I've always been a bit skeptical about full-album concerts, but I wasn't about to miss a chance to see Fehlfarben, one of the undisputed best bands to come out of the German punk and Neue Deutsche Welle scenes. One of the very first reviews I ever wrote for this blog was of their iconic debut album, Monarchie und Alltag, the very album they were performing in full. (According to my webhost's statistics, it's the most popular review I've ever published.) Furthermore, just before I caught wind of this concert, I wrote an entire article about "Militürk", one of the songs from the same album. To say the least, I was excited for this concert.
Venue: Heimathafen Neukölln
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 26 October 2018
Opening Act: Black Heino
First set (Monarchie und Alltag):
01. Hier und Jetzt
03. Das sind Geschichten
04. All That Heaven Allows
05. Gottseidank nicht in England
08. Ein Jahr (Es geht voran)
10. Das war vor Jahren
11. Paul ist tot
12. Platz da
13. Das Komitee
14. Urban Innozenz
17. Dekade 2
19. Große Liebe
Not knowing anything about Black Heino, while doing my advance research, I quickly realized their name was appropriative. (You'll have to forgive me for being previously unaware of the Schlager singer Heino, who is white, just like the members of Black Heino.) I've been unable to find any explanation from the band other than provocation, which is a tired excuse. Despite my reservations, I tried to give them a chance on the merit of their music, but they failed to impress me on that account as well. They were boring, repetitive, and simplistic. Most of their solos and lead melodies were literally just ascending and descending a scale. At first, there were a few little flairs that reminded me of classic 60s pop/rock and garage rock, but even those gradually disappeared. The vocals were whiny and shouted tunelessly in the style of Frank Jürgen Krüger (of Ideal) and other German punks. (Why that style is beloved is beyond my understanding.) Their lyrics might have been good, but I couldn't tell, and I wasn't inspired to look them up.
After that disappointment, I was impatient for Fehlfarben. Thankfully they didn't keep me waiting too long, and they launched right into "Hier und jetzt", the opener from Monarchie und Alltag. As expected, they played the whole thing start to finish, and then they left the stage. They came right back out for a second set consisting of much more recent compositions, and for the encore, they offered more of the same plus their first single, "Große Liebe".
As a result of the format, it seemed as if I saw two different bands with the same members. The first set was dynamic, varied, engrossing, and exciting despite the age of the songs. There was an unavoidable hint of gimmickry due to the premise, but the songs were still strong and largely relevant, and the audience was into it. The second set and encore were subdued, monotonic, and relatively tame. The band was still trying, but the audience wasn't feeling it, and people steadily streamed out while they were playing. The newer songs aren't bad at all, and lyrically they still have plenty to say, but somehow it didn't translate well on stage. The songs blended into one another and I had trouble concentrating and understanding the words.
Although the second half of the show wasn't as good as I had hoped, the first part didn't disappoint. It was awesome to see the entirety of one of my favorite albums played live by most of the original band. Peter Hein, the original vocalist who left after the debut album to work at Xerox for twenty years, has been back in the band ever since they reformed. He danced around stage, playfully messed around with the other members while they performed, tossed around balloons, and joked about whatever was on his mind. His vocals were actually substantially more powerful than they were on the album (although still not exactly trained or proficient by mainstream pop standards). As a result, he changed the original melodies and cadences at will, which was sometimes annoying but often a welcome improvement.
Three other original members were also present: bassist Michael Kemner, saxophonist/percussionist/keyboardist Frank Fenstermacher, and synthesist Kurt Dahlke, aka Pyrolator (although he only played on "Paul ist tot" on the album). Unfortunately, drummer Uwe Bauer hasn't played regularly with the band since 1991 and original guitarist Thomas Schwebel left the band around 2006. (The post-Hein additional guitarist Uwe Jahnke also left in 2014.) In their places were longtime drummer Saskia von Klitzing and relative newcomer Thomas Schneider on guitar. They were both capable replacements that played the original parts with deft skill.
Other than Hein's vocal alterations, most of the songs were played very similarly to the original versions. The exceptions were the three most beloved songs: "Militürk", "Ein Jahr", and "Paul ist tot". "Militürk" was extended and just as extreme as ever. It's admittedly quite strange to hear the crowd chant along to "Deutschland, Deutschland, alles ist vorbei" ("Germany, Germany, it's all over"). How do I interpret the remark from one of the elder punks in front of me to his comrade that the lyric suited the present day just as well?
"Ein Jahr" was also somewhat extended and rearranged, starting with the drums and then bass instead of the distinctive guitar riff. As if designed to prove the allegations of the band being a one-hit wonder, the audience response was conspicuously drastically more enthusaistic. The entire crowd tried to dance or sway to the mock-disco beat, and the sound of their singalong was louder than Hein. Something about it felt forced. Perhaps the band's claim that they never liked the song was true. The performance didn't quite live up to the studio version.
The album closer "Paul ist tot" was the other highlight. It wasn't until recently that I finally began to understand the song; until then, I'd never been able to figure out why German fans would often cite that as one of their favorites. Again, the audience sang along with the despondent lyrics, even when Hein forgot a line. The band extended the song about as far as it could go, and they made it work. Hein wandered off stage after he finished his part, but most of the band kept going. Von Klitzing eventually left too, but since the rest of the band kept going, she came back and drove them to a finish. Even then, Schneider kept hammering away at his guitar until he too grew tired.
I was a bit disappointed that Fehlfarben didn't play anything from the other albums released during their initial incarnation in the early 80s. However, of the musicians on stage, only Kemner played on 33 Tage in Ketten (1981) and none of them played on Glut und Asche (1983)! That said, they did play "Große Liebe", their first single that preceded even Monarchie und Alltag in 1980. It was originally recorded by S.Y.P.H. under the title "Industriemädchen" and presumably brought to Fehlfarben by Schwebel, who was an original member of both bands and wrote the lyrics to it. The industrial love song was just as ironic and appropriate as ever. It brought the show to an end on a (relatively) high note.
The concert gave me a wild assortment of conflicting feelings. The original album is a classic, and the band can still do a solid rendition of it. However, there was still a lingering feeling of being pandered to. I liked that the band adapted and extended some of the songs from the album, but "Ein Jahr" didn't quite work, and it took a few songs for the mix to sound right. Hein's vocals were an interesting change, but he forgot some of the lyrics and took a playful, uncommitted stance. And after they finished the album, the rest of the show just couldn't live up to it. The words are perhaps the most important part, but they were often indiscernible. The band is still relevant, but they are aging and their energy seemed to wane. The audience followed suit – or maybe it was the other way around.
It was a weird show, especially since they played basically the same show last year. It's hard to blame them, since this show was sold out, but the artistic merit is questionable. For better or worse, Fehlfarben fell in the trap of having released an album that captured the voice and spirit of a particular generation in a particular time and place. Judging by the sales numbers and the audience reaction, nothing else they do can quite reproduce that magic, no matter how hard they try.
Black Heino: D-
[This is a terrible photo, but I took in a rush because the slideshow in the back was displaying the album cover. It rotated through a set of something like a hundred photos with similar elements of historical bleakness and commercialism.]
P.S. The only other review I've found so far of the show (in German, of course) is from the Berliner Morgenpost. It's a bit harsh but not far off from what I observed.
P.P.S. The Berliner Zeitung has a review of last year's show (again in German) that also has some elements in common, although it says very little about the actual performance.