40 years of German punk rock band Toten Hosen

27 Mar

Düsseldorf, Ratinger Strasse 10, early 1980s: The Ratinger Hof pub has been a magnet for artists and musicians from the Düsseldorf scene for years. 

Artists like Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Polke were known to drop by every now and then. Punk bands would rehearse in the basement, while discussion groups, concerts and theater stagings took place upstairs. "Normal" visitors to the old town or tourists rarely strayed into this neon-illuminated artists' pub — it was perhaps too rough and unpolished, just like the bands performing on the stage made out of billiard tables.

The owner of the bar at the time, Carmen Knoebel, recalls: "We found it was great to have the invigorating energy of bands getting on stage without really being able to play their instruments," she says in an interview on the Toten Hosen's website. She also liked the lyrics of the early songs, adding: "I think that in German punk, the lyrics were much more important than the music."

A playground for German punk bands

The Ratinger Hof was both a playground and a springboard for different bands, who learned from each other as they shared the stage. The band Zentralkomitee, shortened to ZK, was one of the groups that banged around on their instruments at the Ratinger Hof. It was led by the young Campino, whose real name is Andreas Frege and who would later become the lead vocalist of Die Toten Hosen. Fans would pogo dance to ZK; Campino had an entertainer's charisma from the start.

One memorable gig, recalls Carmen Knoebel, was performed for children. The ZK band members were wearing clown costumes and they let the kids join them on stage, where they added their own punk flute sounds to the jam. It all ended with a food fight. Punk came from the UK to Germany, and even to communist East Germany, at the end of the 1970s

A pub completely destroyed

In the book "Die Toten Hosen: In the beginning was the noise," Campino remembers the ZK years: "Every second concert was totally shit. When the concert was over, three men clapped, one shouted 'asshole' and that was it." The punk trio nevertheless released singles and an LP.

There were also unforgettable off-stage moments. Trini Trimpop, who accompanied the band at the time and made concert recordings, recalls one night in a Kreuzberg pub: "Getting drunk with the bartender, we started playing football in the pub with a leather ball in the middle of the night. The next morning there was nothing left undamaged but the billiard table — no glasses, no mirrors, no bottles, no chairs," he said in a web radio broadcast by Medienforum Münster. The best part was that the bar owner was enthusiastic about the whole thing.

The dead rabbits and other pseudonyms

December 1981 was the end of ZK. A few months later, Campino, Andreas von Holst, Andreas Meurer, Michael Breitkopf, Walter Hartung and Trini Trimpop founded Die Toten Hosen. After just one month of rehearsals, they played their first concert in Bremen and were announced as "Die Toten Hasen" (The Dead Rabbits, instead of their real name, which literally translates at the Dead Pants, but it's also German slang for "boring," or "nothing going on").

The band has had many names throughout their career. As Die Roten Rosen (The Red Roses), they covered old German hits, including Hildegard Knef's "Für mich soll's rote Rosen regnen" (For me it should rain red roses).

In 1993 they performed as Das Katastrophenkommando (The Catastrophe Commando); in 1998 as the Rheinpiraten (Rhine Pirates). In 2000 they played several concerts as Essen auf Rädern (Meals on Wheels). They also performed as Die Jungs von der Opel-Gang (The Boys from the Opel Gang) — an homage to the title of the first Hosen album, "Opel-Gang," from 1983.

Politically active to this day

The boys from Düsseldorf have repeatedly attracted media attention with their clear political stances, which are primarily directed against the far right. In 1986 they played for the first time for a large crowd of some 100,000 people, with Herbert Grönemeyer and Udo Lindenberg, among others, at the "WAA-hnsinns Festival," which was organized against the nuclear reprocessing plant in Wackersdorf.

With the album "Ein kleines bisschen Horrorschau" (A little bit of horrorshow) — based on the music of the stage version of "The Clockwork Orange" — they made their breakthrough in 1988. They played concerts in front of sold-out halls, which got bigger and bigger — but they also did smaller gigs like surprise appearances in prisons.

In 1992, the anti-Nazi song "Sascha, ein aufrechter Deutscher" (Sascha, an upright German) was released as a protest against xenophobia and racism. At the time, skinheads had set fire to a home for asylum seekers in Rostock-Lichtenhagen with Molotov cocktails, with onlookers cheering.

To this day, Die Toten Hosen support campaigns against poverty, environmental destruction and xenophobia and are committed to various aid organizations. One of the band's most successful songs is "Tage wie diese" (Days Like This, 2012). The anthem became the soundtrack of the 2012 European Football Championship and embodies a kind of communal ecstasy. When the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party used the song as the party won the federal elections in 2013, the band was not amused — they had already forbidden parties to use the song during the election campaign.

The faux-pas made such waves that the newly re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel personally apologized to Campino over the phone: "Dear Mr. Campino, I'm calling because we misappropriated your song on election night. Don't worry, it will not become the next CDU anthem. But that's such a nice song you've written there!" "Tage wie diese" is one of over 500 songs Campino wrote for the Toten Hosen, along with the record-breaking 196 cover songs in their repertoire.

Their last studio album, "Learning English Lesson 3," comprises only cover versions of English hits. But now, to mark the band's 40th anniversary, a new release in German is coming out on March 25 . The single "Scheiss Wessis" comes along with a counterpart song by German rapper Marteria,  "Scheiss Ossis." "Wessis" and "Ossis" are the slang words used for West and East Germans, and the disparaging distinctions still made 33 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall are mainly based on stereotypes. The new songs are therefore a joint campaign against prejudice among Germans.

A new best-of album with seven new songs will be released on May 27. In the summer, the band will launch their tour, "Alles aus Liebe: 40 Jahre die Toten Hosen" (Everything out of love: 40 years of Die Toten Hosen). It starts on June 10 in Cologne, and many concerts of their stadium tour are already sold out. 

Author Silke Wünsch

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