Right next to the station on a hotel hangs an enormous neon sign with the words: “Essen. The Shopping City”. This sign has been on display since 1951, a relic of the post-war era when Essen was trying to establish itself as the consumer metropolis of the Ruhr region. If this claim doesn’t tempt you to go shopping , you can go discover a city of culture in Essen – the perfect starting point to explore the sound of the Ruhr. There are exciting music venues in every direction. To the north is Lichtburg, one of the oldest and most beautiful cinemas in the country, which also boasts Germany’s biggest auditorium. It’s not only a popular location for film shoots, but also a venue for premieres of acclaimed movie and concerts. Not far from Lichtburg, Kay Shanghai, a man about town and creative free spirit, operates his famous electro club, Hotel Shanghai. Beyond the high streets, Viehofer Platz is a Bermuda triangle for fans of hard rock. To the east is the Steele district, the hub of the city’s punk scene which revolves around the HüWeg youth club and the Grend arts centre. And in the south around Rüttenscheider Stern, Essen shows off its international, urban, hipster side with charming cafés and unusual clubs. And from here, it’s just a stone’s throw to the Grugahalle, a concert and sports arena!
Bamm-Bamm! “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock!” Two snare-drum beats like gun shots, then in comes the guitar: “Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock!” Bill Haley’s voice becomes more urgent, the double bass thumps: “Nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock!” In just eleven seconds, a hard day’s work is forgotten. “We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight!” Bill Haley & his Comets put rock ‘n’ roll on the musical map, and since then it’s been here to stay.
We’re in the Rüttenscheid, a district of south Essen, overlooking the Grugahalle’s iconic steel roof, which looks like a butterfly tilting to the left on take-off, and epitomising the dawn of a new era. Using a bit of imagination, we can beam ourselves back to the 1950s when rock and roll exploded in the Ruhr region, offering teenagers a glimpse of the world beyond belching chimneys and boring jobs.
On 28 October 1958, just three days after the Grugahalle’s opening, Bill Haley stepped onto the stage after the audience impatiently booed off elegant Kurt Edelhagen’s Big Band, the warm-up act. Haley was a rock ‘n’ roll ambassador and his concert signalled a turning point in pop music.
The Ruhr area of the 1950s was a world of miners grafting in the pit, day in, day out, to a backdrop of war-ravaged streets and air clogged with soot. But this was also the time when the economic miracle took off, fuelling dreams of electric ovens and washing machines in practical, brand-new housing estates for workers. The older generation happily adjusted to the materialism of the stuffy Adenauer years and listened to music that reflected their attitudes. Swing and jazz were fashionable in the early 1950s and were played in dance halls or the sometimes splendid ballrooms of hotels. The biggest star from the mining area was Dortmund’s Karl Heinz Schwab. Under his stage name Ralf Bendix, he transformed American folk and boogie songs into tawdry easy-listening tracks.
This was the world into which the bomb of provocative rock ‘n’ roll exploded. It first arrived via German fairground operators who toured throughout Europe, bringing the latest records with them. The rides were spinning discos, where teenagers met up to show off their Elvis quiffs, skinny jeans and leather jackets, and to rock to the latest hits. Closely linked to the biker and rocker scenes, James Dean, Buddy Holly and Elvis clubs sprang up over the Ruhr region.
At the end of 1956, Bill Haley’s film Rock Around the Clock opened in cinemas. After one screening, street fights erupted between teenagers and police in Gelsenkirchen. Other cities saw similar scenes. All around Dortmund’s Capitol cinema, three days of riots broke out, which were dubbed the “Dortmund Days of Chaos” and are considered to be the first major youth riots in West Germany, even if they only resulted in a few demolished rubbish bins and broken shop windows. The press was irate and Bill Haley became a symbolic figure for teenagers protesting against the insularity of the Adenauer era. This meant that Haley’s show in the Ruhr region was more than just a live gig. To this day, it is a symbol of why rock ‘n’ roll, pop, metal, hip-hop and electro are more than just music tastes in the Ruhr area. They represent a collective rebellion against the authorities and the narrow-minded worldview of the older generation, a distraction from the greyness of the Ruhr and an eruption of collective euphoria. Music, gigs and artists are irrefutable proof that the Ruhr region is not in the least behind the times when it comes to pop culture – quite the opposite, in fact: at moments like the night when the lights went out in the Grugahalle and the music started, the Ruhr region can feels like the best place to be in the world.
The Grugahalle is undoubtedly at the heart of pop music from the Ruhrgebiet. Big musical revolutions over time are reflected here: In September 1965, not long after the release of their hit single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, the Rolling Stones went on tour, passing through Essen. In 1968, the International Essen Song Festival took place at the Grugahalle, a gathering of avant-garde and political performers of chanson, rock, cabaret and folk, which was hailed as the first commercial festival in German pop history. Then the “International Essen Pop and Blues Festival” brought international stars like Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple and many more to the Ruhr region. The crowds of visitors on the last day were so huge that a panic could only be averted when some of the bands played free of charge in front of the arena. From 1977 onwards, Essen became the ‘Rockpalast City’, named after the eponymous TV music programme that broadcast live gigs throughout Europe. Over 17 shows, bands such as The Kinks, The Who, Van Morrison were transmitted from Essen into Europe’s living rooms.
Even the biggest band of all time has a Grugahalle story to its name. In 1966, the Beatles played their one and only tour of Germany. The Fabulous Four headed for three cities on their “BRAVO blitz tour”: Munich, Hamburg and ... Essen! They performed eleven songs in their thirty-minute show and the first lyrics of the opening song were unmistakable: “Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music!” With their cover of Chuck Berry’s song as an opening number, they spanned an arc from late 1950s’ rock ‘n’ roll to 1960s’ beat. In the Ruhr region, their plea fell on listening ears. And in a church cellar in the mining town of Gelsenkirchen, the first music-makers started putting it into practice.
We get onto the metro at Grugahalle. It takes a good hour to reach the centre of Essen from here, passing the heart of the metal industry in Altenessen, around the former colliery, Zeche Carl, before finally coming into Gelsenkirchen’s Buer district. There’s are no reminders that this place used to be a mining town of hard graft. It’s surprisingly green, with pleasant parks and rows upon rows of cosy housing estates promising the good life. Around the corner is the Veltins Arena, home to FC Schalke 04, pride and joy of the city’s quarter of a million inhabitants by the River Emscher. We’re looking for the Matthäuskirche (St Matthew’s Church) on Cranger Street. We have to look twice before we spot the red-brick building hidden behind the trees with its free-standing, square bell tower. Through the windows we catch a glimpse of its simple interior. While walking around the avant-garde 1960s’ Protestant church, we discover a few small common rooms at the back. We stop and stare in reverence. In the mid-1960s, this was the site of the ‘Tempel’.
At the beginning of the 1960s, skiffle groups, which turned into beat bands, had people bopping from Liverpool to Hamburg’s Reeperbahn and all the way to the furthest-flung corners of the country. Suddenly, teenagers everywhere started picking up instruments and forming bands in imitation of the Beatles, the Stones or the Kinks. Sometimes help was at hand from enthusiastic clergymen. For example, pastor Wichmann in Gelsenkirchen’s Buer district. He reacted to the youth riots of the 1950s by turning the youth club room beneath the church into a meeting and leisure centre. His initiative was supported by the youth welfare authorities, who considered the influence of skiffle and beat (in comparison to raucous rock ‘n’ roll) conducive to the reduction of youth crime. This is how the premises of St Matthew’s Church became the first venue for beat bands from the entire Ruhr region. Pastor Wichmann made Buer the centre of the movement which attracted nearly 1,500 bands by the mid-1960s. And the St Matthew’s Church became the ‘Tempel’.
Almost simultaneously, the youth welfare worker Kurt Oster turned up on the scene in Recklinghausen. There, in the Vestlandhalle, he organised beat festivals instead of dance teas and youth balls. On a regular basis, more than 100 beat groups performed in front of thousands of fans in the space of a weekend. And so Recklinghausen earned itself the tongue-in-cheek name of “German Liverpool”. Kurt Oster also linked the scene to Hamburg and organised a competition between regional bands from the Ruhr and Hamburg (in which the Ruhr musicians were entirely upstaged). Only a handful of groups made the leap to being professional musicians. The most successful were the German Blue Flames, who, after twice winning the competition in the Vestlandhalle, were allowed to perform several times in the Beat-Club TV show and released numerous recordings.
The beat movement was extremely strong in the Ruhr area. It’s estimated that half of the 6,000 German beat bands were formed there. And all of them wanted to perform on stage. Town halls like the Hans-Sachs Haus in Gelsenkirchen, the back rooms of restaurants and churches were all snapped up and even beat-music church services were held. Hans Schreiber from the Archive for Popular Music in the Ruhr region in Dortmund says: “By 1966 not only did all the big cities have beat bands, but every single town, village and pub too. Everything was fine until super bands like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd came along, which no ordinary person could imitate. Then the scene fell apart.”
