Interview with Campino.
‘Great songs are written not simply because one individual has something to say, but because something greater needs to be expressed. They are bigger than any individual ego.’
Over morning coffee – after dropping our sons off at their school – I’d asked Germany’s punk music maestro Campino about how he creates a song. Does he begin with the sound, or with the lyrics?
‘Your question comes at the perfect time,’ he smiled, sipping his Milchkaffee. ‘Next year will be the 30th anniversary of Die Toten Hosen as well as my 50th birthday. We’re planning a major tour. But if we don’t write any new songs, we won’t be going anywhere.’
He went on, ‘For years I heard music in my head, and the music had an atmosphere which lead me to the words. But I can’t write today as I did last year, or in the 1980s. One always needs to change how one creates, to find new means of expression. Now I’m searching for my new way. I’m trying to write the words first, working in a rhyme form, and then letting the music come to me. But I don’t know if it will work,’ he said with heartfelt sincerity. ‘Which means I am just a beginner…once again.’
At the age of 49, Campino is a beginner who – with the band Die Toten Hosen – has sold over 15,000,000 records, cut six Number One albums and won a place in the heart of every rock fan in the country, as well as punk music aficionados around the world, because of electrifying energy, artistic integrity and creative courage.
‘In the early days we were happy to play for petrol money or a case of beer,’ Campino told me, recalling the 1982 founding of the band. ‘We had no master plan. Our aim was simply to have fun. We were on a crusade for happiness.’
Then their 1990 studio album ‘Auf dem Kreuzzug ins Glück’ reached Number One and the band was invited to play with the Rolling Stones.
‘We didn’t know how to handle the success – we were punks and wanted to stay on the same level as our friends – so we decided to go “back” to London, to the music that started us out, and re-record those great hits with our idols.’
‘Learning English Lesson 1’ was the result, a compilation album of the 23 songs that had formed and influenced the band. It was also a Who’s Who of punk rock.
‘It was such an adventure, meeting and working with legends like Joey Ramone, Johnny Thunders, Charlie Harper and Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69.’
The album became an international success, despite some British critics panning it on the basis that a German band didn’t need to remind them of their heritage. Nevertheless the BBC Radio 1 disc jockey John Peel loved their music, and invited them onto his Peel Sessions show.
‘English punk is 100% our musical roots,’ Campino said with feeling. ‘The Jam, The Clash, they had something to say. They had aggro. But they weren’t just against things. They were for things: the Anti-Nazi League, kick out the fascists, fight racism. This was hugely important to me.’
I asked again about writing songs, specifically his deeply moving 2002 single ‘Nur zu Besuch’, composed after the death of his mother.
‘I’m a boy from a family of six children. As a family we were – and still are – very strong. My mother was English. My father was German. At the age of seven my great passion was for Liverpool Football Club. I was a hard-core supporter, in a way because of my mother.’
‘But as I grew up I became a bit of a troublemaker, dressing as a punk, singing the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’. My mother took it to heart – especially the bit about a fascist regime and the Queen not being a human being – and we became estranged for a time. She’d make me my breakfast yet leave the room when I came in.’
Then in 2000 at the start of a Die Toten Hosen tour, Campino tore a knee ligament.
‘The tour had to be cancelled and the next day my mother fell ill,’ he recalled. ‘I took it as a sign to spend time with her at home in Düsseldorf. Over the next six months I saw her almost every day, and we had the best conversations of our life. We had the chance to make everything straight between us. That Christmas my sister and I were with her when she died.’
Campino then wrote ‘Nur zu Besuch’ in 15 minutes flat, without once revising the lyrics.
‘The song was my way of saying thank you to her. Since its release thousands of people have written to me, saying that they’d played it at a funeral or that it had helped them through their own loss, telling me that they recognised a little of themselves in “Nur zu Besuch”.’
Campino fell quiet for a moment, turning the coffee cup in his fingers.
‘I like the idea that everything isn’t purely accidental, that some things are meant to happen, even if we don’t understand why. I like to think that my mother would enjoy the song.’
Campino’s creativity has reached beyond contemporary music. In 2006 he played Mack the Knife in Brecht’s ‘The Threepenny Opera’, directed by Klaus Maria Brandauer.
‘Brandauer was so patient with me as an amateur,’ he recalled. ‘I have only praise for this great man.’ The show became the year’s most successful German theatre production. Then in 2007 Wim Wenders wrote the script for the feature ‘Palermo Shooting’ specifically with Campino in mind for the leading role.
In addition Campino’s strong conscience has led him to support many social and non-party political campaigns for causes as diverse as cancer treatment and refugee rights. He is ‘godfather’ of the Regine Hildebrandt School in Birkenwerder, supporting its ‘School without Racism, School with Courage’ programme. Also the band has donated record income to the Düsseldorfer Appell gegen Fremdenfeindlichkeit und Rassismus (an appeal against xenophobia and racism). Die Toten Hosen is the main sponsor and outfitter of Düsseldorf Fortuna, support that saved the football club from bankruptcy.
Through the morning Campino and I talked of his love of ice hockey (he supports both Düsseldorfer EG and the Berlin Eisbären), the band’s 2010 Central Asian tour, his enthusiasm for South America (especially the ‘hearty and friendly’ Argentinean fans – no international band will have played more gigs in Argentina than the Hosen after next year’s visit) and finally their planned 30th anniversary concert.
At Easter 1982 Die Toten Hosen – whose name translates as The Dead Trousers – had played their very first gig in Bremen … where they were introduced as Die Toten Hasen – The Dead Bunnies.
‘So it would make sense to play there again at Easter 2012 – if we have new material.’
Campino opened his arms in the hope of enticing a passing muse to our table.
‘I find it hard to get the truth down on paper,’ he admitted with disarming modesty. ‘Every time I create, I know I am just a beginner.’
With those words he set off for work, to compose his new songs, to find new ways of writing, reinventing himself again and again – as all vibrant artists must do.
Since our first meeting, Campino has continued to find new ways to write songs, again and again. He and Die Toten Hosen have honed their unique mixture of punk and rock ‘n’ roll, growing into the most successful German-speaking band of all time. More than that, their quadruple platinum hit single ‘Tage wie diese’ (Days like these) has become for many the unofficial theme song of a new, positive, inclusive (and football-loving) Germany. It’s a song bigger than any individual ego, written because something greater needed to be expressed.