New Wave Über Alles: Nena, Falco, Trio and the ’80s German Invasion

Chuck Eddy

By Chuck Eddy

on 06.01.11 in Spotlights

99 Luftballons


Nobody dared call it a German invasion; maybe because it would’ve been a really weird time for one, as the Cold War whittled down hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops spread across West Germany. (I was one of them from 1982-85.) The Green Party broke through nationally; the Red Army Faction exploded vehicles and soldiers near Heidelberg and Kaiserslautern and Frankfurt bases; 600,000 protesters showed up at a 1983 anti-nuke demonstration in West Berlin. But in 1984, a song sung in German, about nuclear annihilation, just happened to hit No. 2 on the American pop chart. The English version on the flipside got airplay too: “This is what we’ve waited for, this is it boys, this is war. The president is on alert…super high-tech jet fighters…I’m standing pretty, in this dust that was a city.”

The music was deliriously bouncy teenybop new wave; the video showed the singer, an adorably tom-boyish fraulein known as Nena, balancing on a log. Nena was her band’s name, too (more confusing than Blondie), and her four West Berlin boy-pals were almost as cute as she was. Their U.S. album – named 99 Luftballons after their hit – was actually a bilingualized hodgepodge of two previous German LPs, mixing synthy beats, spacey ballads, Motownish basslines and AOR guitars into über-efficient Europop. Its second-catchiest cut was “Just A Dream”; weirdest was an ominous, off-kilter, dub-echoed, male-declaimed slab of bubblegum Kraut-rock called “Das Lang Der Elefanten.” In the States, Nena were barely heard from again; in Central Europe, though, they (and later she, solo) stretched hits, increasingly atmospheric and adult-contemporary, across the next three decades. “Feur Und Flame”‘s Killing Joke-like 1985 tribal-doomsday stomp is worth checking out; most others, less so.

Thing is, “99 Luftballons” wasn’t even the first pop hit from Germany to score in the Western hemisphere around that time. In 1983, the monotoning Groéenknen threesome Trio had reached No. 33 on the U.S. dance chart with their minimalist babytalk ditty “Da Da Da”; Falco, a suave sort-of-rapper from Vienna, Austria (but rhyming in German, so it’s not like most Americans knew the difference), also got club play for his alles-klar drug-bust tale “Der Kommissar,” though it took a somewhat toned-down English translation by Brit prog-wavers After The Fire to take it top-five in America. “Der Kommissar” was also interpreted (as “Deep In The Dark”) by Long Island flashdance-rock belter Laura Branigan, who additionally covered West Berlin synth-pop trio Alphaville‘s 1984 U.S. dance-hit-about-bombs-dropping “Forever Young.” And then there was Stuttgart sci-fi songster Peter Schilling, whose stratospheric Bowie update “Major Tom (Coming Home)” stormed the charts in 1983: Astronaut loses contact with earth base, but finds his home in space.

For all we know, Major Tom’s still up there, drifting weightless. Apparently Schilling had a thing for nuclear Armageddon tunes, too. And he wasn’t the only early ’80s German singing about computer malfunctions. The West Berlin outfit Spliff – little-known in the States, though they were goth diva Nina Hagen’s backing band until she got too “bossy,” and two of their four members, Reinhold Heil and Manne Praeker, produced 99 Luftballons – included a hilarious song about micro-processors making them sick called “Computer Sint Doof” (English version: “Computers are stupid! Computers are dumb!”) on their excellent 1982 album 8555. The record also had its own strategic-defense-initiating robot-rock Cold War number, “Kill!,” about fingers on triggers pointed at aliens who look like Russians or terrorists.

People already forget how on the brink Germany felt back then – Berlin, remember, was literally on the other side of the Iron Curtain; Nina Hagen, for her part, was born beyond the Wall. The day I got to Bad Kreuznach as a second lieutenant in 1982, I was told I was there for one reason: To kill communists. Never happened, danken sie Gott, but it could have. And though it was clearly on Spliff’s, and Nena’s, minds, they managed to have fun anyway. Spliff’s sound combined deeper-pocketed-than-the-Police dub reggae (hence their ganjafied name), Teutonic electro-beats, and meaty shocks of metallic guitar; 8555‘s hot hit across the continent, “Carbonara,” was a goofball sort of Italo-pop parody where they led cheers with random words like “spaghetti!” and “amaretto!” and “grandioso!” and “Coca Cola!” But – as sparse ballads like “Huet Nacht” and “Duett Komplett” (English title: “Passion Play,” ha ha) on 1996′s 8555/Herzlichen Glückwunsch twofer and a couple best-of comps still make clear – Spliff also excelled at a lonely sort of one-night-stand loveliness that predates Kraut indie faves the Notwist by a few decades.

Also forlorn about romantic misadventures, and even more understated about it: Trio. “Da Da Da I Don’t Love You – You Don’t Love Me Aha Aha” (that’s its full title, though the real consonant-clicking tongue-twisting of course comes in the un-Anglicized “ich lieb dich nicht du liebst mich nicht” section) has always, perhaps fairly, been considered a novelty hit; in fact, it was the song’s fahrvergnügable re-appearance in a 1997 Volkswagen commercial that prompted the CD release of Da Da Da, which is basically an expanded version of 1983′s North American Trio and Error. (German new wave’s biggest Stateside rock-critic success, by the way – it miraculously finished 33rd in the Village Voice‘s ’83 Pazz & Jop poll.) But though Trio were always funny, they weren’t really a joke band; more like an art band, whose almost absurdly straight-faced voicings, stripped-down structures, Möbius-stripped lyric schemes and middle-aged mundanity (fixing breakfast then waiting by the phone, looking at unaffordable furniture in store windows) carry Lou Reed‘s Velvets-era deadpan decadence through the neon-lights desolation of late-’70s Kraftwerk. They thanked Can’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebzeit in their liner notes, which suggests at least some connection to alte-schule Kraut-rock. And they had a punk side – not so much when turning Little Richard‘s “Tutti Frutti” into a lederhosen oompah (they covered Lee Dorsey and Harry Belafonte and “Tooralooraloo,” too) as in the piston-metal thumper “Boom Boom” (naked ladies! radioactive satellites!) and in assorted other tracks less easy to find on this side of the Atlantic: “Achtung Achtung,” “Kummer,” “Ja Ja Wo Geht’s Lank Peter Pank Schönen Dank,” whew.