We ask Schreiber why the late 1960s saw music evolve and undergo a revival in the Ruhr region with Krautrock, psychedelic folk, political song and prog rock. He has a clear answer: “Youth clubs played a crucial role because they weren’t as connected to commercial interests as the pubs,” he explains. “In pubs, the landlords always had to make turnover. That was not the case in youth clubs. These were places for guitar lessons as well as centres for discussions and experiments. As a result, music and politics became linked.” A good example, he says, was the youth club in Papestraße, Essen. We set off to get an impression.
In the Holsterhausen district of Essen we look up at a sky-blue refugee home. Only a few patches of graffiti are reminiscent of Essen’s underground culture which for decades had a home here in Papestraße.
In 1968, when the beat movement was slowly coming to an end, these were the conspiratorial headquarters for the ‘German Woodstock’. An illustrious band of arts activists organised the International Essen Song Festival. This was perhaps the most important milestone in the development of Germany’s independent rock, folk and song culture: they connected the prog rock music of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, who was on the event’s advisory board, with new experimental rock from Germany. Eleven months before Woodstock, more than 200 acts performed in front of 40,000 spectators, including the experimentalists Amon Düül and Tangerine Dream, Inga Rumpf’s folk-rock City Preachers, the agit-rockers Floh de Cologne as well as political songwriters. Instead of love and peace, however, Essen’s emphasis was on political debate and the social role of art – topics that remained an integral part of the Ruhr’s pop history from then on.
The English New Wave musician and music writer Julian Cope (The Teardrop Explodes) is an excellent connoisseur of the German avant-garde music scene of the seventies. His book Krautrocksampler is out of print. It contains a canon of the 50 most important recordings of cosmic music and krautrock. In this Best of he also included the album Trips + Dreams of Essen’s singer-songwriter duo Witthüser & Westrupp. The two musicians recorded a 40-minute journey into a drug-inspired dreamworld, something previously unknown in German music. This music, recorded in 1971, is best compared to the Scottish freak folk musicians of The Incredible String Band, who also served Witthüser & Westrupp as a source of inspiration.
Walter Westrupp, whom we are very happy to talk to about the sound of the Ruhr area, spent most of his life in Essen. He comes from a religious household and learned early to play the trumpet and flugelhorn, which he soon did in a trombone choir. Church music was the decisive influence, which can be heard later on other albums such as Lieder von Nonnen, Toten und Vampiren, Jesuspilz, Bauer Plath and the live album Live 68-73. "School, apprenticeship… Afterwards, the next steps would have been a job, a girlfriend, a child and a place to stay. After the apprenticeship, I decided: no. I said: I would like to go my own way and work as a DJ in Essen, "says Walter Westrupp, whom one can might call one of the earliest hippies in Germany.
In 1967 he gets to know Bernd Witthüser, who already had a reputation as a singer in the Ruhr region. In Essen-Mitte, they meet at the Club Podium, where they are both involved as DJs. At that time it was still very demanding to equip a daily program with live music. The owner goes bankrupt, the name changes to Underground Club. Overall it is a time in which unconventional life and career paths are still hardly established and the hippies, especially in the Ruhr, immediately attract attention. "Essen is a big city, but a union of many small communities," says Westrupp. "In the city people go to shop. When we met mothers there with our long hair, they said to their children: Let’s go, these are bums.” In Essen, Witthüser and Westrupp are among the first bums or hippies to show themselves in public. "In Dusseldorf or Munich, we would not have been noticed like this," he believes.
Living in a commune is part of the hippie life of the time. Below their living-place is a record shop from where they get the most important new releases. "Through this we came to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Incredible String Band, Dr. Strangely Strange or the Strawbs. That was acoustic music that turned us on. We specifically used hallucinogenic drugs, especially LSD, and saw a way to move on with music, "he says. A topic was set for the session, then they started recording by tape. The next day, the musicians listened to what they played in a sober state.
The Essener "Songtage" in September 1968 become an important for Westrupp. Here he first realizes how many like-minded people there are out there. "A lot of colorful people were around. For the first time, you meet people who are like you. You are not alone anymore, there are many who feel the same way, "he recalls. " I took it all in with an open heart. It was like a rush; People who did not know each other developed a sense of togetherness. "
One of the central co-organizer of the "Songtage" is the music journalist Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser. Westrupps musical partner Bernd Witthüser, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2017, knew him already from the open-air festivals in Burg Waldeck, where since 1964 the German songwriting scene met. After a concert that Westrupp remembers as terrible, Kaiser and his muse Gille Lettmann approached them and offered them a record deal. "Kaiser was looking for people who sing in German. At that time there was a longing for German lyrics that were not hit-oriented. We expressed things we felt in German, "he says. The producer Dieter Dierks was besides Kaiser another important influencing factor for his career. "He was great because he allowed things. He and Conny Plank were the only ones who said we record what the musicians want. In normal studios, for example in Munich, they said: A guitar is a guitar, a choir is a choir, "says Westrupp.
Kaiser, who founded the label "Ohr" in 1969 and later the sub-label "Pilz", had no influence musically as such. But he tried to push the artists on things that would advance them artistically. For example, he gets Witthüser & Westrupp to meet with guru John Allegor in Switzerland. "That inspired us to Trips + Dreams with the idea that the Bible is a intoxication cult. This resulted in an open narcotics opera. We played it in churches with wonderful acoustics and brought young people into churches, "says Westrupp smiling. "It was always the question of how far you could drive such topics." The ideas of Krautrock's musical pioneers, psychedelic folk or prog rock are becoming crazier and more uncontrollable. "I am glad that I made it out of there”,, says Westrupp. “Kaiser completely drifted away. He then came to a sheltered home in a home in Warstein. He probably does not live anymore. It's a pity Kaiser was someone who had visions and tried to implement them. He then overtook himself.” Westrupp on the other hand takes a step back after these intense music and life experiences. Later he founds a Skiffleband with (humorous) German texts, with which he still performs today.
A music-maker who was too young to go to the International Song Festival in 1968, even though he grew up in Essen and was obsessed with music from the age of twelve, is the songwriter Stefan Stoppok. He is second to none in Germany for being able to fuse touching gems of songs (“Wetterprophet”) with political commitment (“Feine Idee”) and ambiguous Ruhr humour (“Willie & Gerd”) with German-language blues, rock and Irish folk. He has also displayed his musical prowess on several impressive instrumental albums with the Indian band You & I and on numerous live solo and duo records with his bassist Reggie Worthy. We meet him before a concert in Bonn – a thoughtful and reflective conversationalist. “When my father died very early, I was so depressed and messed up that my mother, to comfort me, bought me a guitar, that I had wanted for a long time, but couldn’t get because of lack of money,” he says in answer to our first question about his musical roots, adding: “It wasn’t until ten years ago that I realized, that this connection meant, that I have to treat my playing the guitar with responsibility.” After a short pause, he continues: “When I was 12, I only played the guitar and barely did any schoolwork. Then at the age of 13 or 14, I started my first bands.” How did these bands sound, we ask. Stoppok laughs: “Recently I found some mind-boggling recordings from the practice room on an old Grundig recorder. We played pure krautrock, not a single straight rhythm, with a change of beat every eight bars. All in search of our own musical identity.” Stoppok’s older brother by four years guided this search by converting him to BFBS radio, and this is how he discovered English folk musicians. Having people in the region like Tom Schröder, the co-initiator of the Song Festival, was also very useful, as they gave momentum to the folk movement.
But most importantly, Hildegard Doebner lived in Witten. “She was already 40 years old – for us, unthinkably old back then, a widow. A real mama of folk. She’d inherited a house in Witten where you could play and socialise because she’d had the loft converted so everyone could sleep there,” says Stoppok. And in this house in 1974, Doebner and some others set up the Witten Folk Club. Within a short space of time, this became the venue for the emerging folk scene in the Ruhr region and stayed that way for many years. This was where Lydie Auvray, Liederjan, Julian Dawson, Herbert Grönemeyer and many more performed. What’s more, open-air gigs were staged. “Witten is maybe 25 kilometres away from Essen, but when I grew up, I didn’t even know that the city was there,” Stoppok says with a chuckle. “Discovering a whole new scene so close to home that was one of the European centres of the folk movement was simply brilliant.” The Folk Club played a significant role in his musical biography. “Eddie and Finbar Furey were the first to bring Irish folk music to Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I used to play sessions with them in Hildgard’s kitchen. And there in the Folk Club, I also learned what entertainment meant – and how to do it,” Stoppok explains. In the years that followed he moved about and busked a great deal. “Through the Folk Club and its connections, I got to know the ex-Steeleye Span drummer Nigel Pegrum, and that’s how my first band came about.” Stoppoks’s first album was released in 1980 with this band, forming the starting point of a nearly 40-year career with them.
At the end of our conversation, we ask him whether he sees anything that the artists in the Ruhr region have in common. He says no: “They were always very different, both in their biographies and artistic tastes. Grönemeyer, for example, who is the same age as me, came from a venerable Ruhr family connected to the Bochum theatre, so he was from the intellectual upper middle class. My parents, on the other hand, were refugees, and I was one of many who first had to find something to latch onto. For a long time, I didn’t really feel at home in the whole web of connections.” Was that an advantage or a disadvantage? “Probably both,” Stoppok replies thoughtfully. “I’m one of the few artists from working-class or migrant families in the Ruhr region who made it. Because there were so few of us, I always lacked the self-image or confidence to make my Ruhr origins public in a strong way. In the Ruhr you generally felt on the small side. But in the end it helped because something genuine could evolve and people didn’t chase hype early on.”
