(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Commentary: Die Ärzte, an appreciation

My favorite German teachers

In 1996, I took a temporary job in Germany. Total immersion built up my language skills, but my secret weapon was listening to German bands. Die Toten Hosen's "Zehn kleine Jägermeister" was in heavy rotation on the radio, along with Die Ärzte's "3 Tage Bart" and Tic Tac Toe's "Verpiss Dich". Dropping into my local CD shop, I found a copy of their 1993 album, Die Bestie in Menschengestalt (the beast in human form). Listening that afternoon, I was transfixed. Die Ärzte had the visceral punch of the Ramones, but their songs were funnier, more political, and much more clever than I expected. Later, I'd pick up albums by Die Toten Hosen, Pur, and Die Fantastichen Vier, but Die Ärzte became my favorite band. Even 17 years later, I keep up with each new release because the band continues to consistently deliver exactly what I love.

Since I started my blog, I've wanted to share Die Ärzte with an English speaking audience, but I've always held back. I'm not sure I can make their case to people who don't speak German. Their lyrical dexterity is a huge part of their appeal, but translating the words is like explaining a joke; in the distance between the songs and my writing, the delicate sparks flicker out and grow cold. Even so, I've decided it's finally time. Listening to Auch (2012), which I bought on my recent visit, reminded me all over again about that first introduction. The sarcasm, punk scene allusions, and joyous music on the opening track, "Ist das noch Punkrock?" (is it still punk rock?), find a perfect balance. The song chastises a fellow punk who's turning soft:
"Fick dich und deine Schwester" hast du dir tätowiert
No future, das war gestern, seitdem ist viel passiert
Sie heißt Andrea, ihre Haare sind blau
Ihr habt Verkehr und du gibst es zwar nicht zu, aber sie ist deine Traumfrau
which loosely translates to:
"Fuck you and your sister" is what your tattoo said
"No future", that was yesterday, since then a lot has happened
Her name is Andrea, her hair is blue
You slept together and you won't admit it, but she is your dream girl
I love the flow of the phrases; rhymes like "Schwester/gestern" and "gefährlich/ganz ehrlich" mesh smoothly while offering surprising twists. And the music rolls out in an unstoppable wave, but still builds in some solid dynamics. Is it still punk rock when your heart pounds from kissing her? "Ich glaube nicht" (I don't think so).

I probably wouldn't be such an effusive fan if there was a similar group performing in English. If I could get my fix from a single band in the US, I'd probably be following their tour from town to town. But it's impossible to find a comparable mix of pop punk and headbanging rock that delivers a balance of humor and attitude with a smart lyrical sense. Most American punk pop bands seem so much flatter. On the surface, Die Ärzte are just another group of "snotty boys with guitars" (my favorite guilty pleasure), with straghtforward songs and simple instrumentation. But even as they joke about their own shallowness, they reveal a greater depth. They can mock themselves on "Schopenhauer" (from Die Bestie in Menschengestalt), but then name check a host of philosophers. Their songs cover a wide range of topics that are unexpected from any similar band, like radical progressive politics, overturned conventions, and a nuanced understanding of relationships. Similarly, they regularly show off technical skills beyond their punk roots as they casually shift between musical styles. Imagine if Green Day could also jump genres, credibly pulling off metal riffage and ska chanks. And even if they had the chops, they lack the any skill at self-deprecation.

Die Ärzte are complex of three distinct personalities. Each band member brings their own songs, offering unique perspectives, Guitarist Farin Urlaub (his stage name is a pun on "take a vacation") is the punk pop voice in the band. Sometimes a little goofy, he's best at slipping a smart-ass attitude into tight, catchy songs. "Ist das noch Punkrock" and "Ein Lied für dich" (a song for you) (from 13 [1998]) give a good sense of his style. The latter song responds at one point to their critics (loosely translated again):
This is also a song for those who think we're shitty
A song for you, because you can't make us suffer
Are we too childish? So what? Lowbrow? Whatever.
That only means we can improve ourselves
And our lyrics aren't due to having bad parents
Our fans can happily argue with you
Drummer Bela B also has a good sense of humor, which comes through on songs like "Tu das nicht" (don't do it) (from Jazz ist Anders [2007]), a tongue-in-cheek song about music piracy. More often, though, he favors moodier, Gothic themes, like "Der Graf" (the Count) (from 13) or "Dein Vampyr" (your vampire) (from Im Schatten den Ärzte [1985]). Bela also seems to be the most political of the three, writing about anti-Fascism and social responsibility. His delivery can vary between sarcastic and serious, with "Die klügsten Männer der Welt" (the smartest men in the world) and "Nichtwissen" (ignorance) being two good examples from Geräusch (2003).

Bass player Rod (Rodrigo González) serves as the hard-rock foundation of the band. More direct than the other two, he grounds the band with a more practical perspective. His contributions, like "Sohn der Leere" (son of the void)  or "Die Hard" from Auch or "Anti-Zombie" from Geräusch tend to have a harder drive, leaning towards metal. Although he doesn't write as many songs as Urlaub or Bela, he has a strong impact on the sound of the band.

These three voices could pull the band apart, but each clearly respects what the others bring to the music. Step through the list of videos below to get a taste of the band's range:

"Schrei nach Liebe" - from Die Bestie in Menschengestalt

"Langweillig" - from Planet Punk (1995)

"Mein Baby war beim Frisör" - from La Frisur (1996)

"Ein Lied für dich" - from 13

"Rock Rendezvous" from Runter mit den Spendierhosen, Unsichtbarer! (2000)

"Unrockbar" from Geräusch

"Living Hell" from Jazz ist Anders

"TCR" from Auch

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