So it being Halloween and all, we were going to make some wacky costumed act our Weird Band of the Week. But then we were going through some old reader comments and a few different folks mentioned Nina Hagen and we said, “You know what? Other acts wear Halloween costumes. Nina Hagen is a Halloween costume.” People have been ripping off her unique style for decades, to the point where some of them (ahem, Lady Gaga) probably aren’t even aware of the original source. So for all you young’uns out there, let’s get acquainted with the so-called Mother of Punk, shall we?
Nina Hagen was born in 1955 in East Berlin, at the height of the Cold War. She was pegged very early in life as an opera prodigy, but she was more interested in pop music. After singing in a more traditional German pop band called Fritzens Dampferband (you can hear one of her early vocals here), she formed a “rock” band called Automobil in 1974. I put “rock” in quotation marks because this was one of their more rockin’ tracks:
The song title translates roughly to “You Forgot the Color Film” and the lyrics are basically all Nina Hagen berating her boyfriend on their vacation for, well, not bringing color film. Apparently it was interpreted at the time as a sly critique of the drabness of East Berlin. Yeah, life behind the Iron Curtain was not fun.
In 1976, she and her parents defected to West Germany, and that’s when the Nina Hagen we all know and love really began to blossom. Inspired by the nascent punk scene on a visit to London, Hagen formed the Nina Hagen Band and began playing a theatrical mix of punk, glam and progressive rock, all punctuated by her increasingly over-the-top, operatic vocals. The music was frankly not all that exciting, but Hagen was developing into an astonishing vocalist and live performer. Here, for example, is the Nina Hagen Band in 1979, performing a track called “Naturträne.” It’s basically one minute of song followed by three minutes of Nina wailing over a bunch of prog-rock noodling, but this woman could wail over a Yanni record and I’d still camp out for tickets.
By the end of ’79, the Nina Hagen Band had already broken up, as Hagen went off to explore wilder musical frontiers as a solo artist. Even in this 1980 clip of her covering “Ziggy Stardust” on Swedish television, the style and attitude she became famous for is pretty much all there: the crazy hair and eye makeup, crazier facial expressions, and positively batshit vocals.
In 1982, Hagen released her first solo album and first album sung entirely in English, NunSexMonkRock. Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds recently called it the post-punk era’s greatest “unsung masterpiece” and it’s hard to argue with him. From beginning to end, the record sounds like it was flown in from another planet, not exactly punk or glam or New Wave but somehow channeling all those forces into a totally original sound. The best-known track is an anti-heroin anthem called “Smack Jack,” which isn’t the weirdest thing on the album but which features a music video that has to be seen to be believed. Yes, that’s Nina in male cop drag. And Nina singing backup. And another Nina singing the other backup. It’s a Nina-palooza.
Hagen’s done plenty of other weird shit in the years since: One of the most amazingly ’80s videos of all time, “New York New York” (her only real hit here in the U.S.). A Rammstein cover with the Finnish cello-rock band Apocalyptica, which is fitting since Till Lindemann stole many of his vocal affectations from Hagen. She released an album of Hindu devotional chants, with cover art featuring herself dressed up as the goddess Kali. She once told David Letterman about a UFO she saw over Malibu—actually, she told lots of people about UFOs. In more recent years, she’s recorded an album of big band standards, covered Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” and, sadly, lost much of her once-astonishing vocal range. She’s also become a devout Christian, which probably alienated some of her old punk fan base. But she remains as refreshingly kooky and totally original as ever.
We’ll leave you with one of Nina Hagen’s signature cover tunes. Sid Vicious may have punked up “My Way” first, but Nina’s version is untouchable, even after all these years.
P.S. Thanks to readers Singing Grass, Alex and Denny for reminding us to add Nina to the Weird List. Better late than never, right, guys?
You know that long hiatus we just took? It gave Jake and me some much-needed time to do a little soul searching. I reconnected with my inner child, Jake reconnected with his inner hippie, and we both reconnected with our punk-rock roots. Okay, Jake reconnected with his punk-rock roots; I broke out my old Pink Floyd records. But somehow, both of those things led us back to another classic weird band we’ve neglected for far too long: the Butthole Surfers.
