PALAIS SCHAUMBURG – A STORY WITHOUT AN END
– by chris bohn aka biba kopf
Happiness still hung heavy as a cloud about to rain on anybody’s parade in West Germany’s triumvirate of punk-scarred cities, Düsseldorf, West Berlin and Hamburg, when Palais Schaumburg released their debut album in October 1981. The bright, shining optimism of its opening track “Wir Bauen Eine Neue Stadt” ran completely against the grain of the times. Compared to battle cries such as “Krieg in den Städten!” (from “Ich Steh Auf Berlin”) on Einstürzende Neubauten’s first LP Kollaps released a month later, the words and music of Palais Schaumburg’s “Wir Bauen Eine Neue Stadt” swung in step and marched towards a better future. Indeed, its title read like a socialist slogan lifted from a DDR propaganda poster. In reality the song’s an adaptation of Paul Hindemith’s 1930s children’s teaching piece Wir Bauen Eine Stadt, with Palais Schaumburg founder and vocalist Holger Hiller barking and cajoling Hindemith’s descriptive toytown lyrics over the group’s blasting bass, drum and trumpet clarions like he was a foreman urging his crack team of shockworkers to build faster.
Disarming in its simplicity, the song remains enormously resonant. By sinking the foundations of their own “Wir Bauen Eine Neue Stadt” in Hindemith’s piece, Palais Schaumburg leapfrogged 12 years of Nazi corrosion to test the soil for untainted modes of German language song that they could assimilate into their own new form of German language pop. “The lyrics of Hindemith’s children’s opera Wir Bauen Eine Stadt were written by Robert Seitz and Kaethe Rudo,” explains Hiller. “They claimed it was a story about children building their own world, in which grownups have no say. In reality they presented an authoritarian utopia. I shifted the meaning of the original text by stripping the lyrics to the very basics, intentionally leaving out the patronizing overtones of the original and underlining the dialogue in the building process.”
The process of adaptation carried over into Palais Schaumburg’s reconstruction of the music. “As a child I had taken part in a performance of this children’s opera in school,” recalls Hiller. “After I quit school I became friends with Lilli Friedemann, a pupil of Paul Hindemith. She had studied composition and violin with him, and she was already in her seventies when I met her – I was still a teenager. What fascinated me was, she had completely broken away from Hindemith’s academic approach to composition and had developed concepts for improvisation instead. Remember that improvisation in the world of classical music was taboo at the time. She became my teacher.”
The punk-seeded language virus rapidly spread across the country (punk sparked a wholly different, clandestine culture in the DDR), rubbishing mainstream notions about German-speaking pop/rock being a hopeless Xerox copy of an imported Anglo-American culture. “We liked the punk attitude,” says Palais Schaumburg bassist Timo Blunck, “but I for one thought The Sex Pistols were retro – stupid chords or riffs with boring melodies. But we sang in German, and that suddenly became popular. Sadly what followed was every rock band from Hagen who used to sing blues rock in English just translated their songs into German and suddenly had a hit.”
To a UK-born visitor like me these were extraordinary times that bore witness to a West German youth culture proliferating around artists now addressing them in their own tongue. But speaking the same language wasn’t enough to stop it splintering into warring tribes. The state predictably reacted with sustained media campaigns vilifying the outwardly extreme looking cultural fringe as a potential recruiting zone for terrorist groups like the RAF or extra-parliamentary activist organisations. Regardless, the culturally leaden times of 1960s–1970s West Germany were over, and Düsseldorf, West Berlin and Hamburg now throbbed with noisy pleasures and distractions.
