“It’ll never work.”
That’s what promoter Michael Arfin told Rammstein when they first visited America in 1997. Six leather-clad Germans wielding flamethrowers and growling songs about sex, death, and violence—not that non-German speakers would be au fait with the subject matter of their music—doesn’t sound like a recipe for transatlantic domination, or, indeed, any kind of popularity outside of the German alternative scene. And yet, something about Rammstein’s unique brand of pomp and pyrotechnics makes them just at home on a David Lynch soundtrack as the stage of Madison Square Garden (which they sold out in under 30 minutes in 2010). Against all reasonable odds, Rammstein transcended cult phenomenon status to achieve mainstream success.
Alongside Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, they have developed a reputation as a gateway band to the weirder side of rock. Listening to Rammstein is a rite of passage for any discerning teen who’s just discovered the joy of alternative music and culture. They’ve stood the test of time, and are easily mentioned in the same breath as any American rock giant when the subject of bands who’ve made a mark on the wider genre comes up. There are two things, though, that make them even more remarkable in some ways than the likes of Manson or even Metallica: that their lineup has remained unchanged for their entire career, and the fact that they rarely, if ever, sing in English, yet still achieved global rock domination.
Rammstein In Amerika is a documentary that charts the rise of these six weird East Berlin dudes, from making scary music on a budget to the Teutonic tour-de-force they are today, and it goes a long way towards explaining their appeal. The key to their success doesn’t lie in any single aspect of their existence, like grotty lyrics or over-the-top pyrotechnics; it’s about how the band have managed to successfully marry those facets over the course of 21 years and combine them with their intelligence, wit, and creativity to create something that’s neither gimmicky nor alienating: a band that consistently entertains and pushes boundaries without ever compromising on their core vision.
Of course, their image played a part in propelling them to stardom. The BDSM-inspired straps and buckles; the blood, black lipstick and fire, and the pièce de résistance: frontman Till Lindemann. Brooding, morose-looking and imposingly muscular, Lindemann has a unique sex appeal; he’s not traditionally good-looking, but he’s the embodiment of a teenage goth’s thirst for the unusual. This is a man who takes to the stage clad in studded leather and bellows about cannibalism and murderous lust, but will sit in an interview straight-faced, and claim in a silken voice that his songs are misunderstood love ballads. He’s Satan cuddling a puppy; Goliath in a fluffy dressing gown. This uber-masculine yet tender hell-beast of a man, who sprays the crowd with liquor from a squirting dildo and singes the audience’s eyebrows with a flamethrower, makes James Hetfield and Kerry King look positively vanilla. Lindemann is a double-edged sword; raw sexuality juxtaposed with emotional intelligence and a sense of humour, and he’s one of the reasons Rammstein are so intriguing. Their fiery on-stage antics could so easily have descended into a gimmick after a few performances, but instead, the flames seem like a totally necessary extension of Lindemann’s personality.
The aggressive stage show has been a part of Rammstein’s identity since the very start. In this new documentary, drummer Christoph Schneider reminisces that one of their early visual gags was for keyboardist Flake Lorenz to ride Lindemann like a horse while repeatedly whacking him with a neon tube until it shattered. The first time they tried such a trick in America, they discovered that American neon tubes were somewhat hardier than German-made ones. Instead of shattering, the tube broke in two, with one half embedding itself in Lindemann’s shoulder and the other half flying across the stage and impaling Schneider. "We went outside and bled like crazy," he says, with a huge grin plastered across his face. Even Marilyn Manson, who is no stranger to bizarre on-stage behavior having once rubbed his bare scrotum on a security guard’s head, was taken aback by the first time he met Lindemann. "He was on fire, literally," he says. "He walked into my dressing room in flames."
One man who immediately recognized the band’s potential to be big is Dante Bonutto, the UK general manager of Universal subsidiary Spinefarm Records. He’s also the person responsible for bringing Rammstein to the UK. "Part of my role back then at Universal was looking at bands who could be bigger in other markets around the world," he explains. "Rammstein were the first band I thought of. What they do is incredible, and I wanted to look at developing them internationally, including in the UK."
Unlike the American managers that the band approached on their first trip to the States, Bonutto was never fazed by the language barrier. "The fact that they don’t sing in English is the whole point," he says. "They were bringing over a different tradition and culture, and for me, that was a positive thing because it was new and exciting." Their unique visual identity also drew him in. It wasn’t glam-rock, and it certainly wasn’t thrash; they were the group that couldn’t be pigeonholed. Kerrang! magazine would later label them as: "The World’s Most Perverse Band," on their first, bondage-themed UK cover shoot (below), around the launch of their third album Mutter in 2001. Bonutto reveals that the band’s original idea for the photos was to wear lederhosen and sport pigtails. "The way they package themselves is very artistic. There’s no rock and roll cliches; they sucked all of that away. They’re like an art installation," Bonutto says.
