In November 2009, German authorities placed Liebe Ist Für Alle Da, the sixth studio album by Rammstein, in an “index” of material unsuitable for sale or display to minors, effectively banning it from record stores. The offending material? A photo of a band member about to slap the ass of a naked woman bent over his lap, as well as song lyrics promoting BDSM practices. Worldwide masses of fans, detractors and casual bystanders were left to ponder what took said authorities so long to notice. It could hardly be described as a first-time indiscretion.
In their defense, the band’s image of sexual perversion is commonly overshadowed by their fiery live performances. That is no metaphor – the average Rammstein gig has fifteen-foot flames bursting out of the sets, the instruments and even from the musicians, who often wear masks with flamethrowers attached. Sparks come off their boots. Fireworks explode in synch with the beats. Microphone stands spontaneously combust. Even the lead singer ignites, singing whole songs engulfed in flames.
Since their first tours in the mid-nineties, Berlin-based sextet Rammstein has built up a solid reputation for the extreme theatricality of their shows. The band’s daring pyrotechnics seamlessly fits into their sophisticated S&M imagery. Corsets, jackboots, buckles, spikes, gags, goggles, gimp masks and endless variations of leather and chains adorn the musicians as they launch into a loud, distorted assault of twin guitars, stomping drums, brooding bass and ornate synths and keyboards.
But if clothes make the man, the German rockers do not shy away from playing the part – especially vocalist Till Lindemann, who’s prone to very literal dramatizations of the group’s lyrics. He’ll whip himself while singing ‘Bestrafe Mich’ (‘Punish Me’), don wings for ‘Engel’ (‘Angel’) or come out onstage from a giant Giger-esque vulva. For years the most controversial of their antics was the live performance of ‘Bück Dich’ (‘Bend Over’), in which Lindemann, holding ball-gagged keyboardist Flake Lorenz by a leash, dragged him downstage and, whipping out a dildo out of his own bulging pants, simulated a doggy-style penetration that culminated with the sex toy squirting copious amounts of liquid over the stage, the musicians and the audience. A 1998 arrest for indecency after such a display in Worcester, Massachusetts only made the act more popular with fans. Photos and videos of the band’s memorable antics have multiplied throughout the Internet.
A History of Polemics
Rammstein was always destined for controversy. Their name first gained currency out of Germany when two songs from their 1995 debut album Herzeleid (‘Heartache’) appeared in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, as well as its best-selling soundtrack CD. In addition to being solidly endorsed afterwards by Lynch, who has repeatedly claimed Rammstein to be his favorite rock band, the Trent Reznor-produced movie soundtrack proved key in their breakthrough. Making more money than the film itself, the record provided a long momentum for the band, who released their sophomore effort, Sehnsucht (‘Longing’), to rave reviews in 1998.
That album yielded one of the group’s signature tracks, Du Hast (‘You Have’), a stomping onslaught of buzz-saw guitars and primitive electronic keyboards with monosyllabic lyrics so simple even non-German speakers can sing along. The song enjoyed heavy airplay for years, becoming a popular theme in American wrestling and sports shows, as well as finding its way into another best-selling film soundtrack record, The Matrix. The track’s video, a gun-toting exploding tribute to Tarantino’s film Reservoir Dogs, signals another recurring theme in Rammstein’s lyrics and imagery: violence. Other videos show the band becoming rabid werewolves (‘Du Riechst So Gut’), conducting a bank heist (‘Ich Will’) and committing matricide (‘Mutter’).
Another hit, the fast-paced ‘Feuer Frei!’ (‘Fire at Will!’) has the words “bang bang” for a chorus and, like many other songs, talk about fire and burning. The theme is a dear one from the start of their career: ‘Ramstein’ is the name of an American military base in Southwest Germany where the world’s deadliest air show disaster took place in 1988, killing sixty-seven spectators and wounding more than three hundred others when two airplanes collided in mid-air. A homonymous song from their first album remembers the tragedy with a graphic depiction of the injuries, and the motif continues in their repertoire with tracks like ‘Asche Zu Asche’ (‘Ashes to Ashes’), ‘Mein Herz Brennt’ (‘My Heart Burns’), ‘Hilf Mir’ (‘Help Me’) and ‘Feuer und Wasser’ (‘Fire and Water’).
