Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Fehlfarben - Monarchie und Alltag (1980/2000)

I remember the first time my sister Meredith went to Germany and came back with several Neue Deutsche Welle (German new wave) albums, along with Verschwende deine Jugend ("Waste Your Youth"), a book about the movement, upon which a movie had been made, which she also had the pleasure of seeing. I was impressed, and I'm still slowly reading through the book.

She introduced me to a lot of great German bands, such as Grauzone, Deutsche-Amerikanische Freundschaft, and Extrabreit. On my own, I later bought a Peter Schilling album on vinyl, but while I was in Vienna, I found a fairly cheap copy of the reissued debut from Fehlfarben, Monarchie und Alltag. It's a fairly good album, and the political nature of the lyrics make it interesting to discuss, which I shall now do.

Artist: Fehlfarben
Album: Monarchie und Alltag
Released: 1980, reissued 2000
Label: Welt-Rekord (original), EMI (reissue)
Producer: Fehlfarben and Horst Luedtke

01. Hier und jetzt
02. Grauschleier
03. Das sind Geschichten
04. All That Heaven Allows
05. Gottseidank nicht in England
06. Militürk
07. Apokalypse
08. Ein Jahr (Es geht voran)
09. Angst
10. Das war vor Jahren
11. Paul ist tot

Reissue bonus tracks:
12. Abenteuer und Freiheit [Große Liebe b-side, 1979]
13. Große Liebe - Maxi [Single, 1979]
14. Herrenreiter [Live 1980.04 Heidelberg, Germany] [Ein Jahr b-side, 1980]
15. Paul ist tot [Edit] [Outtake?, 1980]

I was going to put translations in the tracklistings, but then I came to "Militürk" and it is awfully hard to translate that in a simple manner and convey the message. Anyhow. Monarchie und Alltag translates to "Monarchy and Daily Life" and that should convey fairly well the general theme of the album. It's fairly political, but just as much in the personal realm as the greater realm - something also found in some of the angular British post-punk bands like Gang of Four and the Au Pairs. However, the political situation in Germany was quite different from that of Britain or America. Germany was still a country divided, was still trying to become a greater economic power in the world scheme after being thoroughly ravaged in two world wars, and was dealing with immigration and unemployment, two problems often claimed to be connected.

"Hier und jetzt" ("Here and Now") has three verses which one by one deny the past (whose shadows still linger), the present (with too many annoying people), and the future (which is too hard to deal with). The choruses offer an unexplained "you" both halves of heaven in order to keep the here and now. There is a clear idenitiy problem, if the narrator denies the present but still wants to keep it, but more obviously through lines like "ich weiß nicht einmal wer ich bin" ("I don't know who I am"). Each line right before the chorus refuses a connection to reality: the newspaper, the radio, and the weather report. To me, this sounds like more of something an East German band would've written (but Fehlfarben is from the western Düsseldorf), but this should be the beginning of the clues that all is not well in the West either.

"Grauschleier" ("Gray Veil") seems to indicate that everything is dull and meaningless. Books contain "nur leere Phrasen" ("only empty phrases"), the music in the kitchen "ist auch schon ziemlich zerkratzt" ("is also rather grating"), and the narrator has already seen everything a thousand times: he claims, "ich kenne das Leben, ich bin im Kino gewesen" ("I know what life is like, I've been to the movies"). The next song, "Das sind Geschichten" ("Those Are Stories") follows similarly, focusing more on stories about idealized daily living that no one believes anymore.

"All That Heaven Allows" may have an English title but is still sung in German. It is the first song on the album to break from the angular guitar, steady bass and drums, and punky German singing standard, as there are some cymbal swells over some rhythm guitar breaks and then bridges featuring a short ascending keyboard bit. It's a welcome change but doesn't sound out of place. The lyrics are about the narrator's somewhat desperate need for his lover but unwillingness to confess the exact nature of these feelings.

