To the German-speaking world, he’s a legend. And yet, beyond the borders of his homeland, Herbert Grönemeyer is, quite simply, one of the most famous people you’ve never heard of. Having said that, it’s more than likely that he’s already had an impact upon your life, wherever you live and whatever language you speak, even if you don’t know it: currently in his fourth decade working across a wide variety of artistic disciplines, the list of the 56 year old’s achievements is genuinely extraordinary. Now, with the release of I WALK, his fourteenth studio album, English language audiences around the world finally have the opportunity to discover one of his greatest talents, the one that’s endeared him to generations of his compatriots: his music.
It’s an occasion that’s long overdue. With his distinctive voice, ingenious songcraft and a charmingly candid, lyrical perspective on life and its experiences, Grönemeyer has acquired his reputation and earned his success on the back of a series of beautifully devised albums that reflect his deep love of Randy Newman and other similarly inclined artists from the classic school of songwriting. Held back previously only by a language spoken by less than three per cent of the world’s population, Grönemeyer has at last provided the other 97 per cent with a chance to discover the delights of his art. It’s been well worth the wait.
But first, let’s get the facts out of the way: born and raised in Bochum – a city in the Ruhr area of West Germany once distinguished by a mining tradition that Grönemeyer watched being dismantled through his childhood – he got his initial break in his local theatre. Originally hired as a pianist, he was soon cast in a production of Willy Russell’s John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert, and went on to earn worldwide fame in 1981 as a war correspondent in the universally acclaimed film / TV series, Das Boot. But Grönemeyer is a man driven by his passion, and he chose to sideline acting in pursuit of his first love, one which he had already begun to explore in 1979 with the release of Ocean Orchestra, an album recorded with jazz musicians from Cologne that included Karlheinz Stockhausen’s son on flügelhorn.
“I was always a musician,” he remembers, “and my acting, I would say, was OK. But I think in music I’m much better. I feel more at home.”
Whatever one’s opinions of his dramatic skills, Grönemeyer’s instincts proved astute. Though his next two albums failed to make any great impact and he accepted an acting role or two – starring alongside Nastassja Kinski as Robert Schumann in 1983’s Frühlingssinfonie (Spring Symphony) – the release of 4630 Bochum in 1984 changed everything. It topped the German charts, going on to become the country’s third biggest selling album of all time, and two decades later he was still shifting so many records that his 2002 album, Mensch, became the country’s biggest ever musical release. (It’s now sold well over 3 million copies and remains undefeated.)
Grönemeyer, however, has always refused to restrict himself purely to a musical career. For starters, there’s Groenland, the record label he set up in 1999 to release Pop 2000, a definitive 8CD collection collating the second half of Germany’s 20th Century popular music and youth culture. Unexpected as that might have been for a mainstream artist, it was arguably eclipsed by his next exploit, persuading highly influential Krautrock act NEU! to allow the reissue of their back catalogue. Since then, the company has gone on to carve an idiosyncratic, enviable reputation for working with contemporary acts like Boy, Metric and William Fitzsimmons, as well as other seminal artists like Harmonia and Gang Of Four.
Furthermore, Grönemeyer helped facilitate the making of Control, the debut feature film about cult band Joy Division made by his friend and artistic collaborator, Anton Corbijn, and also scored the music for the photographer and director’s follow-up, The American. He’s lent his time to humanitarian projects, assembling Band Für Afrika, Germany's equivalent of Band Aid, in 1985, and helping establish Deine Stimme Gegen Armut, the country's own Make Poverty History campaign. Despite his refusal to speak to politicians – “In my opinion music and politicians don’t go together,” he argues. “We have to be the danger. They don’t have to like us.” – he maintains a conviction that “musicians or artists are drummers for something. If I find a topic that I think I can say something about, or I can help to make it public, then I do it.” His activities have earned him a 'European Hero' award from Time Magazine (in 2005), and he’s not softened as he’s got older, either: he continues to speak out, recently condemning plans to close the Opel factory in his hometown, one of the few sources of jobs since the closure of local mines.
Music, however, remains the central pivot of Grönemeyer’s existence, and I WALK is a perfect route into the work that has earned him such devotion. Its existence, it should be added, doesn’t arise from a dissatisfaction with his status within the English speaking world: in fact, though he spent over a decade living in London following the tragic death of his wife from cancer in 1999, he revelled in his anonymity there. Instead, his motivation comes from his constant desire to challenge himself – or, as he puts it, “to find out more about yourself” – and, since he normally writes melodies by employing what he calls “banana English”, it seemed like a natural step, even though he now spends most of his time in Berlin.
Containing ten songs drawing upon the last thirty years of his career – especially re-recorded with new lyrics – and two brand new compositions written specifically for the project, I WALKgives a fascinating and long overdue insight into Grönemeyer’s remarkable skills as a songwriter. His prowess is reflected in the presence of Bono – who volunteered his services for the anthemic ‘Mensch’ after they met at Berlin’s fabled Hansa Studios – and Antony Hegarty, who lent his trademark shiver to the haunting ‘Will I Ever Learn’. (“When he started singing my skin went up,” Grönemeyer gasps in wonder at the memory of their collaboration.)
Also present is James Dean Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers), who contributes guitar to ‘To The Sea’, but this isn’t an album that depends upon star turns. Its qualities are more than evident in the transparent sentiment of ‘Keep Hurting Me’, in which the protagonist begs his lover to break his heart irreversibly so he can at last be free, and the despair of ‘Airplanes In My Head’, whose original version provided Grönemeyer with his first crossover hit. There’s also the understated but affectionate drama of ‘Because Of You’, the triumphant positivity of ‘I Walk’, the deeply touching ode to old age and memories that is ‘Same Old Boys’, and the epic closer, ‘The Tunnel’. Shot through with Grönemeyer’s characteristic honesty, his distinctive musical twists and an ear for a melody that has enabled him to take refined, often complex songs to the heart of the mainstream, I WALK is yet another example of Grönemeyer’s restless, inspired spirit.
“I have to find my own challenges,” Grönemeyer concludes in a typically humble fashion. “This is one of those moments where I think, ‘OK, let’s try it.’ So let’s start here and see what happens. I try to reinvent what I’m doing in my limited way. And that’s the fun. That’s my joy. This is what I can do.”
It’s enough to make you wonder whether the Germans always wanted to keep him to themselves. I WALK, you see, represents a secret finally shared.