“New York, New York”: In 1986, Night Flight’s viewers told us they wanted to see this awesome Nina Hagen disco/punk/opera video

By on September 21, 2016

In our fourth “Viewers Choice” episode — which aired thirty years ago, on September 20, 1986 — viewers of “Night Flight” weren’t able to send us e-mails or leave comments for us to read on our blog, and like pretty much everyone else, they had to send in their requests by the U.S. mail. One of the videos they told us they wanted to see was the live concert performance of Nina Hagen’s disco/punk/opera song “New York, New York,” and we were certainly happy to oblige, and now you can watch it too as we now have it streaming over on Night Flight Plus!

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Catharina “Nina” Hagen — born on March 11, 1955, in East Berlin, Germany; her first name is also sometimes spelled “Katherina” — wasn’t initially sure what she wanted to do with her life, although she recognized that she identified with her home country’s dissident artists and students while growing up.

In 1972, age sixteen, she flunked aptitude tests at the State Acting Academy in Berlin-Oberschoneweirde, and then traveled to Poland for three months, where she began singing with her very first band (she sang songs by Tina Turner and Janis Joplin).

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The very next year, she passed her entrance exams, and began studying at the “Studios for Entertainers” in East Berlin, described as the central studio for light music, and she trained for the next year (including a two-month on-the-job training stint singing with studio musicians in a musical revue).

She graduated with high marks and seemed like she was going to make her mark on the world as well.

An East German newspaper even reported “We’ll be hearing a lot more from this outstanding talent.”

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She then formed the first of her German dance-pop bands, Automobil, and performed hour-and-a-half concerts until her doctor to cool down the pace. She eventually found a different band, Fritzens Damperband (Fritzen’s Steamboat Band), but only did concert tours with them.

In 1976, when her stepfather’s East German citizenship was withdrawn, Hagen filed an exit application, which was linked to the renunciation of her East German citizenship, and it was approved in a record four days time, after which she and her mother both moved to be with her stepfather first in Hamburg, before Nina ended up moving to the western part of Germany’s former capital city, located in the Federal Republic (West Germany).

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A year later, she was forming the Nina Hagen Band, with guitarist Bernard Potschka, and signing her first record contract with CBS Schallplatten GmbH.

Her self-titled debut album Nina Hagen Band apparently made her an almost immediate star overnight, although you can certainly see that a lot of training and experience had already led up to that point.

It was certified gold within a few months, selling 250,000 copies in West Germany alone (it was also released and sold well in England, France, Holland, Austria, Belgium, Scandinavia, Spain and Japan).

A second album by the same band, Unbehagen — which means “discomfort” or “unease” in German — was released before their breakup in 1979 (her band would soon re-form again with her as the successful band Spliff).

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As she was frequently traveling over to England to perform, Hagen became friendly with the Slits, an all-girl band based in London, and frequently sat in on their rehearsals and she even co-wrote a few songs with Ari Up, and her musical repertoire began to expand to include punk, new wave and reggae songs.

These new influences — blended with her Brechtian cabaret stylings and outrageous tonsorial and sartorial vocal expressiveness — were creating new sounds that were difficult to classify, but since they were coming along at the crest of the New Wave era, that’s where her albums were frequently found, although truly, there was no one else singing like Nina Hagen, then or now.

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She’d also become good friends with Lene Lovich, and had already recorded “Wir Leben Immer Noch” (“Lucky Number”), adapted from Lovich’s original composition.

In 1978, she would appear with Lovich and Dutch rocker Herman Brood in the movie Cha Cha (she’d already been in a film called The Go-Blue Girl, and would also appear in the 1979 cult hit A Picture of an Alcoholic, directed by Ulrike Ottinger).

She’d become so recognizable by this point that she was being featured on the cover of the German edition of MAD magazine.

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Hagen made her U.S. debut in November 1980 with two riotous, sold-out performances, at the Ritz in NYC, and at the Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood, and she released a single, “My Way,” which was at the time unavailable on any of her albums (it was backed with two tracks from her Unbehagen album).

Nina Hagen made her first visit to New York in the winter of 1981 and settled in to write songs her first English-language album to be released by CBS worldwide.

