Nina Hagen @ O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire

Nina Hagen @ O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire 24th September, 2016



Nina Hagen - pic Birgit DeadlyGlamour


You do realise that you’re kind of getting vaguely old when you see an ad for a concert, and it’s “Nina Hagen’s 45th year on stage”.

I’d suspect you would have to explain her to people who have never heard of her as “Grace Jones, with political interests, and not afraid to voice them” or even “Madonna, if she had never sold out”. A music celebrity in spite of anybody being still able to count her songs which were ever played on commercial German radio on the fingers of one hand.

Nina is also probably the most famous German refugee, as she was evicted from East Germany after her musician stepfather criticised the government one time too many, and was not let in again following a tour in the West.

She is the original Punk Icon, a voice you’d recognise anywhere with your eyes shut, and an instantly visible image for any native German speaker between the ages of, say, 16 and 80.

And this is what the audience was like at the Shepherd’s Bush O2. German voices everywhere. The couple next to me, conversing in heavily accented Swiss German, had come over especially to see her. Older people everywhere, white-haired gentlemen in tweed suits, with their eyes fixed on the stage, waiting for somebody they had grown up with and were still not tired of seeing. A couple who had brought their teenage kids. Old punks, who still looked like punks. The most mixed bag of an audience I’ve ever seen at any concert, ever. Not a sold out venue, but pleasantly not-sardine-tin busy.

Nina Hagen - pic Birgit DeadlyGlamour

It had been quite a long time, 14 years, since her last tour in the UK, although she used to record here. I remember a musician friend from my hometown telling me they had been in studios next to each other near Portobello road - she encountered Nina in her Indian phase, dressed in a sari.

Because, well, this is the thing. Nina has interests, lots of them, and is not afraid of exploring them in public. This is easy to see by anybody, all you have to do is follow her Facebook account, which is most decidedly not run by some minion to make money out of it in advertising rates, but an unexpurgated look into the Nina State of Mind.

This will result in booking a ticket for a concert, and never being entirely sure what you are going to get until the music starts. Even the set list is an “approximate” at the best of times, as I happened to be conveniently placed in the front row, spotted the guitarist’s version, and there were things on it which didn’t happen. One was brushed off during the concert by Nina with “no, I don’t feel like it”.

Sonny Eriksson - pic Birgit DeadlyGlamour

Adamski - Sonny Eriksson

The warm-up act was as eclectic as expected. Adamski’s new project Sonny Eriksson, doing a one-man 3-step cyber rockabilly beatbox sound, and sounding uncannily like Lux Interior from the Cramps doing the Human Fly. Thirty minutes, and done.

There is a lot to be said for German professionalism, as Nina started at nine on the dot, no dithering here to make people wait. And yes, she did play for two hours flat out, and I am quite sure if the venue had a longer licence, it would have been more.

Dressed resplendently in full Technicolour from multi-shade hair extensions on the top, her heavy trademark black eyeliner and bright red lipstick, short black tutu dress with a shawl over the top, the most amazing leopard-print leggings with snarling leopard faces at knee level (WANT! Nina, if you read this, where did you get them?), and silver sparkling heels.

Only the music was not quite as expected. Most of the audience was hedging for a “travels through my back catalogue” experience, revisiting notoriety through the years, maybe her version of “White Punks on Dope” (TV-Glotzer), “New York, New York” or “Zarah”.

Instead, Nina played the music that had influenced her. Janis Martin’s Country tunes on the guitar, reggae, “Spirit in the Sky”, “Blowing in the Wind”, “Hava Nagila”, and so on. And told anecdotes about UFOs in the desert, Frank Zappa, David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. “Don’t take drugs”, animal rights, and women’s rights, including the one to dress in whatever the hell you like, and yes, that includes Burkinis, too.

Nina Hagen and Lene Lovich - pic Birgit DeadlyGlamour

Duetting Rammstein with Lene Lovich

Two of her own songs over the course of the whole concert, “Smack Jack” and “Don’t kill the Animals”. That was it.

However, it was all worth it. Because the special guest on stage was Lene Lovich.

Two Grande Dames of punk, where you could clearly see they are still the best of friends, duetting, amongst others, Rammstein’s “Seemann” and Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song”. It was jawdroppingly beautiful.

At the end, Nina planted a kiss on Lene’s cheek, Lene smiled, and and I swear to God, 45 years fell off like dust, and both looked like young girls again, on a stage where everything was possible. The audience’s ears perked up like the proverbial mutt when Nina declared at the end that she wanted to be Lene’s dog, as a distinct possibility arose of a performance of “Wau wau” from “Unbehagen” but, no luck, guys, it didn’t happen, yet another curveball.

The encore was an electronic Adamski/Nina collaboration, cut short by the time, five minutes after eleven, London concert curfew.

Nina Hagen - pic Birgit DeadlyGlamour

These days, Nina performs mostly 1920s German Weimar Republic songs by Brecht and Weill of Threepenny Opera fame, and writes music to classical 19th century German poetry. Personal development can take you in all kinds of directions. She will hopefully still be around for a very long time, but she will never be boring.

Flashback, circa 1989: I did an apprenticeship as a goldsmith in a German backwater at the Austrian border. My then boss’s wife had been a famous fashion model in Communist East Germany when she was young, and there, she was best friends with Nina Hagen’s mother, an equally famous actor/musician. And she had a photo album with snapshots and cuttings from her past.

She pointed at a little black and white photo of a circa nine-year-old girl, with dark hair and huge brown eyes: “You wouldn’t recognise her, would you? That’s Nina Hagen. And you could already see then that she was going to be different.”