Although born in East Berlin (in 1955), one-of-a-kind singer/songwriter Nina Hagen is restricted by no national boundaries, working and living in Germany, England and America. Her radical approach to vocal expression is consistently bizarre — she runs the gamut from quirky sing-song (à la Lene Lovich, whose “Lucky Number” gets a deformed translation on Unbehagen) to an anguished howl (much of Nunsexmonkrock). Throughout, Hagen projects amazing intensity as well as a consistent and total lack of selfconsciousness in both delivery and subject matter.
Nina Hagen Band, her first LP, is relatively restrained; all-German vocals mask the subject matter for non-linguists. (Although “TV-Glotzer” is an adaptation of the Tubes’ “White Punks on Dope.”) A serviceable trio provides generic rock’n’roll backing which she easily upstages, even without dipping far into her seemingly bottomless bag of vocal tricks.
Unbehagen is light years better. While the band (expanded to a much-improved quartet that later recorded on its own as Spliff) offers convincing, precise modern rock with neat keyboard work, Hagen sings, screams, growls, whispers and wails her way through nine gripping tales of decadence. Listening to Unbehagen is like stumbling into a monster’s lair — feelings of revulsion and transfixion mingle to make this true rock-at-the-edge art.
The American Nina Hagen Band EP is a 10-inch with a pair of songs from each of the first two albums, including both aforementioned cover versions.
Hagen recorded Nunsexmonkrock in New York with a band that includes both Paul Shaffer and Chris Spedding. To describe it as wild hardly suffices — the drugs-sex-religion-politics-mystical imagery that spills out is nearly incomprehensible in its bag-lady solipsism, but the music and singing combine into an aural bed of nails that carries stunning impact. It almost doesn’t matter that Hagen sticks to English; what counts is the phenomenal vocal drama. Her range seems limitless, and the countless characters she plays make this fascinating. The 1991 item combines Nunsexmonkrock and the preceding EP.
Conceptually outdoing herself again, Hagen enlisted Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey to produce Fearless (initially released in Germany as Angstlos) in California; unlike most of their projects, however, the artist emerges as the dominant force. The album finds her in a dance frame of mind, singing about club life (“New York New York”), enlisting the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a rap number (“What It Is”), doing the funky Hare Krishna (“I Love Paul”) and generally acting the warped disco queen while opening her Felix the Cat bag of voices to roam operatic to munchkin, Grace Jones to Mr T. It’s not clear whether this alliance with naked commercialism was expected to deliver a hit record (it did generate some club play) — Hagen’s rampant individuality almost precludes mass comprehension, let alone full-scale popularity. Nonetheless, Fearless — which bears out its title — is hypnotic and hilarious. One of her best records.
Reflecting Hagen’s continuing fascination with Los Angeles, Ekstasy pursues a similar set of mental and musical notions. “Universal Radio” and “Gods of Aquarius” are straightforward (well…) and catchy dance rock with (why not?) metaphysical lyrics. “Russian Reggae” (shades of Unbehagen‘s “African Reggae”) and “1985 Ekstasy Drive” are Hagenized metal; her “Lord’s Prayer” adds new meaning to the word sacrilegious. But then, for different reasons, so do her versions of “My Way” (take that, Sid Vicious!) and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”
Hagen’s 1987 marriage to an eighteen-year-old hardcore kid inspired her to cut a four-song EP about it the following year. The self-produced Punk Wedding giddily celebrates the event in English, German, rock and punk variations littered with the sound of wedding bells and the wedding march. One hopes the couple’s happiness is more enduring than this amusing but trivial effort.
Nina Hagen is another mishmash of kitsch (“Viva Las Vegas”), ’70s rock (Janis Joplin’s “Move Over”), religiosity (“Ave Maria”) and original visions (“Michail, Michail (Gorbachev Rap),” “Live on Mars”). But Zeus B. Held’s witless (and, on the oldies, disastrous) dance production (with incongruous Hendrix quotes) is a straitjacket, and leaves Hagen — who makes no effort to escape — sounding like a guest singer on a Grace Jones record.