Their explosion onto the UK scene almost didn’t happen, though. Bonutto explains that he booked them their second-ever English show at the Astoria in 2001, five years after their first visit, but the promoter had a last-minute panic over the pyrotechnics, despite the band explicitly stating the 40-odd effects they planned to use. "The venue was made of wood, and they were told they could only do one of the effects," he explains. "They were all ready to play the show, and they wanted to, but they made a decision—which I thought was right—not to play without the effects. If they’d played without the pyro and the usual spectacle, people would have been disappointed. There were 2,000 people queuing up outside, so they went and explained to them why they had to pull out."
It could easily have been the end of their English dream, but so sure was Bonutto that Rammstein could (figuratively) set the UK alight, that he booked them a show at Brixton Academy instead, six months after the Astoria no-show. Again, it sold out in advance, and this time, the full array of pyrotechnics was given the all clear. "The minute they walked on stage, myself and the manager had a spontaneous hug, which doesn’t happen in rock," explains Bonutto. "It was so steeped in emotion. Not playing the Astoria was the turning point, because we went on to do a bigger venue and give fans the full stage show." Since then, the band have played Brixton Academy three more times, as well as headlining at the O2 Arena, Wembley, and Sonisphere. Far from their visuals losing their appeal over time, they’re what keeps fans coming back for more. As Bonutto says: "I can’t imagine the music without the fire."
By all accounts, Rammstein’s absorption into the UK rock scene went relatively smoothly. America, however, was a different story. As CJ Ramone explains in Rammstein In Amerika, the States is "still a very conservative country. Which is ironic, because it’s the porn capital of the world, but we’re very conservative." Lindemann and Lorenz snigger as they recall the time they were arrested for indecent exposure in Worcester, Massachusetts, after performing their infamous anal sex simulation on stage during “Bück Dich” (which, unsurprisingly, translates to “bend over”). In Salt Lake City, they found their fire thwarted by the local authorities, who insisted their show started and finished in daylight. But despite the bureaucracy, they managed to achieve the same, if not a greater, level of popularity in the States as they did in the UK. Trent Reznor hand-picking their music for the soundtrack of the cult David Lynch film Lost Highway in 1997 is often credited for introducing Rammstein to an international audience, with an article in Billboard in 1999 claiming that that the film, along with various US indie compilations, was “very helpful in launching Rammstein in rock clubs all around the world." But as their triumphant Madison Square Gardens concert in 2010—which provides the climax to the new film—proves, their success was no passing phase.
Unlike, say, Slayer, who pick light-hearted, dinner-party conversation fodder like Auschwitz and jihad as subject matter for their songs, Rammstein’s intention has never been to outrage or frighten, even though they’ve managed to do both, many, many times throughout their career. "They don’t set out to offend people," Bonutto says. "They have a very good sense of humor and don’t get why people get upset. Till thinks its funny when he goes on stage with his dildo." This nonchalance, an absolute refusal to apologize for their art, could be interpreted as belligerent, but it’s fairer to say that the band are just being themselves, doing their thing, and raising a sceptical Germanic eyebrow at anyone who takes it too seriously.
In this respect, Rammstein manage to tread a fine line between being absolutely serious about their art and becoming a parody of themselves. Other bands have failed miserably at this in recent years, as anyone who’s watched Kiss (who are, ironically, guitarist Richard Kruspe’s favorite band) or Mötley Crüe lately can attest. While once-great American stadium rockers descend into portly caricatures of their former selves, Rammstein remain consistently dedicated to being weird without being hammy. Part of the reason they’re able to do this is the fact that, as Bonutto said, they have repeatedly rejected every rock and roll cliche. There are no gratuitous tits in the stage show (although the 2009 video for “Pussy” was borderline pornographic), no songs about fast Cadillacs or liquor or motorbikes or standing on lonely boulevards. The fact that a lot of English-speaking fans don’t actually have a clue what they’re talking about also helps; it’s difficult to get bored of lyrics you don’t understand, and sometimes their delivery does more than words require.
It’s fair to say that the key to Rammstein’s enduring popularity lies in their ability to stick to a defined identity, and repeatedly make it work for them. The fact that they packed out Madison Square Gardens after a ten-year absence from touring America is testament to their talent, and it’s a strong possibility that, should they announce another random, one-off stadium show any time soon, they wouldn’t have troubling attracting an audience. The world, and metal fans in particular, love weirdness, and Rammstein have built a career on feeding humanity’s morbid curiosities. Michael Arfin, the man who insisted it would never work, ate his words, and is now their US promoter. It works, and it works incredibly well. Lang lebe Rammstein!
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Rammstein in Amerika is out now on DVD and Blu Ray