August 21, 1998
The Wall Street Journal
GREG STEINMETZ and PATRICK M. REILLY
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
German Band's Fierce Songs are Taking the U.S. by Storm
The "Sehnsucht" cover, designed by Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein, shows ashen-faced band members bound, poked and disfigured by painful looking clamps and wires. The band's publicity photos are just as grisly
Jared Marske, 19 years old, heard the new album of a German band called Rammstein at a party and was hooked.
"It sounded really, really good loud," says Mr. Marske, who lives in Saugus, Calif., and attends a nearby community college. "The cover says something about death or destruction or something," he says. "I don't know what the message is."
The message is unusually stark and violent -- even in today's anything-goes world of rock music -- and it's making an unexpected splash in the U.S. In nine weeks on the U.S. pop charts, the group's album "Sehnsucht" ("Yearning") has risen to No. 49. That's the best showing for a German album since Nena and her record with "99 Luftballons"("99 Balloons") reached the No. 27 spot 14 years ago.
Nena sang of world peace; Rammstein sings songs with titles like "Du Hast" ("You Hate") and "Bestrafe Mich" ("Punish Me"). One of its songs -- "Tier" ("Animal") -- is a graphic number about father-daughter incest.
Teutonic Imagery
Heavy-metal bands have long used Teutonic imagery to create an allure. Motorhead spelled its name with an umlaut. Kiss used the typeface of Hitler's SS storm troopers. Rammstein takes the trend to a new extreme --and some U.S. fans are gobbling it up.
David Wilson, a 15-year-fan from Cleveland, found translations of Rammstein songs on the Internet. He says he took an instant liking to the music. "When I heard it, I said, 'Whoa, that's German. It's the first really different thing I've heard in a long time,' " he says.
The "Sehnsucht" cover, designed by Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein, shows ashen-faced band members bound, poked and disfigured by painful looking clamps and wires. The band's publicity photos are just as grisly.
Then there is the stage show. Using fire as his chief prop, lead singer Till Lindemann shoots sparks from his boots and gloves during concerts. The pyrotechnics pass muster with German authorities; but during a show in Chicago in May, local fire officials refused to let Rammstein perform unless it put away the matches.
Rammstein's videos are particularly controversial. "Stripped," its latest, uses footage from Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi-sponsored film "Olympia."
When Rammstein was making its first video, it naively sent film director David Lynch a copy of its "Herzeleid" album and asked him to be the video's director. Mr. Lynch, who directed "Blue Velvet," itself controversial, turned down the job offer but found the music inspirational and used two of its songs in his film "Lost Highway."
Going Alternative
American radio has also embraced Rammstein. "Du Hast" was picked up first at stations playing "active rock," such as songs from Aerosmith and Pearl Jam. But in the past two months, Rammstein's U.S. label, London Records, says the song has crossed over to "alternative rock" radio. That's important since most alternative radio stations carry higher audience ratings. The album has sold more than 245,000 copies in the U.S.
"Rammstein will stand out on any playlist," says London's Wayne Pigini. "In Burlington, Vt., a station played it once, and the phones lit up for hours after that." The influential WXRK station in New York played it for the first time at 7 p.m.; the station told Mr. Pigini it was still getting phone calls through midnight.
Rammstein fans in the know say the "Sehnsucht" album is tamer than the band's debut album "Herzeleid"" ("Heartache"), which sold well in Germany but was never released in the U.S. Now London Records, part of the Polygram NV entertainment group, plans to re-release "Herzeleid" at some point.
The label enclosed cards in each "Sehnsucht" album, which buyers could send in for translations of the lyrics. Many did, and London will use the cards as a way to get the "Herzeleid" word out. "This is like having gold," Mr. Pigini says. "You have your Rammstein fans laid out in front of you on paper."
Rammstein guitarist and songwriter Richard Kruspe says he finds criticism of the band off the mark, particularly the attacks on the lyrics. "You can always take stuff out of the text and be provocative," he says. "You have to look at the entire lyrics."
'Punish Me'
In the case of "Animal," the band says the song is meant as a protest against pedophilia, not an endorsement. Mr. Kruspe suggests that instead of focusing on songs like "Punish Me," people should consider songs like "Klavier" ("Piano"), a gentle love song.
Some of the harshest criticism comes from Rammstein's home in Germany. "If there was a still a Third Reich, would a band like Rammstein appear at the 35th Nazi Party congress?" asked a Dresden entertainment magazine before a recent concert there. The Schweriner Volkszeitung, a German newspaper, observed that Mr. Lindemann rolls his "R"s like Hitler.
"Nonsense," Mr. Kruspe says. "I don't know why people keep saying that." But he worries the criticism will make it harder for other German acts to break through. "I think it is important that we give the impression that Germans make good music, and that there is more to Germany than National Socialism," he says.
MTV Germany studied the lyrics, talked to the band and came away satisfied that Rammstein is apolitical. "They aren't in any way connected with any right-wing activities," says Peter Ruppert, head of music programming. The criticism, he believes, is unavoidable for a band that draws inspiration from German culture. "You can't stop driving the Beetle because it was a car built by Hitler," he says.




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