Long after the music itself had died, however, punk attitude still prevailed in the post-punk and DIY electronic musics that found new places to play in sympathetic art galleries, bookshops and bars. But at its most uncompromising worst, it had a damaging effect on Hamburg’s alternative culture, now a fractious coalition of 1968 leftists, squatters, anti-nuclear activists and a new disenfranchised generation equally at odds with their parents and politically correct 68ers. There were even fewer safe places left to stand once you factored in punk purist denunciations of any breadheads enterprising enough to set up their own label, or make self-release their own records, and the tribal wars punks, teds, poppers and schicki mickis waged against each other over ownership of bars, shops or even streets. Blunck has been called a popper swine and schicki combined, but he’s not about to beat himself up over it. He was already playing guitar, singing and composing for a different kind of new German pop group called Die Zimmermänner when he was invited to play bass in Palais Schaumburg. “They had done so because they wanted this pop group feel; because they wanted someone who knew how to move himself. And because back then I was already an unacceptable type,” he remembered in Verschwende Deine Jugend, Jürgen Teipel’s oral history of Neue Deutsche Welle. “Because I went out a lot. Because I was a popper swine. Well it wasn’t just me: it was also [music and art journalist] Diedrich Diederichsen or [former rock journalist and Zickzack label boss] Alfred Hilsberg…” One way or another, Hamburg could be an exciting place to visit. But anyone hoping for undiluted happiness would most likely leave disappointed.
Before they founded Palais Schaumburg, Hamburg-born Hiller and co-founder Thomas Fehlmann shared thoughts about music finding common ground as they cherrypicked each other’s most advanced records in order to avoid wasting their time repeating experiments when listening to the documentation often disappointingly revealed them to be formulaic tests, the outcomes of which have been thoroughly proven. “My studies at the academy,” opens Fehlmann, recalling the thrill of discovering a shared passion for nonconformist music in his early encounters with Hiller, “combined with my decision to swap my camera and paintbrushes for a synthesizer and the conceptual art approach of taking a non-muso stance to shape electronic sounds from it, resonated well with Holger. On one side, reflecting his growing interest in contemporary art, and on the other side, the distinctive quality of the fabric our encounter immediately created. It was two like-minded spirits meeting at the right time.”
Whether meeting with friends and musical acquaintances at bars like Marktstube or working towards a new kind of music for their projected group, Hiller and Fehlmann, who had migrated from Switzerland to study art at the Kunsthochschule, sailed through the city. As slightly older, tribally non-aligned individuals who as yet have rarely exposed their free-ranging post-punk art songs before the city’s notoriously partial audiences for new German musics, they were either oblivious to potential dangers, or just too likeable to be viewed as a threat to Hamburg’s competing factions and passed through them relatively unscathed.
Punk talked up a fine egalitarian dream of every man and woman unleashing their inner star by whatever means necessary; but the reality quickly turned uglier when the scene’s inherent alpha militancy dumbed down punk aesthetics to generic rock ’n’ roll with a firecracker up its ass.
This wasn’t the way Hilsberg, the new German music’s most tireless supporter, planned it, though he should have gotten a pretty good idea of the shape of things to come from the three scene-breaking festivals he staged at Hamburg Markthalle through 1979, Into The Future, In Die Zukunft and Geräusche Für Die 80er. To propagate the spread of the new German music Hilsberg coined the phrase Neue Deutsche Welle to clarify it was not just about punk, and he intended to prove it with these three festivals showcasing the great and various musics that had shot up across West Germany since 1976. “When the 70s ended, a new mind set entered,” says Hiller. “Post-punk became the main influence and British bands still set the tone, perhaps along with the so called No Wave in the US. The music retained its ‘everyone who is bold enough can be a star’ appeal, but became more complex and experimental. And from a German point of view the important thing was that Krautrock was incorporated into the mix as one of the major influences, along with dub, disco and Kraftwerk as the archetypal Techno group. These cross-connections opened doors, even though we were not aware of it. Alfred Hilsberg got it when he wrote in his ‘Neue Deutsche Welle’ article: ‘Some still call it Punk. Others do not find it useful to relate to this term anymore.’ Palais Schaumburg were definitely part of these ‘others’.”
The problem was, Hamburg’s hardcore factions weren’t so fast off the mark in keeping up with the changing times. They showed their appreciation of Hilsberg’s curatorial strategies with the ferocity of their attacks on any artist deviating from standard punk drill. Hamburg punk group The Coroners played the third and final festival of 1979. Their drummer was future Palais Schaumburg member Ralf Hertwig.
“I was really young then, just turned 18,” Hertwig recalls. “I lived in one of Hamburg’s suburbs, went to school during the day, jammed in the afternoon and went to punk clubs at night. If I missed a night bus I had to walk home ten kilometers, slept for an hour and went to school again.”
