by Benedikt Eiden
In 1983, the well-known underground label ZickZack, which had previously played a vital role in shaping the so-called ‘Neue Deutsche Welle’, but was almost history again by the time, released a little 12’’ EP that is now long forgotten, yet on a closer look turns out as a strangely fascinating side-note in the German music culture of the early 1980s. On the front of its cover, in rich-black Antiqua, ‘Knusperkeks’ is emblazoned over a blurry sepia photo of the Belvedere on Klausberg, part of a large palace complex near Potsdam, designed by Friedrich Wilhelm IV but never virtually completed. On the back, besides some acknowledgements for borrowed equipment and the like, one reads the resolute slogan ‘Die einzig wahre Volksmusik’ (The true folk music). This true folk music was recorded at home by a young woman named Christel Schönheit. Schönheit came from Hofheim im Taunus, a small, unadorned town east of the Rhine, between Frankfurt and Koblenz, surrounded by a densely wooded low mountain range, seemingly suspended by time. There she apparently lived an extremely orderly life, did her A-levels, then started training at the local bank. You could say that Fraulein Schönheit did not have much of a musical background nor aspirations: “I am not a musician, being a musician is a profession, musicians do not live in Hofheim, but live in larger cities, do not go to the bank every day; [aren’t] getting up at six in the morning!”, it says in the 1983 autumn issue of smart-ass German pop culture magazine Spex, in one of the few existing interviews with her. (The attitude that speaks from this, however, could be associated with a certain subcultural zeitgeist, which was not so much about perfection but a kind of musical self-empowerment.) It goes on to say that the Festival der Genialen Dilletanten which took place in September 1981 at the Tempodrom in Berlin and at which experimental bands and groups of artists such as Frieder Butzmann, Die Tödliche Doris, Einstürzende Neubauten or Gudrun Gut could be seen for the first time, made a strong impression on her. Loosely following the punk maxim, ‘what they can do, I can do, too’, she thereupon began recording first tapes in her spare time, on Sundays and holidays, with instruments she mostly borrowed from other people – acoustic guitar, flute, accordion, small drum set and (if I’m not mistaken) a drum computer. “Actually just for the fun of it,” she would have then sent her 4-track demos to Alfred Hilsberg, head of ZickZack records. With his label, Hilsberg had previously made a significant contribution in establishing the (umbrella term) Neue Deutsche Welle (read: German punk and wave music) with a scattering of some important albums and singles from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. He, for example, brought the Wire-esque art punk from Abwärts onto the scene, released the first recordings by Palais Schaumburg or Einstürzende Neubauten. So Hilsberg got hold of Schönheit’s homely brewed ‘Knusperkeks’ tapes and apparently found what he heard so intriguing that he decided to have them pressed on vinyl five hundred times. Today said record is considered being the worst-selling of the label, sometimes it’s even the only context in which the roughly 200-times-sold Knusperkeks is still mentioned. After its release, there were, except for probably one single live performance and a contribution to the Musik für Dich sampler in 1984, no more artistic signs of life.
The footprints that Christel Schönheit left behind in her musical career can thus be described as so light that the memory of her and her music seems to have already vanished. Nobody wants to have had a memorable contact again after 1983. Not even Tom Dokoupil, who had given her home recordings the final touch, could or wanted to remember her whereabouts. Hilsberg though still remembers that the non-reaction in the media, the low sales figures and her work situation were supposed to have been obstacles to further creative development at that time — such non-recognition is not exactly an individual fate, but rather the rule, when artists, hoping that one might mistake their presumptions for talent, force their products into the public eye; it’s no coincidence that nowadays there are countless compilations of completely forgotten bands and one-off projects that have been disrespected with the supposed arrogance of the respective zeitgeist —, furthermore, Hilsberg states that the music and lyrics on Knusperkeks, at the commercial peak of the Neue Deutsche Welle, were meant as a decisive statement against it.