From about 1985 to 1989, the Butthole Surfers had one of the craziest live shows of any band on the planet. Their lead singer, the eternally manic Gibby Haynes, wore dresses and played squealing saxophone riffs and shouted lyrics into a megaphone. Next to him stood an upside-down cymbal filled with lighter fluid; he would set it—and often, his hand—on fire. Guitarist Paul Leary writhed around the stage like a man possessed. Two identical-looking drummers played standing up, sometimes in perfect unison and sometimes it utter cacophony. Kathleen Lynch, the band’s infamous “naked dancer,” struck spastic poses in time to a strobe light, covered in lurid body paint. Behind the band, overlapping 16-millmeter films layered disturbing and incongruous images atop one another, like a graphic penis reconstruction medical video and, according to one account, “people with Down’s syndrome dancing in top hats and tails.” The whole thing was designed to freak the shit out of the audience, and it usually worked. Here, for example, is drummer Teresa Taylor, aka Teresa Nervosa, describing the Surfers’ shows circa 1985 (from this excellent oral history of the band):
Gibby in those days would take condoms filled with colored dye and put those in his pants so that at some point they would burst and it would look very bloody. He would change clothes onstage during the set a lot. Then he went and bought the first vocal effect and that was a big deal. We had strobe lights, $10 strobe lights, and then we bought a 16-millimeter projector, because we started to make more money. Everything was invested back into the band, so we could have a better show, better sound. Later we got another projector and showed two 16-millimeter films overlapping. The full-on shows would make people puke and scream and run out, that kind of thing. It was what we’d always wanted.
Happily, a ton of video from this era exists on YouTube—much of it lifted from Blind Eye Sees All, a concert film the band shot in Detroit in 1985, but plenty of clips from later years, as well (which is a good thing, because Lynch didn’t add her naked dancing to the band’s spectacle until 1986). Less happily, the quality of most of these videos is shitty, and even under the best of circumstances, an ’80s B-hole Surfers show was almost impossible to film. This is one of the better clips we could find and you still really can’t see anything until 40 second into it:
I’ve somehow neglected to mention the music up to this point, which is stupid because the music was generally every bit as crazy as the stage show. Early on, the Surfers were part of the punk scene, and their live performances definitely owed a debt to the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys. But in the studio, they were on their trip from day one. Here, for example, is a track off their first full-length album, 1984′s Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac, which owes as much to The Residents or Captain Beefheart as it does to hardcore punk:
Back in ’84, Gibby Haynes achieved his distorted, menacing vocals mostly just by singing by through a megaphone or a toilet paper roll, but over the years he added various electronic effects, until he finally had an entire rack of processors that came be known as “Gibbytronix.” You can’t actually see Gibby in this 1991 video, but you can hear Gibbytronix in full effect:
Over the course of the ’90s, the Surfers devolved into a tamer, “alternative rock” incarnation of their former selves. Kurt Cobain name-checked them as an influence (he and Courtney Love met at a Butthole Surfers show), which helped the band land a major-label deal at Capitol Records in 1992. They even got John Paul fucking Jones (yes, the Led Zeppelin guy) to produce their first record for Capitol, the intriguingly titled but disappointingly polished Independent Worm Saloon. By the time they scored their biggest hit, 1996′s “Pepper,” they were starting to sound kinda like Weezer. But hey, if aging psychedelic noise punks can’t cash out in America, what hope is there for the rest of us? And to their credit, they still play the old weird shit to this day, albeit as a stripped-down four piece with fewer visual effects and naked dancers.
I’ve really only scratched the surface of all that was weird about the Butthole Surfers; if I wanted to, I could go on all night. In their early days, they changed the band name for every show: Ashtray Babyheads, the RIght to Eat Fred Astaire’s Asshole, the Dick Gas Five. Their classic 1988 album Hairway to Steven was released with cartoons for each song in place of titles. Fans later deciphered the song titles based on live set lists; the song represented by a rabbit dancing on top of a dead fish turned out to be called “Julio Iglesias.”
But instead of cataloging their every bit of chicanery, I’ll just leave you with a short 1988 film called Bar-B-Que Movie, which starred all six then-members of the band (Gibby, Leary, bassist Jeff Pinkus, drummers King Coffey and Teresa Nervosa, and dancer Kathleen Lynch) and was directed by, of all people, Alex Winter, the actor best known as the not-Keanu guy from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It’s a spoof of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and…well, just fucking watch it, OK? You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll never look at your cast-iron frying pan the same way again. There’s a full-on recreation of the Surfers’ stage show about seven minutes in. Enjoy.
- Butthole Surfers official site
- Butthole Surfers catalog on Amazon.com
- The Anal Obsession (fan catalog of every Butthole Surfers show ever, or damn close to it, with set lists)
- Feeding the Fish: An Oral History of the Butthole Surfers (based on Spin magazine interviews circa 1996)
- Butthole Surfers: The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave (a remembrance of ’80s Surfers gigs by Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds)
- Butthole Surfers on MySpace (because why the hell not?)
This week’s weird band was one of many we’re still sifting through from an aptly named reader called Sick Nick. Thanks for all the suggestions, Nick! Clearly, you’re a sick man, indeed.
Lucrate Milk was a French punk/No Wave band active from about 1979 to 1984. They’re often compared to other bands of the era like The Slits and X-Ray Spex, mostly because they featured a saxophone and aggro female vocals. But their twisted, dadaist take on punk rock was really like nothing else before or since.
