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

Nina Hagen (Part II)

By Tommy Mostalas 



The music video that first opened my eyes to the extent to which the *right* sort of visual imagery can directly affect how you experience, and most of all, how you can subsequently hear a piece of music, was Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’. It wasn’t that up until that point I had seen music videos as essentially disposable, mere promotional vehicles for songs that should and would stand on their own musical merits or that I hadn’t grasped that on rare occasions they could qualify as pieces of art in their own right. It was more that having grown up without satellite or cable, I had never experienced MTV as the all-pervasive cultural force that so many of my early to mid 90s peers had, and I therefore failed to realise just how integral to the listening experience music videos had become. Beyonce’s supple but muscular cavorting to the accompaniment of a song I already loved, but which I began to love exponentially more after seeing the video, was enough to convince me of the necessity of something like the Wagnerian idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, but scaled down and tailored to contemporary popular music: a concept that would explain the appeal of modern pop by encompassing everything, words, music, dance, visuals (and all of this is highly appropriate given Queen Bey’s Wagnerian-scale ego, but anyway). A growing appreciation for Bollywood song and dance numbers around the same time helped to further cement this conviction (I used to hate it when they broke off into song at the end of a scene, but then later realised that the musical interludes were usually the best thing about the film). 


All of which brings me to the music video that triggered my current fascination with Nina Hagen and that ultimately led me to undertake this series of mini Hagen reviews, since it strikes me now that which first drew me to Nina was precisely her success in marrying the visual together with the musical. I say ‘the’ music video but in fact there were two, though the first of these can’t really be called a music video per se. Instead what we’re talking about is some black and white footage of a very young Hagen singing ‘Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen’ (the title means ‘You have forgotten the colour film’), which was taken from an East German broadcast from back in the days when Nina was still a citizen of the good ol’ DDR. Truth be told, I was only vaguely aware of Nina prior to stumbling onto this video; I think I’d previously dismissed her as some variety of crazy screaming German goth lady or other. But Hagen’s manic star quality, even as a seemingly demure young woman in a sober dress, sitting all prim with her knees placed together, shone through so brightly that I was in no doubt that this was an artist I urgently needed to find out more about (she dropped the whole innocence thing pretty quickly upon defecting to the West).

The second video, and the one that made me go even crazier for Nina, is a promo for the song ‘Hold me’ taken from her eponymous sixth album, the follow up to In Ekstasy (and don’t worry I’m about to get to the album itself, I haven’t forgotten I’m supposed to be reviewing her discography). This time round the video is a full on showcase of her extraordinary, kinetic show(wo)manship: that superlative combination of the comic, the voluptuous, and the absurd that is uniquely Hagen’s. The video itself is shot in Paris and brazenly so; it’s the City of Light in the late 80s we’re talking about here: the Paris of Mitterrand, and er…whatever else was going down in Paris during that not particularly celebrated period. It starts off with a swift pan down from a street sign (‘Rue de Rome’) to Nina in a gold lamé jacket and a black mesh umbrella with a strapping blond angel in tow; then cut to Nina in an octopal-turban on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur, executing a busy vogue-type weaving gesture with long lithe black-clad arms; then we’re treated to a derriere shot as Nina gyrates towards a wall with her rather impressive arse waggling and poking up in the air; next, cut to our Diva giving a warm and welcoming smile; then a close-up of Nina shaking her head in an exaggerated succubal pout and emphasising her gorgeous silent film star eyes; then finally cut to a shot of Nina flapping her tongue out rather suggestively and also rather ludicrously. And this is all just for starters, the rapid succession of clips a perfect visual accompaniment to the intro to Hagen’s brash version of this gospel number. Nina’s in particularly fine form voicewise and the song, despite its cheesy 80s europop stylings, is brassy without being vulgar. But it’s the combination of saucy video with saucy music that really gets you going, that is wondrous to behold: Nina’s extraordinary repertory of facial ticks and exaggerated childlike expressions — pulling her beautiful, elastic face first one way, then the other — and the way she manages to flesh out and give body to the music with her whole physical presence.



What is absolutely not wondrous, on the other hand, is the LP that the video was trying to promote — and here the contrast between the efficacy of the video with the rest of the album is glaring. But the news gets much worse: for Nina Hagen was only the first in a succession of thoroughly second-rate albums that Hagen released after In Ekstasy,  and that, barring a few stand out songs like ‘Hold Me’ (which in no way redeem these albums as a whole), are best avoided by all but the most ardent of Hagen completists. It takes a while to get accustomed to the mediocrity of a record like Nina Hagen — like eyes adjusting to the darkness and the murk of a dimly lit room — but regardless of how far you manage to lower your expectations, you can never really escape the feeling of the pointlessness of it all. How, for instance, anyone could have ever felt that there was any sort of motivation for inflicting Hagen’s miserable, dead in the water, cover of ‘Viva Las Vegas’ on the world is completely beyond me. Her vocals sound lacklustre and her performances seem dialled in for the most part. Fair’s fair though, I’ll admit to a bit of a soft spot for her version of ‘Ave Maria’ (3/10).  

