It was Till Lindemann’s voice that first drew me to Rammstein, the German industrial metal band that dominated my teen years. I first heard it on a Kerrang! compilation CD in 2002, where the band’s single Sonne appeared right at the end of a tracklist otherwise full of shouting Americans who sounded mad at their dads. As deep and scary as the Mariana trench, Lindemann’s dramatic baritone is incomparably filthy – and he was also singing in German, a language I had barely been exposed to as a tragically monolingual Brit. My obsession with Rammstein annoyed and worried my parents in equal measure, and over the next few years gifted me with a German vocabulary that my high-school teacher memorably described as “extraordinary, if unrepeatable”. Unlikely as it might seem, it was also my obsession with Rammstein that made me into a keen European.
Let’s get back to Lindemann for a minute. He is one of the all-time great metal frontmen, an unignorable and slightly frightening force, alternating between growling and singing soulfully over Rammstein’s trademark combo of club keyboards and chugging guitars – simple, insistent riffs that lodged themselves deep in my brain matter. It made my hair stand on end. After picking up Rammstein’s third album, Mutter, which I must have listened to at least once a day for years, I started digging around online for Rammstein fan forums where people shared photos of the band in their various absurd techno-BDSM outfits. I got hold of a copy of their concert DVD, Live aus Berlin, on special order from HMV and watched Lindemann prowl around on stage like a giant bear, pounding his fist into his knee in his idiosyncratic headbanging style. The prettier guitarist, Richard Kruspe, was most popular with all the goth girls on the metal forums, but it was all about Lindemann for me.
Rammstein’s songs are pretty impactful on record, but the band’s live performances were the stuff of internet legend when I was a teenager. After once setting a venue on fire during Rammstein’s early shows in the 1990s, Lindemann became a qualified pyrotechnician, and since then their live performances have featured everything from face-mounted flamethrowers to a set of metal angel wings that seeped fire on to a flammable asbestos coat. The theatrics didn’t stop at the fireworks: in 1999, they were arrested after a show in Massachusetts for their hilariously over-the-top performance of Bück Dich (Bend Over), which involved Lindemann, the keyboard player Flake, and a giant exploding dildo. Who wouldn’t want to see this band? Like many metalhead teens of the 00s, I was an absolute sucker for Rammstein’s swagger and controversy-courting edginess. But it was years before I’d get to experience it.
There’s something slightly tragic about loving a band from a different country. It’s like a long-distance relationship: you have to go to quite extreme lengths to see them. At 14, I had no hope – I could hardly get my parents to take me to one of their rare UK shows, and I’d never been to Germany. So I fed my obsession by translating unspeakably disgusting metal lyrics in my school jotters and developing a love of the language. I learned more and more about the historical, linguistic and cultural norms that Rammstein made a career out of subverting. By the time I was able to actually make the pilgrimage to see my favourite band in their home country, I was studying German at university, about to embark upon an Erasmus year in Berlin.
I first learned from my obsession with Rammstein that a language is a way into a culture and a way of thinking. When I later studied French, and then Japanese, music was a way in each time. I believe that when you see how people write and sing in a different language, you learn how people think in that language. There’s a linguistic theory called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that human thought is defined (and restricted) by our language, and that our different mother tongues affect our world view. You can read things in translation, but I still think you understand something better when you understand the language and culture that produced them.
My love of Rammstein has endured – their self-titled 2019 album (their first for 10 years) is their best, if you ask me. Over time, I’ve come to realise that for all that Rammstein are a controversy-courting and sometimes tasteless band, with a singer who thinks nothing of writing absolute bangers about incest, cannibalism and sadism (one memorable lyric, presented context-free: “Whatever you want, I won’t say no / I insert the rodents”) and music videos that are, on occasion, pornographic, they are also camp and self-aware, and, in the face of uninformed criticism, resolutely left-leaning. The lyrics and video for their 2019 single Deutschland explore the band’s conflicted relationship with their home country: it’s a fascinating deconstruction of German history and national identity. I wouldn’t have a clue about any of this if it weren’t for my German degree, and the brilliant times I spent travelling the continent as a happy, free young European – and I have Rammstein to thank for that.