When Hildegard Doebner became ill in the mid-nineties, the scene lost its driving force and its activities gradually stopped. By then, however, Stoppok and many others who had taken their first steps in Doebner’s Folk Club had long since become influential musicians.
Nevertheless, Witten continued to be a hotbed of musical innovation –- albeit of a different genre. When Dike Uchegbu (aka DIKE) rented a practice room in an old bunker in the district of Annen in the mid-1990s, the era of “Bunkerworld Witten” began. Hip-hop parties and jam sessions were all the rage there. The rappers Flipstar and Lakmann formed the duo Creutzfeld & Jakob, whose debut album Gottes Werk und Creutzfelds Beitrag was a remarkable chart success. With the track “Bunkerwelt in Witten” they immortalised the scene. And even after the crews were forced out of the bunker due to rising rent costs, Witten remained a hip-hop stronghold. Above all, Lakman continued to fly the city’s flag with his band, the Witten Untouchables.
Witten is an integral part of the extremely diverse hip-hop scene in the Ruhr, which ranges from the battle-rap bands on the Ruhrpott Elite label to the fun-style hip-hop of the 257ers. No other music genre manifests the life experiences of Germans with migrant backgrounds living in the Ruhr area as clearly as rap and hip-hop, and it is certainly one of the hippest styles in the region’s clubs. Causing offence is commonplace in hip-hop. But anti-Semitic diatribes by the rappers Fard and Snaga, or Hamad 45’s criminal activities are hard to overlook. Even so, hip-hop from the Ruhr has experienced commercial success throughout Germany. Gladbeck-born Fard, Essen-based Snaga and KC Rebel have climbed the charts in recent years. We will return to hip-hop in Dortmund. But for now, we’re going to stay for a while in the 1970s. We’re interested in how one of Ruhr region’s smaller towns managed to become a hotspot of German New Wave.
“Come, come, come, come, come to Hagen, become a pop star, find your happiness!” We’re listening to these lyrics by Extrabreit on our playlist [LINK] over headphones while on our way from Witten to Hagen – just a ten-minute ride. The song is on a 1982 compilation called Alles aus Hagen (Everything from Hagen). It brings together an eclectic mix of 16 bands from the city, including the experimental rock combo KeinMensch!, John Peel’s favourites X-Quadrat and Eroc aka Joachim Heinz Ehrig. Eroc’s career is multi-faceted. He’s a composer and successful solo artist (Wolkenreise), a music collaborator (among others with the Wuppertal experimental guitarist Hans Reichel), a music producer and studio operator and finally, since the 1990s, he’s been renowned for remastering old music gems from Johnny Cash to Procol Harum and Genesis. He’s produced more than 1,000 German and over 800 international music titles, as well as countless own albums, and has given 1,500 concerts and recorded more than 60 live albums. Most famously, he was the drummer of the prog rock band Grobschnitt from Hagen until 1983. Their sprawling songs that fuse Krautrock and psychedelic improvisation with German-lyric prog- and theatre-rock put the Ruhr town of Hagen on the international map of pop. Their albums Rockpommel’s Land and Solar Music - Live are classics. At the end of the 1970s, they bridged the gap between experimental avant-garde and the entire breadth of German rock music. The band’s live performances are legendary: wild mixtures of political parody and bawdy comedy, theatrical productions and kooky stage costumes.
Eroc, whom we reach late at night on the phone as he’s coming out of the studio, has roots, like so many, in rock ‘n’ roll and beat music. “Before I moved to Hagen, I lived in Oberhausen. A block further on, there was a pub, and every Saturday night they played live music. That was around 1958. There were a hell of a lot of scooters parked in front of it. Of course, we children weren’t allowed in, but I hung around and heard what was going on,” Eroc says when we ask him about his first exposure to music. “In 1961 I came here to Hagen. And gradually, in around 1962 or ’63, people started to try and imitate their musical role models. One had an electric guitar and brought it to school, the other had a friend who had once played around on a drum kit ...” Eroc also founds a band. The Crew become a part of the beat scene in Hagen. “There was very fierce competition between the bands. Back then, you couldn’t just play what you wanted. You had to do covers of chart songs. And those who played best were hip. It meant a lot of hard work, of course. You had to do everything in a very precise way,” Eroc recalls. “In the 1960s you had to be better than everyone else. The bands weren’t all the same. We were, like, the wild ones, prototype punks or something. Others played in suits and bow ties on dance nights. It’s definitely true that individual bands or gangs ruled in different parts of town.”
During the 1960s, a lively scene formed around Hagen’s live band scene. Once again, a local youth club played a central role, the Hagen-based “Kultopia”. Events in Essen and the socio-political developments of the 1968s also reverberated in Hagen. “The breakaway to write my own material came in early 1969,” says Eroc. “It went hand in hand with the Essen Song Festival. We were all in the Grugahalle, a few joints were passed around and the bands were playing their own songs. That’s when things snapped. We broke up The Crew and set up Grobschnitt, aiming to do our own thing from then on.” Doing your own thing, according to Eroc, depended a great deal on Hagen’s regional position, the Ruhr’s self-image and the resulting creative tension. “Hagen is in a valley. To the south there are just forests with deer. Beyond Dortmund, there’s just a mountain range. You either have to be a climber or have a car – which we didn’t at the time. New music only reached us via radio, so it was always international. If other bands existed in Münster or Duisburg, we didn’t hear much about them. We concentrated on ourselves.” Laughing, he tells us how the creative tension developed: “People from Hagen are all bark and bite. That was the attitude. Each man to himself, all against one. Not a week passed without one of us saying: ‘Listen, you arseholes, I’m sick of you all and I’m pissing off now. You’ll never see me again.’ Then it was like: guitar packed, amp packed, gone. The band split up more often than anyone can remember. Everyone left at least 15 times a year. And three days later the same guy would walk back into the practice room, like: ‘All right lads! It’s me. Let’s talk.’”
Grobschnitt’s debut album was produced by Conny Plank [LINK]. Besides being their drummer, Eroc could indulge in his love of sound technology. He recorded their countless concerts, which introduced the band to ever-growing circles of people beyond Hagen and was constantly inventing unusual sound effects. So it seems logical that sooner or later, Eroc would transfer his equipment to a recording studio. Along with Siggi Bemm, he first opened the Woodhouse Studio in Dortmund, then later back in Hagen, the 800-square-metre Woodhouse Studios. Bemm became a studio legend with his metal, gothic and rock productions. Eroc was successful with his solo works and established himself as a producer with Grobschnitt until his departure in 1983. One of the first achievements of the studios was to work with the Hagen-based indie band Die erste weibliche Fleischergesellin nach 1945. When their restrained guitarist Ernst Ulrich Figgen founded the Voodooclub and called himself Philip Boa, Eroc became the artist’s producer, sound engineer and musician.
Grobschnitt and Eroc were the first. But by the end of the 1970s and in the early 1980s, as improbable as it sounds, Hagen had become a hub of German pop music.
“In the past we were the class enemy and the bad guys, then we were idiots and today we’re cultural assets,” says Stefan Kleinkrieg with a loud laugh. We’re sitting with him backstage in Hagen’s Stadthalle venue. It’s a fitting location. When it opened in 1981, Stefan Kleinkrieg’s band Extrabreit was at the height of its success. Their photo on the cover of the German teen mag BRAVO, sold-out concerts and a well-groomed bad-boy image had made them the most successful German punk and new wave band of the year. A loud punk-rock band doing a gig in a middle-class city hall back then? Unthinkable. Their gig today has a definite home-turf advantage and Stefan Kleinkrieg is visibly happy that they were victorious over the stuffy locals back then, but even happier about the audience’s devotion after nearly 40 years of band history. He can spare us half an hour to explain how Hagen became the centre of the German New Wave in the early 1980s.
From his personal point of view, the punk movement that spilled over from England at the end of the 1970s was decisive. “In 1978, you had two choices as a young man: you joined a football club, like most did, or you formed a band,” Kleinkrieg says. “I was doing my military service in Germany and we all listened to radio BFBS – and suddenly, they were playing the Sex Pistols! From then on, everything else was boring. That was the initial spark that made me have the courage to buy an instrument and an amp, to find a practice room and meet every night to play.” In Hagen, like in towns all over the world, punk spawned a craze of creative energy and alternative lifestyles. “Suddenly it was easy to find people because a scene was forming,” he recalls, describing what happened. “I had a friend who I persuaded to play the drums. Then we bought a kit, rented a practice room, and each member was added. ‘You’re our bassist now.’ ‘I can’t play the bass!’ ‘We can’t either!’ And then that was a band.” Everyone was aiming to make music that sounded like something in-between rock and punk – the main thing was to sound nothing like the cover bands that proliferated in the region. Kleinkrieg says: “For us it was clear: The lyrics had to be in German, no songs longer than three minutes, nothing too bluesy and as far from Grobschnitt as possible. Their whole swirling mist thig was the personification of the enemy for us,” he says, then adds, laughing loudly. “It’s like this: if you’re no good at anything, you need to be able to point at someone and say: ‘That’s total crap ... what WE’RE doing is brilliant ...’”