But the real juicy bits, of course, are the string of paraphilias that make up their vocabulary. Incest is quite frequent, with at least one song, ‘Wiener Blut’ (‘Viennese Blood’) based on a real occurrence (The Josef Frietzl case). In ‘Heirate Mich’ (‘Marry Me’), a suitor digs up his beloved’s corpse to continue his courtship after her demise, with the priceless accusation ‘zum zeitenmal entkommst du mir’ (‘you have escaped me for the second time’). Bondage, domination, sadism and masochism permeate most of what Rammstein says, plays and performs. It is too widespread to list.
Last year’s placement in the German index, in a sense, was the climax of sixteen years of bad reputation beyond typical rock and roll irreverence. But parents and moral crusaders are not the only people the band have angered. Rammstein, in fact, seems bent on a worldwide drive to rub everybody the wrong way. They flirted with Satanism in the doomsday annunciation of ‘Der Meister’ (‘The Master’), rose Christ-like from crucifixion in ‘Asche zu Asche’ (‘Ashes to Ashes’) and snubbed Heaven by proclaiming ‘Gott weiß ich will kein Engel sein’ (“God knows I want to be no angel”) in ‘Engel’. Even their audience is fair game: the more boisterous and macho-driven among the band’s fans were more than a little embarrassed with the release of 2006 single ‘Mann Gegen Mann’ (‘Man Against Man’), sung from the point of view of a homosexual who calls his orientation a gift from fate, despite the abuse he suffers from all around him. The track’s video advanced the controversy further, alternating shots of the band playing in the nude with a throng of shiny, naked hunks engaged in what looks like a rugby scrum without a ball.
Rammstein’s fire may have burned a little too hot when the band released an X-rated video for ‘Pussy’, the first single of 2009’s ‘Liebe Ist Für Alle Da’ (‘There Is Love For Everyone’), on German porn website Visit-X.net. A parody of vintage porn, it features the band members (hold your pun a while) as ‘The Playboy’, ‘The CEO’ and other stock characters of the adult canon. As they plow through dead serious lyrics like ‘too big, too small/size does matter after all’ (notice the English, a rarity for the group), it soon evolves into parallel scenes of hardcore fellatio and penetration, with a bona fide porn climax (use your imagination, or look for the link below). It could be that the indexing that followed had nothing to do with the video, only with the alleged explicit lyrics in the newest release by a band that has been singing of whips, torture and power play for sixteen years. You never know. In any case, Rammstein reacted to the ban by re-releasing the album in two versions: a reduced one, with milder artwork and without the offending track ‘Ich Tu Dir Weh’ (‘I Hurt You’), and a metal-encased Deluxe edition of the unexpurgated recording with the added value of handcuffs, a bottle of lubricant and six pink dildos. Quite a riposte, but not as much as if the dildos had been cast from the band members (pun at will), or if ‘Pussy’s’ hardcore bits hadn’t been performed by body doubles.
The German Curse
Quite a few billions of the current world population conjure up the same goose-stepping images when they think ‘German’, so it was just a matter of time before a Prussian rock band with a testosterone-fueled tough image was accused of Nazi ‘sympathies’, ‘discourse’ or any other vague accusations bigots like to hurl around lightly. That ghost has followed Rammstein from the beginning, with some of the kinder reviews describing the group as ‘poster boys for the master race’ and ‘music to invade Poland to’. The Independent even went as far as describing the band’s logo, an ‘R’ superimposed on a plus sign, as ‘consciously fashioned to resemble an Iron Cross’. It will certainly attract more readers than pointing out its resemblance to the Swiss flag.
Things got a bit nastier for the sextet when the two teenagers responsible for the Columbine High School Massacre in Denver in 1999 were found to be t-shirt-clad, song-quoting Rammstein fans. The group issued a statement of condolences to ‘all affected by the recent tragic events in Denver’, denying the existence of any ‘lyrical content or political beliefs that could have possibly influenced such behavior’ and claiming to ‘continually strive to instill healthy and non-violent values’ in their own children. Not the first or the last scapegoats to be thus slandered in the history of show business, they continued to record and tour, enjoying the extra publicity from all the notoriety. A series of cancelled concerts in Russia and Belarus between 2002 and 2004, however, shows that extra publicity comes with a price.
Rammstein seems to thrive on such accusations, and perhaps even to provoke the press on purpose. The adjective ‘militaristic’, already a cliché in reviews of their shows and music, is quite accurate to describe the steady drive of their heavy beats. Their wide range of disturbing costumes, furthermore, has included the odd army helmet. But the thinnest ice the band has ever skated on is the 1998 video for the song ‘Stripped’, consisting entirely of edited footage from Olympia, the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics documentary directed by Third Reich official filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. While the stunt did arouse the anger of the general press, the group’s argument that the choice was purely aesthetic and that the video showed athletes of several ethnicities engaged in nothing but sports activities was hard to counter.
