What Niedecken does not say is that southwards down Bonner Strasse, there is a green belt that comes before the mountains, separating the old-fashioned inner city from the picturesque, affluent suburbs. And beyond it lies the sleepy village of Rodenkirchen. Students from south Cologne have been attending the red-brick secondary school here for 50 years. Posters announce school theatre performances. Soon there will be Abitur (‘A’-level) parties and the leavers’ ball. In a resolution on the school’s homepage, the class reps promise that during these festivities, they will “in no way disturb the peace at school, damage or endanger the reputation of our or other schools. Moreover, we respect the school’s house rules and under no circumstances will be on school premises between 10pm and 6am.”
Few places seem less likely for a subcultural revolt than the school’s tidy assembly hall, built in the early 1970s as a studio stage and concert hall with tiered seating. And yet, here at the fever pitch of the Deutscher Herbst or ‘German Autumn’ in October 1977 with terror attacks by the RAF, the first history-defining punk concert in Germany took place. Performing on stage at a deafening pitch were Male (who went on to become The Krupps, among others) and Charley’s Girls (later Mittagspause and Fehlfarben). The concert quickly turned into a battleground between punks and the other students, who preferred classic rock music. And so, German punk established its founding myth as a wild opposition to stuffy, academic rock and prog rock. Even if Cologne never succeeded in becoming a real punk stronghold and Düsseldorf, Hamburg and Berlin became the centres of the scene, the innovative, subcultural explosion of punk is forever connected to this suburban housing district in south Cologne. As so often, journalist and musicmanager Alfred Hilsberg, the ‘great definer’ of pop terminology, coined a phrase that summed it all up. Half a year later, in an article for the magazine Sounds, he euphorically described the burgeoning punk revolution and announced the movement’s maxim: “Rodenkirchen is burning”. Meanwhile, the official school chronicle of 1977 noted: “During the Easter holidays the first student exchange will take place with Saint Quentin, France.”
A few days later we meet songwriter Wolf Maahn in the beer garden of the Kölner Stadtgarten concert hall, which has since risen to become a centre of European jazz. We want to talk to him about the early eighties, when Cologne began to transform into the pop centre of Germany. Maahn, born in 1955 in Berlin and raised in Munich, began his career in 1976 with Food Band, which he founded together with today’s TV keyboardist Helmut Zerlett and later BAP drummer Jan Dix. An English label offered the band the chance to record in London in the late seventies, which was a decisive event for Maahn and led to their wish to produce their own music. Despite performances at London’s Marquee Club, Food Band did not succeed in breaking through, especially when their label went bankrupt. Maahn dissolved the band in part because he was impressed by the beginnings of new German-language music. “I was inspired by the German New Wave,” he says. “All sorts of music styles suddenly became more common in Germany. I got the feeling that what I had learned from Food Band, and what I had in mind as some kind of R ‘n’ B, could work very well in German. I thought it might be something of a pioneering act. What appealed to me especially was proving it was possible.” Maahn released Deserteure, his acclaimed first solo album, in 1982. In the following years he became a central figure of the Cologne music scene with songs like “Fever”, “Roses im Asphalt” and “Ich wart auf Dich”, and as a producer of Klaus Lage, Purple Schulz, Anne Haigis and Niedecken’s solo album Schlagzeiten.
All these Cologne musicians met in the eighties in a city that was well-suited to being Germany’s centre of pop music: EMI, one of the largest record companies worldwide, WDR, the Deutschlandfunk radio station, and from the late eighties on, the TV channels RTL and VIVA, all turned Cologne into Germany’s leading media city. The good-quality reception of the British Forces Broadcasting Service, which transmitted from a villa in the Marienburg district up until 1990, was also significant. Moderators such as Dave Lee Travis, Chris Howland and, above all, John Peel introduced new, innovative music on ultra-shortwave radio from the mid-1960s on, providing inspiration to local musicians. What’s more, well-known venues such as the Basement, the Roxy and Luxor existed, as well the large-scale Sporthalle. “There’s not another city that beats Cologne people’s love of going out. Cologne is a leader in that way,” explains Wolf Maahn. “Back then, you could easily fill seats for a variety of events and it’s still that way to this day.” The city’s studios added to its already leading position. By the seventies, Dieter Dierks in Puhlheim and Conny Plank in Wolperath had recorded the most significant German bands here such as Ihre Kinder, Ash Ra Temple, Tangerine Dream, Birth Control, Guru Guru, Amon Düül, Harmonia, La Düsseldorf and Kraftwerk. These studios increasingly attracted international artists to Cologne in the eighties. Stars like Ike & Tina Turner, Eric Burdon and bands like Boomtown Rats, Ultravox, Eurythmics, Les Rita Mitsouko and Killing Joke all recorded with Dierks and Plank.
But in step with the increasing internationality of city’s music scene at the end of the eighties, the pressure for musicians to conform grew significantly too. BAP is a good example of this. Attempts by the guitarist Major Heuser to gear the band towards internationally accessible pop music led to a conflict with Niedecken, a musician located in regional storytelling. The results were the weakest albums in the band’s history. Wolf Maahn too became sick of being marketed as “the German Springsteen”, refused to live up to expectations with his album Third Language and ended his production work. Since then, his albums have been far removed from any music scene and are the result of him working in his own studio as a self-sufficient musician.