Nina Hagen was an opera-singing punk rock incendiary from Germany who entered 1980 with a major label deal, massive sales figures in Europe, and an outsized fanbase that packed most of the rooms she played. After two albums fronting the Nina Hagen Band in her native language, the 25-year-old signed with Frank Zappa’s manager and landed in New York City to record her solo debut and inaugural English-language LP. There was every reason to believe that this woman with unteachable rock’n’roll magnetism had crossover appeal in the U.S. market. She was riveting not because of her flashy clothes, thick eye makeup, or neon hair—anyone can dress the part. It was the way she screamed, the way she fell into deep and bizarre voices and contorted her face to the delight of her fans. Nunsexmonkrock, released in 1982, was an opportunity to introduce even more people to Hagen—an incomparable performer, a new mother, an activist, a clown, a disciple of Christ, a true believer in UFOs, and without question, a star.
Hagen did not waste a moment playing it safe or easing the listener in. Instead, she charged immediately into a multi-tracked pan-religious chaos sphere. The first time you hear her voice over thundering drums, she’s telling a Bible story about Jesus exorcising a demon out of a man and into a litter of pigs. The overall aesthetic of the album is distilled in Hagen’s desperate, frantic vocals on “Antiworld” as she shrieks about the pigs “running away, screaming.” Her voice is harrowing. It’s calm momentarily, but then her deep demonic growl shifts quickly into an authoritative bark like she’s preaching over an ocean of bodies, and then again, she pivots entirely and becomes tongue-tied like a man possessed. Her intense wailing, her proselytizing about deities and black holes, and her deep commitment to character work is a thrown gauntlet—you’re either in the tank for this maximalist credo or you can’t hang with her at all.
Hagen was born in East Berlin a few years after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic and a few years before the construction of the Berlin Wall. She grew up a member of a creative family in a country that censored cultural works deemed politically inconvenient. Her mother, Eva Maria Hagen, was an actress and singer who regularly brought her young daughter to work; at age 9, Nina picked up operatic singing from professionals. After her father left the family, Nina’s stepfather, Wolf Biermann—the East German dissident folk singer and poet who was regularly blacklisted and ultimately exiled for his views in 1976—became a formative figure in her life.
“Wolf Biermann gave me power,” Hagen told the International Herald Tribune in 1980. “When I was in school in East Germany, parents forbade their children to speak to me. That sort of thing can make you strong. Biermann is a rebel. I took what he gave me and survived the hate against me. Now I am a rebel, too.” There’s a 1974 Bavarian pop hit that Hagen recorded with the band Automobil called “Du Hast den Farbfilm Vergessen”—a bubblegum tune about forgetting to pack color film on a vacation. In actuality, it was written as a teenager’s veiled and upbeat takedown of the GDR—artistic bravery born of courage being a day-to-day necessity.
Hagen joined Biermann in exile, met his contacts at CBS Records, and got a recording contract. Encouraged by the label to travel and immerse herself in the world of rock music, she ended up in London, where she befriended Ari Up and the Slits. Soon enough, she was fronting the Nina Hagen Band and barking over the hard rock sound of their self-titled 1978 album, which featured a cover of the Tubes’ “White Punks on Dope.” Her playful, erratic, and fried vocals on 1979’s Unbehagen hinted at what would come. Those albums led to media attention, especially after a 1979 TV appearance in Austria where she got the host fired by simulating masturbation on camera.
Nunsexmonkrock’s cover shows Hagen cradling a baby in an ostensible homage to Madonna-and-child iconography. One 1982 headline described her as “Blasphemy From Abroad,” and it would’ve been easy enough to read Hagen’s album title and artwork as provocative sacrilege for the sake of irony or shock value. But she’s not doing a Johnny Rotten “I am the Antichrist” spiel; when Hagen growls the words “I believe in Jesus,” her voice is a caricature but her intentions are pure. After being baptized in 2009, she would point back to Nunsexmonkrock as an example of her piety: “Look at my lyrics and you’ll see that I’ve always struggled and preached in the name of love, in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Amid Hagen’s unhinged performances are raucous and emphatic expressions of love. Just look at the baby she was clutching on the album art: her daughter, Cosma Shiva Hagen. Cosma was born in 1981, and not long after, she contributed cooing and giggling vocals to a slinking song on Nunsexmonkrock titled “Cosma Shiva.” Hagen grunts a countdown before singing her daughter’s name in a high-pitched peek-a-boo voice that feels designed for an infant’s amusement: “Cosma. SHIVA! Galax-INA!” Over Karl Rucker’s bouncing bass riff, Hagen trills about outer space in an ethereal alien register. When she contorts her voice into shrill acrobatics and offers a funky transmission to her baby from the cosmos, she is so committed to playfulness that the song’s deep absurdity is overpowered by the radiant, joyful act of becoming a dance music clown for her baby. When Cosma laughs, it’s not hard to follow suit.
Hagen was pregnant when she was preparing to record the album in the early ’80s, and in interviews, she vilified Bennett Glotzer—the manager she shared with Zappa—for allegedly imposing a correlated album delay. “I was sitting there with these wonderful ideas and wonderful musicians and always Glotzer would go to CBS and say she’s not ready, she’s pregnant,” she told the magazine Shades in 1982. “I would love to [record] when I was pregnant, it would be the holiest record in the whole wide world.” She still inserts the requisite holiness in her song for her daughter, deepening her voice for a solemn outro: “And my little baby, I tell you—God is your father.”
