Why you need to know German music icon Rio Reiser | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 09.01.2020
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Why you need to know German music icon Rio Reiser

He was a poet, rebel and rock star who was both loved and hated. A cult figure of leftist resistance, Rio Reiser was also a passionate singer-songwriter who inspired countless German musicians.

Many protest movements from the 1960s onwards produced heroes and heroines of their own sort, especially in the musical realm.

In the US, folk singer-songwriters Bob Dylan and Joan Baez gave voice to workers' rights, civil rights seekers, and Vietnam War protesters. Rock musician Bruce Springsteen likewise called attention to the plight of the the working class.

In England, anarchist punk group the Sex Pistols defined its own brand of culture and revolt, and The Clash developed a singular-sounding indie rock critical of the government.

In France, singer-songwriter Renaud denounced injustices in his smooth-sounding chansons with hard-hitting lyrics.

And in West Germany, Rio Reiser screamed his heart out. His band Ton Steine Scherben was the first German rock band to openly criticize the system with German lyrics, providing the soundtrack to the student revolts of the late 1960s and the left-wing anarchist scene up into the early 1980s.

Rock music to blast post-war stuffiness

The youth of the 1960s had had enough of the idyllic world that German post-war society had painted for itself. They realized that something was not in order: With the atrocities of National Socialism still relatively fresh, German youth in the 60s questioned why their parents and teachers didn't want to discuss this very dark chapter of history.

Beat and rock music arrived in Germany and offered the perfect outlet for outrage and rebellion. While Schlager hits were oozing out of German radios, the sounds of electric guitars were vibrating the walls of basements and garages.

Rio Reiser, whose birth name was Ralph Christian Möbius, also wanted to make rock music. He taught himself to play the guitar, piano and cello. At the age of 17, he dropped out of his professional photography training program and headed to Berlin.

Fatal shooting and catastrophic festival  

There he got involved in music and theater projects in the leftist scene, and experienced the student riots, the murder of Benno Ohnesorg and the shooting of Rudi Dutschke.

Student protests of 1968 (picture-alliance / dpa)

Student protests of 1968

Reiser founded with friends the band Ton Steine Scherben, and screamed into the microphone his notion of a just world and his anger toward the establishment.

The band's first appearance was at the Love-And-Peace Festival on the German island of Fehmarn in 1970 — where Jimi Hendrix played his last festival concert. The event ended in a disaster, with the organizers skedaddling with the cash registers, the audience sinking in mud and several bands  cancelling their gigs. Ton Steine Scherben nevertheless played for the remaining festival goers.

After playing their song song "Mach kaputt, was euch kaputt macht" (Destroy what destroys you) and Rio's announcement that the organizers should be rammed into the ground, the organization office and stage went up in flames. Ton Steine Scherben were suddenly famous.

Mouthpiece of the leftist crowd

Whenever and wherever things were happening on the streets during this time in Berlin, the "Scherben" were there too, playing their songs, such as "Keine Macht für Niemand!" (No Power for Anyone). They were convinced that social change could come about through music and they ultimately became the mouthpiece of the leftist crowd.

Ton Steine Scherben in the 1980s (picture-alliance/jazzarchiv/H. Schiffler)

Ton Steine Scherben in the 1980s

They made political statements by house-squatting, occupying the former nurses' residence of Bethanien Hospital in Berlin's district of Kreuzberg and renaming it the Georg von Rauch Building. Rauch was a student protester and anarchist who had been killed just days before in a shoot-out with police, turning him into a martyr of the left-wing scene and the Rauch House becoming one of the movement's centers.

Under surveillance

Word spread in Germany, with house-squatters sprouting up in big cities across the country and their anthem becoming the Scherben's "Rauch-Haus-Song," with the line "Ihr kriegt uns hier nicht raus, das ist unser Haus!" (You can't get rid of us; this is our house).

The band was adored by rebellious young people all over Germany, hated by conservatives and the older generation, not played on the radio — and watched by the state, with the police visiting the "Scherben Family" nearly every day.

The Scherben produced their first record entirely on their own, not wanting to be dependent on "the industry." They also played their well-attended concerts for free because they believed that to earn money off of leftist songs would not be credible. But working to earn money was also not part of their motto. Bottom line: no funds.  

Rio Reiser (80er Jahre) (picture-alliance/Jazz Archiv Hamburg/H. Schiffler)

He was also a cheeky TV show guest

Moving to the country

Over time, though, the collective grew tired of the constant visits by the police and the lack of money, and no longer wanted to serve as the "jukebox" of the left-wing. The group moved to a farm near the Danish border, where a commune developed. The band also began making a different kind of music — less political and more melodic, with Rio Reiser exploring his imagination and feelings, writing songs such as "Halt dich an deiner Liebe fest" (Hold on to Your Love), one of his most famous.

After the Scherben broke up, completely in debt, in 1985, Rio Reiser continued making music on his own, signing on with a music label after all.

With the release of his first solo album titled Rio I in 1986, his songs were suddenly being played on the radio, including "Alles Lüge" (Everything's a Lie), "Junimond" (June Moon) and his huge hit "König von Deutschland" (King of Germany).

While die-hard Scherben fans viewed his solo success critically, not wanting to share their messiah with the mainstream, they had already missed the boat: Rio had landed at the top of the charts.

Reiser performed in East Berlin in 1988, singing "Der Traum ist aus" (The Dream is Over), pondering in the song: "Gibt es ein Land auf der Erde, wo der Traum Wirklichkeit ist?" (Is there land on Earth where the dream is reality?) In the auditorium, the crowd screamed back: "It's not this land!"

A year later, East Germany became history.

Rio Reiser's grave in Berlin (picture-alliance/Arco Images/Schoening)

Rio Reiser's grave in Berlin

A lasting legend

Still frequently sung by other musicians, Rio Reiser's compositions are wild and rough, gentle and tender, sometimes melodramatic and always marked by an almost untamable passion. German pop musicians never tire of calling Rio Reiser one of their most important role models.

Reiser would have turned 70 on January 9 this year. In addition to his musical talent, his sudden death from a circulatory collapse in 1996 at the age of 46 certainly contributed to his status as both myth and legend. 

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