The Coroners were disgusted with punk absolutism by the time they split up. The ever inquisitive, self-taught Hertwig formed Front, releasing two post-punk funk singles inspired by the likes of Manchester group A Certain Ratio, Gang Of Four and New York No Wave. They came out on Zickzack, the new independent label founded by Hilsberg. Zickzack continued the same curatorial strategy of his Markthalle festivals: fool the world into thinking there are millions of groups out there by releasing as many records as possible. “Better too many than too few,” went his slogan. The strategy worked brilliantly in the beginning, when there was so much music busting to get out and so few independent labels (Warning/Atatak, Pure Freude and Rondo in Düsseldorf, Zensor in West Berlin) willing to release it. But the Hilsberg method quickly exhausted the best of this first wave, and after 18 months it could only sustain the flow with too many quarter-finished, indifferent or plain duff records. But you could forgive Alfred a lot for the brilliant German music he and his label championed amid the dross. Like Palais Schaumburg’s debut single, ”Rote Lichter”, and its followup, “Telephon”.
The shock of punk had opened the cracks through which non-conformist musicians like Hiller and Fehlmann could respectively slip past the stagnant yet controlling record industry’s received ideas of musical virtuosity. Of the pair, Hiller was the more proficient musician, playing guitar and violin. He was briefly a member of Hamburg scene writer Kiev Stingl’s group, appearing on the latter’s 1979 album Hart Wie Mozart. Stingl’s Bowery inflected literature music sits stiffly between poetry and song, leaving his group no other choice than to monotonously riff-saw too far below the voice to bother it. Hiller and Fehlmann’s longtime friend, the late writer and graphic artist Walther Thielsch, played drums on the record. Hiller briefly experimented with future Abwärts drummer Axel Dill and violinist/vocalist Margita Haberland in an improvising trio playing long duration drone music.
However, electronics were Hiller and Fehlmann’s common ground, and the gallery scene that sprung up around a new strand of German artists provided a more sympathetic audience for music sculpted from uncarved blocks of electronic sound. “I think this cross connection between Neue Deutsche Welle in its very early form and the re-discovery of Krautrock through British post punk brought the music into a wider context for a short moment,” asserts Hiller. “For all three movements The Velvet Underground provided a prototype model and the initial concepts, and these were strongly connected to Warhol as an artist. It’s no coincidence that they can actually be seen as a kind of musical translation of his serial concepts and his leaning towards post modernism. German artists who were in touch with music quickly picked up on that point. Martin Kippenberger for example started to manage a West Berlin club called SO36, and Albert Oehlen provided record covers and also got involved in music, as did many other artists.”
Appropriately, the first proper signpost of Hiller’s and Fehlmann’s aspirations is Das Ist Schönheit (1980), a privately pressed double compilation album supervised by outsider electronic musician and performance artist Conrad Schnitzler, documenting recordings of a class he gave at Hamburg Kunsthochschule. Hiller’s solo contributions and Fehlmann’s collaborations with Thielsch, offer appropriately spartan electronic sketches of Palais Schaumburg’s future direction. “We had this mutual interest in the Korg MS20 synthesizers,” recalls Fehlmann, “which he had owned and I owned. It was interesting to put these two together and see what you can do with the two of them…”
Hiller: “Suddenly synthesizers were cheap. I worked for a month at the post office and bought one. I spent days being fascinated by the synthetic and strangely pure sound, and decided to use it in an equally pure and reduced way. That was quickly done and it worked beautifully.”
Ahoy, Don’t Be Sad
As persuasive as it is infectious in its unrelenting monomania, “Wir Bauen Eine Neue Stadt” makes such an incredibly upbeat album opener, it’s very tempting to slam the track on repeat and go no further. Though Palais Schaumburg had been out since October 1981, the song deserved the stand-alone status it was granted as Palais Schaumburg’s third single. Stack it on a player with the two singles that preceded it, and you get a quick measure of how fast the group had developed, how far they had come…
Hiller and Fehlmann began talking about forming a group early in 1980. Hiller was much more enthusiastic about the idea following a holiday in America highlighted by a meeting with Devo. He had already made a solo single for Warning Records (later renamed Ata Tak and finally Atatak), the Düsseldorf based label set up by the like-spirited electronic absurdist group Der Plan, who similarly thought of their music in terms of an ongoing art project.