The band was bound to grow tired of bearing the burden of proving their innocence sooner or later. In 2001, Rammstein released the single ‘Links 2-3-4’ (‘Left 2-3-4’), echoing the traditional marching chant of the German army. Concerning the lyrics ‘Sie wollen mein Herz am rechten Fleck/Doch seh ich dann nach unten weg/Da schlägt es in der linken Brust’ (‘They want my heart in the right spot/But when I look down below/I beats on the left of my chest’), guitarist Richard Kruspe-Bernstein (yes, Bernstein) told Billboard at the time: ‘For those who want to put us into a certain political corner, the song says clearly, “My heart is on the left”. But we didn’t want to make it too simple, so we combined this statement with military-style music to make it more artistic and more interesting.’
Having developed a taste for playing with fire, Rammstein seems not to know when to stop.
Humor Beyond Deadpan
Critics have often dismissed Rammstein as too exaggerated, too loud or otherwise too much in poor taste to be taken seriously. How it can even cross someone’s mind to take seriously a musical-theatrical performance with ejaculating sex toys and gorey lyrics howled in a cookie monster voice by muscular men in tights and make-up is beyond reason. It could be the German, or perhaps the pyrotechnics.
Either way, the over-the-top hilarity of their act never escaped the musicians themselves. If anything, they’ve made it more pronounced with each new tour. While promoting 2003’s Reise, Reise, one of the funniest moments on stage would happen during the song ‘Mein Teil’ (‘My Part’), a single inspired by the recent story of German cannibal Armin Meiwes. Dressed as a cook and wielding a butcher’s knife, vocalist Lindemann would chase keyboardist Lorenz, catch him, throw him in a giant cauldron and, as one could expect, set it on fire with a flamethrower. By the same token, live performances of ‘Te Quiero Puta!’, sung entirely in Spanish over wimpy attempts at Mariachi trumpets, often find the band wearing oversized sombreros (just to make sure critics won’t take the song seriously). More recently, the climax to ‘Pussy’ has seen Lindemann singing while mounting a pink cannon that squirts foam over the audience. Yes, it is conceivable that this is a band we shouldn’t take too seriously.
Repeated statements by the musicians evidence what Rammstein is all about. In a 2005 interview with the New York Times, drummer Christoph Schneider claimed the band’s motto was ‘Do your own thing. And overdo it!’ To what guitarist Paul Landers added: ‘We like being on the fringes of bad taste.’ Germans might be more comfortable with black humor than other cultures – it is, after all, a country where daytime television sitcoms feature plots involving heroin and incest. It is debatable, however, who we should be more scared of: costumed men who set fire to themselves and sing about incestuous pedophilia with dead bodies, or perfectly normal people who think said pyromaniacs have a serious message to get across. As the most regrettable passages of Germanic history show, there’s nothing more dangerous and terrifying than people too eager to believe what they hear.
Recommended Tracks – A Rammstein Primer
Critics disagree as to what labels to apply to the German band – industrial metal, dance metal, goth metal and even kraut metal are some of the monikers proposed. That none of them seems to stick is further evidence of the group’s unique style. Rammstein doesn’t sound like any other band, and fans of any music genre could be surprised at what they find when giving the band a first listen.
Mein Hertz Brennt (‘My Heart Burns’)
From Mutter (2001)
Filled with orchestral atmospheres, the track counterpoints heavy guitars with delicate textures.
From Sehnsucht (1998)
Every Rammstein record has a slow, melancholic ballad. This is by far the best of them.
Du Hast (‘You Have’)
From Sehnsucht (1998)
Arguably their greatest hit. Impossible to stand still to this one. Good for dance floors and mosh pits alike.
From Mutter (2001)
Another near-symphonic track. Complex, atmospheric, and free of cookie monster vocals.
From Liebe Ist Für Alle Da (2009)
So simple it feels like a parody of dance music. Perfect for clubbers who wouldn’t be caught dead within earshot of anything ending in ‘metal’.
Feuer Frei! (‘Fire at Will!’)
From Mutter (2001)
Manic booming soundtrack for action films. For punk rock fans, or anyone who thinks heavy metal is too slow.