A German cultural primer for Gavin Friday fans
Billed as Gavin’s personal tribute to German culture, the recent Tomorrow Belongs To Me shows left several members of the audience scratching their heads. Those who recognised little of the performed material might have wondered exactly how such an apparently random collection of songs reflected Germany’s contribution to the world of the arts. Those more in the know might still have struggled to locate Ave Maria, Bela Lugosi and Iggy Pop in a German context. As ever, there is method to Gavin’s madness. In this feature, we explore precisely how he mined both Germany’s and his own artistic past to create this unique performance.
The show opened to the strains of David Bowie’s Warszawa. It was a brave move to begin a tribute to Germany with a piece of music about Poland’s capital city and it set the tone for Gavin’s tangential approach. This track is taken from Bowie’s Low album, one of a trio (also including Heroes and Lodger) recorded in Berlin in the late 1970s with innovative producer Brian Eno. Bowie had moved to Berlin after a period in Los Angeles, during which his excessive use of cocaine had caused him to become paranoid and detached from reality. Returning to London from LA for a brief period in late 1976, in a public relations disaster he gave the welcoming crowd a Nazi salute.
The mood turned against him and he fled to Berlin, both to lick his wounds and to sober up and refocus himself on his music. He achieved his goal: Low heralded an artistic return to form. Its bleak, futuristic soundscapes (many instrumental) set the template for electronic music towards the end of the 1970s, heavily influencing subsequent performers such as Gary Newman, Ultravox and OMD. Also during the same year that both Low and Heroes were released, Bowie masterminded Iggy Pop’s comeback albums, producing and co-writing both The Idiot and Lust For Life.
It is from the first of these that another piece from Gavin’s show was taken: Nightclubbing, from The Idiot. Iggy Pop had recently checked out of the Neuropsychiatric Institute in LA and had left the USA with Bowie for similar reasons: to break a destructive drug habit and to attempt a return to musical form. Arguably, these two albums demonstrated considerable success. Berlin’s then grim metropolis proved a fertile creative environment for both artists. One of the defining aspects of the music that they created there was its stripped-down minimalism, expressed in each performer’s own characteristic way: Bowie’s forbidding, foreboding dreamscapes and Iggy’s pulsating, driven proto-rock.
There was something of the Zeitgeist in their brooding, relentless compositions, reflecting the ongoing nuclear threat of mutually assured destruction. Berlin, a divided city, was the epicentre of the Cold War: controlled in four different sectors by the UK, the USA and France (collectively known as West Berlin) and the USSR (known as East Berlin). Reflecting this, Germany’s musical output in the 1970s had become increasingly experimental and forward-looking as the decade progressed. Most prominent were the so-called “Krautrock” bands: Can, Neu!, Faust, Cluster and the more well-known Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk.
Krautrock was originally a dismissive term used by a disinterested British music press, though it has subsequently become a term of praise. Essentially a bare-metal, electronic oriented form of progressive rock, though entirely eschewing the overblown ostentation normally associated with that phrase, its defining sound was the (more favourably journalist-coined) “motorik” combination of bass and percussion. It is fitting that one of the most well-known compositions of the genre was Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (German for “motorway”). Krautrock’s dynamic and experimental ethos had an almost immeasurable effect on post-punk European music of the late 1970s and early 1980s, influencing bands such as Public Image, the Fall, Einstürzende Neubauten and, closer to home, Virgin Prunes.
Gavin’s inclusion of three Kraftwerk tracks in the Tomorrow Belongs To Me shows acknowledged this band’s extensive musical reach. The Hall Of Mirrors, performed as a duet with Miriam Blennerhassett, mused on the nature of celebrity and performance itself, wryly noting that “even the greatest stars live their lives in the looking glass.” Showroom Dummies was a robotic mock horror story of shop-window display models breaking through the glass and walking through the city, taking a wry comedic twist when it ultimately reveals that their objective is only to go to a club to have a good time. The third Kraftwerk track of the shows was Radioactivity, demonstrating a more serious intent with its “Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield, Hiroshima” lyric.
The UK-based nuclear power station at Sellafield remains topical and of particular interest to the Irish. This nuclear reprocessing plant is an ongoing subject for protest by the Irish branch of Greenpeace on the basis of the pollution that it causes both to Irish territorial waters and to the Irish coastline. It is also of great concern to many Irish citizens that any disaster at Sellafield, whether accidental or otherwise, would have considerable negative impact on Ireland due to the prevailing wind. In the post-9/11 world there is much anxiety that the UK’s nuclear power stations might be the subject of a terrorist attack. Numerous prominent Irish figures have lent their weight to Greenpeace’s anti-Sellafield campaign.
Also from the Krautrock genre, Gavin performed Can’s I Want More, a funky disco song that provided a surprise chart hit for the band shortly before their break-up in 1978. Alongside Kraftwerk, Can probably provided the greatest long-term Germanic influence on the music of the 1980s and 1990s. Can’s discography is notable for the fact that each successive album became more experimental as their musical career progressed, when for many bands the opposite is true. Scratch the surface of any truly alternative musical fan of the 1970s and you’ll usually find a Can album or two in their collection, possibly alongside releases from Neu! or Faust. Gavin is no exception and music by Neu! was played through the PA during the hour immediately before the show, with the distinctive driving rhythm of Hallogallo being the most memorable track.