Such self-conceptions set Hiller, Fehlmann, Der Plan and their ilk at a useful remove from rock, alternative or otherwise, punk or no, tethered to greybearded notions of authenticity, earnestness and portentous statement. “Even without words, music has an ability to create an intense dialogue,” says Hiller. “There is no meaning pointing to things or statements in the strict sense of the word. I admire how people like James Brown or Bertolt Brecht – to name a few – then brought in their statements without destroying this delicate balance. I often asked myself why I didn’t do that. I guess the answer is that I live a more fragmented existence than they did, or at least that’s how it appears to me: one where inside and outside are not so clearly definable.”
Other new German groups carved out ways to rock free of pomp. Palais Schaumburg’s Hamburg neighbours Abwärts, for example, slathered their sharp commentaries in sarcasm and bitterly funny payoff lines. But Palais Schaumburg were more contrarian in spirit than directly confrontational. From the beginning their songs were more inclusive than exclusive. They were about dialogue rather than preachy monologue. The vocabulary of their music and lyrics was direct and immediately comprehensible. OK, the new language they devised to assemble music and word into song wasn’t exactly like anybody else’s. But if pop and the avant garde have one thing in common it’s the thrill of the new, and the most thrilling phases in the history of popular culture, in Germany as elsewhere, occur in those all too brief periods of grace when the path of artistic innovation crosses the audience’s constant pursuit of different experiences before the mass entertainment industry’s analysts work out how to deluge the market with cheaper and cheesier own-brand substitutes.
“We didn’t feel that pop was a dirty word,” says Fehlmann. “On the contrary it was a great challenge. Obviously it was different for me because I wasn’t writing the lyrics but I supported the concept, the manifesto, which wasn’t in writing, but it was a clear vision. And Holger was developing his own unique way of creating brilliant kitsch text: ‘Rote lichter/Dort in Hafen/Singen Lieder/Von der Ferne…’ You could say this is really ‘simple’ in terms of words, but in terms of the way he delivered it, the context of the music they were set to made it such a great explosion. For me I can’t think of any other lyricists in Germany by whom I was so constantly entertained. You know, in Germany the first time you listen, you follow the story, you get the point of the story, and that’s it, it’s done. With Holger, it was not so much this from a to b to c thing. It was more imagist, it was more roots and all this type of stuff which gave the song a much longer lifespan. Which is why I felt he was the best.”
In their pursuit of the new, Palais Schaumburg stripped their music free of any instantly identifiable parts that would leave it sounding the same as pop ever was. You can begin to hear the results on Palais Schaumburg’s debut single “Rote Lichter” b/w “Macht Mich Glücklich Wie Nie”, which was housed in a picture sleeve with cover artwork by Albert Oehlen. The single and its followup, “Telephon” b/w “Kinder, Der Tod”, are included as bonus tracks on this edition.
The tinfoil tsching-sounding percussion might give away its age, but the transparency of Hiller’s lyrics unfixes “Rote Lichter” from its temporal moorings. It could be a harbour ghost ballad, the way he lays the song’s sequence of impressionistic strokes on a slightly creased and torn canvas of analogue synth waves. Zickzack released it in Autumn 1980, and Palais Schaumburg played their first concert at a gallery in Stuttgart at the end of the year. Chris Lunch, their first bass player proper, was replaced by Timo Blunck. The group shared their drummer FM Einheit with Abwärts and Einstürzende Neubauten until the increasing demands made by the three rising stars of the new German underground forced him to make a choice. Einheit left after Zickzack released Palais Schaumburg’s “Telephon”, and Fehlmann invited Hertwig to join as Einheit’s replacement.
Blunck and Hertwig were five to seven years younger than Hiller and Fehlmann – indeed, they were still at school. They immediately gelled as a rhythm section, one like no other in West Germany. Having served time searching for that punk-funk line in Front, Hertwig had developed an idiosyncratic drumming style that was equal parts machine-disco sangfroid, immaculately drilled parade-ground tattoo and rabbit-scare scattershot. As a guitar player switching to bass, Blunck threw melodic curve balls into the mix. “I kind of started like I was playing the low four guitar strings,” he says. “That”s why I was more interested in melodic patterns. Or just patterns. Sometimes I made up my basslines like a graphic design on the frets – or just geometrical – triangles, squares. Sometimes I did it the way the pieces move on the chessboard. Other than the three or four original basslines that existed before I came in, it’s all me.”