The band was started by a pair of underground artists named Lombrick Laul and Tomas Huser (aka “Masto Lowcost”), who borrowed their name from their day jobs as milk delivery men. Adding a drummer named Raoul Gaboni, an American-born keyboardist named Nina Childress and, briefly, a vocalist called Helno, they began by playing various punk squats around the seedier parts of Paris and stenciling their name all over town. According to band legend, they forced one another to play their least favorite instruments—with Laul picking up the bass and Masto taking on the saxophone, which he did indeed tend to play like he was awkwardly handling a cumbersome foreign object. Presumably because it was everyone’s favorite, nobody played guitar.
Lucrate Milk live shows were noisy and highly theatrical affairs, often featuring bizarre homemade costumes and highlighted by Childress’ spastic stage presence—she took over vocal duties when Helno left pretty early on. Here’s a clip from one of their last shows in February of 1984, rescued from the dustbin of punk-rock history by the miracle that is YouTube:
Laul and Masto Lowcost designed all of the band’s graphics and videos, most of which were not music videos per se but just used as projections during the band’s live shows. Sadly, most of these are not available online, or maybe anywhere, but a few shreds of their video output still exist. In particular, there’s a 2006 DVD that was released as part of a compilation of their music, and it seems to contain a few classic Lucrate Milk clips (though we haven’t had a chance to see it) as well as newer visual interpretations of their stuff like this one. The DVD’s not widely available, but this site appears to still have it in stock.
After Lucrate Milk called it quits, Laul and Masto went on to work with another, more popular French punk band called Bérurier Noir, who were sort of a cross between Lucrate Milk, Black Flag and DEVO. Nina Childress became a successful painter, and poor ol’ Helno died of a heroin overdose after briefly fronting this band. Yeah, there was a lot of weird music in France in the ’80s.
We’ll leave you with the greatest surviving piece of Lucrate Milk eye candy, the fantastically twisted “Nepla Relou,” which sounds like The Residents and X-Ray Spex trapped under a collapsed circus tent and looks like a Troma movie directed by Johnny Rotten. Oh, and we’ll add this quote from another website, which sums up Lucrate Milk’s music better than we ever could: “It’s absurd, short, violent, brilliant and funny, like your mate puking on himself.” Yep. It’s exactly like that.
Splatter punks Haunted Garage have played a few reunion shows in the years since they broke up in 1993, but they’ve mostly been one-off type deals. But this time, if we can believe the band’s Facebook page, they’re cranking things up a notch. Apparently mousetrap-loving frontman Dukey Flyswatter has assembled an all-new lineup and is rehearsing for some fall shows and a four-song EP. Here’s Dukey’s most recent Facebook update, typos and all, posted this past Friday:
Hellz Bellz!!! Haunted Garage 2013 just had it’s first rehearsal and it sounded pretty good. New guys, New engergy. WE need weird guest performers and props and newbies to showcase their make up and other skills. Were almost back to square one with the stage show but it wont’s take long.
You read right, kids: Dukey wants YOU to help him make this back-from-the-dead version of Haunted Garage the greatest and goriest one yet. Sounds like they’re set for musicians, but if you can contribute some crazy visuals, hit the man up.
We’ll keep you posted on Haunted Garage 2013 as more details emerge. In the meantime, here’s a little taste of Dukey’s other band, the Undead Kennedys, a zombie DK tribute band featuring members of our pals the Radioactive Chicken Heads. How did we not know about this sooner? We need to get out more.
Sad news from the weird music world this week: Alan Myers, drummer for DEVO during their classic 1976-1985 period, died of brain cancer on Monday at the age of 58. Although DEVO has gone through many drummers over the years—Myers was their third, replacing Jim Mothersbaugh—he’s probably the one you’re thinking of when you picture the band in their signature Energy Dome hats, belting out offbeat New Wave hits like “Whip It” and “Girl U Want.”
We’re late to this wake: A zillion other publications have already published obits and tributes, of which the one from the LA Times’ Randall Roberts is probably our favorite. Current DEVO drummer Josh Freese also summed up Myers’ career quite neatly in a single tweet: “1 of my all time favs. An underrated/brilliant drummer. Such an honor playing his parts w/Devo. Godspeed Human Metronome.”
Myers left DEVO in 1985 after the release of the heavily programmed Shout, saying the band’s increasing use of Fairlights and electronic drums left him feeling uninspired. In the years that followed, he was a regular presence around the L.A. music scene, particularly with Skyline Electric, the band he founded with his wife Christine in 2005. They were actually scheduled to play a show in Chinatown this Friday, but presumably that show has been canceled.
We’ll leave you with a classic DEVO live performance from 1980: “Uncontrollable Urge.” People like to call Alan Myers the “Human Metronome,” but no mere metronome could have rocked this hard through this track’s stop-start rhythms. His precise, propulsive drum patterns were as much a part of the band’s sound as Mark Mothersbaugh’s yelping vocals. When DEVO finally get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—and let’s be optimistic and assume they will be—there should be an empty seat at the table in remembrance of Alan Myers.