Now, one has to realize that ZickZack, as an intact label, was on the verge of decline at the end of 1983 and the underground phenomenon known as ‘Neue Deutsche Welle’ had become something of a media affair (almost as if the title of Einstürzende Neubauten’s Collapse, released two years earlier, already carried a sinister, foreboding echo). Probably most of you (German) readers are more or less familiar with its development as he movement has been well documented over the years. Also, I don’t want to fall into tiresome commerce-bashing here, so I will merely add that: while everything has been said, not all has been shown. In ‘83 German wave music still had some expressive power (Flux, Sugalo, Andy Giorbino or Holger Hiller, to name a few), yet, on the surface, the movement, which initially cultivated spontaneity and dilettantism, had already become a decided matter. There it celebrated massive chart success in a Schlager-like state, had kind of a nonsense image which caused any serious reception (especially of the lyrics) to be nipped in the bud. Or, as it is said in Frank Apunkt Schneider’s Punk & NDW chronicle Als die Welt noch unterging, it existed in the form of confiscation by the German record industry, which weathered its own success story with its local products. With this in mind, we could indeed see Knusperkeks as a deliberate counter-reaction – albeit in silence – to said commercial development, as a kind of return to the brash and naive beginnings of this, never homogeneous, term. What was essential and what it did bring together in its initial phase was its inherent demand that everyone should be able to pick up some instruments and make music — a short window of time in which everything seemed possible in German music culture. As Frank Apunkt Schneider further writes, in the late 1970s ‘Neue Deutsche Welle’ meant a rebellion against “that local anaesthetic on the fringes and in the provinces of pop”, with the intention “to turn one’s own environment — schoolyard, village, town, region — upside down and put it on the map”. On the back of the Knusperkeks-LP, besides mentioned slogan and acknowledgements, a (probably) sarcastic quote from her brother is printed ((“Lass den Scheiß” (Cut the crap!)), moreover, in the Spex interview she said she was frowned upon at school for her DAF button, because “for them, it had something to do with Mussolini” — while these could all be incidental facts, they may offer a view into that tidy, provincial stubbornness against which it was worth ‘rebelling’ and from which this music ultimately emerged.
According to some statements — I was able to find her in summer of 2020 after some research — Christel Schönheit had founded a three-man band with the same name after the release of Knusperkeks to perform the record live. This, as Schönheit says, they had done several times. Then, around 1984, the whole thing fell apart. She had just finished her training at the bank, had to work overtime and thus had no proper leisure time to put together new songs. Of course, it was certainly also the disappointment about the lack of sales of her record and the fact that she could not cover the costs of her project which, I think, ultimately led to the abandonment of her idea. However, as Schönheit says, it was never intended to make more out of this project. In fact, she continued playing with the same band, and other people, for several years, but these were more cover versions, less own material. What she then did or tried to do after that, we don’t have a clue about. She probably went about her daily work in the bank, plunged back into petty-bourgeois anonymity — not that it had previously caused a big fuss, let alone that anyone was greatly interested. Today she’s part of a church band and unlike in the past, she adds not without a sense of self-irony, is now much better at playing her instruments.
