A Bit of Dada – 30 Years Einstürzende Neubauten

In November 1981 “Kollaps” appeared, the first album of the Einstürzende Neubauten. In a fury of noise, it formulated the spirit of an era and became the first manifesto of a band project that inspired the international art world.

By the late 1970s the political absurdity of West Berlin’s state of emergency had become everyday normality. The status of the divided city, hindered in its development in the middle of the hostilely perceived Eastern bloc, gave its citizens not only a feeling of latent collective solitary confinement, but also created open spaces and creative scope. Not only people who wanted to escape the draft or feel subversive in the squatter scene went to Berlin, but also those who sought freedom of spirit, art and openness in a country that, in consequence of the terrorism of the “German Autumn”, was increasingly seeking to gain control over its citizens.

This was the West Berlin of David Bowie and Christiane F., of “spontis”, freaks and those seeking the meaning of life, who found their fulfillment, now in discreet, now in massive subversion. It was also the setting in which Christian Emmerich, born 1959, was able to begin his artistic self-presentation under the name of Blixa Bargeld (an allusion to the Dada artist Johannes Theodor Baargeld). “I had a general inclination to transgression”, he went on record in the 2006 interview biography Nur was nicht ist, ist möglich (Only What Is Not Is Possible, compiled by Max Dax and Robert Defcon), and added: “I rebelled massively against my home, against the prevailing set-up, against tradition and everything established”. In the long term, out of this rebelliousness was to come music, new concepts and theatre.

"Kollaps" and Theatre

Much that seems inevitable in retrospect was at first chance. In early 1980 Blixa Bargeld was asked whether he wanted to play a concert in the disco “Moon” on April 1st. No real band existed when, following an inspiration, he gave their name as the “Einstürzende Neubauten” (Collapsing New Buildings). The performers were Bargeld, keyboardist Gudrun Gut, Beate Bartel on bass, and Andrew (N.U.) Unruh on the drums. Later the performers were to change; Unruh had to sell his drums for lack of funds and henceforth drummed on items from the lost-and-found.

The band was one of the many provisional groupings of the Berlin independent era, played concerts behind wire mesh fence, made noise and caused a sensation. The teen magazine Bravo, which helplessly classified the Einstürzende Neubauten as “German New Wave”, spoke of a “horror sound with razor and electric guitar”. By 1981 the band had consolidated to the extent that their core for the following years consisted of Bargeld, Unruh, the guitarist Alexander Hacke, Mark Chung on bass and FM Einheit on the drums.

What followed was the album Kollaps, an orgy of noise and attitude. The Neubauten formulated their stance in opposition to the aesthetics of the “beautiful sound” of pop music, but also to the rude rock ‘n’ roll of their punk colleagues, sometimes more intoxicated with textures and more interested in apocalyptic thoughts than composition, structures or even art. They stylized their concerts into performances: girders worked by orbital sanders became acoustic sources, small Molotov cocktails were exploded in iron pans on stage, sometimes the blood of the musicians flowed.

The martial aesthetics rubbed the press up the wrong way, but it inspired bands such as Depeche Mode, later Rammstein, many Gothic combos and even Marilyn Manson. This industrial art at the edge of borderline experience also fascinated progressive directors, who brought the Einstürzende Neubauten into the theatre. In 1986 Peter Zadek booked them for the rock musical Andi at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus, in 1990 they set to music Heiner Müller’s Hamlet Machine, and four years later Werner Schwab’s Faust: Mein Brustkorb: Mein Helm (Faust: My Chest: My Helmet) at the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam. The revolutionaries had arrived in society, and FM Einheit left the band.

“Ende neu” and internet

In the mid-1990s the Neubauten had gone out of fashion. The techno generation celebrated the lust for life, not doomsday. The band responded with the album Ende neu (1994) (Ending New), took advantage of media such as video clips to stay on the ball, sang in English and recruited new members such as guitarist Jochen Arbeit and drummer Rudolf Moser, who are still on board. After a few lean years, they succeeded in re-connecting with the new media via the still emerging internet. Beginning in 2002 the Neubauten marketed themselves with the then unusual subscription business model. Fans pre-financed the albums and in return got limited edition recordings as supporters or as part of a so-called “Musterhaus” sound kit. The Neubauten became a collector’s item; the cornerstone was laid to becoming a cult.

Einstürzende Neubauten: Sehnsucht (1981), from: www.neubauten.org

Thus the Einstürzende Neubauten are on the one hand part of cultural history, and on the other still initiators. Noise was yesterday, so too the existential stage show. Instead Bargeld now provides perfectly encrypted texts and the band offers profound sound extravaganzas. “I think the Neubauten have adeptly avoided any clear take-over”, says Pop Music theorist Alfred Hilsberg in Nur was nicht ist, ist möglich. “They have always successfully tread that fine line and made sure they aren’t used as a trademark or ideological support for others.” And so they have remained pioneers after three decades.