Gems of German Rock

This post shines a light on great German rock artists who are largely unknown beyond Germany’s border, mostly because they sing in German.

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Most people who are not from Germany probably name the Scorpions first when asked about German rock music. Some heavy metal fans may also note Accept. But there is a lot more to German rock music, especially once you start including artists who sing in German. While their popularity is largely confined to Germany, many of these artists match international standards. Following are four I like in particular.

 

BAP

If I had to name my favorite German-singing rock band, it would be BAP. This band around singer-songwriter, Wolfgang Niedecken, was founded in 1976 in the area of Cologne, West Germany. They sing most of their songs in Koelsch, the traditional dialect from that region. This largely explains why for the first few years BAP was mostly a regional act.

BAP’s driving force is Niedecken who after 40 years is the only remaining original member. He is a huge fan of Bob Dylan, which is particularly obvious in some of the band’s early work. Wat Ess? (What’s the Matter?) from BAP’s second album Affjetaut (Defrosted) essentially is a Koelsch version of Ballad of a Thin Man. Niedecken also created a Koelsch version of Like a Rolling Stone, which appears on BAP’s fourth studio album. The band’s other influences include The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and Bruce Springsteen. In fact, Niedecken is friends with the Boss and during concerts in Germany has been invited by Springsteen to join him on stage to play a song together.

BAP’s national breakthrough happened in 1981 when they released their third studio album, fuer usszeschnigge (to cut out). The single Verdamp lang her (It’s been a long time) received a lot of radio play and really put the band on the map. That’s when I started listening to them as well. I haven’t stopped since!

To date BAP has released 17 studio albums, six live albums and three compilation albums. Unfortunately, almost none of the band’s impressive catalogue is available in the U.S. stores of iTunes or other providers. The only album you can get in the iTunes U.S. store is the 2008 release Radio Pandora, which includes a plugged and an unplugged version. While it’s a pretty good album, I think it does not capture the band’s best music. Here is a link to a clip of Verdamp lang her. This happens to be from a concert in the German town of Neu-Ulm in June this year, which I had a chance to visit. For more, see my previous post.

Wolf Maahn

Wolf Maahn started his music career in the mid-seventies, around the same time Wolfgang Niedecken did. He was a co-founder of the Food Band, which released two albums in English between 1979 and 1981. His German debut was Deserteure  (deserters) from 1982. It pretty much set the tone for Maahn’s style, which is reminiscent of American rock music a la Springsteen and John Mellencamp.

While Deserteure received positive reviews, it really was Irgendwo in Deutschland, Maahn’s third studio album from 1984 that brought him national popularity. The single Fieber (fever) is a fantastic rock song that could have become an international hit, had it not been for its German lyrics that limited its appeal beyond Germany. In 1988, Maahn released another English-language album, Third Language, his fifth studio recording. I don’t believe it did much to broaden his international success. All albums that followed were in German.

Last year, Maahn released his most recent studio album, Sensible Daten (sensitive data), his 14th studio album. His catalogue also includes four live albums and one best-of compilation. Unlike BAP, a decent amount of Maahn’s music is available in iTunes’ U.S. store, including the three most recent studio albums and the first two studio records, in addition to two of his live albums. Of these albums, I recommend Lieder vom Rand der Galaxis (Songs from the edge of the galaxy), a live acoustic solo album. It features some of my favorite songs, including Irgendwo in Deutschland (Somewhere in Germany), Ich Wart Auf Dich (I’m Waiting For You) and Der Clown Hat Den Blues (The Clown Is Feeling Blue). A pretty good clip of the last song is here. It must have been recorded during a concert in the 80s.

Marius Müller-Westernhagen

Marius Müller-Westernhagen is another long-time German rocker who started out in the mid-70s. However it wasn’t until his fourth studio album, 1978’s Mit Pfefferminz bin ich dein Prinz (With peppermint I am your prince), before he adopted his signature blues rock style, which sometimes resembles The Rolling Stones.

While the album wasn’t a flop, it only established its commercial success over time. Today, it has cult status among Westernhagen fans. Tunes like the title song, Mit 18 (At age 18) and Johnny W remain crowd pleasers during Westernhagen’s shows to this day. In addition to these songs, other great Westernhagen tunes include Lass Uns Leben (Let Us Live), Sexy, Schweigen Ist Feige (Not Speaking Up is Being Coward) and Freiheit (Freedom).

Excluding his first three records, Westernhagen has released 16 studio albums to date. The most recent one, Alphatier (Alpha Male), is from 2014. Westernhagen’s catalogue also includes five live albums, including the just released MTV Unplugged, and two compilation albums. Most of his music is available in the iTunes U.S. store.

In addition to being one of Germany’s most successful music artist, Westernhagen is also an actor. His acting career, which he already started as a 14-year-old in 1962, includes appearances in 30 films, mostly for TV. Since 1987 he has entirely focused on music.

