German Rock Finds Its Own Voice

As more groups abandon English lyrics, their popularity is soaring

The crowd of thousands at the Hannover trade fair grounds erupts into a roar marked by rhythmic clapping when Eva Briegel, the 26-year-old lead singer for German rock band Juli ("July"), throws back her long black hair and eases into the band's popular hit Geile Zeit, a smooth rocker whose title means "a great time."

Germans hailed Elvis der König ("Elvis the king") in the 1950s. In the 1960s they flocked to the Hamburg clubs Indra and Star to hear an unknown British band called the Beatles. Since then, English has been the undisputed language of hip German pop music. Few local performers sang in German, except for Bavarian yodel bands and a burst of Teuton rockers in the '80s New Wave scene.

Not any more. Juli and a half dozen other German groups are churning out hit after hit in the language of Goethe. Initially skeptical, the big record companies saw the light last September, when Juli's first album sold more than 500,000 copies right out of the starting gate. That's impressive, when you consider that megagroup U2 has sold 240,000 copies of its latest album in Germany.

Juli's label, Universal Music Group, is eager to see a second album, and all the big record companies have German acts. Other bands leading the "Deutsch Rock" charge are East German rockers Silbermond ("silver moon"), punk-rocker Mia, New Wavers Wir sind Helden ("we are heroes"), hip-hopper Laith Al-Deen, and electro-pop 2 raumwohnung ("two-room apartment"). With the exception of supergroup Rammstein ("battering stone"), which blends heavy metal and techno, few German bands make it abroad.


That's O.K. Germany itself is a big enough market to spin out hefty profits. In 2004 sales of records, CDs, music DVDs, and cassettes totaled $2.15 billion, according to the German branch of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. The share of made-in-Germany titles in album charts hit a record 30.3% in 2004, up from 19.5% in 2000. More than half of all singles were also by German bands in 2004, compared with 44.1% in 2000. Not all songs produced in Germany are in German, but German-language pop recordings are clearly on the rise.

Driving the trend is the resurgence of Berlin as a cultural capital since the fall of the Wall. Young entrepreneurs have taken abandoned factories and breweries such as Kulturbrauerei ("cultural brewery") in the hip Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood and transformed them into rocking venues for live shows nearly every night of the week. "Berlin is a magnet," says Robert Eysoldt, director of the TV department at Universal Music, which in 2000 moved its headquarters from Hamburg to a new high-rise in Berlin. The German Institute for Economic Research reports that music is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the city, accounting for 7.3% of the workforce.

Still, Juli took a risky step when it decided to switch to German lyrics. Raised on U.S. and British '90s groups such as Nirvana and Oasis, Juli's friends were shocked when they started to sing in German. "My best friend, Sabine, said: 'That's so uncool!"' recalls Briegel. "At the time, we were spending a lot of time in Berlin, and I heard a song in German, and it just sank in right away. I knew I wanted to write in my own language, to express deeper feelings."

Making the switch wasn't easy. "We couldn't just translate our English lyrics," says Jonas Pfetzing, Juli's 24-year-old lead guitarist. "We had to write new songs." Universal waited -- and got a hit album. Now it can't wait for the sequel. Whatever Juli produces, says Pfetzing, "there won't be any English on it."

By William Boston in Hannover

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