With a kneejerk reaction to being told by certain fashion-lifestyle magazines what’s cool, I’ve been studiously avoiding all things DJ Hell for the last few years. But when I saw my friend Meredith Danluck’s name on the flyer for the first NY Muscle release party in Berlin, (the second took place in Paris, at the Elysee Montmartre) I knew I’d have to make an exception to the rule, and disguise my virgin wool to go to the fashion wolves’ lair.
Actually, my cultural innocence had already been violated six months previously by an article in a trendy N.Y. magazine about DJ Hell’s up-coming, much-awaited, full-length studio album. This was enough to make it clear to me that the Bavarian stud was an ambassador of cool, a general of the German music export vanguard. (Perhaps it doesn’t seem appropriate anymore to suggest that a person’s place of birth has any influence on their artistic output, in the age of inter-continental artistic collaborations. However, since cultural stereotyping is undeniably part of Gigolo Records’ – Hell’s label – marketing, in this case I have no qualms: Bavarian stud, New Deutsch, indeed.)
So, fearing great excesses and nauseating nepotism, I approached the Volksbuehne, landmark theatre of the DDR, which for tonight’s special event was crowned with that one, telling word, in neon: HELL.
But backstage all was harmless business as usual. No blonde women in white fur and sunglasses popping corks, no. The atmosphere was more reminescent of a student variety show (a sensation probably enhanced by the presence of more highschool friends and the Volksbuehne’s egalitarian lack of glamour). After declining a generous offer to watch the show from the wings, and a confusing rendezvous with the stud himself in the toilets, I made my way to the auditorium, just missing the grand moment when the lights went down and the show began.
In this case I’m sure it was grand, because the darkness I walked into was blaring with the album’s suspenseful strutting first track ‘Keep on waiting’, vocals by Erlend Oye. The ‘boombastic’* crackle of “electro-rock fusion” or “21st century rock’n’roll” picked me up and swept me along before I had time to analyse which term was more fitting. Impressed was I, by the slick, au fait, sexy, muscular sound, accompanied by the slick, au fait, sexy, muscular visuals.
Up on the screens were images of shirtless, what-I-thought-must be New York rock boys, in gritty, black-and-white, banging on drums, fondling guitars (turned out later that it was a Berliner friend Henni Hell banging the drums…). Need I say that the connection between the visceral, throbbing electro sounds and the visceral, throbbing bodies made itself obvious? It carried the energy of that relentless urban drive for fresh blood, cultural corpuscles. Out in the backwater of Berlin, I hadn’t felt that push in a long time. Something straining to be so big, with such a thick layer of gloss over it, with – nevertheless – the stamp of an underground mind imbedded in its heavy finish.
The first track ended, the scrim lifted and a luxuriant chaise lounge and armchair were revealed. With immaculate timing, Hell swivelled to reveal himself, sitting like the Masterpiece of the Theatre. To a barrage of applause he stood up and strode off-stage with attitude. Leaving only his name behind to flash in big letters on the background screen for the rest of the show.
Next came a track with Alan Vega, one of two from the album. Always a sucker for Vega’s bedroom voice, and associations, both literal and implied, of an American nightmare, I thought the bunker bongo sounds and creepy inch-worm progression nicely completed the ominous lullaby. I was just getting comfy with this version of Hell, when the Mechanical Girls paraded on-stage, sending a cold shudder through me.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against beautiful, semi-clad, Spanish girls. But I do resent the expectation that I’m to watch them tediously acting out cliches of decadence for 45 minutes: sipping on glasses of sekt, pretending to snort lines of coke, pawing at each other and gazing into their compacts. As they proceeded through the course of the next song to shed their remaining retro lacy bits to reveal pussies as naked as they day they were born, I was reminded of Sartre’s statement, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (hell is other people). Need I mention that the allusions to Berlin’s 1920s days of decadence, a passing nod to Otto Dix were noted? Good, let’s proceed.
The next song, called “Follow You”, was Meredith’s contribution to the album – in addition to the use of her ‘wicked home studio’ (noted in the album notes) and her extensive production work on the Alan Vega tracks and other details (not noted in the notes). A cosmopolitan meditation on contemporary paranoia, anonymity and surveillance culture, Mer’s stiff moves combined with her impassive delivery and utilitarian outfit created a sinister contrast to the impervious Spanish flesh.
Unfortunately, when Mer left the stage the boombast returned, with the revolting single: “Let No Man Jack”, the Miami-guyness of which perfectly encapsulated my worst fears of Hell’s musical pomposity.
Things didn’t look up again until another performer, Berlin’s own lost darling, Billy Ray Martin, took the stage, singing with the majestic sensuality of a Bond diva, a contradiction of the Edith Piaf song “Je ne regrette rien”: a ballad called “I regret”, whose tragic sentiments deflated the lingering no-man-jack arrogance.
I can’t recall exactly how the rest of the album playback (for that’s what it was) unravelled itself. I know an attempt at climax was made by the dancers rolling on the floor and Hell spurring them on, marching, megaphone in hand, the very model of a modern major general. I know I wondered to myself who would pay 18 euros to go to this event, and whose talent was feeding whose in the making of the album…?
At the end Hell stood alone at the back of the stage behind his Korg. The screen blew his outline up, in dark sunglasses. It seemed like the squeaky-clean, glass table, white suit of an eighties image had been sucked through a blackhole and spat out in stalactite negative-image shards. Not a retro statement – because Hell is a man of the eighties – not a fashion fantasy, but a shiny, inflated nightmare come to life, fascinating for its distorted reflection of verity.
There were also no blonde women in white fur and sunglasses popping corks at the aftershow party, well-handled by Tiefschwarz. But who wants to get up onto a stage that’s been vacated by naked Spanish girls and try and feel special? Clearly no one wanted to take second place.
*boombastic – an invented word found on the Gigolo records website.