Herbert Grönemeyer is a singular figure – an artist unique in the German music scene. In fact, one might almost say that there has been nobody quite like him in recent decades in the whole world of German culture, whether it be music or any other field. Herbert Grönemeyer is an artist for everyone and every one – despite the fact that he has never made it easy for his audiences. He is an artist who speaks a universal, immediately comprehensible language – and yet that language is distinctive, charismatic, and opinionated. He is an artist who never stands still and never stops changing – and yet he never comes across as arbitrary, pointlessly brash, or eccentric, because each of his transformations reflects changes in the world around him. Herbert Grönemeyer has always been ahead of his time and, for that very reason, a true expression of the age he lives in. In the course of his career, he has sold more than 14 million albums and during that time, about the same number of people has seen him on tour and in concert.
Herbert Grönemeyer was born in 1956 in Göttingen. His artistic career began in the theater world; while he was still at school, he composed music for Bochum’s Schauspielhaus theater. He became known to a broader audience in 1981 with his first film role, in Das Boot, Wolfgang Petersen’s international hit about the Nazi submarine war. Grönemeyer might have had an illustrious career as an actor, but he declined to follow that path – his true love is music.
While working at the Staatstheater in Stuttgart, he moonlighted laying down his first album, Grönemeyer. In 1980, Zwo came out, recorded in the studio of legendary “krautrock” producer Conny Plank. His initial success was modest; but in 1984 his breakthrough came with his fifth album, Bochum, one that touched a nerve in the post-punk and new wave generation, as well as reaching everyone who resists categorization into a specific movement or generation. The highlight of the album is the track Männer, a song that is both pensive and hymnal – a masterpiece of German 1980s pop music.
In 1984, Bochum was the most successful album of the year in Germany, even more successful than Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It stayed on the charts for almost three years, and has sold almost three million copies to date. With Bochum, Grönemeyer suddenly became a national figure. He used that in the service of political commitment. In 1985, he took a page from Bob Geldof’s Band Aid campaign and recorded the charity single Nackt im Wind with the Band für Afrika. He played to 100,000 people in 1986 at the “Anti-WAAhnsinns-Festival” to protest a nuclear waste re-processing plant at Wackersdorf. The music of his next two albums, Sprünge (1986) and Ö (1988), took a clear political turn. The track Tanzen cautioned against a resurgence of German nationalism; with German re-unification, as racist mobs began marauding through the cities of East and West, he became the first German pop singer to address the issue – in his song Die Härte on the 1993 album Chaos.
The Chaos Tour sold more than 600,000 tickets. MTV invited Grönemeyer to be the first non-English speaking artist to do MTV Unplugged. His tenth album, Bleibt alles anders, was released in 1998, but he cancelled part of the accompanying tour when his wife Anna and his brother Wilhelm died within a few days of each other in November of that year. For a long time, he was unable to write music.
The record that emerged from that deep personal crisis would become his masterpiece. Mensch is a magnum opus of German pop music; it is music that exudes so much wisdom and pain, courage and vulnerability, that nobody who still feels anything while listening to music can escape its power. Grönemeyer dedicated the song Der Weg to his deceased wife. But the title track, and many of the other cuts, also ring with both recent wounds, and with the desire and will to go on living nonetheless. Mensch became the best selling record in German music history; so far, it has sold more than 3.3 million copies.
More than two million people saw one of the concerts during the extended Mensch tour. Yet, that same year, the singer returned for the first time to the theatrical stage. He wrote the music for Robert Wilson’s production of Georg Büchner’s Leonce and Lena at the Berliner Ensemble, enchanting both audiences and critics. It would not be the last time that Grönemeyer worked with Wilson. In 2015, he composed the music for the star director’s Faust I + II; it also premiered at the Berliner Ensemble, before going on to be equally wildly fêted the following year at the Paris Théâtre de la Ville.
In the intervening decade, Grönemeyer had continually expanded his musical horizons, on three more great albums, recorded with his co-producer Alex Silva. The first was 12 in 2007, with the heartrending single Lied 1 – Stück vom Himmel, followed by the release in 2011 of the powerful album Schiffsverkehr. The final in the trilogy, in 2014, was the lighter, more optimistic Dauernd jetzt.
For almost four decades now, Herbert Grönemeyer has been among the country’s most formative pop artists. But he shows no signs of exhaustion, of weariness, and most certainly none of stagnation. His musical curiosity is as boundless as his political commitment is indefatigable. He has had his own label Grönland Records since 1999. On it, he has released work by some of the most exciting contemporary artists outside the mainstream, from Kat Frankie to William Fitzsimmons. And Grönemeyer also cultivates the historical legacy of the German pop avant-garde, in loving retrospectives of groups such as Harmonia, Neu! and D.A.F., of artists such as Holger Czukay, or the aforementioned krautrock pioneer Conny Plank.
In 2005, he became an ambassador for the aid campaign “Gemeinsam für Afrika” (“together for Africa”). That same year, he was one of the initiators of the “Deine Stimme gegen Armut,” the German arm of the “Make Poverty History” campaign, which focuses on the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of ending hunger worldwide. That earned him a place as one of Time magazine’s “European Heroes,” one of “37 people who are changing the world for the better.” In 2015, he stood against a racist mob from the right-wing organization Pegida with a concert called “Dresden für alle” (Dresden for everyone), singing alongside the former East German band Silly and other like-minded artists in front of Dresden’s iconic Frauenkirche church.
If Herbert Grönemeyer is a German national artist, then he represents a nation that is open and diverse, a nation of people who are curious and who want to reach out into the world – and invite the world in. The man and his music reflect a better country, a good country. And it is lucky for us that he has no plans to stop making music. We want to walk alongside Herbert Grönemeyer out into the world, the openness, for a long time to come.
Photographers: Ali Kepen, Carsten Klick