There are certainly several reasons why Hagen became a centre of German punk and new wave back then. One is that the town makes unusual affinities possible. As a classic one-disco-town - “a place where there’s only one crowded disco and all the rest are empty,” as Stefan Kleinkrieg puts is, people inevitably met in the evenings on the dance floor or at the bar. And so collaborations arose.
This, for example, was how the proto-punk band The Ramblers was founded. On their debut The Kids are back to Rock ‘n’ Roll , on guitars is Frank Becking and on vocals is Hartwig Masuch, currently the chairman of Germany’s largest record company, BMG. Together they set up the studio Rock-Ranch, where they recorded the immensely successful debut album of Extrabreit. The Ramblers’ second guitarist was Carlo Karges, who later wrote one of the largest German-language hits of all time: Nena’s “99 Red Balloons”. Talking of Nena: Gabriele Susanne Kerner – Nena’s real name – was finishing an apprenticeship as a goldsmith in Hagen during those years and would go to the Madison disco in the evenings. This is where the Ramblers roadie Rainer Kamel discovered her and turned her into the front woman of his band The Stripes, which formed the nucleus of the band Nena.
The proliferation of creative people in the Ruhr region at the time was extraordinary. Not only in Hagen itself, where the sisters Anette and Inga Humpe, for example, discovered their love of music (before they shook up the Berlin music scene with Neonbabies and Ideal). But also 12 kilometres away in Gevelsberg-Silschede where, at the end of the seventies, a living community had set up house in the Grün In pub and had transformed the large farmhouse into an eatery for all kinds of visitors from the alternative arts scene. Residents in the community were the DAF musicians Wolfgang Spelmanns, Kurt Dahlke and drummer Robert Görl, as well as Michael Kemner, who joined Fehlfarben and Mau Mau. At the Grün In, S.Y.P.H. with Ralf Dörper on guitar [LINK] recorded their first demo tapes, followed in 1979 by the first DAF LP. Musicians from Hagen regularly dropped in and picked up ideas.
The nucleus of the Hagen scene was the district of Wehringhausen. Around Wilhelmsplatz, the music underground was alive and kicking in the bars and discos. Stefan Kleinkrieg tells us about it: “On Sunday evenings, all the bands came back from their weekend gigs, met in ‘Bei Rainer’ and swapped ideas. We all talked about what kind of guitars and instruments we had, how we play this and that, or how we were going to buy the same system ... all that turned into a kind of Hagen sound.” Not 500 meters from Wilhelmsplatz was the flat-share B56. In the hallway, some large graffiti welcomed visitors with: “B56 - Always radical. Never consistent”. The 7-room apartment was home to the music teacher and musician Gabi Lappen (whose band Kein Mensch! was the first Hagen band to be played by John Peel on BFBS in 1981), the performance artist Wolfgang Luther, the graphic artist, taxi driver and later frontman of Extrabreit Kay Schlasse aka Kai Havaii, and Jörg Hoppe. Hoppe became the first manager of Extrabreit but above all, he was the founder of the punk and new wave label Tonträger 58, named after Hagen’s former post code. This is where the dominant early sound recordings of the Hagen scene formed.
But when The Stripes appeared on TV shows with the sensational Nena and shortly afterwards Extrabreit had a breakthrough with their debut album Ihre größten Erfolge, a hype grew around the New Wave hub in Hagen, which led to some strange events: “I remember one experience especially. There was a pub near the main station which we often went to. I was sitting there in the afternoon with a beer when suddenly, in came a guy with a bass case and asked: ‘So, where’s the scene here?’ He’d just got off the train,” says Stefan Kleinkrieg, amused. “Our success and Nena’s brought huge attention to the area, so people thought: ‘Right, I’m going go there.’ And then any room that could be rented as a practice room was seized and bands sprouted up everywhere.”
Spreading outwards from Hagen, the German New Wave soon covered the entire Ruhr area. In Wanne-Eickel for example, Die Vorgruppe wrote its first albums. They mixed post-punk and new wave to form great music collages. Herne 3 picked up the experience of miner’s lives with their singles “Immer wieder aufstehen” and “Wieder kein Geld”. In Dortmund, the Latin band Crossfire collaborated with the punks from 451. Under the name Konec, the result was Latin reggae funk, and they had a small hit with the single “Tanze”.
The developments in Gelsenkirchen were fascinating too. Here, where the original Witten band Franz K. was one of the first to write German song lyrics at the beginning of the 1970s, music and art were united. The central figure was Jürgen Kramer. As a master student of Joseph Beuys at the Academy of Arts in Düsseldorf, he had a background in art and forged a connection between Düsseldorf’s Ratinger Hof [LINK] and Gelsenkirchen. For example, he was the editor of the punk-leaning magazine Die 80er and the annuals Der Rabe. Kramer was at the heart of a network of punk-leaning artists and bands in Gelsenkirchen. Among them was Kabarett Küchentheater, who formed in 1976 and later became Die Salinos. They mixed new-wave-pop with screeching female vocals, and their 1981 album Du siehst nicht aus wie ich ausseh was one of the most interesting German albums of those years.
But like every craze, New Wave or Neue Deutsche Welle did not last in the Ruhr region. In Hagen, too, the movement fizzled out after a brief period. This was also because most of the scene’s members moved to Berlin. The Hagen pioneers Extrabreit had to shoulder commercial setbacks that led to extended breaks and reinvention, such as recording albums with English lyrics. For Stefan Kleinkrieg this was ultimately just a normal process, but it still hurt: “For me, the biggest frustration was that the ideal rhythm of tour, album, tour, album stopped when the New Wave Movement came to an end,” he says. “Like Lemmy, I could’ve been on the road to the end of my days. Three months at home and then off again,” he says, looking impatiently at his watch. He’s soon to be allowed on stage.
The attention that the New Wave Movement brought to the coal-mining towns of Hagen, Gelsenkirchen and Herne was only the beginning. The 1980s were the defining decade of the Ruhr region. These were politically turbulent times: In Rheinhausen, the miners from Duisburg went on strike for months to save their steelworks, blocking bridges and motorways. Their fight became symbolic of the changing structures in the Ruhr region. In the media, the ball was set in motion by Theo Gromberg, a truck driver from Herne, played by the Düsseldorf musician Marius Müller Westernhagen [LINK]. The movie Theo gegen den Rest der Welt was seen by over three million cinema-goers. In the same year, the flippant, moustachioed TV police inspector Horst Schimanski (from the show Tatort) was relocated to Duisburg. Günter Wallraff’s book The Lowest of the Low was published in 1985 and shaped the image of migrant workers in the Germany. As is often the case with zeitgeist, it can suddenly change. And in the Ruhr’s case, it was suddenly a cool, authentic, down-to-earth place, as opposed to the gelled hairstyles, ubiquitous Superstars and dazzling, garish 1980s’ styles. And, as an antidote to the bubble-gum pop of Madonna, Michael Jackson or Kylie Minogue, hard rock also underwent a revival. And nowhere else was this as diverse and hip as in the coal region of the Ruhr.
From the beginning of the 1980s, bands, fanzines, record shops and, sooner or later, labels, agencies and magazines featuring hard rock and metal in its myriad variations emerged throughout the region. It was much the same as in the 1950s and ’60s, only this time with louder guitars, longer jackets and angrier lyrics. Just like Bill Haley and the Beatles’ concerts at the Grugahalle had inspired a generation to make their own music back in the day, the festival “Rock Pop in Concert” in 1983 in Dortmund’s Westfalenhalle was the next craze. Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osborne won over fans. In particular, the English band Judas Priest became the gold standard that many of the newly founded bands tried to emulate.
The details of this unique success story can be read in the two superbly researched books, Kumpels in Kutten. Heavy Metal im Ruhrgebiet (Buddies in Jackets. Heavy Metal in the Ruhr Region.) In interviews with members of former and current metal bands, the role of youth clubs in the Ruhr region stands out once again. In addition, the Ruhr area was the birthplace of the sociocultural movement. They became self-governing communication and arts centres for ‘alternative culture’ and the ‘counter-public sphere’. Places such as the Autonome Zentrum and the Ringlokschuppen arts centre in Mülheim, the Eschhaus in Duisburg, Druckluft and the Altenberg Center in Oberhausen, the Linden Brewery in Unna or the Arts Centre in Grend are all indispensable for understanding the musical verve of the Ruhr region.
