30 Years Die Goldenen Zitronen “Always these contradictions”

No risk no fun: Die Goldenen Zitronen are one of the most versatile pop band in Germany since three decades.
No risk no fun: Die Goldenen Zitronen are one of the most versatile pop band in Germany since three decades. | Photo (detail): Soulsville / Frank Egel

Die Goldenen Zitronen (i.e. “The Golden Lemons”) are unique. No one in Germany succeeds as convincingly in reconciling political content, musical avant-garde and good entertainment as the former fun punks from Hamburg. And this now for thirty years.

Thirty years on they have nothing to regret. Okay, almost nothing. “The name”, says Ted Gaier, “is a bit naff.” “The Golden Lemons”, says their own bassist, “ – it doesn’t really fit the band we are today”. But otherwise everything is right: three decades after their founding in Hamburg, the Golden Lemons can quite justifiably be called a singular phenomenon in the German music scene. No one else in this country plays such socially relevant, politically alert and musically defiant pop music.

Nevertheless, there has been no celebration. The band has spared itself any anniversary jubilee. They have simply continued doing what they have always done: writing songs, performing, confounding. This also fits the band: to observe the big birthday, perhaps even to exploit it as a promotional measure, would contradict the history, strategy and identity of the Golden Lemons. They are, after all, the band that has like no other in Germany consistently refused to fall prey to the usual marketing mechanisms.

Resistance as a principle

This already began shortly after their founding in 1984. Born out of the squatter’s scene in the Hamburg Hafenstraße, they were on the one hand part of the left-wing, autonomist fight against the establishment, punks, but at the same time marked themselves off from this with their absurdly colourful stage costumes and slapsticky texts. “We wanted to bring some fresh air into a scene that felt very dogmatic”, says Schorsch Kamerun, singer and, along with Gaier, the only remaining founding member, recalling the early days of the band.

Fresh air was so successfully introduced that the Golden Lemons suddenly found themselves with hits on their hands. Fun Punk, to which they were then assigned, was celebrated in teen zines such as Bravo, protest degenerated into trend. The Golden Lemons joined the Toten Hosen on a tour, but refused all offers from big entertainment companies. While their companions steadily developed into one of the most successful German rock bands of the present, the Lemons executed a radical turn around: away from fun punk to political avant-garde pop.

Punk and politics

Formative for this development were the xenophobic rampages and attacks that occurred following German reunification. The Golden Lemons came to terms with them in musically highly complex, torn, harried, edgy songs that sought to identify the social ills. “We had to respond to these events – and with more nuance than blatant cries of ‘Nazis get out!’”, explains Kamerum. “That’s our strategy”, adds Gaier, “we’ve always tried to integrate what interested us into our music – whether musical or political ideas”.

Looked at from outside, the history of the Golden Lemons therefore seems like an erratic sequence of radical changes of style. Seen from inside, says Gaier, who in addition to playing in the band also works as a producer, actor and writer, “it’s a very logical development”. Over the space of thirty years, after over eleven albums and countless concerts, the sometimes clownish fun punk troupe became a collective that moves on the border between agitprop and political activism using techniques of cut-up and Dada. How the world and the Golden Lemons with it have changed is described by a line from the song Floodlights and Loudspeakers on the band’s for the time being last album, Who's Bad, released in 2013: “They say ‘The private must be political’. Everyone is public for everyone else, every one everyone’s family”.
 

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The Golden Lemons are now – and not only Gaiser thinks this – “a solitary universe, a unique language that we’ve developed”. The musical means used in this language range from free jazz, pop, electronic music, rap, and Brecht/Weill to songwriter Franz-Josef Degenhardt, who is always mentioned as a kindred spirit. Yet all these influences are then also constantly being broken with. “Mishandling genres”, Kamerun calls it. As a result, chains of association are forged and meta-levels overlap meta-levels.

In this way songs are created that assiduously resist being played on radio. Songs that are the musical equivalent of a comprehensive refusal: just as the Golden Lemons invariably changed directions whenever they felt they could be pocketed, so their songs change direction whenever you think you have recognized familiar structures or ideas. This makes them sometimes not easy to listen to, but often rewarding. “Not only our texts”, explains Kamerun, who now also works as a very successful theatre director, “also our musical aesthetics should irritate and be attacked”.

Looking ahead

“Always these contradictions” it says in one of the Golden Lemon’s best-known songs. This could be their motto. Contradiction in its double meaning is the band’s leitmotif. On the one hand, in the tradition of punk from which they came, contradicting authority, power structures, capitalism. On the other hand, as complex as the songs they now sing, the contradictions that everyone and also a rock band has to endure all the time because there can be a right life only in a false world.

From this maxim, Schorsch Kamerun, Ted Gaier and their changing comrades-in-arms have drawn the artistic consequences, which have led to a unique, uncopyable form of pop music. Quite by the way, but perhaps as their greatest achievement, the Golden Lemons have proven over the last thirty years that political punk, however ponderous it may otherwise be, can in their hands be subtle, aesthetically ambitious and even highly entertaining.