Six men on a stage, two guitar players, a bass player, a keyboard player, a drummer, and a singer. The bass dominates the sound, the electric guitars sound like vacuum cleaners on crack, the drum sticks spit fire, the singer hits himself with the microphone while the sleeves of his coat are on fire, the keyboard guy jumps around the stage like a maniac, things explode, more fire, the singer bleeds, and more fire. A Rammstein concert can be a very disconcerting experience for all involved.
When Rammstein first entered the music scene of Germany in 1994, the unsuspecting audience was in for a shock. Not only was their sound as peaceful as a BLU-821, but their lyrics employed imagery that had not been used since the days of expressionist poetry. They sang of sex, and doom, and sex, and the lyrics revealed a preference for words like 'decay', 'mercy', 'blood', 'daggers', 'sick', or 'fire'. However, the verb 'sing' is misleading. Try to sound as aggressive as possible while hitting the low 'D' is more like it.
In addition to the unusual sound and lyrics, the band's appearance gave people much to wonder about. For one thing, the name of the band stirs memories of the city of Ramstein, Germany, in the region known as, The Palatinate, which became famous in 1988 when two military jets flying very low above the ground during an aviation show crashed into one another and exploded right by the spectators, killing more than 70 people and severely injuring many more. This catastrophe is explicitly referred to in one of the songs on the first album the band released.
While the city of Ramstein is spelled with one 'm', the band added a second 'm' to their name, causing the word to take on a different meaning. Rammen is 'to ram', Stein means 'stone'. Thus, Rammstein can be translated as 'ramming stone', which indicates rather nicely what the band sounds like.
The way the band chose to show themselves to the public was also quite extraordinary. Their faces seem unable to express more than three emotions: anger, aggression, and cold sadness. Equipped with an amalgamation of these and the desire to burn stuff on stage, Rammstein went on to become one of Germany's most successful bands of the 1990s.
When Rammstein started touring, their shows soon became infamous. The apparent disregard for self-inflicted pain, the flames and the brutal style - which is, at the most unlikely moment, changed into mournful balladesque gloom - quickly drew a huge fan community. However, when the first album, Herzeleid, came out, critics were perplexed.
Until then, new bands had been fairly easy to classify: pop music was apolitical (or so they claim), punk rock indicated a leftist orientation, right-wing bands stuck out for their lyrics. Rammstein did not fit into any of these categories. Nobody else had lyrics quite like them, or presented them in anything like the same style. Their pose on the album cover seemed to give the critics a clue, though - short haired men showing their naked, muscular torsos, while shooting angry stares - that appeared to indicate a right-wing background.
The German music scene has a peculiar trait: leftist bands are usually ignored by both critics and record companies, while right-wing bands will be talked about and criticised. A reason for this could be the fact that leftist bands may rant about 'the system', but are otherwise content to be left alone, whereas right-wing music is usually aimed against real people, and is often the soundtrack for skinheads beating up people they don't like. Being labelled right-wing can, therefore, cost a band much sympathy among their would-be audience.
The media were very quick to pass that judgement on Rammstein. During the early 1990s, news of an upsurge of neo-Nazi activities in the Eastern part of Germany had shocked the world. Consequently, some people tended to be very careful about anything that came from East Germany, especially when it was anything unusual. In the wake of these developments, Rammstein was a likely candidate to be considered one of those neo-Nazi type of bands.
This verdict was passed unjustly. The musical history of Rammstein's members includes bands like Feeling B and The Inchtabokatables, which constituted part of the core of East German punk music before the unification of Germany. In unified Germany, these bands were known for their decidedly left-wing attitude. Another indicator for Rammstein's not being right-wing is their friendship with Placebo, another band with clearly defined values that reject right-wing thoughts.
To clear the confusion up, once and for all, Rammstein produced for their third album the song 'Links, 2, 3, 4'. The catch phrase of that song, which was released as a single, translates as:
They want my heart to be right
But when I look down
I see it beating on the left side.
In true Rammstein style, however, they chose to cause confusion, again. The words of the refrain, 'Links, 2, 3, 4', are often used by people marching (Links means 'left') and are thus, by reminding the listener of uniformity rather than individuality, often associated with right-wing or totalitarian organizations. Typically, the audience is not given a clear look the band; they are forced to take a very close look in order to understand them.