Who or what Christel Schönheit really was, is something that, despite some research, is beyond my knowledge. And somehow it also seems to me that her personal fate was always the least of her concerns. Neither did she dream of success, nor the affection of many people; deeply unselfish and pragmatic, she appears in the few existing articles and interviews. And yet one thing remains clear: Knusperkeks is still a singular, unexplained record. Created far off in the German province, at home with a 4-track tape recorder and borrowed equipment, these vaguely mystical songs sketches — like all great art — have the ability to continually surprise. The fact that you instantly notice that you are not dealing with a professional musician, in the true sense of the word, is what gives the songs — pathetically speaking — their character. Of course, with this attitude, one always runs the risk of exaggerating the eccentric or the marginal, of exoticizing it and thereby taking pleasure in its supposedly deficient form of presentation. Yes: it would be an easy thing to mock the music on Knusperkeks: skewed, without little distinct sense of tact, the accordion and the guitar are being played, clumsily the drums are being hit — who knows if a strategy of irritation was ultimately planned. You can imagine that among those it was able to reach back in the day, there were some listeners who were turned off by the supposed aesthetic or technical deficit. But then, what many consider being rubbish or nonsense is often of more central meaning to some people than one might think. Sometimes it is that very individual logic of marginalized culture that stimulates an imaginative power hard to find in canonized forms of art or music; one that undermines our expectations, even exceeds them, in disintegration’s process of its ‘language’. One might dismiss the entire thing as outsider music, but Christel Schönheit came from what you would call typical, normal life, was an included part of society. Neither was she the product of a tyrannical, superstitious father, as with The Shaggs; neither had she been a prolific outcast figure who, in a form bordering on the pathological, strove for obscurantism like Jandek; nor a queer, schizophrenic country singer from Texas like Peter Grudzien; and certainly did not spend half her life in a mental institution like the psychologically ill poet Ernst Herbeck. And yet her lyrics sometimes portray an odd distance to things; seem like everyday observations from an eccentric perspective; are enigmatic images of memories or strange word figures. Often I wondered in which sphere songs like “Am Ufer” or “Sie” originated. Maybe I’m reaching here, but somehow, I think to myself, a feeling of alienation is discernable in them, when it says in the latter song, “Nobody knows them / Or knows their name / They have always been there /[. …]/ No one asks them / And they ask no one / They remain silent / Together in silence, they walk on the spot / And they never arrive / They have always been there…” or in the former “Standing on the shore / Seeing all the people / Looking into the water, while still standing on the shore“. At times the words are performed in a whispery-breathing vocal delivery, others like “Am Ufer” in a more stylized, bell-bright timbre, often accompanied just by an accordion and an acoustic guitar whose melodies and leads almost have a classicist feel to them (in the simplest of terms). Yet Fraulein Schönheit is not afraid of modernisms nor the will to experiment: there are also those, more rhythmic up-tempo songs, like the feedback-laden beat sketch “DV” or the catchy “Rechtslinksgeradeaus”, which can be clearly attributed to the musical zeitgeist of the Neue Deutsche Welle. Its resolute premise of being the only true folk music is achieved here with the slightest degree of drama, resulting in a somehow secretive constellation of naivety and rigour — because four tracks are not eight. It is maybe no actual surprise that the Knusperkeks-LP was or is a sought-after collector’s item among punk and NDW completists, but, to my knowledge, also among neo-folk fans and other shady characters from which, naturally, I don’t exclude myself.
More than once I have wondered about my slightly questionable interest in the music of Knusperkeks: why the research, why the desire to even write about a basically unknown, twenty-two minute EP. Then again, musically, I can’t think of anything comparable. Its vision still seems too individual, and for some reason, the feeling remains that something special could have come along. As I write this, almost forty years have passed since its release – an unimaginably long time. Who knows if this music wouldn’t be passing over from an indefinite distance and would be available with just one click somewhere on Bandcamp today, maybe it would have a completely different (or no) effect on me. And so I think that my interest, and ultimately fascination, is probably made possible by this position which implies a certain distance to things. Because more and more often it appears to me that the confrontation with this distance becomes a reflection on the fundamental character of what has been forgotten on the way, in other words, of loss. And then there is this wish to hold on to what has already passed, to conjure up what has vanished, before, in the words of W.G. Sebald “[…]the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power or memory is never heard, never described or passed on.” As already mentioned, Knusperkeks never was conceived as an ambitious project, never was it intended to make more out of it. So there it remains in the distance as a brief flash in the late stages of the Neue Deutsche Welle. And as I keep on listening, a recurring feeling of astonishment and bewilderment comes over me, when Christel Schönheit concludes the last track “Am Sedanstag gab’s Kartoffelpuffer”, a rural folk instrumental, with a sample of the sentimental theme of the radio play Der Frauenarzt von Bischofsbrück – as the sample suddenly stops and loops out with “Fortsetzung folgt, Fortsetzung folgt, Fortsetzung folgt…” For a small group of followers, this promise will probably continue to exist forever as an empty space.