These days, AfroSynth almost never gets mentioned without the name DJ Okapi in tow, for it is largely thanks to the latter that this forgotten era of South African pop music continues to see the light of day. His real name is Dave Durbach. Through his AfroSynth blog and a record store specializing in South African music, he has carved out a niche as the authority on this 80s synth-fuelled bubblegum pop. Most recently, he was here in Amsterdam to perform at Strange Sounds From Beyond 2017, where he sat down with Maan Jitski for a little chat.
Emerging from the cosmic experimentations of krautrock, kinetic energy and the “I don’t care” attitude that is punk, Germany’s underground landscape in the late 70s was increasingly filling itself with acts that put out a range of highly avant-garde, quirky and autonomous sounds. A big factor in all of this was the DIY mentality and a wave of post-modernism that had infiltrated media culture at the time. This freshly built playground now offered up the possibility that everybody could make (cool) music; the stranger the sounds, the more far-fetched the ideas and themes, the better.
Art students, rebellious teenagers and even young children – all who were growing tired amidst a climate of cold-war angst that was hitting an early peak in consumerism, were gathering cheap recording devices as well as all kinds of instruments and utensils that could produce sound to form an arsenal for their troops against everything that was dull and ordinary.
This was a movement that arguably also took place in other parts of the Western world, such as the British new wave movement that had also sprouted in the country’s DIY underground scene. But still, there was something just so authentic and particular about the German clique that it needed its own label.
By the time this phenomenon was given a term, “der Spuk” was already over. German pop charts were suddenly flooded with commercial one-hit wonders, with famous examples such as “99 Luftballons”, a German answer to David Bowie’s “Major Tom” and a hate-fighting entity called Codo. The name Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW), in retrospect, was condemned to a stigma of juvenile kitsch and generally bad taste.
Before the arrival of the big bad hype flood wave, influential torchbearers such as Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, Der Plan, Palais Schaumburg, Fehlfarben, were some of the more digestible and even disco-friendly acts that emerged from the underground. Early avant-garde chart toppers such as the world famous “Da Da Da” by Trio or a musical effort coming from a high school project by Andreas Dorau & Die Marinas about extraterrestrial “Fred Vom Jupiter” would follow quickly and were celebrated by a German audience of cynics and blissful commoners alike. The naive majority embraced the genre’s strange juxtaposition of goofy jest, while neglecting the fact that its satirical rooted essence was actually anti-pop. It’s a misunderstood joke that resulted in the quick cash grab of the previously mentioned one-off chart entries.
During this short-lived German music phenomenon, uncountable acts and artists were putting out recordings ranging from highly amateurish home tapes to official releases of laughable quantities from labels such as Ata Tak, GeeBeeDee and the cult label ZickZack, the latter’s name alone cranking up the price tag of its records among collectors. For some long-lost audio treasure, let’s take a dive into Germany’s new wave pond and explore its vast and yet undiscovered depths.
CHBB – “Mau-Mau” (1998)
Before EBM super act Liaisons Dangereuses, Chrislo Haas (founding member of DAF) and Beate Bartel (founding member of Einstürzende Neubauten) formed the experimental industrial duo CHBB. Over a short period of time around 1980/81, they handed out four tapes in editions of fifty copies each. Collectors will kill for a copy. But then again there are several vinyl bootleg releases out there that are quite easy to obtain.
What they offer you is a mix of pre-historic techno, dubby electronica and a dark minimalistic wave sound. Listening to “Mau-Mau”, you could easily imagine King Tubby’s studio in a gritty Berlin squat, while Lee Perry dressed in WWII German military gear communicates with folks in outer space through mysterious tape recordings of sonic sound waves. They are probably being sold at music marketplaces in a far-off galaxy.
The Tanzdiele – “Folgt Den Führern!” (1981)
It is often peculiar to examine the early days of a well-known media figure. In this case, Piet Klocke, who, especially in 90s Germany, was quite a successful theatre humorist and TV satirist. His routines were often on the mild and easily digestible side of what comedy could offer, even by German standards, which still struggles with the stigma of being called the unfunniest nation in the world. But hey, believe me they’re getting there! He stuck to a more conservative audience, and contributed mainly to mediocre television productions.
If you trace back to his early endeavors as a performer, you would find an entry on his resume that is very engaging. Piet Klocke in his mid-twenties was the leader of a short-lived German new wave act called The Tanzdiele, which is a fancy word for disco in German. Their sound was driven by the typical cold and mean style of EBM, though it often flirted with a funky touch that turned its temperature up. So I suppose they were the most lukewarm EBM band out there.
“Folgt Den Führern” has a vibe that is quite reminiscent of EBM kings D.A.F., as though it were their more positive quirky little brother. It is a good thing; this song is a lot of fun compared to its cousin’s angry nihilistic character.