When asked how the band started, this is the story the band members will tell2: the would-be members knew each other and were actually friends. All of them had recently gone through break-ups with their girlfriends. Making music together was less a matter of therapy, but more of a way to communicate their feelings about these experiences - hence the obsession with the aforementioned topics. They did not come up with the typical Rammstein style by knowing what they wanted to do, but by knowing what they did not want to do. The resulting choices were, furthermore, limited by what they actually were able to play. Other than that, one of the guys claimed, they were just another boy band.
Needless to say, a band's stage appearance and what its members are like personally, are two completely different things. This is even more true for Rammstein. Chances are that you would not recognise them if you met them in your local supermarket. In interviews, the members will often laugh and make fun of each other. One of the stories they like to tell is of how Flake (pronounced Flah-keh), the keyboard maniac, did not want to join the band. When they first started practising, the music was too simple and too boring for him. In his own words, the whole enterprise was just 'too stupid'. The other musicians had to talk a lot to persuade him into playing with them, and he only tentatively agreed. Up to this day, and despite his being an integral part of the organism, he has still not officially given his OK.
The bad comments of the media notwithstanding, Rammstein made it big in Germany. What is more surprising still is the fact that they are even popular in other countries. For bands like Rammstein, who only sing in German3, it is hard to find an audience in countries that speak other languages. Nevertheless, Rammstein has many fans abroad, especially in the USA. That may be partly due to a misunderstanding.
The one line that most US American fans will be able to quote is from the song, 'Du hast':
Du hast mich...
When asked what that means, they will likely say, 'You hate me', and will then go on to say how they can understand and relate to that sentiment. However, Rammstein's lyrics are a bit more sophisticated. If the words are taken out of context, they do sound like the German words, 'You hate me'; there is no difference in sound between 'You hate me' - Du hasst mich - and 'You have (asked) me' - Du hast mich (gefragt). When they go on singing, or shouting, it becomes evident that it is a play on words. The complete line translates as 'You asked me, and I said nothing'. The song is, again, about relationships; the question 'Will you marry me' is answered with a clear and unmistakable 'No'.
A real boost to their career came when David Lynch, director of the Twin Peaks TV series, picked two Rammstein songs to be featured in his movie, Lost Highway. The story behind the selection is a nice example of the way Rammstein goes about things. When they started recording their songs, they realised that they needed to produce video clips, as well. Rather than having the record company choose a video director for them, they sent copies of their songs to all the movie directors they liked. Most of these never responded at all. David Lynch, however, said that he was not going to make a video; but, having listened to the demo CD in his car on his way to work, he decided that these songs were exactly what he wanted for his next movie. The final cut of Lost Highway features the songs, 'Heirate mich' and 'Rammstein'.
Herzeleid (1995) - This album consists of 11 songs. The songs, 'Du riechst so gut', and 'Seemann' were released as singles. The title translates as 'Heart's Sorrow'.
Sehnsucht (1997) - This album also consists of 11 songs. Two singles were released, 'Engel' and the aforementioned 'Du hast...'. The style of this album is remarkably similar to that of its predecessor. This, however, does not come as a surprise; most of the material on the first two albums was written before Rammstein got a record deal. It was not until their third studio album that the band actually wrote new songs. The title of this album translates as 'Longing'.
Live aus Berlin (1999) - As the title indicates, this is a live album. It was recorded during two nights in Berlin. These concerts marked the climactic end of a long tour that had taken the band all across Europe, America, and even to Japan.
Mutter (2001) - Another album with 11 tracks, this record shows some new developments in style. Rammstein keeps employing the distinct low voice, but now they actually sing on some tracks. Generally, the new album has a greater variety in terms of composition and in they way the instruments are used. So far, three singles have been released, 'Sonne', 'Links, 2, 3, 4', and 'Ich will'. A limited tour edition of this album was recorded and released the same year. The title of the album translates as 'Mother'.
In addition to these albums, Rammstein produced some singles that are not to be found on any regular albums. 1997 saw the release of a stomping cover version of Kraftwerk's 'Das Model'. In the following year, Rammstein recorded their version of 'Stripped' by Depeche Mode and released it as a single. Also in 1998, the band re-released their own song, 'Du riechst so gut'.
The Official Rammstein Website offers background information, lyrics to all their songs (some of which even have a translation into English), and excerpts of many songs to listen to. The site is well done, fun to read and look at, and will give you a nice impression of the band. Plus it is available both in German and English. Be sure to have your speakers on...