Hitherto Hiller and Fehlmann had generated skeleton parts for songs from ideas processed through a rhythm box. Now a fully fledged group, they began composing as a unit at intense jam sessions. The ideas emerging from them would be subjected to modernist scrutiny for stray elements haunted by memories of an earlier existence. “We really wanted to create music that was not rooted in rock or blues, we hated all the clichés,” says Blunck. “No chords was one of our dogmas, harmonic rules did not apply. If you listen for a connection between Holger’s melodies and my basslines in a music theory sense, there is none.”
These processes of attrition shifted the musical emphasis to its drum and bass drives, which Fehlmann and Hiller sluiced and greased with smeared electronics and trumpet, and ectoplasmic ribbons of guitar, rudimentary dub erasures and other anti-virtuosic treatments. “All songs evolved in a group situation. We started with grooves and basslines and built from there,” remembers Blunck. “Ralf is so special as a drummer, his beats are very inspiring. It started from there. The basslines gave it some kind of anchor for the rest of the instruments and the singing.”
“Drums and bass were always the lead instruments at Palais Schaumburg,” agrees Hertwig. “They were really dominant, especially live. That is what is unique about Palais Schaumburg… Last year, when the band met again to jam after 30 years, Timo and I connected immediately music-wise. Blind understanding.”
There are no fixed meanings anchoring listeners to the signpost language of “Rote Lichter” or the enchanting silliness Hiller sings over the fabulous Hafensurf pop of its successor “Telephon”. Once Palais Schaumburg’s four-piece lineup went live, so to speak, with the arrival of Blunck and Hertwig, their music truly broke loose, freeing the group to renegotiate its place in the greater scheme of things.
Is Life Still Worth It?
“Wir Bauen Eine Neue Stadt” completed the trilogy of Hiller-era Palais Schaumburg singles. Along with Hiller protégé Andreas Dorau’s “Fred Vom Jupiter” and Der Plan’s “Da Vorne Steht ’ne Ampel”, they stand as the most beguiling of the new German underground ‘hits’. Barely a year into their career, Palais Schaumburg looked like the group most likely to make the crossover to the mainstream, like DAF and Ideal before them. Evidently the German major label Phonogram felt the same when they signed them up and released their debut album in October 1981 and then carried on pushing it with the 1982 single and 12” maxi release of “Wir Bauen Eine Neue Stadt”. Much to his colleagues’ shock and consternation, Hiller quit just after they returned from a successful tour of the Netherlands. You’d think that only Hiller could sing Palais Schaumburg, and the group’s subsequent career would appear to confirm it. As a close friend and collaborator of Palais Schaumburg from the beginning, Walther Thielsch seemed like an ideal replacement for Hiller, but you can hear how the chemistry of the band struggled with its fine balance on the second album Lupa (1982). And nobody waved goodbye when Palais Schaumburg finally fell apart after completing their third album Parlez-Vous Schaumburg? (1984).
Following a lengthy period of mourning – not for Palais Schaumburg so much as the death of the original spirit of Neue Deutsche Welle as symbolised by the Hiller-era group – grieving family, fans, work colleagues and their bemused children have finally ended more than two decades of dignified silence for the most undignified crash that was Neue Deutsche Welle. The archaeologists’ patient sifting of the sands of time eventually uncovered the magnificent ruin of “Wir Bauen Eine Neue Stadt”. And guess what? It was in such good shape, it was immediately habitable. 1980s Neue Deutsche Welle star Nena and 1000 Robota made cover versions; and in 2010, as Greie Gut Fraktion, the duo of Gudrun Gut and AGF built a whole new album, Baustelle, from its parsimonious ration of raw materials. Then, to cap it all, Holger Hiller broke cover and responded positively to an overture coming from Ralf Hertwig, now a screenwriter based in Munich, to do right by their debut album, which had been prematurely laid to rest all those years ago before the group had properly played it out live. With just over 24 hours to go before the clock ran down on 2011, Palais Schaumburg officially commemorated the 30th anniversary of its release with a concert at Hau 2 Theatre, Berlin.
