Why you need to know German music icon Rio Reiser

Published on Aug 22, 2022 07:31 PM IST

Rio Reiser was a poet, rebel, rock star and a cult figure of the leftist resistance in Germany. A square in Berlin's district of Kreuzberg has now been renamed after him.

Rio Reiser's solo efforts landed at the top of the charts in the 1980s(Imago/Votos-Roland Owsnitzki)
Rio Reiser's solo efforts landed at the top of the charts in the 1980s(Imago/Votos-Roland Owsnitzki)

Heinrichplatz, a prominent square in Berlin's district of Kreuzberg, has been renamed Rio-Reiser-Platz, commemorating the man who in the late 1960s and 1970s became an icon of the leftist scene, not only in Berlin but throughout Germany. (Also read: On tour, Pakistan's first Grammy winner defies boundaries with her music)

The ceremony to rename the square was held on Sunday, with Minister of State for Culture and Media Claudia Roth among the celebration's thousands of participants. In the 1980s, the Green Party politician was the manager of Reiser's band Ton Steine ​​Scherben.

"With this inauguration, we are celebrating Rio Reiser's symbolic return home," Roth told German news agency dpa. "Rio's time in Kreuzberg was a creative, turbulent and difficult period," she said, adding that the every aspect of his life was avant-garde.

She also pointed out that by being open and self-confident about his homosexuality, the rock star demonstrated "that the private is political."

Rock music to blast postwar stuffiness

Reiser'sband Ton Steine Scherben was the first German rock band to openly criticize the system with German lyrics, providing the soundtrack to the student revolts of the late 1960s and the left-wing anarchist scene up into the early 1980s.

The youth of the 1960s had had enough of the idyllic world that German postwar society had painted for itself. They realized that something was not in order: With the atrocities of National Socialism still relatively fresh, German youth in the '60s questioned why their parents and teachers didn't want to discuss this very dark chapter of history.

Beat and rock music arrived in Germany and offered the perfect outlet for outrage and rebellion. While Schlager hits were oozing out of German radios, the sounds of electric guitars were vibrating the walls of basements and garages.

Reiser, whose birth name was Ralph Christian Möbius, also wanted to make rock music. He taught himself to play the guitar, piano and cello. At the age of 17, he dropped out of his professional photography training program and headed to Berlin.

Fatal shooting and catastrophic festival

There, he got involved in music and theater projects in the leftist scene, and experienced the student riots, the murder of Benno Ohnesorg and the shooting of Rudi Dutschke.

With his friends, Reiser founded the band Ton Steine Scherben, and wrote songs that mirrored his anger toward the establishment and his vision of a fair society.

The band's first appearance was at the Love-And-Peace Festival on the German island of Fehmarn in 1970 — where Jimi Hendrix played his last festival concert.

The event ended in a disaster, with the organizers skedaddling with the cash registers, the audience sinking in mud and several bands canceling their gigs. Ton Steine Scherben nevertheless played for the remaining festivalgoers.

After playing their song song "Mach kaputt, was euch kaputt macht" (Destroy what destroys you) and Reiser's announcement that the organizers should be rammed into the ground, the organization office and stage went up in flames. Ton Steine Scherben were suddenly famous.

Mouthpiece of the leftist crowd

Whenever and wherever things were happening on the streets during this time in Berlin, the "Scherben" were there too, playing their songs, such as "Keine Macht für Niemand!" ("No Power for Anyone"). They were convinced that social change could come about through music and they ultimately became the mouthpiece of the leftist crowd.

They made political statements by house-squatting, occupying the former nurses' residence of Bethanien Hospital in Berlin's district of Kreuzberg and renaming it the Georg von Rauch Building.

Rauch was a student protester and anarchist who had been killed just days before in a shootout with police, turning him into a martyr of the left-wing scene. The Rauch House became one of the movement's centers.

Under surveillance

Word spread in Germany, with squatters sprouting up in big cities across the country. Their anthem became the Scherben's "Rauch-Haus-Song," with the line "Ihr kriegt uns hier nicht raus, das ist unser Haus!" (You can't get rid of us; this is our house).

The band was adored by rebellious young people all over Germany, but hated by conservatives and the older generation and not played on the radio. They were also watched by the state, with the police visiting the "Scherben Family" nearly every day.

The Scherben produced their first record entirely on their own, not wanting to be dependent on "the industry." They also played their well-attended concerts for free, because they believed that to earn money off of leftist songs would not be credible. But working to earn money was also not part of their motto. Bottom line: no funds.

Moving to the country

Over time, though, the collective grew tired of the constant visits by the police and the lack of money, and no longer wanted to serve as the "jukebox" of the left-wing movement. The group moved to a farm near the Danish border, where a commune developed.

The band also began making a different kind of music — less political and more melodic, with Reiser exploring his imagination and feelings, writing songs such as "Halt dich an deiner Liebe fest" ("Hold on to Your Love"), one of his most famous.

After the Scherben broke up, completely in debt, in 1985, Reiser continued making music on his own, signing on with a music label after all.

With the release of his first solo album, titled "Rio I," in 1986, his songs were suddenly being played on the radio, including "Alles Lüge" ("Everything's a Lie"), "Junimond" ("June Moon") and his huge hit "König von Deutschland" ("King of Germany").

While die-hard Scherben fans viewed his solo success critically, not wanting to share their messiah with the mainstream, they had already missed the boat: Reiser had landed at the top of the charts.

He performed in East Berlin in 1988, singing "Der Traum ist aus" ("The Dream is Over"), pondering in the song: "Gibt es ein Land auf der Erde, wo der Traum Wirklichkeit ist?" ("Is there land on Earth where the dream is reality?"). In the auditorium, the crowd screamed back: "It's not this land!"

A year later, East Germany became history.

A lasting legend

Still frequently sung by other musicians, Reiser's compositions are wild and rough, gentle and tender, sometimes melodramatic and always marked by an almost untamable passion. German pop musicians never tire of calling Rio Reiser one of their most important role models.

In addition to his musical talent, Reiser's sudden death from a circulatory collapse on August 8, 1996 at the age of 46 certainly contributed to his status as both myth and legend.

This article was translated from German and was updated from a previous profile marking the 25th anniversary of Rio Reiser's death.

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