They came, they saw, they conquered; these days, that Rammstein has set the continent on fire is a fact. The new documentary, “Rammstein in Amerika”, promises to tell the story of how the noisy little German band pulled a Leif Eriksson and conquered the Americas, and with a bang, but some of the story has already been told. In part, anyway.
In 1993, three of the members of what we now know as Rammstein did their first US tour, playing in a band called Feeling B, still firmly rooted in what was once the GDR — the socialist state behind the Iron Curtain that was reunited with its Western sister state in 1989 and became Germany. And with the reunification came the open borders, freer travels and every musician’s Dreamland Out West: the United States of America. Quite the cultural shock for a band whose life and blood were the GDR and her values. But times were changing and Feeling B tried to keep up. Easier said than done…
Best laid plans
As it happened, the former bass player of Feeling B had moved to New Orleans and thought it would be a good idea for the band to do a tour of the US. He offered to organize the whole thing together with the vocalist, Aljoscha Rompe, who traveled there two weeks ahead of the rest of the band; Flake Lorenz, Paul Landers, Andreas Vater and the stand-in for the regular drummer, who had opted out, citing fear of flying (which may or may not have had to do with drinking barrels of red wine before flying from Paris to Berlin and subsequently heaving his guts out, but the accounts thereof differ depending on who’s talking). But a drummer was necessary, so the oftentimes temp came along; a chap called Schneider.
“We arrived two weeks later, full of expectations,” says Flake. “Aljoscha picked us up in this huge American street cruiser with a GDR flag flying from the antenna. The magic was gone ten minutes later, though, and we sat around in Christoph Zimmerman’s cardboard box of a house and froze our butts off. The car was borrowed and there were no concerts booked.”
“No instruments, no concerts, no car, no nothing,” Paul Landers adds. “We were pretty pissed off. Additionally, we were very disappointed that we didn’t see any Indians…”
German Punk and Mardi Gras
“We’d been fed complete bollocks,” Flake recalls, “that you couldn’t go out on the streets without risking your life. So we only ventured out at noon, all together, the first few days.”
But the band was there to play, so they figured they might as well get on with it.
“There was this Mardi Gras carnival in New Orleans, unfortunately. We sure did not fit in among all the Samba orchestras and Let the Good Times Roll-bands who were playing. And we had to borrow their instruments, at that. At our first concert, a reggae band played before we went on, and the drummer was using these very thin drumsticks. After the first song in our set, he came marching up to Schneider and asked him if he could please not play on his drum set, thank you very much.”
“This is how it works in New Orleans,” Paul Landers, “You walk into a pub and begin playing. If you’re any good, the pub slowly fills up with people, but if you suck, it stays empty. So, until it’s full of people, you have to do your best, play like the devil was at your heels! The reggae band playing had filled the room and the spirits were running high. When they took a break, we entered the stage and began noodling away. Not two songs into the set, the place was empty. Everyone had left. Of course, that didn’t stop us from playing.
“When the reggae band came on stage again, people came back in from the street. We kept sending them out.”
Roaches under the hood
“This wasn’t for us,” Landers continues. “We wanted to move on, and for that, we needed a car. So, off we went to a used car dealer’s lot.”
“We were three naïve East Germans in America. This guy showed us one car that literally sprayed a jet of oil, thick as a man’s arm, out of the exhaust pipe, another whose hood came right off since it was so rusty. Good, we aren’t buying any of those…” says Flake, and one wonders if this was the start of his love of American classic cars? Perhaps not. “The next had a board where the driver’s seat should be.” Decidedly not.
“The next car lot was a bit better,” Paul, “it was a somewhat sturdier, middle-class ride.”
“We finally decided on a Chevrolet Station Wagon. We didn’t even have to register the car, the salesman simply glued on a license plate in the rear window, and we were good to go for six months. But we didn’t even know with what we were supposed to fill the tank, we were too stupid for American gas stations. We ordered with another customer since we thought they were the gas station employee. They looked at us as if we were daft.”
The car kept stalling and no one could really figure out why. It just died, and stood there for a bit while the passengers stared silently out of the windows before it could be fired up again. This went on for a good while and no one was the wiser. And the car dealer would not have anything more to do with it.
“Everything itched after that first ride,” Flake continues. “We checked, and what we found was not hundreds, but thousands, of cockroaches. The thing had been sitting in the car lot for years until some stupid East Germans came along and bought it.”
Finally, under an overhead freeway, they found a mechanic who used a compressor to clear the rust from the tank. The tour was saved.
Finally on the road, with borrowed instruments, in a Chevy with iffy steering, they navigated the country by buying a newspaper every day and taking guidance from the weather map. At least that is what Paul Landers claims. “It was during the winter, so we were heading south. Wherever we ended up, we introduced ourselves: “Hi! We are a band.” If that didn’t work, then perhaps it would on the return trip. We assembled the tour by traveling.
“The CDs which we had brought with us from Germany worked wonders, since they made us stand out from the billions of bands that were roaming around, wanting to play concerts. We actually got listened to that way, if nothing else. It didn’t add much financially. We earned between 50 and 100 dollars a gig, and we played in bars that paid us a percentage of the drink revenue since the prices went up if there was a band playing. Fair deal, since they’d never heard of us. The Americans took us to heart pretty quickly and they were amused by what we had to offer. We were a bit exotic: four morons from Germany with a Casio.”
