They've been accused in the past of xenophobic lyrics and close proximity to the far-right scene. After a nearly 10-year break, the rock band Böhse Onkelz is staging a new beginning. Can they overcome their reputation?
The Böhse Onkelz had barely gotten the announcement of their comeback out before the old controversy surrounding the band flamed up again. Fans are excited, while critics ask whether the musicians have really stepped outside of the shadow of their past.
The band from the Frankfurt area - whose name could be translated as "Wikked Unclez" - long had a reputation for close proximity to the right-wing scene. In the years after their founding in 1980, it's evident that the Onkelz sympathized with and sang to the right-wing scene. Skinheads danced wildly in the first row at the group's concerts, drinking themselves into an aggressive state. Singer Kevin Russel used jargon clearly associated with right-wing extremism in his lyrics at the time.
The band was accused of glorifying violence and xenophobia - and not without reason. In 1986, two years after its initial release, the Böhse Onkelz' first studio album was indexed by German authorities and banned from sale. All available copies were confiscated. Even today, young people under age 18 cannot purchase the album legally, and its songs cannot be played publicly.
Partly as a result of the censorship, the album remains a bestseller among right-wingers. Banning the album represented a concerted effort on behalf of various federal agencies and authorities, including federal prosecutors. While many in the German public welcomed the ban, the Böhse Onkelz became heroes in neo-Nazi circles. The band's t-shirts became signaling devices, and their songs hymns within the scene.
From wicked to wholesome?
The 90s saw the band make a u-turn. Frontman Stephan Weidner wanted to shake the image the Onkelz had cultivated, and the media played it up as the band turned its back on the right wing. The Böhse Onkelz put out newspaper ads against violence and xenophobia.
On stage, they issued statements against extremism and disparaged the far-right NPD party for its youth recruitment. At one concert, Weidner even jumped from the stage and attacked an audience member he saw make a Nazi salute.
But the question remained as to the band's motivation: just clever marketing to rid themselves of an unprofitable image, or had they had a genuine change of heart?
In some songs released before their break-up in 2005, the band unambiguously distanced itself from the right-wing scene. Even that didn't pacify all of their critics. The singer in the legendary German punk band Die Ärzte, Farin Urlaub, said he still saw them as the same old Nazi band from the 80s.
But fellow rocker Campino of Die Toten Hosen disagreed, saying the Onkelz had done enough to credibly leave their past behind. Everyone should get a second chance, he said. Some politicians associated with the left, including Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, also saw the band as having made a positive turn.
Author Stephan Richter, who investigated the band's political leanings in a book titled "Gehasst, verdammt, vergöttert" (Hated, Damned, Deified), also said the Onkelz had left behind what was a once a clear affinity with right-wing extremism.
A sold-out comeback
However, the Onkelz' early reputation sticks to them like glue, making frequent justifications necessary. Things are different when it comes to Rammstein, despite certain similarities between the bands. The hard rockers from Berlin have built a musical empire on a menacing image and ambiguous political lyrics. But an investigation by German authorities in 2005 found no evidence of right-wing extremism.
Now, the Böhse Onkelz have put out a rather dark internet video declaring their return to the concert stage, using a bit of sarcasm in calling the move "a sensation - that you've been waiting for for over nine and a half years!"
The four musicians will rock out on June 20, 2014, at the Hockenheimring motor racing circuit - the same venue where they said in 2005 that they were parting with playing music forever after a spectacular concert for 120,000 fans.
Their comeback looks to be a success. All of the tickets for the Hockheimring concert sold out within an hour. An additional concert arranged for the following day sold out in minutes. Now, the band is considering a country-wide tour. Fans have plenty to look forward to, while the Onkelz' critics are sure to be on guard.
You can't miss them in Berlin, and they dot urban hubs elsewhere, too. Ad columns have helped during war and defied digitalization. Their inventor, who was inspired by public toilets, would've turned 200 on February 11.