Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Johnny Rotten meets Richard Wagner - Nina Hagen

I don't know if operatic-fusion-prog-kraut-punk is an official genre or not, but it should be and Nina Hagen should be its genre-definer, its goddess and its ambassador to everywhere. It's hard to believe that her first album Nina Hagen Band was released thirty years ago - even now it sounds incredibly daring, pushing lots of boundaries - which, back in the 70s, were already pretty broad.

There's nothing but terrific music on this album, and great playing by the band with tremendous guitar riffs and, particularly, incredible sounds and moods coming from the keyboards, creating something which seems to be the product of some sort of psychedelic fusion of the classical and punk universes.

But it's the voice of Nina Hagen that really makes this album the unique and stunning thing that it is. What a voice! She sings, she screams, she shrieks, she speaks, with a kind of animalistic wildness that is bloody scary. You listen to her in the same way that you might watch a caged lion - terrified but absolutely captivated, totally unable to look away.

There's this thing in music called an acciaccatura. It's basially a little note that is sung or played almost imperceptibly briefly before another note, kind of "crushing" into the main note. And sometimes (although much more rarely and more as a twentieth century phenomenon) this "crushed" note might appear after the main note rather than before it. It's an affect you would recognise immediately if you heard it, and usually this crushed note will be of just a slightly different pitch than the main note - a semitone, or a tone, for example. Well, there are acciaccaturas (acciaccaturi??) all over the place in Nina Hagen's singing - and hers sound like they're about two or three octaves different in pitch from the main note. It's the most amazing, crazy effect, her voice shifting from some absurbly high pitch somewhere in the stratosphere to a subterranean growl in a nanosecond. I woul never have thought the human voice could do that.

There simply isn't a dull moment on this album, but if I could only take two tracks from it onto my desert island they would be "Auf'm Bahnhof Zoo", a haunted, epic journey through some seedy train station (I think), and "Naturträne", where Nina Hagen's voice goes into full operatic mode, sounding something like Brünnhilde on acid, and ending up in notes so high that I doubt that even my dogs could hear them.

I don't know why Nina Hagen didn't become a big name in the more mainstream punk scene - she certainly deserves a much more prominent place than she has. It's wild, wild stuff.

Needless to say, another Marty recommendation!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ian
    Do you know Hagen's album 'Big Band explosion' (2003)? It's an album of swing standards ('I want to be happy', 'Let's call the whole thing off', etc.). It was strange enough when Rod Stewart started to do this stuff, but to listen to Hagen doing it requires considerable suspension of disbelief!

    Needless to say, she sings each song beautifully (and her voice is very prominent in the mix), but ... why bother? That voice can be used in such interesting ways - why use it to reinvent Fred Astaire (again) when Harry Connick Jr. has already made a career out of it?

    Incidentally, 'Auf'm Bahnhof Zoo' appeared first on the 1978 eponymous 'Nina Hagen band' album and yes, it's about about the Zoologischer Garten station in (then) West Berlin.

    Finally, there are lots of Nina Hagen videos on YouTube - try her 'My Way' (honest!), the surreal 'Lili Marlene' duet with Nana Mouskouri and a live (but poorly recorded) version of 'Auf'm Bahnhof Zoo'.