Music icon

Why you need to know German music icon Rio Reiser

Heinrichplatz, a prominent square in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, has been renamed Rio-Reiser-Platz, commemorating the man who in the late 1960s and 1970s became an icon of the left-wing scene not only in Berlin but throughout Germany. (Also read: On tour, Pakistan’s first Grammy winner defies boundaries with her music)

The square’s renaming ceremony took place on Sunday, with Minister of State for Culture and Media Claudia Roth among the thousands attending the celebration. In the 1980s, the Green Party politician was Reiser’s band manager, Ton Steine ​​Scherben.

“With this inauguration, we are celebrating the symbolic return of Rio Reiser,” Roth told German news agency dpa. “Rio’s time in Kreuzberg was a creative, turbulent and challenging time,” she said, adding that all aspects of her life were forward-thinking.

She also pointed out that by being open and sure of himself about his homosexuality, the rock star demonstrated “that the private is political”.

Rock music to blast post-war congestion

Reiser’s band Ton Steine ​​Scherben were the first German rock band to openly criticize the system with German lyrics, providing the soundtrack to the late 1960s student revolts and left-wing anarchist scene. until the early 1980s.

The youth of the 1960s had had enough of the idyllic world that post-war German society had painted for itself. They realized something was wrong: with the atrocities of National Socialism still relatively recent, German youth in the 1960s wondered why their parents and teachers did not want to discuss this very dark chapter of the story.

Beat and rock music arrived in Germany and provided the perfect outlet for outrage and rebellion. While Schlager hits ooze from German radios, the sounds of electric guitars rattle the walls of basements and garages.

Reiser, whose birth name was Ralph Christian Möbius, also wanted to make rock music. He taught himself to play the guitar, the piano and the cello. At the age of 17, he abandoned his professional training program in photography and moved to Berlin.

Deadly shootout and catastrophic festival

There he became involved in musical and theatrical projects on the left-wing scene, and saw the student riots, the murder of Benno Ohnesorg and the assassination of Rudi Dutschke.

Together with his friends, Reiser founded the band Ton Steine ​​Scherben and wrote songs that reflected his anger towards the establishment and his vision for a just society.

The band’s first appearance was at the Love-And-Peace festival on the German island of Fehmarn in 1970 – where Jimi Hendrix gave his final concert at the festival.

The event ended in disaster, with organizers messing around with cash registers, audiences sinking in the mud and several bands canceling their concerts. Ton Steine ​​Scherben nevertheless played for the remaining festival-goers.

After playing their song “Mach kaputt, was euch kaputt macht” (Destroy what destroys you) and Reiser’s announcement that organizers should be driven into the ground, the organization’s office and stage caught fire . Your Steine ​​Scherben was suddenly famous.

Left-wing mob spokesperson

Whenever and wherever things happened on the streets during this time in Berlin, the “Scherbens” were there too, playing their songs, like “Keine Macht für Niemand!” (“No power for anyone”). They were convinced that social change could come through music and they eventually became the spokesperson for the left-wing mob.

They made political statements by squatting houses, occupying the former Bethanien Hospital nurses’ residence in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district and renaming it the Georg von Rauch Building.

Rauch was a student protester and anarchist who had been killed days before in a shootout with police, making him a martyr on the left scene. The Rauch house became one of the centers of the movement.

Under surveillance

The news spread in Germany, with squatters sprouting up in major cities across the country. Their anthem became Scherben’s “Rauch-Haus-Song”, with the line “Ihr kriegt uns hier nicht raus, das ist unser Haus!” (You can’t get rid of us, this is our home).

The band was adored by young rebels all over Germany, but hated by conservatives and the older generation and was not played on the radio. They were also under state surveillance, with police visiting the “Scherben family” almost daily.

The Scherbens produced their first record entirely on their own, not wanting to depend on “the industry”. They also played their well-attended concerts for free, as they felt that making money from leftist songs would not be credible. But working to earn money was not part of their motto either. Conclusion: no funds.

Moving to the country

Over time, however, the collective grew tired of constant police visits and lack of money, and no longer wanted to serve as a “jukebox” for the leftist movement. The group moved to a farm near the Danish border, where a commune developed.

The band also started making another kind of music – less political and more melodic, with Reiser exploring his imagination and his feelings, writing songs such as “Halt dich an deiner Liebe fest” (“Hold on to Your Love”), one of his most famous.

After the debt-ridden Scherbens split up in 1985, Reiser continued to make music on his own, signing with a record label after all.

With the release of his first solo album, entitled “Rio I”, in 1986, his songs suddenly hit the radio, including “Alles Lüge” (“Everything’s a Lie”), “Junimond” (“June Moon”) and his huge success “König von Deutschland” (“King of Germany”).

While die-hard Scherben fans viewed his solo success with a critical eye, unwilling to share their messiah with the general public, they had already missed the boat: Reiser had landed at the top of the charts.

He performed in East Berlin in 1988, singing “Der Traum ist aus” (“The dream is over”), pondering in the song: “Gibt es ein Land auf der Erde, wo der Traum Wirklichkeit ist?” (“Is there a land on Earth where the dream is reality?”). In the auditorium, the crowd shouted, “It’s not this land!”

A year later, East Germany made history.

An enduring legend

Still frequently sung by other musicians, Reiser’s compositions are wild and rough, soft and tender, sometimes melodramatic and always imbued with an almost indomitable passion. German pop musicians never tire of calling Rio Reiser one of their most important role models.

In addition to his musical talent, Reiser’s sudden death from circulatory collapse on August 8, 1996 at the age of 46 certainly contributed to his status as both myth and legend.

This article has been translated from German and has been updated from a previous profile marking the 25th anniversary of Rio Reiser’s death.