A live clip of Westernhagen’s signature song, Mit Pfefferminz bin ich dein Prinz, is here.

Udo Lindenberg

This short list would not be complete without Udo Lindenberg who at age 70 is the oldest artist of the pack. In addition to being a musician, he is also a writer and a painter. Lindenberg was one of the first German artists to write lyrics in German and as such is considered to be one of the pioneers of Deutschrock.

Lindenberg started his music career as a drummer. After drifting for various years, he joined Die City Preachers, Germany’s first folk rock band in 1968. In 1969, he co-founded the jazz rock formation Free Orbit, which released an English album in 1970, his first studio recording. Lindenberg also became known as a session musician. Among others, he played on the debut album of Passport, the band of German jazz saxophonist, Klaus Doldinger.

Lindenberg’s eponymous debut album, which still was all English, appeared in 1971. His first German release, Daumen in Wind (Thumbs in the Wind) was released a year later. Lindenberg’s commercial breakthrough came with the 1973 release of Alles klar auf der Andrea Doria (All is well on the Andrea Doria). Since then he has released more than 30 additional studio albums, as well as various compilations and live albums.

The quality of Lindenberg’s prolific recordings has varied over the decades. In general, my favorite albums are his releases from the 70s, as well as the two most recent studio albums, Stark Wie Zwei (As Strong As Two) and Staerker Als Die Zeit (Stronger Than Time). Released in 2008, Stark Wie Zwei was a triumphant comeback for Lindenberg, reaching triple platinum certification in Germany. Staerker Als Die Zeit, which was released earlier this year and stylistically sounds like a continuation to the 2008 release, has also been selling well.

The iTunes U.S. store includes some of Lindenberg’s enormous catalogue. The album I would recommend the most is Livehaftig. This live double album from 1979 (the release year is wrongly indicated as 1976) captures the highlights of Lindenberg’s 70s rock albums.

Here is a clip of a live performance of Mein Ding (My Thing), one of the songs from Lindenberg’s 2008 comeback album.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On This Day in Rock History: October 29

It’s been a while that I have looked on the rock history calendar, so let’s see what comes up for October 29.

Just like the feature’s previous installments, this list is not meant to be complete. And, yes, it fully reflects my taste and as such is arbitrary.

1944: Denny Laine was born in Birmingham, England. Denny was part of the original line-up of The Moody Blues and can be heard on the band’s 1965 debut album, The Magnificent Moodies. He co-wrote four of the album’s songs and was the lead vocal on the band’s first hit, Go Now. Laine also played with Paul McCartney as part of Wings from 1971-1981. Between 1973 and 1976, he recorded 11 solo albums. Happy birthday, Denny!

1963: George Martin mixed all the 14 tracks from The Beatles’ album With The Beatles in stereo, according to The Beatles Bible, which by the way is a terrific resource for Fab Four nerds like myself. Supposedly, all it took was three hours, and he only ended up spending some additional time on one song the following day, Money (That’s What I Want). I suppose it all reflects that The Beatles never cared much about the stereo mixes of their songs but would spend days on the mono versions. Even Martin once said, “You’ve never really heard Sgt. Pepper until you’ve heard it in mono.”

1965: The Who released their single My Generation, the band’s signature 60s song. Written by Pete Townsend, the tune captured the anxiety of teenagers at the time. The single hit No. 2 in the U.K., making it The Who’s highest charting single there. The song is also No. 11 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The Who have released so much great music that I would be hard pressed to say which song is my favorite. My Generation is definitely among their tunes I like the most. One of its outstanding features is John Entwistle’s amazing bass solo.

1971: Duane Allman, one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, was killed in a motor cycle accident at the young age of 24. Duane was a co-founder of The Allman Brothers Band and led them for two and a half short years. He played on the band’s first three studio albums and At Fillmore East, which some music critics have called one of the greatest live albums in rock music. Duane was also a highly sought after session musician. He can be heard on recordings from many famous artists, such as Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Boz Scaggs and, of course, Derek and the Dominoes. While Allman received no credit for Layla, he came up with the song’s epic guitar riff.

1983: Pink Floyd’s masterpiece The Dark Side of the Moon reached 491 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Album Chart, setting a new record. It would stay on the list for another 250 consecutive weeks before falling off. Altogether, Dark Side has been in the Billboard 200 for 923 weeks, making it by far the album with the most weeks on the chart. As a huge Pink Floyd fan, I like many of their albums, but if I would have to select my favorite, it would be this one.

 

 

What I’ve been listening to: Dire Straits

The other day, I saw on Facebook that Dire Straits’ inaugural album had its 38th anniversary – a good reason to listen to the 1978 gem.