Trust me when I tell you that the best thing about Street, Hagen’s unimpressive 1991 follow up to the truly dire Nina Hagen is the cover: simply put, you get three beautiful avatars of Nina — looking utterly spectacular, mind, all dressed up in Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood — rather than just the usual, though still really quite awesome, one. Once again Hagen manages to wield her visual allure forcefully and so demands your complete and undivided attention: promising so much but failing to deliver anything that comes close in terms of musical stimulation. However if you periodically suffer from pangs of nostalgia for early 90’s techno-lite euro pop — and by now I’m convinced there must be a substantial contingent of us out there — then there’s a certain pleasure to be had from an album that sound wise so clearly dates back to that heady cultural moment.  In particular, if like me, you have fond memories of listening to the BBC top 40 chart rundown of a Sunday and dancing about in your pyjamas to the pseudo-house keyboards of the C+C Music Factory, ‘Stars’ era Simply Red and the Ace of Base, then Street might well be right up your… street.  Don’t get me wrong, the album is not completely without its other merits (and I was going to give the album a much lower rating until I realised just how cleverly ‘Divine Love, Sex und Romance’ had managed to sneak its way into my psyche), still, ‘Street’ comprises yet another staging post on Hagen’s ongoing musical journey from subversive and avant gardist to full-on soulless commercial banality; and it’s worth giving a wide berth to, if only to spare yourself Hagen’s feeble cover of ‘Good Vibrations’ (4/10). 

Sadly the situation doesn’t really improve much with 1994’s Revolution Ballroom — well, apart from the fact that this time round the cover art is even more terrific than on Street.  Here Nina is clad in glossy black latex and tied with rope to her chair, two magnificent raven ponytails sprouting from the top of her head and a look on her face that’s somewhere betweenindignant sex doll and social realist art mural (the kitschy soviet font at the top also contributes to the effect). If it had stopped there, if Nina and the gang had gone as far as just making a mock-up of the cover and left it at that, we could have passed right onto FreuD euch, which SPOILER ALERT is actually quite a good record. But no, Hagenonly had to go and make a record that, if anything, manages to outdo her previous two efforts for blandness. And you might think it strange, if I follow that up by affirming that the songs on the actual album are much more memorable than on Street and especially than on Nina Hagen — but that’s what makes it all worse, as promising as these songs are, they’ve been smothered at birth: the arrangements and the production are simplistic and Nina’s lackadaisical vocals are underwhelming throughout. I mean, I ask you friends, how can a song called ‘Berlin’ and sung by Nina Hagen possibly be so fucking dull? (4/10)

Nina’s all round devotion to Babaji and the higher powers, which she was so eager to demonstrate on her previous albums, seems to have eventually paid off because the following year (on New Year’s Day 1995 to be precise) she released FreuD euch, which was by far the best thing she’d done in ages. Indeed the record feels like a reinvigoration, long overdue, of Hagen’s very singular talents after years and years of putting out substandard product. This doesn’t mean that FreuD euch is Hagen’s long hoped for return to the riotous bedlam of nunsexmonkrock, far from it. Ultimately it’s just a very enjoyable, but fairly conventional punk rock record, and although she’s in fine fettle voice wise — almost enough to make you forget the apathy that crippled her previous three albums — Nina’s vocals (sadly) never come close to scaling the transgressive heights of years gone by. But you know how the saying goes, never look a gift horse in the mouth. With FreuD euch Hagen produced the kind of straight-ahead punk record that — setting aside the fact that she’s supposed to be the mother of punk — she’d never actually attempted before. And boy, does it work well. Presumably we have Dee Dee Ramone, listed as rhythm guitarist and with a co-writer credit on four of the songs on here,  to thank in large part for this, one of the most convincing entries in Nina’s discography since nunsexmonkrock. And fuck me, even her cover version (in German) of ‘Sunday Morning’ is actually quite decent, which given Hagen’s miserable track record with covers is an exceptionally pleasant surprise. The whole album is in German and maybe that’s ultimately what makes it so convincing: Hagen is always at her most credible in her native tongue. But still, this Hagen’s for everyone: it gets a well earned (8/10).
Next time round Nina Hagen in the New Millennium!
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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)