In addition, Gavin performed material by three British/Irish bands strongly influenced both by this genre and by the wider environment of late 1970s Europe: Bauhaus, Siouxsie And The Banshees and his own former band, Virgin Prunes. The Siouxsie track was Metal Postcard and was chosen because it was itself an homage to a specific aspect of German culture. Its full title was Metal Postcard (MIttageisen); in German, “mittageisen” translates as “midday iron” and is a pun on “Mittagessen” (lunch). It was dedicated to John Heartfield, who created a picture called Hurrah, The Butter Is Out, which showed a family eating iron. It was published on the frontpage of the Arbeiter Illustrierten Zeitung (Workers Magazine Journal) in 1935. Heartfield (1891-1968) was an early member of Club Dada. This image was also used on the sleeve of the 7″ single release of Metal Postcard and was based on a sentence from speech by Hermann Göring: “Iron made a nation always strong, butter and lard only made the people fat.”
The Virgin Prunes track Theme For Thought might seem a tenuous choice as a tribute to German art, but there are probably several reasons why Gavin chose it. All of the above influences would have been contemporary to the band when this song was written in the late 1970s. Although it didn’t appear on a record release until 1982′s …If I Die, I Die, it had been performed live on Irish television as early as 1979 and was probably written even earlier. In its original incarnation, the song’s fierce and impassioned call for individuality (“Why… should I… be like you?”) was supported by material from Oscar Wilde’s Ballad Of Reading Gaol. In this 2006 performance, Guggi’s reading of Reading was replaced mid-song by Gavin’s recital of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem First They Came… In this, the narrator belatedly bemoans his own lack of support for minorities threatened by the Nazi regime (first Communists, then Social Democrats, trade unionists and finally Jews) until in turn he finds himself in the minority and “there was no one left to speak out” for him.
One of the most memorable parts of the performance was the fifteen-minute segment covering footage from the classic film Nosferatu and the cover version of the Bauhaus song Bela Lugosi’s Dead. Although Lugosi himself was Hungarian, this part of the performance alluded to several aspects of German art. Firstly, the group Bauhaus is named after a modernist school of German design of the 1920s. Secondly, the group were one of the earliest members of the broad musical movement that became known as “Gothic”, alongside Joy Division and Siouxsie And The Banshees. This so-called Gothic movement was named after the Goths, an early Germanic tribe. Subsequent aspects of German culture were often labelled Gothic (e.g. architecture, or typefaces) and were frequently contrasted with classical, Latin culture. The Gothic label was also attached to other genres, for example the “Gothic” literature created by Mary Shelley, Horace Walpole, and so on.
Thirdly, Bela Lugosi had lived and performed in Germany for a while. Born in Hungary in 1882, he emigrated to Germany in 1919 and then two years later he left for the USA. It was here that he gave what many consider to be his definitive performance, in the 1931 Universal Pictures film Dracula. However, the footage used in Gavin’s performance was actually from the 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu, which was essentially a reworking of Dracula story, for which the director FW Murnau had been unable to obtain the rights. Subsequently Bram Stoker’s estate sued for breach of copyright and won, leaving Nosferatu’s production company bankrupt. Remaining copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed, but many survived and the film is now in the public domain.
Other material in the show came from performers equally influenced by Germany in the 1970s. Randy Newman’s In Germany Before The War tells the story of a child murderer (“A little girl has lost her way / With hair of gold and eyes of grey / Reflected in his glasses as he watches her”), a theme echoed in the projected film clips from Fritz Lang’s M, which inspired Newman to write the song. The murderer’s eerie whistle (to the tune of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King) was also used during this part of the performance.
Lou Reed’s Berlin, beginning with a sweet and mildly sinister rendition of Happy Birthday, is the title track of the album of the same name. This was his third album, showcasing a collection of songs dealing with suicide and despair (epitomised by the blandly titled Sad Song). It is generally considered to be one of his most harrowing works and in isolation this song’s gentle and almost throwaway lyrics (“It was very nice / Oh honey, it was paradise”) are unrepresentative of the album as a whole.
Seventies avant-garde rock holds a special place in Gavin’s affections and musical tastes, but the show opened with Miriam Blennerhessett’s stunning performance of Ave Maria. Identified by audience members as ‘Italian opera’, the piece is in fact a religious song composed by Charles Gounod, based on the first prelude from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach. There was also a Weimar cabaret theme in the earlier part of the set, with a performance of Marlene Dietrich’s Falling In love Again and the old standard Lili Marlene. Gavin explored similar territory in much more detail in his Ich Liebe Dich run at the Dublin Theatre Festival in late 2001.
