The first time I saw Rammstein live remains one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever been to. Back in 1999, I was a Visual Arts sophomore in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and the company I kept in those days was heavily into alternative and hard rock. Not something I shared entirely – I was more into Joy Division and Nick Cave than Stone Temple Pilots and Metallica (still true). Nevertheless, all of us welcomed the news of Kiss coming to town in the same manner: who cares about those geriatric buffoons when the opening act is the hottest band we’ve heard in years?
In the weeks prior to the show, local radios started to play “Du Hast”, then the latest single from their second album, Sensucht. It was the only song most people knew, and it was enough to sparkle love-or-hate opinions. For me and my friends it was already an acquired taste: David Lynch’s Lost Highway had taken us by storm two years before, with the film’s soundtrack playing heavily in our stereos and Discmen even before the movie premiered, mostly on account of our enthusiastic devotion for Nine Inch Nails. It included two of Rammstein’s best tracks to date.
Treasure the CD
I remember when I first held my copy of the Lost Highway CD. As usual, I meticulously pored over the booklet before listening to it (mock me all you want, but I’m one of those kids who likes to stare at the box of his new toys). The Nine Inch Nails tracks I had bought it for, check. David Bowie, Lou Reed, Smashing Pumpkins, check. Plus a lot of names I didn’t recognize. “Hmm, Rammstein” I mused, as I read “Hierate Mich” (sic) and “Rammstein,” the German titles of the two tracks featured. “Must be a techno DJ or something.”
Boy, was I wrong. The ominous atmospheric synth, buzzing guitars, pile-driver beat and cavernous vocals had quite a lasting effect on the impressionable teenagers we were. The two tracks instantly joined our favorites and multiplied through countless mix tapes. As far as masculinity-affirming rites of passage are concerned, you just couldn’t beat Rammstein. Even Metallica sissied up in comparison. It seems things haven’t changed much: my 15-year-old godson listens to the German noisemongers every day (funnily enough, he also heard them first on a movie: the 2002 action blockbuster xXx).
This was all before iPods, Facebook and Broadband. Downloading a whole album on Napster could take weeks. Everyone still bought CDs in those days (call me a fetishist, but I still do), so as soon as we heard of a new Rammstein record out, we had it readily imported, for three times the price of a locally manufactured CD. When it arrived weeks later, we were delighted: the new material was even better. “Engel,” “Tier” and “Klavier” became instant favorites.
Kiss and Make Up
International acts playing in Porto Alegre were a lot rarer in those days – even São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro didn’t get much action. As the uproar preceding the Kiss concert grew, with notes on the press every day, my friends and I held our breaths for the opening act. Kiss fans started appearing on TV and newspapers with black and white make up, as Kissers worldwide are prone to. We just laughed – we’d never be caught dead wearing Kiss make-up. We had ideas of our own.
“Why are you guys sporting Belgium’s flag?” asked a puzzled headbangerette with a three-quarters empty bottle of Cointreau we had met on the around-the-block line for the concert, some five hours before the event. Even without the Cointreau, we must have been quite an intriguing sight: black clothes, black jackets, black t-shirts with the Rammstein logo that we had silk-screened ourselves (like the good visual arts students that we weren’t) and black, red and yellow make-up. One of us had the German flag painted on his forehead, another on both his cheeks. I had it on my entire face. None of the surrounding pasty-faced, starry-eyed Kabuki morons would fuck with us. Though some people did flash a Nazi salute at us.
All Quiet on the Stage Front
The concert opener was, of course, “Rammstein.” As the slow keyboard intro kicked in, vocalist Till Lindemann, wearing a heavy-looking silver-colored trenchcoat and goggles, walked up to his mike, opened his arms and, at the very first word of the lyrics (“RAMM! STEIN!”), he caught fire. All over his back and arms.
There’s no describing the effect on the audience. Nowadays the band’s reputation for impressive pyrotechnics precedes them everywhere, but ten years ago we were caught by surprise. The only other concert I’ve ever been to where the audience gapes at the stage in silent astonishment was Leonard Cohen in Austin in 2009. And that crowd was comfortably resting in theatre seats, rather than standing in a muddy open-air jockey club. Not quite the rock concert, either.
What followed was more than anyone could have asked for. Everything caught fire: the instruments, the mike stands, the musicians. Flames burst out of flash pots downstage. Halfway through the show, the lead singer grabbed what looked like an oversized crossbow and shot something like a navy flare up at the skies. After we had followed its arch like a batted baseball, a torrent of sparks started to shower from the crossbow’s curve as Lindemann spun it across the stage, in a magnificent Olympic display. Scratch that – it was better than anything we’d ever seen at the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.
New Heights of Rock and Roll Transgression
Rammstein’s stage antics have always been a mix of jaw-dropping fireworks and controversial S&M imagery, which shouldn’t surprise rock fans, used as they are to leather-clad bare-chested men, tight hair metal spandex and all sorts of punk regalia. (Keep in mind, likewise, that 1999 was the apex of Marilyn Manson’s fame.) But the band’s performance of “Bück Dich” (“Bend Over”) baffled the entire audience. Their rather literal dramatization of very explicit lyrics (“Bend over, I command you/Turn your mug away from me/Your face doesn’t interest me”) finds the massively-built, bare-chested lead singer dragging the skinny frame of Flake Lorenz, the leashed, gagged and gimp-masked keyboardist, center-stage before simulating unwelcomed intimacies with a dildo protruding from his crotch. It was a frequent number in their concerts for years. You can see pretty much what we saw in this video.
There was cheering. There was mute gaping. But there was booing, too. Some people found their fragile rock and roll sensibilities offended by the blatant queerness of the routine. My friends and I found it much less shocking, art students (and Nine Inch Nails fans) that we were – you tend not to be shocked easily when you have to write school essays on Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons and H.R. Giger. Though still surprised, we found the whole thing hilarious, and by the time Lindemann’s dildo started to squirt all over the stage and the audience, many other voices had joined us in loud laughter.
I don’t think the concert lasted a whole hour. But it was more than worth our ticket. When it was over, we walked away to have a beer as the Kiss concert went by. Who cared about their gimmicky cardboard 3-D glasses after watching the stage explode? And they didn’t even play “I Love It Loud.”
You’ve been warned. Don’t say you didn’t know what to expect when Rammstein plays Sonisphere in Knebworth at the end of the month.
Read our exclusive Rammstein feature
in issue 111 of Erotic Review.