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Music made in Germany

Silke Wünsch / ad
July 21, 2015

Now that Hamburg-born DJ Felix Jaehn has made it to the top charts in the US, it's time to revisit Germany's most successful exports: Rammstein, the Scorpions, Kraftwerk - and even Milli Vanilli.

German band Rammstein. Copyright: Axel Heimken/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Axel Heimken

The 20-year-old DJ Felix Jaehn has made it to the very top of the US charts with a song produced in Germany. The last time that happened was 26 years ago - with a single by Milli Vanilli.

The young DJ from Hamburg conquered the charts in more than 20 countries by remixing the song "Cheerleader" by the Jamaican singer OMI in electro pop style. Along with this German success comes a long list of influential musical exports over the last 40 years.

Electronic music vs. mainstream

In the 1970s, the world of pop music is characterized by eclecticism. On the charts during those years, disco queens line up with glam rock stars. Bands like Genesis or Pink Floyd turn into legends. Punk culture is spreading around the globe while artists like Abba, Elton John or Fleetwood Mac produce some of the most successful pop hits.

Some musicians from Germany are following their very own path. West Berlin becomes a meeting ground for artists experimenting with the possibilities of synthesizers in their music.

One of these bands is called Tangerine Dream. At the drums is a certain Klaus Schulze, who develops a passion for the production of electronic sounds and starts working on his own projects. In 1972, he produces his first album, "Irrlicht," that turns everything heard so far on its head. Schulze describes his work as "a quadrophonic symphony for orchestras and e-machines." Less emphasis is given to rhythm: Psychedelic soundscapes take over.

A growing numer of musicians start to develop an interest in this avant-garde musician from Germany, leading to famous works of cooperation, for example with the Japanese electronic musician Stomu Yamashta. His all-star-cult record "Go" has been largely influenced by Schulze.

Klaus Schulze. Copyright: picture alliance/jazz archiv
Klaus Schulze at a concert in 1970Image: picture alliance/Jazzarchiv

Klaus Schulze's sound marks the beginning of a new musical era which would continue to develop over the years to come. Many current electronic musical styles, ranging from ambient to trance and techno, derive from his work. Many modern electronic musicians consider Schulze to be the "Godfather of Techno."

Pioneers of electropop

In Düsseldorf, two other musicians start developing a new musical style by experimenting with their synthesizers. Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider found the duo Kraftwerk. They take on a few more musicians and produce two first albums, which attract some interest. But a lot more attention is then given to their third album, "Autobahn," a purely electronic production considered to be the very first electropop album. It is even successful in the US, where its title song makes it into the Billboard charts.

Music experts agree to say that electronic music as we know it today could not be imaginable without Kraftwerk. The list of artists who claim to have been inspired by Kraftwerk is very long. Among them are David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Moby and New Order. And of course, the techno scene has also been influenced by the two Düsseldorf natives too. The French electronic duo Daft Punk further pushed Kraftwerk's concept of presenting themselves on stage as "human-machines" to perfection.

Cologne's influence on indie rock

German band Can. Copyright: picture alliance / Jacques Breuer
The song "Spoon" is the only hit created by Can. And yet, they made historyImage: picture alliance/Jacques Breuer

The band Can forms in 1968 in Cologne. Stockhausen student Holger Czuckay plays the bass and free jazz musician Jaki Liebezeit is at the drums. They clearly did not plan on playing regular rock'n'roll. Can's music goes beyond the forms known so far, integrating improvisation and world music influences as well as experimental electronic sounds. In Germany, this kind of music is only successful in avant-garde circles: Can does not sell well.

Can signs with a major label in 1975. And it will take many more years until musicians from the entire world discover Can as a source of inspiration. Indie and alternative bands such as Portishead, Sonic Youth or Radiohead say they were influenced by the Cologne musicians.

The creators of the power ballad

Einflussreiche deutsche Musiker: Scorpions
Klaus Meine's voice sounds like steel, and the band became synonymous with melodic heavy metalImage: picture-alliance/Hanne Jordan

In the mid 1970's, the Scorpions become very successful, starting out in Britain where big rock bands such as Kiss or Uriah Heep book them as supporting acts. The album "Virgin Killer" earns a gold record in Japan in 1976, where a sold-out tour folows.

Three years later, the band tries to make it in the US, performing at a festival attended by an audience of 60,000 along with AC/DC and Aerosmith. During Scorpion's first world tour in 1982, they play together with Iron Maiden.

In 1984, the album "Love at First Sting" makes the band very popular among heavy metal fans. In the US, the album goes triple-platinum, and the Scorpions make it to the top ten in all the charts. Their concerts are attended by up to 400,000 people. They are preceded by Metallica or Motörhead, who are told by the management to carefully watch the performance of this German band in order to learn how to perform on stage.

Their most famous power ballad, "Wind of Change," has basically become the soundtrack of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a worldwide symbol for the end of the Cold War.

Teutonic, warlike and loud

Rammstein Show Pyrotechnik
They love to play with fire: RammsteinImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In the mid-1990s, the "Neue Deustche Härte" (New German Hardness) wins rock fans all over the world. In the US alone, the album "Sehnsucht" by Rammstein is sold two million times. The band is nominated twice for a Grammy, and film director David Lynch uses two of its songs in his film "Lost Highway."

International fans do not mind if they do not understand Rammstein's lyrics: They're into the band's "Germanness." In 2001, keyboarder Flake writes in his tour diary: "They love it when German bands sound German - and not American. Almost every American we meet starts by saying: 'Achtung! Verboten!' and finds that incredibly funny."

The public and the media are fascinated by the Teutonic, warlike demeanor of the band. American fans eventually learn their songs by heart: They sing loudly along at a sold-out Rammstein concert Madison Square Garden in December 2010.

Blixa Bargeld and Frank Farian

Numerous other musicians from Germany are seen as particularly influential and inspiring. Depeche Mode, for example, developed a particular interest in the sound of the Einstürzende Neubauten - a rather experimental music project in Berlin. The band around singer Blixa Bargeld uses more scrap metal than real instruments in order to produce sounds, thereby shaping what became known as the industrial sound.

German band Einstürzende Neubauten, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Post-industrial avant-garde: Einstürzende NeubautenImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In the 1970's, Frank Farian conquers the international charts together with Boney M. At the end of the 80s, he celebrates yet another huge success as the mastermind behind the pop duo Milli Vanilli - which even earns a Grammy.

Milli Vanilli, Copyright: imago/teutopress
The most famous lip-sync duo in the world: Milli VanilliImage: imago/teutopress

But it all turns out to be a huge lie: The performers of Milli Vanilli did not sing a single note. Their Grammy is then withdrawn.

Find out more about German hits with this Popxport-Ranking.

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