When I heard Sultans of Swing for the first time as a teenager, I was immediately hooked on Dire Straits. Since they would always fade out the song on the radio, which drove me nuts, I needed to own it myself. So I bought the vinyl album that includes Sultans of Swing, not realizing I could have gotten the single instead. I’m glad I did what I did, since I would have missed out on great music otherwise!

While I’ve had Dire Straits’ eponymous studio album for 30-plus years, I could not play it until recently when I got a turntable, a device I had not owned in close to 20 years. You wonder what took me so long! So with a turntable finally in place again and the album in my vinyl storage shelf, it was the perfect opportunity to pull it out and listen to it in its entirety. Of course, I could have done the same via Apple Music, but it simply is not the same experience.

Sultans of Swing is the first song on the album’s B-side. It’s the best known tune from the record. The single climbed all the way up to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached No. 8 on the U.K. Singles Chart.

Water of Love is another song that Dire Straits released as a single in some countries. While it wasn’t as successful as Sultans of Swing, it’s one of my favorite other tunes on the album. I also think Down to the Waterline, the B-side of the Water of Love single and the album’s opener, is a gem. Other songs I like in particular include Setting Me Up and In the Gallery.

To me and I guess to most other Dire Straits fans, most of the band’s appeal came from Mark Knopfler and the amazing sound he got out of his Fender Stratocaster. His melodic and sparing way to play the guitar with his fingers rather than a pick created a very transparent and distinct sound. There is simply no other guitarist who sounds like him.

While it is fair to say that Mark Knopfler was Dire Straits’ dominant force, a band is never just one guy. So this post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the other musicians on the album: David Knopfler, Mark’s brother (rhythm guitar, vocals), John Illsley (bass, vocals) and Pick Withers (drums).

Dire Straits is best remembered for their 19985 studio album Brothers in Arms and the hit single Money For Nothing. And while that’s undoubtedly a terrific album, their 1978 debut will always remain my favorite.

 

 

 

What I’ve Been Listening to: Highway 61 Revisited

With Dylan’s Nobel prize in literature, it’s perhaps not surprising that I’ve been listening more to his music recently, including the 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited.”

I don’t have a strong opinion whether a singer-songwriter like Bob Dylan should receive a Nobel prize in literature. I lean toward ‘no.’ It’s not because I question his genius or because of his apparent reluctance to acknowledge the honor. My argument is he is already so well established that he doesn’t need it. On the other hand, the prize could put a relatively less known writer on the map beyond the literary world.

But the ongoing debate about whether or not Dylan should accept the award definitely made me pay closer attention to his music. Combined with my new quest to listen more to entire albums rather than just an artist’s greatest hits, this led me to Highway 61 Revisited, which is No. 4 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

I’ve always liked what you could consider obvious Dylan gems, such as Blowin’ in the Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, Lay Lady Lay, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Hurricane, to name a few. But I will admit that it was not until recently that I started listening to some of his albums in their entirety. 

In fact, a previous attempt in the early 199os to get more deeply into Dylan’s music ended with disappointment. Inspired by a good friend and big Dylan fan, I decided to see a Dylan show. Leading up it to get into the mood, I listened to Before the Flood, Dylan’s excellent 1974 live album with The Band, which essentially is a greatest hits compilation. But the only song I recognized during the concert was Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. Strangely, it also was the opener of the show. All other tunes were unknown, at least to me.

But on to the main topic of this post, Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan’s sixth studio album, which was released in 1965. The album continued his transition to “electric.” While Dylan had introduced electric instruments on his previous album Bringing It All Back Home, featuring an electric and an acoustic side, Highway 61 Revisited was all-electric, except for Desolation Row, the album’s last song. 

Columbia Records didn’t understand and initially resisted the album’s title. In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan discussed the deep connection he felt to Highway 61, which explains the title: “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began (a reference to his birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota). I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down to the deep Delta country…It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”

Highway 61 Revisited features some of Dylan’s classic tunes, including the opener Like a Rolling Stone, Ballad of a Thin Man and the title song. With a running time of more than 6 minutes, Like a Rolling Stone broke the mold of the then-typical 3-minute song. Initially, radio stations were reluctant to play such a long tune but relented when the song became popular. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts and also became an international hit.

A number of the album’s other songs – Tombstone Blues; It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry; From a Buick 6; and Highway 61 – are heavily blues-influenced tunes. Many of them have been covered by other formidable artists, especially the second song, including The Allman Brothers Band, The Grateful Dead, Little Feat, Taj Mahal and Toto

While it’s fun to listen to the blues tunes, I think the album’s standout is Ballad of a Thin Man with its rather creepy music and lyrics. Based on comments Dylan has made over the years, the song expresses his disgust for certain reporters, who would ask him endless questions. In 1975, a journalist called Jeffrey Jones told Rolling Stone he attempted to interview Dylan at the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival and claimed the song was about him. But Dylan refused to give him the credit, saying there were “many Mr. Joneses” at the time.