“Da Da Da,” again, got its biggest Stateside push in dance bars. A common phenomenon among German crossovers of the time – U.S. DJs had been open to Continental oddities at least since disco days, and maybe there was also a domino effect from venues that military recruits boogied at outside overseas barracks. And “Da Da Da” wasn’t even as strange as things got. In 1984, another slice of danceable dada – namely, “Din Daa Daa” (originally titled “Trommeltanz”) by ich-bin-ein-Berliner George Kranz – topped Billboard‘s Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. A funky avalanche of goose-stepping machine rhythms, ritualistic handclaps, machine-gunner-having-seizure nonsense syllables, and loud verbal crashes, it has since been sampled by rappers like the Ying Yang Twins and Flo Rida, but really it was industrial dance music (“EBM,” “New Beat,” whatever) before the style much existed. So was “Amok!,” a dance hit the same year, from the Hamburg “sex metal” unit Ledernacken (that’s “Leather Neck” to you): sweaty weight-room grunts and pants, shattering glass, fascist-sounding Schwarzenegger-accent commands to “shake your boo-tee.” The fascism might’ve been on purpose, too, given that the band’s website lists Wermacht-veteran Viennese Actionism artist and convicted sex criminal Otto Muehl along with “jungle drums” and “German march music” as primary influences. Single sides collected on 1985′s First Album (best title: “Ich Will Dich Essen”) barrage you with burps, bongos, saxophones, trumpeting elephants, “hoo! hah!” chants, answering machine messages, borderline racist babble, and theoretically African polyrhythms. (Main guy Folke Jensen was born in Nambia, which his Grandpa had once helped the Kaiser occupy.)

Given all this, it’s almost surprising that the construction-site clang of Einstürzende Neubauten‘s great 1985 12-inch “Yü Gung” – the most coherently percussive record of said Berlin power-tool-abusers’ long and storied career, mixed by British dub architect Adrian Sherwood and still available on numerous industrial samplers – never exploded on U.S. dancefloors. But Neubauten were already leftovers from the truly avant-garde early years of Germany’s Neue Deutsche Welle, a post-punk movement that at the time claimed its own sections in Frankfurt record stores, but no press of note in the States, despite many mysterious artists (Der Plan, Pyrolator, Palais Schaumberg, Ja Ja Ja) whose playful clatter the rest of the world still hasn’t caught up with.

By the mid ’80s, just like with new wave everywhere else, things were trending more pop, but the pop was still crazy eccentric. Falco, equally inspired by the late ’70s Berlin albums David Bowie made with Brian Eno and by the Sugarhill street-rap that Aryan teens were breakdancing to on Frankfurt spielplatzes, was a huge deal in central Europe; even his eerie 1985 ballad “Jeanny,” which didn’t get much airplay due to its depicting the kidnapping and murder of a teenage prostitute, went No. 1 in six countries. In the States, again, dancers fell for him first; discos are where his original German-gutteralled “Der Kommissar” hit. And “Rock Me Amadeus” – the Mozart-hop extravaganza that briefly made him a wunderbar züperztar – didn’t reach the U.S. Top 10 until after serving over half a year in clubs.

In case you never noticed, Falco’s song depicted Mozart as a hard-drinking and womanizing “punker” overrun by debt; extended dance remixes (for those, try the “25th Anniversary” edition of 1986′s Falco 3) carry the metal riffs and collage splices and opera arias over the top. Astonishing forever, and certainly a pinnacle of Falco’s 40 years (until crashing into a bus in the Dominican Republic in 1998 killed him) – but not the only pinnacle. His followup, “Vienna Calling,” was quite the oi!-shouting, turntable-scratching long-distance ring-up, and Electric Six fans owe it to themselves to hear 1986′s “Macho Macho.” Buddha Records’ 15-song 1999 Greatest Hits has all his most beloved tracks; like every available Falco best-of, it starts with “Amadeus” and “Kommissar,” and proceeds from there. But his 1982 debut Einzelhaft (which means “Solitary Confinement”; he’s sitting existentially alone in a dark, one-windowed room on the cover) is solid. Along with “Der Kommissar,” it’s got the meta-metal “Ganz Wien,” carried over from the punk band Falco had played bass in; the talkbox-and-wah-wah disco-rocker “Auf Der Flucht”; the propulsively hiccup-rapped Euro-hit “Maschine Brent”, with its Sprockety vocal backup and drum wallop worthy of early Rick Rubin.

And from there, of course, the techno that Kraftwerk had invented in Dusseldorf back in the ’70s would spread around the world and back. And the Berlin Wall would fall, and the Germanies would reunite, and Hannover’s heavy metal Scorpions would celebrate the wind changing in a six-million-selling power ballad. American soldiers left for the Middle East, reunification begat recession begat resurgent far-right nationalism and anti-immigrant violence, and there would meanwhile also be a new underground music movement called “Hamburger Schule” (seriously – Google it!), and KMFDM and Rammstein would tour the States together. And so on. But the new wave middle ’80s will still always remain Auf-Deutsch pop’s über-alles moment, as surely as Amadeus rocks and luftballons float in the summer sky.