There are some bands that I have avoided over the years, Rammstein being one of them. I only heard a track or two from them in the past and had written them off as a ‘too’ band: too industrial sounding, too repetitious, too German, and just plain too foreign for me to like. More recently, I happened to watch a bit of a 2005 concert DVD they recorded in an outdoor arena in Nimes, France and I got pulled in by the sheer spectacle of their live show. I am not a huge fan of theatrical rock, but I had to give them credit because they stage their concerts in a way that makes perfect sense for their music. From the other shows I have looked up, I am guessing that they also don’t repeat their ‘themes’ from one tour to the next. Perhaps they have taken their reinvention lessons from Cher or Madonna.
Rammstein’s story began behind the Berlin Wall where the six musicians in the band got started. Before the wall fell, life in East Germany wasn’t terrible for them, but there were severe limitations placed on musicians. Everyone had to have a job and only certain types of music were permitted if you wanted to work as a musician. There really weren’t any professional pop bands, only amateurs who labored as basket weavers, boilermakers, tool makers, and so on (and yes, these are the day jobs some of them held when the GDR still existed). The bands they formed were mostly done on the sly and they remained underground for the most part until the reunification.
Originally a foursome, guitarist Richard Kruspe, drummer Christoph ‘Doom’ Schneider, bassist Oliver Riedel and vocalist Till Lindemann won a an amateur band contest in 1994. First prize was the opportunity to record a four track demo. Guitarist Paul Landers liked what he heard on their demo record and shortly after hearing it asked to join the band. His former bandmate, keyboardist Christian ‘Flake’ Lorenz, was reluctant to follow Landers but eventually, they became the final pieces of a band whose members have remained unchanged since then.
Kruspe was highly influenced by American rock bands, particularly Kiss, but in the end, he found that writing that kind of rock music didn’t suit him. Rammstein decided they wanted to pursue a musical concept that would meld heavy rock and machines. The grinding guitar riffs and repetitive vocal lines certainly give their music a mechanical feel. Their other conscious decision was to stage elaborate concerts with a lot of pyrotechnics added to the machine-like sets. The pyro is such a big part of the show that Lindemann pursued formal training in the field, which is probably a good idea if one likes the idea of remaining untoasted on stage. Rammstein uses a LOT of pyro!
Kruspe, Landers, and Riedel do the heavy lifting in their live shows. The pulsating riffs they churn out drive the music, well, like a fine tuned machine. Schneider isn’t a flashy drummer, but he also does his part to make the music chug along. Lorenz isn’t a typical keyboard player as his job seems to be more as a ‘colorist’ who connects the song’s lyrical parts together. Lindemann writes most of the lyrics and his vocal style is best described as ‘guttural’, but it fits their music. I don’t particularly like Brian Johnson’s voice either, but it fits the music of AC/DC perfectly. Schneider says he doesn’t like their first album as much as the later ones because, “on the second one, Till began to sing more than growl.” One would never accuse Lindemann of being a crooner, but it works for them.
Whatever issues I had with Rammstein’s music were greatly tempered by the crowd reaction I saw in the DVD of the Nimes concert. I checked out shows in Europe, Canada and the United States from various years and the more I watched, the more amazed I was at the level that the audience interacts with the band. The audience becomes part of the show and it doesn’t seem to make one bit of difference that most of the lyrics are in German. The band had considered doing more of their songs in English, but decided that they could express themselves better in their native tongue. Indeed, there are nuances in the German language that allow them to write lyrics that work on multiple levels.
One of their first singles is entitled Du Hast which translates as ‘You Have’. I was a little mystified when I saw the English subtitles that ran with the Nimes concert. They show the crowd singing ‘You, You Hate, You Hate Me’ in a massive sing along with Lindemann. Du Hasst does mean ‘You Hate’ and it sounds just like Du Hast (‘ You Have’). Lindemann performs the song as a twisted version of the traditional German wedding vows eliciting a huge ‘nine’ (no) when he asks about future fidelity to the bride. There are a lot of double meanings in Rammstein’s songs – even in their name.
They were originally called Rammstein-Flugschau (Rammstein Airshow) in reference to the 1988 tragedy that killed 67 onlookers and three Italian pilots at the Ramstein US Air Force Base airshow. Landers claimed that the extra ‘m’ in their name was a mistake, yet when they became more widely known, they changed their tune and said the name comes from the large stones that were used to prop open gates called Rammsteines. The extra ‘m’ does make the name translate as ‘ramming stone’, however, the first song they wrote as a band (and has been played on just about every tour) was Rammstein and it describes the airshow tragedy, not a gate prop. Add to this Lindemann’s habit of donning two flamethrowers to punctuate the live version of Rammstein with large columns of fire, and the band name backstory seems to be a bit of revisionist history at work.
Kruspe said that when they finally realized their dream to play Madison Square Garden, they were not sure how the American audience would react to their mostly German lyrics. The show sold out in twenty minutes, which removed some of the doubts they were having. He laughs when he recalls playing one of their better known songs in America called Sehnsucht, which translates as Yearning. They got the expected crowd sing along but instead of singing Sehnsucht, the American audiences would sing Chainsaw which is lyrically just a little bit different than Yearning, but as Kruspe said, “It works for them, it works for us.”
Listening to them describe making the video for Sonne (Sun), I found that they are a typical band. They haggled over a concept for the video with Lindemann favoring a boxing theme. Riedel happened to see a clip of Snow White and they suddenly clicked on an idea that had them playing dwarves mining gold for a Snow White who is a little more tyrannical than Walt Disney’s. Working with a normal scale set and a reduced scale set to give their Snow White the proper size perspective (versus their reduced size as dwarves), they commented that it was hard to film them in the correct size, with the exception of Landers who, “may have to be made larger because he is so short to begin with”. Typical band stuff.
While I do like the sense of humor and the spectacle of most of Rammstein’s music, there are some elements that they purposely put out to shock their audiences. Some of their bits are not as bad (Gwar, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie) or as comical (Alice Cooper, the Finnish monster band Lordi, or Ghost) as some bands I have seen, but lewd just doesn’t do it for me. Lindemann and Lorenz were arrested in Massachusetts after one particular performance. I only had to watch a few seconds of part of that show to agree with the decision. I am not big on censorship in the arts, but in cases where a band goes too far with the shock-o-meter, I do know how to change the channel.
Rammstein is currently ending the second year of a band hiatus that has its members working on various solo projects. Krupse said during these breaks that they generally have a yearly band meeting to decide if they will tour or continue their break. Time will tell if they will come together for yet another elaborate tour or go their separate ways, but there is more than enough material out there in videoland for even the most rabid Rammstein fan. You may ‘hast’ or ‘hasst’ Rammstein at your own pleasure.
The video clip shows them tweaking American inflence around the world with a little swipe at the authenticity of the Apollo moon landings. Parts of the video were shot with the band ‘playing’ at double speed so when the playback was slowed down, it would give it more of a ‘spacy’ quality. The band says it was a challenging shoot to say the least. It remains a popular part of their live show.