"Gottseidank nicht in England" ("Thank God Not in England") starts with a nice little bass riff, but from what I can tell about the lyrics, it's a critique of people too willing to change their personalities and friends to succeed. I like the lyrics, like "sprichst fremde Sprachen im eigenen Land" ("speak foreign languages in your own country"), which is something of a foreshadow of the chorus: "Und wenn die Wirklichkeit dich überholt / hast du keine Freunde, nicht mal Alkohol / du stehst in der Fremde, deine Welt stürzt ein / das ist das Ende, du bleibst allein" ("and when the reality catches up to you / you have no friends, not counting alcohol / you stand as a foreigner, your world collapses / that is the end, you remain alone"). Sad.

"Militürk" is an interesting song. It's longer than all the other songs but one, has some odd saxophone wails, and has the fewest lyrics. The song sarcastically refers to the Turkish immigration issue that has been a part of Germany's politics for many a year now. The title combines the words "militär" ("military") and "Türk" ("Turk"), and the idea is that the Turks are infiltrating Germany, which is something of a popular sentiment. Fehlfarben takes it over the top, though. The lyrics crack me up, but they're loaded with references that need a lot of explanation, so I'll just mention a few. I love the opening line: "Kebabträume in der Mauerstadt" ("kebab dreams in the wall-city"). Kebabs, if you don't know, are a type of wrap based out of the Middle East. They usually contain chicken or lamb, vegetables, and some cucumber or similar sauce. (I had one when I still ate chicken and went to Germany three years ago; while in Vienna, I had the falafel version, which is even better anyway, all the time. Turkish Imbisse (snack stands) are all over Germany and Austria and are quite a hit.) The wall-city is clearly Berlin. The paranoia deepens in the last three lines: "In jeder Imbißstube ein Spion / Im ZK Agent aus Türkei / Deutschland, Deutschland, alles ist vorbei" ("in each stack stand is a spy / in the central committee an agent from Turkey / Germany, Germany, it's all over").

"Apokalypse" translates easily and is a dystopic view of a post-apocalyptic German landscape. Most notable are the piano notes at the beginning, quickly turning into electronic noise that reoccurs throughout the song. Later, wind sounds and a phased guitar dominate the bridges.

"Ein Jahr (Es geht voran)" ("One Year (It Goes On)") sticks out a little bit from the rest of the album. It features a very disco-like drum and bass groove, supposedly done as a joke and actually disliked by the band. The guitar sound is just like the rest of the album, though, and the vocals are similar except for the backing shouts of "es geht voran!". This song is probably the only Fehlfarben song most people have heard (if they've heard any), as it was something of a successful single when it was re-released in 1982. It is quite catchy and irresistible. The lyrics are again a hilarious satire: "Berge explodieren, Schuld hat der Präsident, es geht voran!" ("mountains explode, the president is guilty, it goes on!"), "graue B-Film Helden regieren bald die Welt, es geht voran!" ("gray b-film heroes will soon rule the world, it goes on!"). Odd, then, that a certain California-residing Austrian is making the latter line come true. The over-the-top political progress sloganeering, a sort of "forget what's going on around you, life goes on, move along!", is well depicted.

"Angst" ("Fear") is a simple little bit about being scared of being out on the streets, presumably due to rising crime, or perhaps the instilled presupposition thereof. "Das war vor Jahren" ("That Was Years Ago") seems to be about how great teenagers dancing together is, but then the lines "die Coca-Cola Sonne scheint aufs Neue / auf den Glanz unserer Republik / es gibt bei uns Leute / die finden das schick" ("the Coca-Cola sun shines anew / on the glamour of our republic / there are people among us / who find that trendy/hip/cool"). Cultural imperialism at its best. This is another cultural issue in Germany and Austria: some people embrace American products and English slogans in advertising, but others cannot stand it. Personally, I'd rather have Austria's second favorite soda, Almdudler, over their favorite, Coca-Cola, any day.