Earlier that same year — on May 17, 1981 — Nina’s daughter Cosma Shiva Hagen was born in Santa Monica, California, and so she would split much of her time for the rest of that year caring for her newborn child while also adopting a new philosophy about life itself, which she would later explain in interviews was dominated by religious/futuristic themes.

Her interviews and public appearances at this time frequently would veer off-topic into discussions about UFOs, God, animal rights, vivisection, and claims of alien sightings.

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A more recent photo of Cosma Shiva Hagen, now an actress, and her mom, Nina Hagen

When NunSexMonkRock arrived in May 1982, the album — a dissonant mix of punk, funk reggae and operatic tunes — simply confounded a lot of listeners who didn’t quite know what to make of this new Diva of Rock who seemed to suddenly appear on the scene with outrageous eye makeup and a batshit crazy voice that sounded like no one else, but with an aura — and a persona — that was pure electricity onstage.

For Hagen, the music was simply a theatrical expression of what was inside her head, and above all else, she wanted you to listen to her songs.

“You have to be able to listen,” she said. “When you dance, you’re too tied up with yourself to be able to transform the music into your own theatre!”

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Produced by Mike Thorne in New York City, NunSexMonkRock was so non-commercial sounding that many of the reviews were pretty negative.

Rolling Stone magazine called it “the most unlistenable” album ever made, and even her new American record company, CBS, admitted in a later press bio that it “annoyed more than a few rock critics.”

Hagen used the opportunity of her startling U.S. debut to make changes to her personal management, and she also filmed her first music video, with filmmaker Julian Knepler’s Zick Zack Productions, for the anti-heroin hymn “Smack Jack.”

Today the album is considered something quite special, even among her more ardent fans who love everything she does, and just a few years ago, on October 7, 2013, Richard Metzger of the great Dangerous Minds blog wrote this about it:

“Reliable adjectives fall by the wayside when you are confronted with such an anarchic artistic anomaly. Because it’s so very much out on its own peculiar limb, it’s completely timeless (musically at least: lyrically Hagen makes a prophecy about Leonid Brezhnev, who up and died the year it came out). Nunsexmonkrock could have been recorded 32 years ago, yesterday, or a thousand years from now and it just wouldn’t matter.”

“It inhabits a territory so exotic and utterly unclassifiable that the creator herself would never again venture that far out. Nunsexmonkrock is a zany, oddball, sexy, freaky as fuck and totally revolutionary masterpiece of modern music. At the center of this evil maelstrom is Hagen’s multi-layered and gymnastically operatic vocals, a unique hybrid of Maria Callas, Zarah Leander, Yma Sumac and Mercedes McCambridge doing the voice of “Captain Howdy” in The Exorcist…”

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After an extensive North American tour and dates around the world with the No Problem Orchestra, Hagen ended up back in Los Angeles, where she joined famed producers Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey to record the tracks for her next album, Fearless — released with the German-language counterpart in Europe, Angstlos — which turned out to be more accessible than her U.S. debut had been when it was released in November 1983.

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Much of the credit for that accessibility has to go to its producer, Giorgio Moroder, who was still riding high at the time for discovering Donna Summer and he had just produced the movie soundtrack for Flashdance.

While some praised her new musical direction, others were critical towards her newly adopted disco sound.

The album would eventually top out at #151 on Billboard magazine’s Top 200 album chart in the U.S., although it did much better in Germany (#24) and other countries).

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Two videos were filmed for the album’s opening and closing tracks, the album’s first single — “New York, New York,” co-written by Hagen, bassist Karl Rucker and multi-instrumentalist Steve Schiff — was filmed at Irving Plaza in New York City.

The video for the album’s opening track, “Zarah,” was filmed in L.A. as a tribute to the 1930s-’40s Swedish chanteuse Zarah Leander.

“New York, New York” would become a Top 10 Dance chart hit, peaking at #9 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs (“Zarah,” meanwhile, would also chart, at #45 on the same chart).

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Please enjoy Nina Hagen’s “New York, New York” and the other requests by our viewers featured in this special program that aired thirty years ago, and if you have any special requests of what you’d like to see more of here on the Night Flight blog, feel free to drop us a line — by e-mail or just leave us a comment below, or over on our NF Facebook page, there’s no need to waste the stamps!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.