Trying to pinpoint Nina Hagen’s role and legacy in the musical vista, on this, her 45th anniversary tour, is something of a conundrum. Descriptions of Nina span the spectrum from the whispered reverence devoted to the iconic Godmother of Punk, to opera singer with a spiritual message, to teenage actress turned controversially opinionated cult celebrity. Whether it’s her startling fashion style or her musical talent, her genre-traversing career or her distinctive humour, there’s much to be intrigued by as we await her arrival on stage.
When she appears, she’s glamorous and animated, switching between playing her guitar whilst perched on a stool and dancing at the microphone. A melting pot of covers, classics and tributes tumble out through the night. The set list, which I’d been lucky enough to take a peek at before the show, turned out to be more of a meandering general guide. The songs appeared in a completely different order, peppered with tantalising omissions and additions – although with some songs barely touched upon for more than a couple of lines, and others abandoned part way through due to her dissatisfaction, it wasn’t always easy to tell.
Nina’s social/political views were, as ever, transparent throughout. Early 80s single Smack Jack reminds us of her anti-drugs stance, whilst many of the covers veer towards her religious and philosophical position. Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody (and a quick gasp of Blowin’ In The Wind), the protest song We Shall Overcome (sung in honour of those killed in last year’s Paris terrorist attacks which, she tells us, happened a week after her French tour), Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky and folk standard All My Trials.
Special guest Lene Lovich was called to the stage for three songs, including their mid-80s collaboration, the vegetarian-supporting Don’t Kill The Animals, and a Rammstein cover. There seemed a genuine warmth of friendship between the two in the way they interacted on stage, Nina’s insistence on drawing out details of Lene’s next solo show to encourage attendance and a kiss from Nina on the cheek whilst singing.
Nina chatted informally and at length between songs, which was welcomed by the crowd, who frequently greeted these musical pauses with declarations of love for the singer. Her stories include how Frank Zappa convinced her to sing in English, how Ari Up of The Slits showed her around Shepherd’s Bush’s basement reggae parties and how a UFO sighting was, she now realises, something to do with mermaids (yes, I know, but this what it sounded like to me!). She also hints heavily, but mysteriously, at an ongoing legal case that has consumed her last three years and will soon be made public.
The evening’s ramble through punk, rock and roll, country, big band, folk and a distinctly cabaret feel to some elements of the show, kept the performance unpredictable and enjoyable.
Woody Guthrie’s All You Fascists Bound To Lose and Gershwin’s Summertime were rolled out later in the show, before an encore with second special guest of the evening Adamski for a rendition of his track Killer.
By the end of the show she was still energetic yet relaxed. She thanked London for the invitation to perform and told us she hopes she’ll see us in Berlin soon – hopefully not a sign of another 14 year wait until her next UK appearance!
One of the songs on her set list tonight that didn’t get an airing in the end was her version of My Way. It would have been good to hear but, regardless, she certainly did it her way tonight.
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Nina Hagen @ O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London on September 24, 2016
Photography & Words by Imelda Michalczyk
Imelda has her own website here: www.rebeladelica.com