Portrait of Max Raabe

In a Time Warp

Max Raabe. Foto/Copyright: Olaf Heine
Max Raabe. Foto/Copyright: Olaf Heine

In reality, nowadays Max Raabe should be considered a freak; he is always polite, dresses only in dapper suits and is quite the old-fashioned gentlemen. Even his songs are in the style of the Twenties and consequently stand out in today’s musical landscape. Yet that is precisely what makes him so popular with everyone: the music of the ‘Golden Twenties’ is timeless.

In 2001 Britney Spears’ lascivious hit Oops, I did it again seemed to be a one-summer wonder. But then Max Raabe did his own cover version, took out the electronic drums and the synthesiser and orchestrated the song with loads of horns, violins, a banjo and a clarinet. In what other pop song nowadays do you get to hear a clarinet? A couple of tricks later and the girlie-song has a coating of that most glamorous of eras: the Golden Twenties, a short period when art, culture and science flourished in Germany. Above all, the 46-year old sings the girlish words in a nasal, old-fashioned, American accent as if he had just come from filming F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And Germans just love it. Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester are a German pop phenomenon and are in complete contrast to a Kraftwerk or a Rammstein, because they look backwards into the past.

ABBA’s Super Trouper in the style of the Twenties

The slender Max Raabe could easily pass for one of the gentlemen from the Comedian Harmonists sextet, a Berlin vocal ensemble who warbled various hits from 1927 to 1935. And he certainly sets himself out that way: he always has pomade in his hair, wears a tailcoat, and raises his eyebrows meaningfully as if fresh out of a silent film. Whilst performing, he often leans against the grand piano and looks around laconically. Max Raabe has written many songs in a Twenties and Thirties style, but does not look down on covering songs such as Super Trouper by Abba, Tainted Love by Soft Cell or even Angel by Shaggy.

Max Raabe was born in 1962 in Lünen, Westphalia, and was christened Matthias Otto. He went to the big city of Berlin in 1986 and has not left since. He wanted to be a singer and trained as an opera singer (baritone) at the Hochschule zum Opernsänger. He founded the Palast Orchester with fellow students and initially re-produced old shellacs, the old rubber-coated gramophone records of the Fifties. The group’s first major performance was in the foyer of the Berliner Hochschule der Künste.

Wedding Serenade for Marilyn Manson

The Palast Orchester made its breakthrough in 1992 with Raabe’s own composition, an intentionally jokey song entitled Kein Schwein ruft mich an, the rather stroppy song seemingly hitting a nerve with the public. Max Raabe appeared briefly in Sönke Wortman’s film Der Bewegte Mann (1994) and in his version of the German comedy classic Charley’s Tante (1997). Up til now, however, the highlight of Raabe’s career has been a concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall in October 2007. After more than 20 albums, Max Raabe can now be considered a world star. There are tours to Japan, Russia and America. Goth-rocker Marilyn Manson is one of his fans – he asked Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester to play at his wedding to Dita van Teese.

With a song repertoire from the Weimar period – tangos, hits, jazz – Raabe is perhaps the most successful product of a wave of nostalgia that began sometime at the start of the Nineties with German chansoniers such as Tim Fischer and the actor/singer Ulrich Tukur. Attendance at dance schools went up sharply, and in 1992 the Wintergarten Varieté opened up in Berlin as an homage to the original ‘Wintergarten’ of the Weimar period. The Varieté, music hall theatre closely aligned to circus, meant artistic, dance, acrobatic and musical performances, with a touch of class.

“A good dose of black humour”

It is difficult to work out where this fascination with nostalgia came from. In France chansons remain popular with young people, but Germany does not have this sort of tradition. The simplest explanation: swing, with its syncopated rhythms, appears to be timeless. At the Eurovision Song Contest in 2009 Germany went for a retro sound with the musicians Alex Swings Oscar Sings!, after it’s all-female group, No Angels, came off so badly in 2008. You don’t have to like light entertainment music, however it is difficult to say anything against it. There is even an online radio programme dedicated to it: Weimar Rundfunk only broadcasts music from the Weimar period.

Yet Raabe and his cute style are also presentable, a kind of ‘everyone’s darling’. He plays benefit concerts such as “Tu was!” or moderates the festive Berlin Operngala for AIDS-charities, following in the shoes of German humorist Vicco von Bülow, alias Loriot. Max Raabe likes the “intelligent form of banality” as he describes it in an newspaper interview, the “art of deflection”. Quite independently of this, the songs from the Weimar period all contain a good dose of black humour, particularly those of Cole Porter, the American musical composer so admired by Raabe. The hit songs of the Twenties were not created to change the world, they are simply there to haul people out of their miserable reality, says Raabe. Nothing else. Which is how Eric Cruz from Norway, who founded the very first Max Raabe fan club on Facebook, sees it: “It sounds clean, fresh and accessible. I believe that this music is this popular simply because all the melodies sound so familiar.”

Franziska Schwarz studied art and journalism and works as a freelance journalist in Munich.

Translation: Penny Black

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
March 2009

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