"Paul ist tot" ("Paul Is Dead") is the longest song, featuring some sax and weird keyboard effects but also confusing lyrics. The title feels like such a reference to Paul McCartney's rumored death in the 60s, but no further references exist in the lyrics. The chorus indicates a possible commercialist frustration: "was ich haben will, das krieg ich nicht / und was ich kriegen kann, das gefällt mir nicht" ("what I want I can't get / and what I can get I don't like").

The bonus tracks are nice additions, except for the edited version of "Paul ist tot". It only cuts a few minutes of the jamming, but still remains a five-and-a-half minute song. "Abenteuer und Freiheit" ("Adventure and Freedom") is an early single b-side with a distinct ska sound and feel about a new movement, seemingly opposed to the dominant hippie aesthetic of the 70s. (This despisement of hippies is something of a theme among the NDW bands.) The opening lyrics are telling: "Zu spät für die alte Bewegungen / was heute zählt, ist Sauberkeit" ("Too late for the old movements / what counts today is cleanliness"). "Große Liebe", similarly ska-like, is a worker's love song (so Gang of Four!): "ich sah sie zuerst bei der Raffinerie" ("I saw her first by the refinery"). "Herrenreiter" ("Gentleman Rider") is an early live song with some weird sound effects and guitar effects (just barely ska-ish), seemingly criticizing the remnants of the noble class.

As indicated by the pre-album bonus tracks, Fehlfarben, whose name translates to "false" (as in misprinted) "color", were a ska band. They quickly dropped the groove and developed a stronger post-punk feel, retaining the guitar sound occasional sax but adding studio effects and the occasional keyboard. "Ein Jahr (Es geht voran)" stands as the only dancy song on the album; it was an ironic attempt at disco but retaining the trademark sarcastic political lyrics, and it ended up being the song that established a name for the band, for better or worse. When it comes down to it, Monarchie und Alltag didn't do too well at first, but over the years popularity has increased and it is now regarded as an important, influential work (hence the reissue).

Despite starting out ska and later becoming more clearly new wave, Monarchie und Alltag fits right into the post-punk movement and loosely under the vast umbrella of Neue Deutsche Welle. Fehlfarben are primarily interested in the difficult personal and national political situation in Germany at the time, using either poignant observation or harsh sarcasm to explore their left-leaning perspective. Some songs are lyrically more interesting than others, such as "Militürk" or "Ein Jahr", but a common mood arises. The songs are musically rather similar; the same tones are used for each instrument throughout, but of course style, rhythm, and melody differ, and the occasional sax, keyboard, or sound effect adds a little something extra to the mix.

As may be obvious now, I have wrapped myself up in German/Austrian culture and tried to understand the tensions and history underneath, and this album can either serve as a musical representative of the darker aspects for one also already familiar with the themes or as an introduction to some of the bigger concepts still alive today. The music is good, although not too far out there, but the lyrics are fantastic... if you understand German. If by some chance you get really into the band and want help, just ask.

Score: A-

[Edit 2018.10.28: This was one of my first reviews, and for some reason, despite my relative naïveté, it remains one of the most popular. I'd change a lot if I were to rewrite it today, but the comments help quite a bit, and I can offer some more insight in an article I wrote about the history and meaning of "Militürk" and a review of a concert at which I saw Fehlfarben perform the album in its entirety. I also don't know how I wrote this review without mentioning Mittagspause, and I'm still amazed that "Paul ist tot" successfully uses pinball as a metaphor for disaffection. For more on that, try these excellent analyses (both in German) from Deutsche Lieder Bamberger Anthologie and 80er Pop Protest.]


Anonymous said...