“One time, two girls in full NVA uniforms came to one of our shows. I could not believe it. They’d heard that an East German band was playing and they’d really primped up. They said hello to us, but they weren’t really interested in us,” says Flake, who was less than impressed by a lot in this country. “The television was really bad,” he continues. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were commercials within commercials, and one time when I was feeling poorly and stayed in the motel while the others were at a bar somewhere, it took me four hours to watch one film. It really was that bad. I hated America with a passion that took some time to die down.”
Food was another cause of irritation.
“This ‘All You Can Eat’ concept was completely incomprehensible for us Easterners, you paid a fee and could stuff oneself to no end. My problem was that I had to try everything anyone else was eating, too; I had to have it all. So, ‘All You Can Eat’ was a disaster. It took us a few weeks to realize that it wasn’t very good for you, and we were feeling poorly a lot of the time. Once, we even had alligator ribs somewhere on a street since Aljoscha wanted to try it.”
Flake does not hold back when discussing American cuisine.
“We soon realized that the US was not for the likes of us, I thought it was horrible. Both the food and the air were bad. It was here where we first discovered this overly sweet atrocity called ‘doughnuts’. I came to think that the Americans only cook with three ingredients: sugar, salt and fat. It’s the ratio of the ingredients that determines if the result is a hamburger or a doughnut. There was no bread.”
And while Flake and Paul were busy hating the food, and air, and pretty much everything else, Schneider just hated them instead:
“I was arguing so much with the guys while on the road one time, that I quite simply got out of the car. I never wanted to see them again. Because I had to stand around like an idiot the whole day and wait for them while they were watching crocodiles.”
Foreign territory, indeed. Wanting to borrow some amplifiers, they soon found out that the Americans wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire. The solidarity between the bands in Germany was an unknown concept, where instruments and musicians were lent out to whatever band needed them at the time. Not so much in the US. There, music was business and a dog eat dog world. At least for our German punk rockers.
“We really became aware of some of the lunacies of the Americans in Jacksonville Beach. There were signs at the discos reading, ‘No colored people’, and they drove their cars on the beach. We knew then that we needed to get out of there. And having seen the southern states, we decided that the US was the worst of the worst.”
“Los Quatros Tontos”
“We called ourselves ‘Los Quatros Tontos’,” says Paul. “’The Four Morons’: Schneider, Flake, Vadda and myself. Aljoscha was most often somewhere else, laying on his back in the sun or going skinny dipping in the sea with an obtuse expression on his face.”
“We went to Orlando and the Universal Studios,” Flake recalls. “We discovered the Star Ship Enterprise there, we had never heard of it before. We didn’t speak English very well, but we dressed up in all these Enterprise costumes and we liked that, since we looked really stupid! We sat before a bluescreen and were completely overwhelmed; five East Germans in the US, we were completely helpless. We were supposed to read English dialogue and get filmed while doing it. Aljoscha decided that we should speak German, so that we could at least understand something. We stuttered the lines and said everything at the wrong places. Then suddenly came the Klingons, who didn’t even notice that we were there, and then we got beamed away. We later received our video cassette, which was playing in the foyer and all the Americans were having a good laugh. Once back home, we used to show this video as an intro to our Middle Age show.
Flake continues. “Arriving in Atlanta, the club we were supposed to play at wasn’t open yet, and we went for a walk. One of the giant, glassed skyscrapers looked so enticing that we went up in the elevator. The top floor was empty and Paul absolutely wanted to go out onto the roof, so he found a staircase. But once the door closed behind us, it wouldn’t open again. We ran some 60 floors down, in panic. And once we were down, we discovered that our car had gotten broken into and completely cleaned out. Our painstakingly assembled equipment was gone. The worst thing was that my Casio was stolen; there’s no Feeling B without the Casio. But it was gone, and this was three hours before the concert. We had to tell the club manager about our mishap. He thought for a bit and then said: “Could be that I have one of those lying around here somewhere…” He fetched it, better than nothing, I reasoned. When we opened the box, there was the exact same Casio! There are thousands of different models of Casio, but this one was exactly like mine. Unbelievable. Paul borrowed a guitar somewhere, so that worked out as well.”
“There was another concert with Feeling B in New Orleans, at the ‘R.C Bridge Lounge’,” says Paul. It was a 1,500 seater and Ozzy Osbourne had played there. We announced our show in style. We had collected a lot of empty beer cans, which we filled with pebbles and glued our flyer onto them: ‘Concert with Feeling B at the R.C Bridge Lounge – the best punk band in Germany!’
“We gave our very best that night, we outperformed ourselves. But Flake took off with Vadda back home afterwards, he had had enough of the United States.
“Aljoscha went to Mexico and Schneider and I flew to New York to visit the clubs: CBGB’s and Lion’s Den, where local bands were playing. They could rebuild their sets in five minutes, whereas we needed at least half an hour, unbelievable.”
Flake concludes: “Nothing is normal in the States. The only places we could shop were in these pawnshops; cheap instruments and weapons. I thought to myself: Never America again! The first thing I did when I got back home was to eat something proper, then I just sauntered up and down the streets and thought: Oh man, it’s so good to be home!”
If they’d only known what the future, and the continent, had in store for them, reorganized as Rammstein. But Feeling B toured the country as the vanguard, in a beat-up old Chevy, with borrowed equipment and made some serious noise. That is pioneering at its best.
By Murray / Schnitz
Excerpts from „Mix Mir Einen Drink“ by Roland Galenza et al.
Photos provided by Galina Pras