Made in Hamburg in 1981, replayed live in Berlin in 2011, Palais Schaumburg music speaks across the decades and dances like nothing else that came out in the decades between. Then as now, the component parts of this music ain’t pretty; nor are the words particularly happy. It’s how the group twist and turn, dub and distort, swing out and snap them back into rhythm that sets the pulse racing. As a vocalist, meanwhile, Holger Hiller wasn’t exactly born with the gift of a golden voice. It’s what he does with it, how he transforms his ostensibly unyielding text fragments into narrative-rich song mirages reverberating with possible meanings. 30 years after the fact, Palais Schaumburg’s Berlin performance of this man-boy-child-man music is absolutely fantastic, the top parts rippling like a series of silent screen dissolves from slapstick to sinister, flashbacking then and now, now and then glimpses of past and present nightmares in songs like “Deutschland Kommt Gebräunt Zurück” (lyrics by Walther Thielsch), “Morgen Wird Die Wald Gefegt” (“Grey wolf has been hanged”) or “Eine Geschichte” (“I left the bunker/Went to the bar/This girl, that I know/It’s her favourite one”); while all the time, the bottom parts hold time, slip in and out of time, go beyond time. Live and on record bass and drums are the driving source of the music’s pleasure. In truth, Palais Schaumburg’s funk-not-funk/pop-not-pop was already in place when they entered Hamburg’s Hafenklangstudio to lay down the tracks that became Palais Schaumburg. It’s not immediately clear what the music gained by hiring David Cunningham to produce the album. But as the producer of This Heat and the main man behind the UK bizarro hit phenomenon The Flying Lizards, he had exactly the right credentials for applying dub mixing desk techniques to whatever connective tissues Hiller and Fehlmann conjured to bind rhythm, melody and voice into Palais Schaumburg’s utterly idiosyncratic songforms.
“David’s approach as a producer was way before his times,” recalls Hertwig. “I wouldn’t call him a musician or classical producer; he was more like a mad professor, a chemist who arbitrarily dumped different substances into a test tube, mixed it together and was curious what will come out.
“He worked with our music after we all had recorded our songs and mixed them,” he continues. “His drum overdubs impressed me most. He came in and said, ‘Why don’t we do a few crazy overdubs for “Morgen Wird Der Wald Gefegt”. In the beginning, these tom- overdubs weren’t especially groovy, but through various echoes, delays and harmonizers the drums got this groove which made them totally unique but totally different than what we recorded. It was the same with “Die Freude”.
“I still use methods he taught me,” adds Blunck. “Here’s an example: For “Eine Geschichte”, I put down the original double-bass track, which he then edited (that’s why there are always half-bars missing) Then he made me sit down with the electric bass and count to eight through the song, saying ‘Play a note on every three’, next take ‘on every five’, next take ‘every seven’. I had to pull the strings very hard to create that bang sound, but he didn’t care which note. He took that and created that aggressive bass pattern. Later on that became a bit of my trademark – the note didn’t matter, as long as the groove was right.”
That David Cunningham turned out to be such a perfect choice of producer for their debut album marked out Palais Schaumburg as funk-not-funk cosmopolitans on a par with Talking Heads in New York, Flying Lizards in the UK, and so on. Backed by Phonogram, they were suddenly the West German group most likely to succeed in the international art pop arena. Unfortunately, raising the stakes pressured the group to change their way of thinking about their music and why they were making it, causing them to divide along art and pop lines.
Asked about the impact of the French Revolution on the shape of Western civilisation, so the story goes, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai sagely replied, “It’s too early to tell.” The world has turned countless revolutions since Zhou thus spoke at the 1972 US-China talks. The Soviet Empire collapsed; the Cold War ended; two Germanies became one; and in the dying hours of 2011 the four members of Palais Schaumburg’s best incarnation settled their differences and played music that had lain dormant for 30 years. Zhou’s long-view counsel to the West holds true for Hiller-era Palais Schaumburg music. One can only speculate how it might have impacted on the shape of new German music, had it been properly played out live when it first came into being. Maybe Germany would have been a happier place as a consequence.