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Neue Deutsche Welle

Andreas Zimmer / alsJuly 14, 2013

These days, it's no surprise for German-language pop songs to top Germany's charts. But it wasn't until the beginning of the 1980s - with the Neue Deutsche Welle - that the language really began to gain its pop footing.

Nena with her band in the 1980s (c) picture-alliance/jazzarchiv
Image: picture-alliance/Jazzarchiv

At the end of the 1970s and early 80s, Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave, or NDW) rocked the German music scene. The genre grew out of an underground movement in cities like Berlin, Düsseldorf and Hamburg, where musicians were drawing inspiration from British punk and new wave music.

Like with punk, NDW lyrics were political and socially critical. Music journalist Andre Hilsberg was the one who gave the burgeoning genre its name in October 1979 for a series of articles he wrote detailing the musical shift. The term he came up with was a tip of the hat to Britain's "new wave."

Most NDW records were released on small, independent labels at the time. That was due less to conviction - despite what many claim these days - and more to practicality. Early on, none of the larger record companies saw a potential for profits in the genre.

Neue Deutsche Welle band Ideal (c) picture-alliance/Keystone
The Neue Deutsche Welle band IdealImage: picture alliance/Keystone

It all started with Ideal

It wasn't until the Berlin band Ideal came along, at the beginning of the 80s, that things began to change in terms of the movement's image. The band, headed by Annette Humpe - who remains active today as a songwriter and producer, working along the way with well-known bands such as DÖF, Humpe & Humpe and Ich & Ich - got their break at an August 1980 concert. The free, outdoor performance held in front of West Berlin's Reichstag building drew more than 150,000 people.

Ideal's eponymous debut album landed in the top three on German album charts - the first independent production to do so in Germany. Big, established record companies pricked up their ears, taking better notice of the underground crowd. And they made discoveries. Bands already established in the scene, such as Fehlfarben, DAF and Nichts suddenly got record deals, and were able to realize projects that might not have happened otherwise. The marketing onslaught wasn't far behind.

Saturation point

While Ideal honed a punk sound on their debut album, the genre's direction changed over time and under the pressure of the recording industry: the lyrics became toned down and more superficial, such as with Frl Menke's "Mit dem Tretboot in Seenot" (A Nautical Emergency with the Paddle Boot), IXI's "Knutschfleck" (Hickey), UKW's "Sommersprossen" (Freckles), and Trio's "Da Da Da." The music became more popular, and more pop-compatible.

Singer Falco in the 1980s (c) picture-alliance/jazzarchiv
Singer Falco in the 1980sImage: picture-alliance/jazzarchiv

Countless imitators and similar music projects and solo artists started popping up. But they didn't necessarily have a notable musical background. The market was also getting saturated.

NDW goes USA

Nena and her "99 Luftballons" were hugely successful, as well as Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" - both of which made the leap to the United States and beyond. Even their German-language versions reached number two and number one, respectively, on the charts. One might say it was the peak for Neue Deutsche Welle.

But wily producers tried to keep the success going, poaching German-language rock music by people such as Marius Müller-Westernhagen, Herbert Grönemeyer and Udo Lindenberg and trying to squeeze their work into the Neue Deutsche Welle category. While the strategy met with initial success, it was also likely what led to NDW's demise.

Nena, 1985 (c) picture-alliance/dpa
Nena is among the genre's most recognizable faces abroadImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The balloon pops

The thrill was over by 1983. NDW as a category had expanded too much, and the hype was too big.

Despite a heyday of just about three years, the genre has had a long-term effect on how people view contemporary music sung in German - and that's true in Germany, as well. NDW can be credited with helping pave the way for the success of German-language pop music that's gained more ground since the mid-1990s - and sparing listeners any number of odd accents and tortured metaphors sung in English.