Cosma’s actual birth father was Ferdinand Karmelk, a guitarist and songwriter who’s credited as a writer on Nunsexmonkrock. Hagen met Karmelk in Amsterdam when he was a member of Dutch rock’n’roll star Herman Brood’s band; from looking at the raw footage, it’s clear they had a strong connection. In the infamous 1979 Austrian TV appearance, Hagen sat next to (and sometimes on top of) Karmelk, wearing a homemade shirt emblazoned with his name. When they performed some songs that would appear on Nunsexmonkrock together, his choppy power chords took a backseat to Hagen shrieking and roaring while facing the camera. When she simulated masturbation with a calm and determined look in her eye, he laughed.
Karmelk is the sole writer credited on the album’s synthesizer-led single and dark heart, “Smack Jack.” Hagen multi-tracks her voice over a languid guitar groove to form a demonic choir yelping about a junkie looking to score. “You are always running out, and you are always running short,” she purrs with a deep rasp. When the sped-up chorus hits, she’s a frantic devil on your shoulder screaming the words “shoot it up.” Because it was written from a place of experience by a man who didn’t play on the record as planned, the song’s darkness is tough to shake. Hagen told Interview in 1980 that Karmelk was clean after going to rehab, but by the time Nunsexmonkrock was recorded, he was no longer in the band. He “loved the drug more than me and our baby,” she wrote in her memoir.
In a 1980 interview, Hagen outlined her intended personnel for her debut solo album, naming musicians like Karmelk who do not perform on Nunsexmonkrock—seemingly a casualty of the externally imposed recording delays. The band she ended up with is not always a good fit. There’s a grainy video of the Nunsexmonkrock sessions where you can see Hagen and bassist Karl Rucker pulling faces and doing schtick. This was their first collaboration, and the two would go on to work together for years to come. But seasoned session musicians like Chris Spedding and Paul Shaffer were one-time Hagen collaborators, and when they briefly appear in the video, they’re relatively sedate.
On songs like “Dread Love,” you can sense the disconnect between Hagen’s wildness and the comparably underwhelming performances of the label’s hired guns. Hagen’s screams during that song are perhaps the album’s most boldly unhinged, and they remain jarring nearly 40 years later. She’s backed by crisp, thin synthesizers and guitars whose attempts at volatility are undercut by a decidedly early ’80s vintage. The band’s best performances on the album don’t go for a contemporary punk or new wave sound—they’re minimal bordering on ambient (like the elegiac “Dr. Art”) or exaggeratedly grandiose (like the over-the-top theatrical piano work on “Future Is Now”). Hagen thrives at these extremes and handily overpowers more middle-of-the-road efforts.
While Hagen and the band flirt with funk, minimalism, operatic bombast, and ’80s synth-pop, the best song on the album, “Born in Xixax,” is a definitive punk song. The electric guitar power chords are percussive and swift, while the beat feels more stiff and electronic—a catchy jam from the jump. Hagen offers a fabricated origin story that’s played for laughs. “Ugh, sorry, got to turn on the machine,” she grunts at the intro. “My name is Hans Ivanovich Hagen, and this is the news.” In a half-muttered deep voice, she sings about growing up poor on a farm with her junkie father, her Vietnam vet brother, and her Soviet Union spy uncle. She percussively whispers a bit of Cold War gossip—that Mr. Brezhnev is “planning a reunion.” Lyrically she’s joking around in the Radio Yerevan formula, but Hagen’s haunted multitude of multi-tracked voices offers a surprisingly hopeful message: “One day we will be free! We will be free one day!”
Not all of Hagen’s lyrics and character work have aged well. On “Taitschi Tarot,” she adopts a high-pitched voice to sing about Buddha, reincarnation, and yoga. Regardless of her intentions or the social standards of the time, the song’s casual Orientalism is wildly unpalatable, and it’s just one example of cultural appropriation from Hagen’s discography. On 1979’s “African Reggae,” she sang about the “Black Jah rasta man,” and just last year, she released a dub song called “Unity” as an homage to George Floyd that prominently featured the slave spiritual “Wade in the Water.” They’re big aesthetic swings under the guise of solidarity, but difficult to digest.
Hagen built her career on boldness, and often, it earned her ridicule. When she sat down for an interview on Letterman in 1985, the conversation pivoted from her hair extensions to the place all Hagen interviews in the ’80s eventually landed: her story about spotting a UFO on a beach in Malibu while pregnant. “It was in the middle of the night and it was great. I was mesmerized,” she said. “And it was showing all kinds of colors—a real light show.” Letterman dryly asked some follow-up questions: “How big was it? Glowing? Was it doing any hair extending?” Hagen smiled just a little bit, tolerating his playful barb. It was an easy punchline for the media. “E.T., phone home,” one Canadian local news broadcaster proudly quipped after a similar interview.
Hagen is an entertainer, and she wants you to have fun, but she also wants you to know that she really means what she says. She told SPIN in 1986 that the UFO experience “cleansed me of all my hangups”—that she woke up the next morning “the happiest pregnant woman on the planet.” On the Nunsexmonkrock song “UFO,” a simmering ambient synthesizer backs the ASMR of Hagen’s whispered experience before she loudly proclaims: “And you are not alone.” For all the times she boldly declares herself a literal prophet or shifts from one wild voice to another, Hagen spends so much of Nunsexmonkrock parting the chaotic waters to reveal one grounded, genuine message of hope—a maternal assurance to the listening faithful that it’s going to be OK. When she says that you’re not alone and that we’ll be free one day, she’s pulling from her own life. Nunsexmonkrock is fun and wild, and it’s the work of an exiled woman in her twenties processing new motherhood and loss.
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