At the beginning of the 1980s, these centres were home to a hard rock and metal scene whose diversity was unique in Europe. The magazines Rock Hard and Metal Hammer, whose editorial offices were in Dortmund, also played a part. Steeler from Bochum represented the hard rock faction. Centaur from Duisburg and Custard from Herne played classic heavy-metal music. Dortmund’s Axxis characterised power metal from 1989 on and went on tour with the iconic Black Sabbath. In the mid-1980s in Krefeld, Lucifer’s Heritage spawned the band Blind Guardian. It mixed speed metal with literary, poetic lyrics and infused it with influences from the Bay Area, prog rock and even folk music. With their third album, Tales from the Twilight World, which races through ten cracking tracks and at least as many styles in just 30 minutes, they became international stars. And far to the north of Essen, near the former colliery Zeche Carl, the thrash metal band Kreator found their home. From 1982 onwards, they joined the ranks of Germany’s most internationally renowned bands, have played to tens of thousands of fans around the world to this day, and have triggered subgenres such as death metal and Scandinavian black metal. Their debut album Pleasure to Kill is considered by many fans and music critics as one of the most important metal albums of all time. The Kreator’s setting of Zeche Carl was also the birthplace of the Gelsenkirchen thrash-metal band Sodom, whose provocative lyrics and mega-hard guitar riffs garnered them enormous success. To date, they have sold more than 8 million records worldwide.
In Germany, however, a singer from Bochum emerged as one of the most successful artist of all time. Herbert Grönemeyer extended his German-language singer-songwriter music to the poppy synthesizer sounds of the New Wave and in 1984, he released the album 4630 Bochum. With 2.5 million copies sold, it is one of the most commercially successful German albums ever. Grönemeyer, together with the house squatters’ band Geier Sturzflug and its lead singer Klaus Fiehe – today a radio presenter – ensured that Bochum in the heart of the Ruhr region became the centre of Ruhr pop in the 1980s. It took the baton from Hagen and led the underground punk and new wave fringes of the New Wave Movement to outstanding commercial success.
A venue that was decisive in shaping the Bochum music scene during this time was the Zeche Bochum. It opened in 1981 in the former locksmith’s shop of the Prince Regent mine in south Bochum, and quickly became a venue for concerts and parties and therefore a prototype for the transformation of former industrial buildings into arts centres. Initially only underground bands performed there. But since the location had to be commercially viable, it opened up to the mainstream. From the mid-1980s, the arena, which only had capacity for just under 1,000 spectators, was an exciting live club. Because the TV show WDR Rockpalast recorded concerts there, unique bands and artists performed, like Echo & the Bunnymen, R.E.M., Tina Turner, Chris Rea and Simply Red, to name a few, as well as almost all big German names.
But the Zeche also turned Bochum into a town known across the country for its parties. Follow-up was the Tarm Centre in the Rombacher Hütte industrial area. From 1986 on, the Tarm and its resident DJS ATB and Caba Kroll became a role model for club culture in the whole of Europe. Innovative laser light and sound technology, several floors, various bars, an integrated restaurant and a huge outdoor area with a swimming pool set high standards. From 1992 on, legends of Detroit techno like Juan Atkins were behind the turntables in Planet Bochum where stars like Sven Väth or WestBam were frequent guests. The Planet also made a name for itself as the top address for hip-hop, acid jazz and trip-hop. Bochum’s fame grew due to these clubs, but also due to the unexpected, enormous success of the musical Starlight Express, which kicked off in 1984.
These days, tens of thousands of people from all over the region swarm into downtown Bochum every weekend. And there are even more crowds when the annual Bochum Total takes place, the largest free music festival in Europe, attracting around 500,000 spectators to concerts, parties and performances. The heart of Bochum’s nightlife is the Bermuda3Eck around Konrad Adenauer Platz. Chic clubs, hip bars and cinemas can be found in a very small area, while highbrow culture is not far away at the Bochum Theatre or the Musikforum.
It’s a Wednesday in the early evening when we roam through the hustle and bustle of the Berumda3Eck. We are on our way to the Riff disco, where weekly “New York Nights” are held. We’re meeting Pamela Falcon and her manager and partner-in-crime Al Falcon. From behind the thick entrance door, the soundcheck is booming. After some knocking, we are let in. With a wide smile and American hospitality, Pamela Falcon welcomes us and leads us into the backstage area. She knows every inch of the space. Every Wednesday her band have played an incredible 943 shows over nearly 20 years – a potpourri of pop, funk and rock classics and original songs. Before it starts, the spectators can tuck into a buffet, and during the show, Falcon presents established artists and promising newcomers as special guests. Pamela and Al’s “New York Nights” have created a platform for young musical talent in the Ruhr area, which has become a jump-start for many a musical career. Tonight one of her special guests is the Ruhr singer Kieron, who is swamped by throngs of teens before his performance, as they ask for selfies.
Pamela Falcon’s career is so unique that we’re soon listening slack-jawed as she and Al tell us how they got into music as New Yorkers. “I’ve known Al since I was ten” begins Pamela and Al adds: “We played together in bands and at the end of the 1970s we were part of the New York music scene. At that time you could feel that something special was happening. Suddenly there were some very cool bands – Blondie, Talking Heads, later the Red Hot Chili Peppers. You could see them all at their first New York concerts.” Pamela continues: “And we performed at the China Club, where Prince or David Bowie and others came by. That was the early to mid-1980s. But I also played in the CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, all the clubs that are legendary today.” The two tell such vivid stories of long nights in Studio 54, disco parties in Limelight, a converted church, and of the beginnings of today’s icons that we feel like we’re actually in New York.
Back in those years, the two played “good old American rock,” as Pamela calls it. “A little heavy with a little soul”. Maybe a little too classic for a real breakthrough? “We worked with a lot of fantastic people in New York, but there came a time when it all ended,” recalls Pamela Falcon. “That was a moment when I sat on my bed and thought: I really need a new adventure.” The opportunity for a new beginning arose when her agent entered her for a casting in a musical in Germany. I said: “Well, yeah, I wanted an adventure, but that is a bit much,” Pamela remembers with a grin. “And my agent just said, ‘You go there and you GET THE JOB! - and THEN you can still turn it down!’ A real New York agent! So I screamed: ‘I got this! I’m gonna GET THE JOB!’ and I flew to the casting in Germany.” Pamela Falcon got the job and within a week, she started a promo tour through West Germany for Starlight Express. “I was already a long-time fan of the Scorpions and had seen them several times live in the US,” she says. “So I thought: ‘What do I have to lose? I’ll perform my music in Germany. And play with the Scorpions some time.’”
We want to know whether the change from New York to the comparatively quiet Bochum triggered a fully-fledged culture shock. “Some things were totally different,” Al admits. “All the shops closed at six and we wondered where we were supposed to buy our food. But there’s an exciting dynamic in the air. In New York, for example, musicals have been around forever, that’s where it all started. And in Bochum a whole new theatre was built for it.” Pamela adds: “And there’s one thing I’ll never forget: on my first night in Bochum, everyone kept asking me: ‘Have you been into town? Have you seen what’s going on there? You have to come!’ I went to the Bermuda3Eck. The city was full, it was at the end summer and everyone was sitting outside and I just thought: ‘I’m in the right place! I can make good music here!’”
Just like at the China Club in New York, Pamela and Al were looking for a place where young talented musicians could have their first stage experience and established stars could turn up for after-show jams once they’d finished their big concerts. It took some time, but at the end of the millennium, they discovered the Riff. In the years that followed, they set up the “New York Nights” shows in which artists, actors, outstanding musicians from the region and young talents appeared on stage, time and time again. And finally, Pamela Falcon managed her own breakthrough. In the first season of the casting show “The Voice of Germany” together with the Texan singer Percival, she performed a vocal duel of Prince’s song “Purple Rain”. An audience of millions was thrilled by her versatile rock vocals. Since then, she has worked as a vocal coach, training young musicians and established artists, and mentor for TV shows. Despite her activities, she remains faithful to her Wednesday show at the Riff. There’s a little pride in her voice as she concludes: “For me the greatest thing is that we really managed to give a chance to many young talents who dreamed of playing here. And many of them have gone on to greater things. Plenty of them have remained in the region and have revived the music scene.”
As we skirt the edge of town after the show at the Riff, it seems to us that Bochum really is underrated as a town of pop. A centre of the German New Wave in the 1980s, a showcase of world stars at the Zeche, a musical stronghold and party hub. Bochum’s district of Langendreer, however, is a lot more desolate than you think. We’re here in search of the remains of a legendary underground club. Until a few years ago, directly at the metro station there was a club called Zwischenfall (Incident). From its opening in the mid-80s, this unusual venue – a pub downstairs, a disco upstairs, a staircase to sit on and everything in permanent darkness – became the main meeting place of ‘dark culture’. Scenes from the underground movie Kinder der Nacht were shot here, and fetish and BDSM parties were celebrated, which co-existed surprisingly well with the dark music of the gothic, dark wave and goth scene. And partly because the Zwischenfall was a focal point of the scene, these subcultures were especially strong in the Ruhr.