One my other favorite tunes on the album is Queen Jane Approximately. It’s a little reminiscent of Like a Rolling Stone, both in terms of the sound and the lyrics. 

My thoughts about Highway 61 Revisited wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the excellent musicians who backed Dylan: Mike Bloomfield (electric guitar), Charlie McCoy (electric guitar), Paul Griffin (piano, organ), Al Kooper (piano, organ), Frank Owens (piano), Harvey Brooks (bass guitar), Russ Savakus (bass guitar), Joe Macho, Jr. (bass guitar), Bobby Gregg (drums) and Sam Lay (drums).

Some of these guys were or would be associated with other well-known artists. For example, Mike Bloomfield was a member of the Paul Butterfly Blues Band while Al Kooper was a founding member of Blood, Sweat & Tears and the band’s initial leader. Paul Griffin also worked with Steely Dan, Don McLean, the Isley Brothers and Van Morrison, among others, and played on Blonde on Blonde, another iconic Dylan album.

Listening to Great Music in the Era of Streaming

The ability to instantly access music digitally on our mobile devices with just a few clicks is terrific, but it can also lead us to reduce our favorite artists to their “greatest hits” or other songs we particularly like and ignore much of their other work.

Last week (Sep 28) was the 40th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life. After I had seen a related Rolling Stone post on my Facebook, my first thought was, ‘cool, that’s the album with Sir Duke,’ which has been an instant favorite since I heard the tune for the first time in the late 70s or early 80s.

My knee jerk reaction was to immediately pull up the album in my music streaming service to play Sir Duke and see which other songs I instantly recognized. Isn’t She Lovely and I Wish came up. As I was about to skip over the other tunes to play these two songs, I stopped and said to myself, ‘what a minute, that’s not a very good way to commemorate such a great album.’

So I deliberately decided to “force” myself to start from the beginning of the album with Love’s in Need of Love Today and listen all the way to the last song, Another Star. I was glad I did! And, yes, given it’s a double album, it took some time to listen through all songs. But it was worth every minute.

This little anecdote got me thinking. In the era of vinyl records and turntables getting and listening to music selectively was a lot more complicated. If you really wanted to have a song, at a bare minimum you had to get the single. And if the tune wasn’t available as a single, you had to get the entire album. If you ended up buying the album, sooner or later you would listen to all of the songs – and oftentimes discover gems in addition to the tune that was the initial reason you bought the record!

This situation started to change as music cassettes and tape recorders became broadly affordable. Now you had to find somebody who had the music you wanted on vinyl and was willing to give you the record, so you could tape it. Alternatively, if you had a radio, you could tune in to the shows that would play the type of music you liked and tape it from there  – and get frustrated when the DJs would fade out your songs at the three-minute mark or talk over the music. I still vividly remember how angry this made me!

Still, I spent countless hours taping music from radio programs in addition to records. Today’s equivalent would be to stream the songs you like or purchase digital downloads. Admittedly, I’ve extensively done this as well for many years. My digital library now includes a few thousand songs from hundreds of artists. And while for someone like me who has a fairly broad, eclectic taste this approach of purchasing or streaming select songs clearly has its advantages, in many cases it doesn’t do justice to the artists – not to mention what this approach does to album sales and the livelihood of many artists these days.

Fortunately, the majority of my rock & roll heroes became successful (and probably fairly rich) during a time when the music industry was still selling many records. Getting gold certification in the U.S. from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) used to require one million units sold for a single and one million dollars in sales for an album (at wholesale value). Nowadays, the requirement for both is 500,000 units sold, including records, tapes or compact discs.

But there is far more at stake here than music sales and making sure your favorite artists can earn a reasonable living with their craft. It’s about fully appreciating their work and realizing it goes beyond just the hits. Listening to Songs in the Key of Life in its entirety really drove home this point for me.

While I realize not every album is comparable to Stevie Wonder’s gem from 1976, it has given me new impetus to approach listening to music in a different way. I’m not saying we should only listen to entire albums. In fact, doing so in a meaningful way requires the right mindset and the time to do so. Rather it’s a great complementary approach to the selective listening most of us do most of the time.

A great way to start exploring entire records are the albums on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. To make this a less daunting undertaking, I’m going to focus on the top 50, at least initially.

I’m happy to report I already listened to a good number of these albums in their entirety several times before coming up with my plan. Examples that come to mind are Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd), Hotel California (The Eagles), Tapestry (Carole King), Rumours (Fleetwood Mac), Thriller (Michael Jackson) and of course all Beatles albums in this top 50 tier, including Please Please Me, Abbey Road, The White Album, Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

This still leaves me with many albums to listen to in their entirety, and I’m looking forward it. I imagine I’m going to cover some of them in future posts as part of the “What I’ve Been Listening to” category.