There’s a great scene in Paul Rachman’s terrific documentary “American Hardcore” that discusses the differences between early punk and early hardcore. While I don’t remember the specific verbiage, the gist of the thing is that early punks came up playing glam rock and turned to punk later in life, whereas early hardcore kids heard punk rock and picked up instruments; while they couldn’t play worth a damn, the primal energy of punk rock was a universal. This attitude seems to be widely held, and time hasn’t been kind to “punks that could play”: the classic image of punk rock is fast, sloppy, and rough around the edges, and so it’s easy to forget that many of the seminal 1970s punk rock bands were actually really tight ensembles. Hardcore also tended to obscure the actual tempo of early punk: breakneck tempos weren’t the norm until 1980 or so, but for some reason, the indelible image of punk rock is of blazingly fast, short songs that have more to do with grindcore than they do to 1970s rock. It’s pretty difficult to believe that punk rock, at least the way it’s thought of today, was happening at the same time as, say, Little Feat’s “Waiting For Columbus”, but it was, and it sounded more like other 70s rock than the rock and roll fossil record would like to admit.
Nina Hagen Band’s self-titled release is a great example of what early punk REALLY sounded like: it’s occasionally fast, but never sloppy, and it’s emblematic of the shift between glam/cabaret-influenced rock and punk/art-punk. Hagen, a classically-trained singer and ballet dancer, is the daughter of Wolf Biermann, a sort of German equivalent of Woody Guthrie. In 1976, Nina escaped the Soviet-backed East German regime, and, two years later, after traveling Western Europe and experiencing early punk in England, Nina released her first album, a brilliant amalgam of glam, hard rock, funk, and what would eventually become known as punk rock. Nina’s strong, capable voice is backed by a razor-sharp ensemble: this band riffs hard and turns on a dime. It’s easy to write this off as glam rock: there are fat riffs, huge vocal harmonies, soaring solos, and even keyboards, all sounds more characteristic of glam than punk. Make no mistake, though: this is punk rock through and through, and the lyrics (all in German) touch on some pretty dark subjects, even by today’s standards.
The album leads off with a kind-of-sort-of cover of a song familiar to most regular readers here (I’ll give you a hint: the original is by some doped-up white punks), but with Hagen’s own lyrics and unmistakable vocal stylings: “TV-Glotzer” is a stinging condemnation of TV lifestyle, one that would be repeated almost verbatim in Black Flag’s “TV Party” several years later. However, the absolute highlight of the album for me is “Unbeschreiblich Weiblich”, a transgressive assertion of early pro-choice sentiment with an absolutely KILLER synth lead. This album positively drips with keyboards, and when a fat synthesizer isn’t taking center stage, soaring guitars that sound like an Alan Parsons recording dominate the sonic landscape. And, of course, Nina’s powerful, distinctive voice asserts its presence whenever she approaches the microphone, yelping, bellowing, cooing, and shouting over a first-rate 70s rock band. This band goes seriously outside at times: on “Auf’m Bahnhof Zoo”, the band vacillates between “Roxy and Elsewhere”-era Zappa and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”-era Elton John. Augmented by Nina’s sprechstimme-esque vocals, the song takes on an indelibly German character: it’s part cabaret, part Second Viennese School, and part Klaus Nomi, but all punk. “Naturträne” sounds like a lost cut from one of Goblin’s late-70s horror movie scores.
In short, this album is certainly punk rock, but from a time where genre lines weren’t so clearly drawn and defined. Hagen, an escaped East German whose grandfather died in a concentration camp, seems to have accepted this ambiguity with no small degree of relish: this album is all about crossing boundaries, obscuring genre, and taking thrill from transgression. In all this stylistic mish-mash and rejection of conventional rock genre dogma (at a time where then-nascent rock criticism was just beginning to pin down genre and subgenre in rock music), Nina Hagen Band crafted a near-perfect and compellingly listenable document of early punk rock. It might not be fast, and it might not be sloppy, but it’s most certainly punk, and it’s all the more enjoyable for its precision. This album isn’t polished or glossy, per se: it’s just well-crafted and excellently performed. If punk rock is really in the energy and the attitude anyways, then this album is as punk as they come, and even if it isn’t, this is still a damn fine piece of rock music.
All lyrics by Nina Hagen; except “Pank” by Hagen and Ariane Forster
- “TV-Glotzer” (“White Punks on Dope”) (Bill Spooner, Michael Evans, Roger Steen) — 5:15
- “Rangehn” (Bernhard Potschka) — 3:27
- “Unbeschreiblich weiblich” (Manfred Praeker) — 3:30
- “Auf’m Bahnhof Zoo” (Manfred Praeker, Reinhold Heil) — 5:25
- “Naturträne” (Hagen)— 4:05
- “Superboy” (Herwig Mitteregger) — 4:01
- “Heiß” (Manfred Praeker, Bernhard Potschka, Herwig Mitteregger, Reinhold Heil) — 4:11
- “Fisch im Wasser” (Hagen) — 0:51
- “Auf’m Friedhof” (Bernhard Potschka, Herwig Mitteregger) — 6:15
- “Der Spinner” (Herwig Mitteregger) — 3:15
- “Pank” (Ariane Forster) — 1:45
- Nina Hagen – vocals
- Manfred Praeker – bass, vocals
- Bernhard Potschka – guitar, vocals
- Herwig Mitteregger – drums, vibraphone
- Reinhold Heil – keyboards