Sadly, the flats above the night club burned down in 2011. The fire-fighter’s water ran into the club, irreparably destroying the Zwischenfall. In 2017, the building was demolished. We look soberly at an empty building lot and decide to drink a Bochum beer as a toast to the lost club in the nearest bar. When we enter the opposite cellar bar, we’re greeted by a caustic smell of urine. Balls of dust have collected on the shabby carpet, a dog is snoring and the bar lady is dancing to easy-listening songs with a drunken regular. We sit down in a corner and watch what’s going on, slightly baffled. Only one other guest is sitting at the bar in silence. His ear and eyebrow piercings give us hope that he might be a former punk and we tell him why we’re here. When we mention the Zwischenfall, his eyes light up. “It was the best club ever,” he says nostalgically. “When I was 16, I was still living in Hanover and every single weekend I came here to Langendreer. Just to go to the Zwischenfall,” he says. “And the crowd came from all over the place. That was exactly my kind of scene. Then I somehow ended up here. And now I’m a social worker in Bochum.” He turns back to his beer and we have the sad feeling that a scene has lost its home. We decide that it’s time to find out where concerts and festivals are played today. Dortmund, the big live-music centre of the Ruhr region, seems like a good destination.
Hardly any other city in Germany combines catchy, mainstream, simple pop so naturally with hard rock and avant-garde music as Dortmund. Punk and Neue Deutsche Welle, metal and hard rock, and electronics and pop have always been based here. Dortmund is the city of Phillip Boa as well as Tic Tac Toe, of Sir Hannes Smith and the punk music of the Idiots, not to mention the ghetto rap newcomer Brenna.
Perhaps this diversity is due to the fact that pop history began especially early in Dortmund. Baby Rock by the Dortmund band Elras Brothers and the Teddy Long Boys is regarded as the first rock ‘n’ roll record ever from the Ruhr region. You could also say that beat music in Germany only became a mass movement because of Dortmund, as the founder of the Hamburg Star-Club, Manfred Walker, was a native of the city. But already long before all these developments, the city had an eminent place in music. The Hot Club Dortmund, for example, forerunner of today’s legendary domicil club, was a jazz hotspot in the region as far back as 1948.
In the course of pop history, almost every musical movement has found an echo in Dortmund. Folk rock and political pop of the 1970s is represented by Cochise, who became a mouthpiece of the environmental and peace movement. Ulrich Schmidt-Salm began as a punk rocker in the band Neat before he discovered reggae, became a music producer and as Natty U turned out a world hit with the dub version of The Cure’s song “Boys Don’t Cry”. On the other hand, Sir Hannes Smith has always remained a punk at heart. With his band The Idiots, founded in 1978, he gave momentum to the German punk revolution; today he runs the excellent record store Idiot Records in the centre of Dortmund. Today, hip-hop has a large following in this city with a high migrant population. Crews such as Too Strong and Koma Mobb won subcultural relevance at the turn of the millennium.
A cornerstone of the genre diversity in Dortmund is its status as a festival and concert centre. Since the end of the 1960s, the FZW (West Leisure Centre) has ensured that top bands perform in the city. It was an unusual venue west of the city centre in the Kreuzviertel district of Dortmund, with a bowling alley in the basement, a cinema complex and miniature golf course, and space for just 350 spectators. For more than 40 years, up-and-coming bands such as the Scorpions, Bad Religion, Green Day, White Stripes or the Fantastic Four have played here. What’s more, the Club Trinidad started in the basement of the FZW in the mid-1990s. That club night formed the base out of which the prestigious electronic music festival Juicy Beats grew. A couple of years back, the FZW has moved to a larger and more commercially oriented site. The electronic mixture is still an important part of the programme and in general central to Dortmund’s music world. Since 1993, Mayday, a large-scale techno event, has taken place in the Westfalenhallen concert hall. With up to 25,000 dancers, it is Germany’s largest indoor rave.
However, Dortmund pop culture’s most famous son is Phillip Boa, who since 1983 is an internationally acclaimed Post-Punk/New-Wave und Alternative/Avantgarde-artist. He finds it hard to say how much of his success is owed to his native city. When we ask him about it, he tells us about two trips he made to London which had a decisive musical impact. “I visited London twice with my English class after punk exploded there in the late 1970s. On the street we asked people where the punk scene was. Then we went to clubs every night for two weeks. That’s how the kicks came about,” says Boa. The do-it-yourself approach of punk were an inspiration to him. XTC, Talking Heads, Television, Joy Division and New Order exemplified a new form of rock music that broke the rules of the old hippie bands. Back in Dortmund, he founded bands without really deriving any musical satisfaction from them. With his girlfriend at the time Pia Lund, he then founded the band Phillip Boa and the Voodooclub in 1983. Eroc, a good old friend from times of the band Die erste weibliche Fleischergesellin nach 1945, recorded the first albums in his Woodhouse Studios.
Phillip Boa and the Voodooclub became one of the most versatile formations of the German new wave, even if Boa says today that he didn’t initially believe in the band. He didn’t come into close contact with the Dortmund scene either. “I’m from Dortmund and I love the city, but I haven’t done anything with music here for decades. I feel more connected to Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, London and New York,” he sums up. He was always drawn abroad for musical inspiration, even though he now has a home in Dortmund as well as in Hamburg and London. This distant gaze has its reasons: “When we went out in Dortmund back in the day, we were accosted. I love the city, I love the football team. But musically ... If I’d stayed there, I’d have become an architect.” This remark isn’t intended to be derogatory towards architects. Boa just felt that an musical infrastructure was always lacking in Dortmund. “The city simply had no supporters. There were musicians in punk bands, some soldiers, and cool clubs like the Java. Really fantastic reggae bands used to play there. But in the Old Daddy, there were never more than 50 people at the weekend, and 20 during the week. And they are still the ones mainly shaping the music scene.”
For his musical education, he says, the barracks along Bundesstraße 1 and the British soldiers who lived there were the most important influence. “They brought glamour to the town. Hanging around them was cool. Especially for someone who was often in London. It was between around 1981 and 1988,” says Boa. He was too late to witness the most exciting phase at the Ratinger Hof in Düsseldorf. Instead, he regularly went to Bochum. Clubs, and the record shops Last Chance and Discover become important meeting places for him. That’s where discussions took place that crossed art forms, and which he sometimes still misses. “The people were all very ‘do-it-yourself’ – not trained musicians. Film and literature were important for them. I’d never been a brilliant musician, I had more videotapes than LPs,” he says. “Today, musicians only study their subject and keep their sights just on that. They’re craftsmen. If I gave them two films and a book as a key to understanding the world, it wouldn’t reach them. It’s all about marketing these days – oh how boring,” says Boa.
Up until today, Boa records albums with Phillip Boa and the Voodooclub, wrote hits like “Container Love” or “Kill Your Ideals”. His music oscillates between wave, electronics and hard indie rock – an extension of the music played by his former idols from England and the USA. Together with Pia Lund, he has also managed their label Constrictor since 1986, who distribute German and British indie bands. When the Voodooclub changed line-up in 1993, Lund and Boa personally split a short while afterwards. Since then, Pia Lund has become an important figurehead in Dortmund’s music and visual arts. And even if Dortmund may not have influenced Phillip Boa musically, it certainly shaped his personality. “I definitely have some Westphalian stubbornness,” he admits. “There’s a kind of coolness, which is also hurtful and honest. You don’t let people interfere in your life.” Considering the many glossy releases of the past few years, it becomes clear that he probably doesn’t like to talk much about the past in Dortmund because he’s still hankering for something new. “I do not want to be someone who clings to the past and thinks that everything today is shit. The future interests me more than the past,” he concludes.
Many cities in the Ruhr suffer from the cliché of being ugly and poor, with no green areas and no culture, and completely uninteresting for visitors, especially those from abroad. This is said especially of the 500,000-resident city of Duisburg, deep in the west of the Ruhr region. In public perception, Essen and Dortmund usually outstrip Duisburg. The only time the city crops up in the news is when there is something negative to report, such as empty city coffers, high unemployment or lack of prospects for young people. The Duisburg-Marxloh district is regarded as the epitome of a politically and socially deprived no-go zone. We arrive at Duisburg’s central station on a sunny spring day. As the train enters the station, passing the ruined hangar of the former freight and shunting station, the heart becomes heavy. Here in 2010, 21 mostly young people were killed in an obscure tunnel section that should have been the entrance to the techno festival Love Parade. A touching memorial worth a visit commemorates the tragedy on Karl Lehr Straße.
All of these associations mean that people often forget what a liveable and culturally fascinating city Duisburg is. Peter Bursch, the guitarist of krautrock band Bröselmaschine told us: “If you look at coolibri’s programme of events [an online portal for Ruhrgebiet entertainment], there are a hundred concerts every day. The Ruhr is the largest arts space in Europe, whether for classical music or a different kind of DJ night,” he emphasises. “In Duisburg alone, there are 500 bands with practice rooms. The scene is really huge. There are countless clubs that play live music. In Duisburg there are definitely between 15 and 18.” In the landscape park of Duisburg-Nord there is also the annual Traumzeit Festival with its excellent booking; around Dellplatz, there are live music venues, and during winter, the interdisciplinary music, art and theatre festival Platzhirsch takes place. The “Duisburger Akzente,” a European-wide acclaimed arts festival for theatre, visual arts, literature & film has also been running since 1977.