Other influences were more fleeting. Samples from Propaganda’s Dream Within A Dream were used very briefly. Propaganda was a German group of the mid-1980s, operating on Paul Morley’s ZTT Records label alongside Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Art Of Noise. Their own music referenced the German expressionist film genre in a very similar way to Gavin’s use of film clips from classics such as Metropolis and Das Kabinett Des Dr Caligari. (One of Propaganda’s most well-known songs, with its memorable “Sell ‘em your soul, sell ‘em your soul, never look back” lyric, was based on the classic German film Das Testaments Der Dr Mabuse.) Caligari also inspired the show’s “Mitteleuropean” design, notably the living room and windows backdrop with its skewed angles.
On a more lowbrow basis, Nena’s effortless pop song 99 Red Balloons was included as a prologue to Radioactivity, the nuclear themes of the two pieces working well together. Snippets of mid-80s industrial group Einstürzende Neubauten’s NNNAAMMM and Installation No 1 also found their way into the set, alongside two fragments of Gavin’s own musical past: excerpts of Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves and Angel.
Gavin is first and foremost a musician, but this was a decidedly multimedia show. Drawings by anti-war artist and Dadaist George Grosz were projected on a wall in the lobby before and after the show, while a blonde pig-tailed actress dressed as a German bar “Mädel” vibed out the audience in the bar and in the venue itself, off and on stage. Noni Stapleton tbtm_8666Throughout the show, two video screens showed clips from the aforementioned expressionist films, as well as various incarnations of the artist’s chosen logo: the Sacred Heart of Gavin. This ‘Heiliges Herz’ was also prominently featured on the label that Gavin designed for the limited edition collectible beer bottles, distributed at the shows.
Looking at Tomorrow Belongs To Me as a theatrical spectacle, two of the most well-received numbers came from very different ends of the spectrum. Gavin’s cover version of Boney M’s Daddy Cool was a superb piece of retro-modern kitsch, its disco origins allowing several moments of leather-jacketed high-camp. Boney M was a very successful German group of the late 1970s, with numerous European hit singles to its name. Backed by svengali producer Bobby Farian (who actually provided the band’s male vocals), the group’s often preposterous blending of disparate elements (reggae spiritual music on Rivers Of Babylon, cheesy sci-fi on Night Flight To Venus, “Russia’s greatest love machine” on Ra Ra Rasputin) mirrors Gavin’s own habit of juxtaposing ideas that shouldn’t work, but do. This updated disco vibe is fertile musical territory that, with his own track Billy Boola in mind, we’d like to see him explore further in future.
Snippets of Donna Summer’s 1977 hit I Feel Love had popped up at the very start of the show and during Lili Marlene. Summer recorded this track with producer and disco-pioneer Giorgio Moroder, they had met in Munich where they were both living at the time. I Feel Love was probably the first song to use techno and electronic sounds in dance music. Moroder later restored Fritz Lang’s silent film Metropolis and gave it a score.
The other part of the performance that rivalled Daddy Cool for sheer theatricality must surely have been the song that gave the show its title: Tomorrow Belongs To Me. From the musical Cabaret – and also covered to great effect by 1970s glam rock luminaries The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – this was another performance highlighting Gavin’s long-standing desire to provoke his audience into questioning the world around them.
Viewed in the context of Cabaret, this song might appear to be a distasteful paean to Nazism and thus a questionable part of this performance. However, it has earlier roots as a traditional German country air that predate its use in the musical and Gavin’s manipulation of its lyrics (substituting references to the Rhine with those to the Liffey, for example) made it clear that the “Fatherland” of the song that he had in mind was much closer to home.
This was elaborated when his temporary partner-in-craic Justine Doswell – billed for this show as the “Celtic Reich Tiger” – returned to the stage wearing an Eircom-sponsored green football shirt for a spot of Riverdance-style Irish dancing. As Tomorrow Belongs To Me morphed into an almost grotesque tape recording of Tomorrow from the musical Annie, Irish tricolour feather boas were handed to all performers and musicians and the Tiger led the entire troupe off the stage in a drunken-wedding-style conga. This was slapstick comedy with a serious intent and it seemed likely that Gavin was drawing a parallel between German and Irish nationalism, warning of the twin dangers of insularity and sentimentalism.
It is this deft weaving of the personal, the political, the local and the global that gave the show its unique tone. Whatever deficiencies there might have been in the overall smooth flow between individual songs and segments of the performance, these were more than compensated for by the riot of ideas and personal influences presented in the space of less than two hours. With a revitalised popular interest in the post-punk musical period of 1978-1984 (see Simon Reynolds’ superb book Rip It Up) and the Krautrock that influenced it so heavily, this was a very timely moment for Gavin to stake his claim as one of the foremost connoisseurs of this era. It also represented a considerable artistic step forward from the Brecht, Brel and Bolan material that has dominated his live performances and artistic mindset for the past decade or so. In providing him with a dynamic and refreshed musical and visual vocabulary, we suspect that Tomorrow Belongs To Me will come to be regarded as a landmark moment in his performance career.
(text © 2006 Stuart Hardy / gavinfriday.com)