"Berge explodieren, Schuld hat der Präsident, es geht voran!" ("mountains explode, the president is guilty, it goes on!"), "graue B-Film Helden regieren bald die Welt, es geht voran!" ("gray b-film heroes will soon rule the world, it goes on!"). Odd, then, that a certain California-residing Austrian is making the latter line come true.
Let me make two corrections to your comment. The first is a minor one: I'd translate "mountains explode, it's the president's guilt, it goes on!" to express that the exploding of mountains is the president's guilt (for example because he makes his army drop bombs on it).
Second correction: The B-film hero to make the quoted line come true was Ronald Reagan. Back then nobody ever thought of Arnold S. running for pres.

Patti said...

Farther Oblivion -

I agree about both your statements. Good catches there. I never really thought that Reagan was the person talked about in the second line, but it only makes sense, I suppose. I threw the bit in about Schwarzenegger because it was an odd stretch of a coincidence.

Anonymous said...

Great to see someone interested in Fehlfarben. They became a fine (how was it called in early 80s britain?) "White Funk" (A Certain Ratio ecetera) band later. But this record you mention stays out as one of the most important german records after the (in England much more appreciated) "Krautrock" times.
Thousands things could be told. Here at least a few: Don't underestimate the impact of left wing terrrorism in Germany just around the Punk/Post-Punk years. Everyonee was suspicious: Old(er) people who claimed to be seen as victims who hadn't seen or done anything way back in the war, but who replicated their old fascist slogans way too often when they were provoked or drunk. [To be fair they weren't all that way, but nearly all remained way too quiet in their post-war economic miracle.] Younger people who saw everyone as a potential fascist. And a political system set under pressure.
Unemployment was also growing but it wasn't as bad as in the UK at these times.
The book "Verschwende Deine Jugend" names a lot of the the better bands, there are reasons why Extrabreit and Peter Schilling are not among them.
Austria played a different and somehow rather silent role in these times, the Swiss scene was much closer to the german scene.
About the songs and meanings: "Paul is tot" - I guess there's no consumer critique in this, I guess it's personal, more a question of longing and (following) desillusions.
"Militürk" is even hard to decipher for a german out of it's historical context. It's a grotesque if anything, very cynic replaying right wing statements and condensing them to one big surreal conspiracy theory. A slap in the face of big letter mass media (the german equivalents to "The Sun") maybe.
The music - I prefer their melancholy to the Gang of Four style which may have been a major influence. I wonder, what would have happened to a version of the record sung in english...

Patti said...

Anonymous -

Fehlfarben is probably unknown to just about any American, but it seems most Germans are at least aware of them, but they are sort of a forgotten band anyway. I think they're great. I actually just read the entirety of Verschwende deine Jugend this summer, and that certainly helped contextualize a lot of this. I think I used to underestimate the political climate of the time in Germany.

Anyway, thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

It's always so beautiful to see things being discovered by someone somewhere. I guess I also love some rather forgotten US-bands, or artists from other countries who may be not well known here. It's always good to broaden your view. If I can trust the image on top of this review you also have the Double-CD which accompanied the book, so you may have discovered some strange but interesting music. There's also a good DVD: "Berlin Super 80" giving some visual insight. I wish similar stuff existed from Hamburg and Düsseldorf.
The political climate: It cut much deeper then the Weathermen ever did or could, and I think it is an integral part of our country's anatomy tough you have to be 40+ to remember at least a bit. (By the way: Just a few days ago a german movie about this era of terror was nominated for the Oscar).

Anonymous said...

thanks for the review, nice that people outside germany seem to like this as well. great music, great lyrics... about the latter:
"grauschleier" refers to "weisser riese" washing powder and a typical "compared-to-standard-washing-powder" style advertisment, where the standard washing powder leaves a grey veil (?) on the washing, whereas weisser riese washes it really white-white.
(es liegt ein grauschleier über der stadt / den meine mutter noch nicht weggewaschen hat)
in the comments someone mentioned "b-film helden" but they are actually "büffelhelden" (=buffalo heroes, a common phrase for a cowboy style american) but of course it's still about ronald reagan.