But we want to walk on down to the waterfront. A tram takes us through the old town past Duisburg’s inner-city harbour to the northwestern part of the town. Each district looks different and we’re reminded of how Tom Liwa described his hometown to us [see Spotlight/Link 02]: “Sometimes the streets are narrow, sometimes the streets are almost twice as wide in the next estate, like small avenues. You can drive around here, as if the whole place were a vast park. You come to different areas like in a zoo: here are the kangaroos, then the pandas, then the donkeys.” It gradually becomes more industrial after we’ve driven over the River Ruhr. We get off at the Ruhrort district, where the Ruhr flows into the immense Rhine and probably the largest inland port in the world begins. It’s a unique place in Germany. Around Neumarkt you can come across quaint sailors’ pubs like Zum Anker, and there is a shipping bank as well as a children’s home for sailors. Museum-like paddle steamers putter along the canal. In many places, the magnificent façades of the houses hint at the wealth that once resided here.
In around 1900, Ruhrort was the gateway to the Ruhr region with a prevalence of merchants and millionaires. These converged with German and Dutch sailors, turning the area into the ‘St. Pauli of the West’ by the 1960s, with over 100 pubs, amusement amenities and a red-light district. The Tante Olga bar (Aunt Olga) was especially notorious and fittingly located halfway between the spires of the Protestant and the Catholic parishes. If you squint in front of today’s Bordeaux-red painted buildings, it’s possible to imagine how tarts with hearts of gold entertained sailors while the beat kids from the region shyly hung around. Among them was Udo Lindenberg, today Germany’s biggest rock legend. After a wild start in Düsseldorf, he studied drumming at the Duisburg Conservatory and whiled away the nights at Tante Olga’s. And this is where Benny Quick, who had just had a hit with his song “Motorbiene,” set him on track. “I asked him whether being a pop singer was a cool job. Sure, he said: big cars, big cheques, plenty of chicks and guys. ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘then that’s what I’ll do,’” as Lindenberg told the Handelsblatt newspaper a few years ago. In the Ruhrort, Lindenberg, like many others, also learned hard drinking. So it’s fitting that just a few metres from Olga’s, Horst Schimanski Alley commemorates the hard-drinking, hard-hitting police investigator in Duisburg.
In the 1960s, Ruhrort lost its status, which went hand in hand with the emergence of alternative counterculture. Communes and squats sprung up, mind-expanding drugs were consumed and experimental music was all the rage. Around Peter Bursch and the Bröselmaschine a minor music scene appeared. And it turned the occupied Eschhaus in Niederstraße am Innenhafen – the oldest street in Duisburg – into a self-governed youth club at the beginning of the 1970s. Until its highly controversial demise in the late 1980s, fantastic bands could be heard there – Alexis Korner, Julie Driscoll, BAP, Clay Stones Shards and many more. But above all, the Eschhaus Centre passed the baton from one generation to the next. It was the venue where heavy metal was able to flourish (perhaps because Peter Bursch gave guitar lessons to many of the musicians, including Kreator). And this is where Duisburg developed into a punk stronghold in the Ruhr region.
To understand more about the specifics of the Ruhr-region punks, we get the journalists Dennis Rebmann & Philip Stratmann on board. With impressive diligence, the duo wrote a book, underpinned by their own experiences as fans and featuring many interviews, with the title Mit Schmackes. Punk im Ruhrgebiet (With Verve. Punks in the Ruhr Region). In it, they portray all contemporary punk bands with a reputation in the Ruhr area. Band that mostly have attracted little attention beyond Germany. Many, if not all, of these bands play ‘proletarian punk’ with obscene, sometimes ironic or dirty lyrics and an extremely beer-friendly attitude. This movement was first initiated by the Oi! punk band Pöbel & Gesocks around the regional celebrity Willi Wucher. The were founded as Beck’s Pistols in 1979, but had to rename themselves at the brewery’s request. Inspired by this band, according to the two music experts, the “holy trinity of proletarian Ruhr punk” finally developed. These are: local heroes Lokalmatadoren (Local Matadors) from Mülheim an der Ruhr, the punks Eisenpimmel (Willies of Steel) from Duisburg and the Kassierer (Cashiers) from Bochum. Their best-known songs have illustrious titles like “Blumenkohl am Pillemann” (Cauliflower on my Willy) “Rudelfick im Altersheim” (Gang Bang in the Retirement Home) or “Mein schöner Hodensack” (My Beautiful Scrotum). Hardly a festival takes place without fans loudly growling the lyrics: “But the worst thing is when the beer runs out”. Duisburg is one of the most important cities for this underground culture. And underground it is, in the truest sense of the word – because apart from the Kassierer, the only Mülheim band to achieve national success has been punk-ska-formation Sondaschule. “Imagine: You’re from Bochum and you play a gig 500 metres down the road in Essen. That’s already your gig out of town. In Berlin, you’d have to go to Hamburg to get the same feeling. Here you quickly feel that you’ve made it because you’re playing in a different city,” says Stratmann to explain why many bands don’t leave the Ruhr. “Between Dortmund and Duisburg, there are plenty of opportunities to perform, so you can do pretty well,” adds Rebmann. Most of them stay nearby or in the region – hardly any of the bands can live from music. “But because of this, there are hardly any rows about selling out to commercialism or the kind of envy you see again and again in other punk scenes,” notes Rebmann. Yet the scene is still large-scale. The “Ruhrpott Rodeo”, for example, is the biggest open-air punk festival in Germany. “Punk im Pott” in Oberhausen is considered the largest indoor punk festival in the country. But otherwise, punk, according the two authors, is more a club scene, and takes place in pubs, clubs, antifa and arts centres. The punks are also the ones who uphold the clichés of the Ruhr region most vociferously. “It’s strange,” says Stratmann in puzzlement. “Sometimes you get the impression that punk bands still glorify the worker’s mentality, structural change and the economic difficulties of the Ruhr.” And Rebmann adds: “This cliché of the Ruhr with its belching chimneys and hard graft hasn’t been true since the 1980s. But it was the source of the region’s identity. It was also a way for early punks to feel a bond with England. Nobody talks about how green it is here in the meantime,” he laughs.
The German mainstream radio landscape is showered with terribly cheesy, German-speaking pop music, which desperately wants to sound like Coldplay. If you want to hear life-experienced music from Germany that hits the center of your heart and feels new and wider with each listening, then try the Duisburg songwriter Tom Liwa. This applies to the albums of his (disbanded and reunited) band Flowerpornoes as well as his excellent solo albums or the pieces he has written for others like the Cologne band Klee [LINK]. Albums like ... red‘ nicht von Straßen, nicht von Zügen (1994), St. Amour (2000) or his newest record Ganz normale Songs released on the Hamburg label Grand Hotel van Cleef prove his uniqueness. His lyrics are often deeply saddened, closely observing diary entries, short novels that reach straight for the heart: songs about a doctor's visit with a grim diagnosis, a fateful encounter by the river, a strange squirrel and a strange girl.
We reach the songwriter on the phone. He has not lived in Duisburg for a long time, but we are curious to find out how his growing up in the Ruhr area influenced him musically. He locates these influences very early in his biography, but at first quite independently of the peculiarities of the Ruhr area. "In the beginning, the radio was certainly important, WDR radio with classical music and Schlager," Liwa surmises. "And then, in the 60s, strange forms of music broke in. For example, Jimi Hendrix was heard by someone who lives opposite, who is twice my age and who plays that music to me as an eight-year-old. To find that strange at first, because you grew up between Bach's ideas of harmony and Schlager, but still perceive: That's hot shit ... " Important is his father, who works at the youth welfare office and takes Liwa to concerts. "I actually wanted to be a musician already when I was four or five," he recalls. "These were the first touches - apart from school performances or something similar - with live music." With his father, he experienced a festival in the Wedaustadium with the British hard rock band U.F.O. At the soundcheck he stands, maybe as a seven-year-old, next to his dad and up front were those long-haired guys. “This was the first time I saw a band in their working context, "says the songwriter, continuing to tell of other important events such as a concert by Hermann van Veen in the Mercator Halle in Duisburg.
Somewhere in between these many musical styles develop Tom Liwa's own musical aesthetics. But when we ask if the pop history of the Ruhr region played a role in this, the beatscene or the successful Krautrock bands, he emphatically negates: "For me, my music was never tied to cities. For me, that was never important, whether anyone from Duisburg has ever done anything, "he says and continues after careful deliberation," but I'm sure that the region has nevertheless shaped me. The weather. The mentality of the people who surrounded me. But also definitely the architecture that has influenced my idea of spaces. How music sounds in rooms - from the nursery where I sang for the first time to the youth center. "If there really were not any Duisburg artists who impressed him, we urge him. "Yes, there was one here in Duisburg that influenced me a lot, but only at a time when, in my view, I thought I was already a songwriter, even before I wrote songs: A.S.H. Pelikan. Later I also played with him a couple of times. He was actually the first singer-songwriter I experienced and liked. As a person who stood in front of me and was filled with something. "
A.S.H. Pelikan is one of those artists whose life deserved a whole book. He has published many records and text publications since 1971 as a musician and writer, often in self-publishing. He is also a guitar teacher, actor and much more. On his homepage there is a timeline (http://ashpelikan.de/?page_id=463), which is a highly enjoyable Duisburg world cultural history (and in which Tom Liwa also plays a role). In summary, the homepage welcomes the visitor with the following words: "Pelikan is considered one of the most unsuccessful Duisburg authors and songwriters of the last 40 years. He has sold 984 books and 652 CDs worldwide. "
Tom Liwa experiences him in the youth center Eschhaus. "These youth centers were important to many," he explains. "If you were in these circles somehow, they were a place to say: we want to play live in two week’s time. And that was possible. Also the joy of experimenting in these places. Not having to limit yourself to a format that has to be sold, with which you go directly to a market. The freedom to try something in front of people. "
In 1985, Liwa finally founded his band Flowerpornoes, with which he has released nine albums, initially in English, later German-speaking. Often he was and is also doing solo stuff. In addition, he has set up numerous cultural projects, dealt with spirituality and sustainability, and recently transferred his many years of preoccupation with painting and drawing into a first exhibition of his own works. During this time he has seen many scenes come and go: the punk, the German rock, the Hamburg school and more. Mostly he kept away as far as possible. Maybe it helped him that there never really were big scenes in the Ruhr area, but rather always only micro scenes. "There are voices that say: As soon as a movement has more than 200 followers, it is fucked, because then everything dilutes and eats itself," says Tom Liwa at the end of our conversation. "Maybe developments in small circles are much more exciting. If they die, then the next micro-things can morph from them faster. And all this quick morphing eludes much ugly commercial pressure or restriction."
