At London’s Rainbow Theatre on the evening of 1 June 1974, after the applause that greeted her performance of Das Lied der Deutschen died away, Nico told the crowd that Germany’s national anthem of the past 50 years was “a harmless little song”. Ever the provocateuse, she had apparently been inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary version of The Star-Spangled Banner to radically re-harmonise the song better known to most of us as Deutschland über alles, after its opening line. If anything, hers was a more outrageous move than even Hendrix’s Woodstock meltdown: rightly or wrongly, the song had troubling associations from relatively recent history.
However, the song was almost 200 years old by the time Nico recorded it, and for the first 40 or so years of its existence was simply ‘Gott erhalte Franz der Kaiser’, Haydn’s hymn of praise to Francis II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The poet August Heinrich Hoffman von Fallersleben added a new set of words to Haydn’s melody in 1841, turning it into a revolutionary call for the unification of Germany. This, alas, is where the ambiguity creeps in.
Non-German speakers could be forgiven for missing the distinction between ‘über alles’ (‘above all things’) and ‘über allen’ (‘above everyone else’). Hoffman wrote not about German superiority over other countries, but about the need for a united Germany to replace the loose collection of tiny nation states then in existence. Nevertheless, Das Lied der Deutschen has long been willfully misinterpreted, first for propaganda reasons – as supposed evidence of Germans’ claim to be the master race – and later as a result of simple xenophobia.
In her deadpan way, Nico, the most talented member of the Velvet Underground after John Cale, delighted in exploiting precisely this ambiguity. She was booed when she performed the song in her native Germany: audiences there were shocked at her inclusion of the first verse, which, with its strict geographical delineation of what constituted ‘Germany’, was still associated with the Nazi regime. She probably didn’t help matters by dedicating it to the Red Army Faction’s Andreas Baader, then in the custody of the German authorities accused of a string of bombings and anything but harmless.
Nico’s recording of Das Lied der Deutschen was released as the final track on her album The End…, and is a truly remarkable work. Putting a different set of chords under Haydn’s world-famous melody was a ballsy move for anyone, and in doing so Nico joins a long line of composers that includes Paganini, Tchaikovsky and Bartok. Indeed, Nico takes a more radical approach than the first two of these.
Hipsters will tell you that Nico’s 1968 album The Marble Index is her greatest work, but they’re wrong as usual: there’s nothing on that admittedly fine long-player anywhere near as startling as Das Lied der Deutschen. Hers wasn’t a recipe for commercial success or even much acclaim: the album languished in the can for a year, and Nico never recorded for Island again.
Listen to Das Lied der Deutschen: here
Text by Andrew Petrie 2018