Andy Giorbino – “Motor Im Kopf” (1981)
Together with Germany’s self-proclaimed first punker Jäki Eldorado, Andy Giorbino released an LP on leading underground NDW label ZickZack, called Lied An Die Freude. It is perhaps the most easily accessible output of the typical DIY “Kinderzimmer” music movement from the earliest days of German new wave. No rehearsals, just improvised little cheeky songs that drop you off into an abstract slapstick cartoon world spun by a schizophrenic yet very intelligent 10-year-old.
A neurotic force that must have been driven by boredom-induced hyperactivity. A “Motor Im Kopf” (freely translates to engine in the head) and it’s overtaking itself! This song could have been a worthy new wave release, if it would possess just a little bit more sanity.
Heilige 3 Könige – “Eismoritz” (1982)
Once again a NDW act, one that was recently resurrected to exist within our living daylights, but delivers barely no facts about itself. We know that the band was originally formed in Hannover in 1980 and released their first album Zum Teufel Mit Dem Kamel in 1982. During this period they also recorded a second album, though it was never released. Some of these tracks, which were jam sessions on tape, were restored in new release this year by the label Mond Musik along with some tracks from their first album.
The outstanding track “Eismoritz” was not included in this new sampler. Happily Albion gifted us with a nifty cut of it for the edit-gold mine Bahnsteig 23. Funky slappy bassline, a thick synth groove and an oddly-timed chorus that mentions the “Eismoritz”. I would love to have a chat with these three kings about the inspiration for this kooky little song.
Eiskalte Engel – “Die Kinder Aus Asbest” (1982)
Cold German electro coming straight out of Mannheim. As if sentient teenage 80s computers discovered punk to rebel against their repetitive daily routines ordered by their mother- and fatherboards.
Again Mond Musik re-released some of the best tracks including club-friendly edits for a new generation of cool scene kids to enjoy. Credit00, for instance, played “Die Kinder Aus Asbest” at the end of his Boiler room recorded set. It was exceptional that the crowd was neither staring at phone screens nor gazing apathetically towards the camera lens; instead they danced their feet off to a cold-war era electro song about a preceding generation that felt out of place in the world and came together in dark basements to dance to dark nihilistic electronic music. That was ’82; man time flies!
Conrad Schnitzler – “Komm Mit Nach Berlin” (1981)
Quite possibly the most well-known artist in this selection would be Kraut electronica key figure Conrad Schnitzler, an early Tangerine Dream contributor and founding member of Kluster. He was one of Düsseldorf’s emigrants that imported the city’s experimental attitude in electronic music to the city of Berlin, thus the style of the “Berliner Schule”. After leaving Kluster in the early 70s, he focused on his solo works, which back then consisted of mostly pure electronic experiments and ambient soundscapes. It wasn’t until the early 80s that compact synthesizers replaced modular ones and drum computers got more involved in his music making, just like his more pop-oriented colleagues in the music industry. Next to that Schnitzler was often lending his voice to his musical creations, where newer tracks expanded into a more pop music-like structure. 1981 gave birth to more than six releases, among those an album in collaboration with his son Gregor, with fun new wave tracks such as “The Shark Eats Ice”. Also the wonderful album Con 3 was unleashed into the world. Every single track is a playfully constructed delight from start to finish. Come out and play at “Spielplatz Berlin”.
Pssst… Con 3 also got reissued a while back on Bureau B with loads of bonus material. Get it; it’s essential goodness.
Träneninvasion – “Sentimental”
One of the lesser known projects of Germany’s avant-garde enfant terrible Holger Hilger. Actually it is his first ever official musical output, released on Fehlfarben’s front man Peter Hein’s label Welt-Rekord. Accompanied by another Fehlfarben member Michael Kemner, a 2-track (nowadays highly sought-after NDW holy grail) 7” was crafted in traditional German DIY bedroom manner.
“Sentimental”, sampled by Austin strange music catalyst and living cult-legend James Pants on the track “I Live Inside An Egg”, is a short minimalistic piece made by a neurotic person for neurotic people. A nervous synth loop with a simple bass loop and the absolutely nihilistic expression of a youngster that is feeling very weepy. Sentimental, I feel sentimental, sentimental, I feel…
Froehliche Eiszeit – “Don’t Change The Position” (2004)
Not much is known about this minimal-synth act hailing from Frankfurt. Noted members were Bernd Hasenfus, Carl Peter, Kirk Quincey, Manfred Hasenfus, Stefan Winczencz and two ladies that provided some vocal work called Christiane Pralle and Marion Brömser. I assume the act was more of a fun hobby project, since they never released anything until German underground limited edition re-issue label Kernkrach records, re-released their homemade tape catalogue on two cool releases. One of them includes a packaging in wrapping paper of an old ice cream salon. Thank god, because this is Minimal Synth at its finest!
To add a little anecdote, I first heard the track “Don’t Change The Position” during Nosedrip’s Strange Sounds From Beyond 2017 set. Best tune I heard that day. Just love the murky short guitar riffs and vocals with a thick German accent. I would welcome an extended edit very much!