Saucers’ is undeniably a win on that front, against that propensity to mediocrity — because at last a strong melody! — but, still, its gaudy 80s synthpop vibe puts it completely at odds with the rest of the album, which is far more restrained and subdued (read duller) in comparison. And so Nina’s jarring lack of consistency rather inevitably costs the album a few points in the end. 

Overall then it would be fair to say that Fearless replaces the generic rock backing of Hagen’s first two albums with a dull generic synth pop backing. There are the usual berzerker Hagenesque eruptions here and there (‘New York New York’, ‘I Love Paul’), but even on that front she lacks the boldness or consistency to redeem the essential musical inertia or to interrupt the tiresomeness of everything that isn’t ‘Flying Saucers’. (4/10)

The German version, called Angstlos, is stodgier, yes, but it also happens to be a more solid, more consistent affair: most of the same songs, but sung in Nina’s native Deutsch this time round, sung better and sung more convincingly. Angstlos is much more of a piece with her first two with the Hagen band, even if the music is mostly the same as on Fearless (bear in mind it doesn’t have ‘Flying Saucers’). (4.5/10)

With In Ekstasy Hagen seems to have reached a substantive level of understanding with the mainstream of the music industry, easing herself into a more ‘conventionally’ crazy version of her former whackjob persona and, alas, jettisoning much of her previous edginess in the process. The result is a trimmer, more homogeneous and ultimately more satisfying album than the transitional Fearless.  Songs like ‘Universal Radio’, ‘Gods of Aquarius’, ‘Russian Reggae’ are fun and moderately catchy, but remain firmly within the middle rank of 80s synthpop (and personally I prefer the pure effervescence of ‘Flying Saucers’ from Fearless). You’re led once again to the conclusion that Nina’s charisma and kinetic personality lend this album far more of a momentum and a fascination than the songs would in and of themselves merit. For, despite the pop-equilibrium and relative stability she seems to have found on In Ekstasy, she is still deep within her post-NunSexMonRock trough and you find yourself pining for the messy, ecstatic Hagen-fits that regularly punctuated the hackneyed meat-and-potatoes rock of her first two Nina Hagen Band albums. (6/10)