Anonymous said...

on second thought i'm not sure if it was weisser riese or some other washing powder...

the name fehlfarben, btw, refers to a product, too: cheap cigars were (and still are) sold as "fehlfarben". i think it means their colours differ slightly from the standard.

i would also like to mention the band ideal and their last album "bi nuu", especially the song "keine heimat".

Patti said...

@the latest anonymous comments:
Thanks for the tip on "Grauschleier"! I just listened to "Ein Jahr" again, and you're right, it does sound more like "Büffelhelden", but either way it works and clearly is about Reagan.

It's been years since I wrote this review, but I've since spent a year living in Germany and I've "discovered" plenty more bands, Ideal included. Them and Neonbabies are two of my new favorites, although in each case I only have the first two albums. I don't think I ever saw a copy of Bi Nuu for sale, but I would've bought it if I had.

If you have any other suggestions, let me know!

Anonymous said...

i just read the whole review again... many times politicality is mentioned but i find one more thing very important, something called Konsumkritik or consumerism criticism (well that's not proper english for sure).
modern society and a constant flood of products and cheap entertainment that cannot be escaped and gets weirdly mixed up with personal emotions of fear, longing, paranoia...
even poverty (paul ist tot, kein freispiel drin - du gehst mit dem kellner und ich weiss genau warum = paul is dead, no extra game. you go with the waiter and i know exactly why).
i find the references to various products rather important, it's even on the cover (zehn millionen fernsehzuschauer können nicht irren = 10 million TV watchers can't be wrong - ad for some german TV set)
and it's not toward american products, it's a general feeling of uneasiness in a consumer-orientated society, and the frustrating realisation that i am part of it, too. even the music i am trying to put against it is a product...
i always thought that this view was more or less universal in art of the late seventies - early eighties but maybe it was really rather german or at least continental. maybe it doesn't come so easily to northern americans?
one guy mentioned this consumer critique in the comments (long comment, s/he obviously had a german upbringing) though s/he rather doubts it.
i see this as something sociocritical but not really political in the sense of being left wing or working class or anti-imperialist.
(ich schau mich um und seh nur ruinen / vielleicht liegt es daran dass mir irgendetwas fehlt = i look around and see only ruins / maybe it's because i am missing some thing)
but then of course fehlfarben in particular are political, too.

so much for that. ideal also have it, being much less political along the above mentioned distinction.

about singing in german, emotions, uneasiness and this particular revolutionary sound - how about Blumfeld: Ich-Maschine (1992)

Patti said...

@the latest anonymous comment:
"Consumerist critique" or something like that is probably the proper phrasing (often generalized to "social criticism", but I know exactly what you mean. As far as I'm concerned, you can write in German if you want - I'll understand it, although I'm assuming most of my readers won't!

I think you're spot-on with the consumerist critiques of Fehlfarben and similar bands. I'm quite familiar with those sentiments through English bands like Gang of Four and the Au Pairs, but I can't think of many great American examples... I know that many of the old punk bands expressed those ideas, but I don't know my punk nearly as well as my post-punk and new wave. I'm sure there are American versions as well, though - the concept surely can't have been foreign here. It sure seems to have been prevalent in many forms of art across the Western world around that time. Ultimately, though, I know my English and German music better than my American music!

Cloudland Blue Quartet said...

Fehlfarben are probably my favourite German band - I lived in West Germany in 1980/81 and bought this when it came out - I've always loved it...

Their last three albums maintain the quality - "Knietief im Dispo", Handbuch fuer die Welt" and the latest from 2010, "Gluecksmaschinen"...

Brilliant stuff!!

Patti said...

This may be my favorite German album from that era. It's such a solid listen. I'm also a big fan of Glut und Asche, but that is quite a different sound. I only have the first three albums, but I suppose it would be worth checking out the rest!

Unknown said...

Fehlfarben are the three non-trump suits in the popular German card game, Skat. I didn't read that anywhere and it probably belongs at the top of the review.