On the way to the train we listen to some songs from Duisburg’s diverse pop history – from the Krautrock of Bröselmaschine to the singer-songwriter-folk of Danny Dziuk and Dödelhaie’s punk. Finally, we listen to the unique Tom Liwa. And our hearts are touched by the melancholy beauty of Liwa’s song “Für die linke Spur zu langsam” (Too Slow for the Left Lane).
Then we go to the last stop of our journey of discovery. Once again, we’re off to Bochum.
A hip ice-cream café near the Schauspielhaus (Theatre). On the menu they have spicy chai latte with soy milk. The I Am Love Café in the centre of Bochum would not look out of place in Berlin Mitte. On the last leg of our tour of the Ruhr area, which has turned into several months of research, we’re going to meet one of today’s most prominent and modern bands. Alina Süggeler and Andi Weizel of the pop band Frida Gold have not given interviews for a long time and are working intensively on new songs. Since their debut Juwel they are among the most successful acts in the country. The album Liebe ist meine Religion (Love is my Religion) with its eponymous single reached No. 1 in the charts, sold-out tours and festival appearances followed, and established the duo as a celebrated live band. Sitting together at a low wooden table, an extremely likeable conversation develops, one that brings across the long-time familiarity of the two. They often finish each other’s sentences or help each other search for a better word. They tell the story of a band from the Ruhr region that went out to conquer the country and has returned to its roots for the time being.
On paper, Frida Gold is an impossible mix of influences. Alina Süggeler, who grew up just outside Bochum in Hattingen, actually has a background in classical music. She sang early on in the church choir, learned the flute and went on to study this instrument at Folkwang University. She sees the region as a good place for a musician to start. “I look back on Hattingen and the surroundings as being musical,” she says. “At my school there was a really good orchestra. I travelled with them. Then musicals were staged, which were performed outside the city. These are all small things, but there was a feeling that if you wanted to express yourself musically, no matter how, then there was room.” Yet in the mid-2000s, she encountered a lot of resistance with her first bands Amnesia and Linarockt. “I’ve always written very pop-oriented music, because I wanted to reach as many people as possible with what I have to say. But back then, I had the feeling that I had to justify myself a lot for doing that,” she says. “In the music scene in the Ruhr region at the time, hard guitar music ruled.”
One of those making the loudest noise was Andi Weizel. “I’m from Essen-Steele. There was HüWeg, one of those old youth clubs where all the different social classes came together, there was an arts scene and everything clashed: hardcore, hip-hop, graffiti sprayers,” he says. “The concerts there and in the nearby Grend club, where underground punks played, were why I started making music: this clash of different people who gave their all every night, no matter whether on stage or in the pogo circle in front of the stage or when spraying.” The duo met at a festival for up-and-coming talent. Amused, Andi Weizel remembers: “I didn’t get at all why there was a band on stage with a singer who was so nice,” he laughs and Alina gives him an amused look, “singing pop songs.”
It took a while until the two formed Frida Gold. Alina Süggeler did some training in Hamburg with the successful producer Franz Plasa, while Andi Weizel studied at the Popakademie Mannheim. The pair first came closer personally, then musically. “From the beginning I benefitted a lot from the fact that Andi takes it for granted that you can and should make a living from music,” says Alina. “In spite of my work in Hamburg, I didn’t take it for granted until then.” The band developed ambitions and created some momentum, wrote songs and attracted the interest of more and more people. They had to manage a balancing act between the Ruhr and a national breakthrough. “We already knew that we had to reach people from all over Germany with our music in order to be interesting for labels,” says Weizel, who plays the bass and polishes their songs on his computer. “There are no bands who are only known in the Ruhr region and then get signed to a label somewhere in Germany. Even if you fill clubs with a capacity of 500 people here, no one from Berlin or Hamburg will come down and take a look at you.” Alina Süggeler nods, but adds: “When we first started getting serious, we still had the feeling that the Ruhr area is a good place to start. There’s a mentality here that gives you the feeling: You’ve really got to get stuck in. I think it was good for us in the beginning to make our first record here and go to Berlin later on. Because hardly anyone here can live off big business. If you get passed around too much at an early stage, or meet too many people who have an opion, you might lose your own way ...”
Their debut album Juwel was released in 2011. The two moved to Berlin, split as a couple but stayed together for their songwriting. They recorded their second and third album in Los Angeles and other places. Alina Süggeler became a jury member for TV casting shows, became a successful model, and was featured in fashion magazines. And yet something got lost on the way. Their fans rejected their attempt to write English lyrics. The candid video for the song “Langsam” (Slow) resulted in more talk about Süggeler’s appearance rather than the excellent electro-pop on their third album Alina. But that’s just life in the capital. “Berlin’s great,” says the singer. “But you can fill up your life with things and feel like you’re busy all the time, but all you’re doing is distracting yourself. You meet people and meet people and talk and talk, but you don’t end up doing anything.” So the decision to move back to their home turf slowly grew – a plan which they’ve recently carried out. “At the moment, I have the feeling that we can go back to our roots here in the Ruhr. I can only feel my origins here and talk about things, of course,” explains Alina Süggeler, adding with a laugh: “And suddenly I want to write a song about Bochum!”
Ruhr area impressions
Our journey through the Ruhr is over. We’ve listened to hundreds of records, collected half a library of books on the Ruhr, visited ten cities and had many remarkable conversations. We weren’t able to find a clear-cut answer as to why the pop history of the Ruhr is as unique as it is. But the region’s polycentricity certainly play a special role. Self-contained music scenes, like in Düsseldorf’s Ratinger Hof [LINK] or the Sound of Cologne did not emerge in 60 years of pop history. For this to happen, perhaps the cities were ultimately not big enough. There was barely a district with different subcultures that could generate enough productive friction to become mainstream. Instead, the many micro scenes (especially at night) spread via rather sporadic public transport across many loosely interlinked large and medium-sized towns. Only in Essen with its International Song Festival, Hagen’s New Wave, or from the metal and punk scenes did the local music make it beyond city limits.
Every major and minor city had – and mostly still has – a youth or arts club. The importance of these institutions for the development of music in the Ruhr cannot be overestimated. Without the JZE and the HüWeg in Essen, the Eschhaus in Duisburg, the FZW in Dortmund and many more, things would have stayed pretty quiet in the Ruhr area. At the same time, these places have been dominated by loud, male, aggressive music since their inception. Metrosexual, queer or transsexual life and art worlds are only now finding their way slowly into the Ruhr area: to date, music fans looking for female bands would still be looking for a needle in a haystack.
For decades, the Ruhr area was marked by an economic crisis and its image as a workers’ region. Here there were no masses of well-heeled students who could afford to make music as a hobby with their parents’ money or state funding. In the Ruhr area, music always had to be financially viable. The result is quite often unique pop-rock metal-electro music, which doesn’t shy away from keeping an eye on sales but at the same time expresses the life experiences and musical influences of the Ruhr area. Few have had international success, but the variety of genres, bands and artists in the Ruhr is all the more fascinating. Just as Ruhr cities are not ‘mainstream’ in terms of tourism, but unusual places for those who love things out of the ordinary, same goes for the sound of the Ruhr are.
Throughout the region we discovered fascinating places in pop history: The Grugahalle, Duisburg’s Ruhrort or the Zechen Carl and Bochum are impressive pop hotspots where you can still feel history into the present day. It was easy to immerse ourselves in the region’s nightlife in Bochum’s Bermuda3Eck, in Dortmund’s trendy pubs, in wrecked punk shacks in Gelsenkirchen or hipster venues in Essen’s Rüttenscheid. The opportunity to travel from one city, from one micro-scene or pop story to the next on a cheap day ticket is wonderful. We only managed a first glance. Jazz, swing, dance music and pop, soul, fusion, free jazz, the biker-mod scene, rockabilly fans, and steampunk supporters have their own stories to tell of the Ruhr area. We’ll be back. “See you later, alligator”.