EN: on destruction and rebirth (and toenails)

Walking across the road from the chemist I caught a glimpse of myself in an upholsterer’s front window. I was wearing what’s pretty much my uniform these days: black jeans, long-sleeved shirt with a band shirt over the top. Today’s band is one I wear quite a bit – Einstürzende Neubauten. This particular shirt has an enormous eagle on it and red lettering, so it’s probably not surprising it gets a couple of worrying looks, given that it has a pretty political air about it.

Though the band does have a political side (1989’s Haus der Lüge‘s feature track is about the worthlessness of religion, working from the cornerstone of a house all the way up, ending in God’s suicide by firearm) it’s not really what I think of when I consider them. Instead, I think of Blixa Bargeld’s toenails.

I first came to the band as I suppose a bunch of Aussies did – by catching the video for ‘Die Interimsliebenden’ on Rage, a late-night TV show which plays music videos. I was entranced by the rubbery bass – later revealed to be an amplified bass spring – and the not-sung-but-not-spoken lyrics of leader (and, at the time, Bad Seed) Blixa Bargeld. I didn’t know what was going on, but between Bargeld’s mugging in the clip and the elastic weirdness of the music, I was in.

I bought the album at an HMV store, when those still existed. I remember taking it home and immersing myself in the sounds: here, on ‘Blume’, spidery. There, on ‘Headcleaner’, hammering and terrifying. But most importantly, on ‘Wüste’, aching and earthmoving. This last was probably the piece which made me pursue the rest of their catalogue, as it was recorded using burning oil, miked rocks and strings.

Given that my most inventive music at that point had been Pink Floyd or The Cure, it was a revelation, and directly responsible for my interest in non-musical music; the world of sound art was opened with this tiny key. It was the first time I’d heard musical construction through destruction, and I loved it.

I picked up more of their albums from Red Eye Records, then in the Tank Stream Arcade. I remember being in there, once, after a Henry Rollins spoken word show, and having to wait while somebody beefy who looked a bit like Hank flipped through the available EN CDs. Turned out it was Rollins himself – shorter than I’d imagined, for some reason – but I figure he did get to go first because after all, he does have a tattoo of the EN logo. (Which, I must add, remains pretty much the only thing I’d ever consider having tattooed on me, these days.)

As I listened to more of their albums I began to think of music as something other than verse/chorus/verse. As I went earlier in their catalogue, more chaos revealed itself. Tunes were created by playing on bridges, by stealing tape, by turning off the studio and letting the sounds of equipment death make their way into records. There were pieces dedicated to mental illness. Process music. Experiments. Noise.

They were a band legendary for pissing off audiences and venue proprietors alike, for being confrontational, all leather pants and spike hair, or all wifebeater singlet and rock-breaking strength. They seemed to live the music, not go through the motions, and in a way the fact that it was in German merely heightened the appeal; though I could read the translations and figure what might be going on, the walled garden of language made me feel like an interloper, a voyeur. It’s a thrill which continues, though I’m certain German speakers would be horrified by my karaoke butchery of the language. (I’m not certain the Ding Dong Dang has ‘Yü-Gung (Fütter Mein Ego)’ anywhere in its system, though.)

They were one of the first bands to try to raise money from their fans, and though I couldn’t support them all the time – the Euro was expensive! – I am still pleased that on the first supporter album, the poster which accompanied the release bore the names of all the supporters, with mine the absolute first.

Years later, I was in Japan, as part of a winning team at an international taiko contest. I accepted a certificate of achievement from Akaji Maro, who looked for all the world like a more elegant Kojak. What my fellow players couldn’t have known was that my delight was only partially from the win; it was because Maro was the lead dancer from a butoh troupe that featured in a longform video recorded by EN in a Japanese scrapyard, something I’d seen bits of in the past and was haunted by. I didn’t even get to say anything to him, other than a fractured “Thank you” in Japanese, but it was at least as much for his terrifying performance, years ago, as it was for the victory of that moment.

(As an aside, I’ve made a kind of arrangement of the title track from their Ende Neu album, for taiko ensemble. I never got to perform it while I was playing taiko, but still hold out hope that some day it’ll happen, even if I’m not involved.)

And the toenails? Well, I was lucky enough to see EN play in London. It was just after their new-direction album Silence Is Sexy had been released, and so the set was slightly less noisy than earlier, drill-a-hole-in-the-venue-then-run-away performances had been. Blixa performed besuited yet barefoot, and as I was jammed against the stage (all the better to develop tinnitus with, my dear) I had complete sight of his feet, adorned by some of the most heinous toenails I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what I expected them to be like, but they were a little … talon-like.

The band’s performance was amazing. They played a lot of things I’d wanted to hear for a long time, and they amazed by virtue of being one of the tightest groups I’d ever seen perform. For a band which relies heavily on chance in the composition of their works, there was a rigour and ability about them which I’ve not felt with many other performers. I remember hammering the stage along with ‘Ende Neu’, which was as close to an acoustic interlude as the set afforded, awash in a percussive bliss.

(I have a minidisc recording of the show somewhere. I must dig it out.)

Aftermath.

Aftermath.

I’ve seen EN perform since then; they toured here at the behest of the Drones, with headline shows of their own (at the Enmore, just before my birthday – a pole poster hangs above the computer I’m writing this on) and at the atrociously-staged ATP event in Altona, Melbourne, which was a sweatbox nightmare beyond compare. And it’s been great to see them play these other shows. But I think for me, nothing will top the first time I saw them play – or, even more so, my mental image of them: curiously foreign, thoroughly dedicated, breaking open my conception of music through a metallic hammering.

(This piece was written as part of my daily 750words practise. There’s a great review of some of Nebauten’s tunes here if you’re wondering where to start.)

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