Klaus Nomi Performs with Kraftwerk on German Television (1982)

You’ll hard­ly ever run into a descrip­tion of Ger­man New Wave wun­derkind Klaus Nomi that doesn’t con­tain a ref­er­ence to Weimar Ger­many. It would seem like a seri­ous over­sight not to men­tion Nomi’s embod­i­ment of Weimar cabaret man­ner­isms, fit­ted for a space-age late-20th cen­tu­ry. But the influ­ence was far more than a styl­is­tic bor­row­ing. Nomi wasn’t just “the most Ger­man act ever,” as blog­ger Debris Slide writes; “Weimar Repub­lic comes to Dance­te­ria, except with space­ships” may also have been the most his­tor­i­cal­ly gay act in mod­ern pop.

The Weimar Repub­lic is well known as “a peri­od of remark­able artis­tic ener­gy,” writes Andrew Dick­son at the British Library, “a roar­ing surge of mod­ernist art, the­atre, design, dance and film.” It was also a time when “the con­straints of 19th-cen­tu­ry man­ners and mores were torn down.” Hid­den sex­u­al­i­ties could emerge in pub­lic in Berlin, thanks a relaxed polic­ing pol­i­cy, as his­to­ri­an Robert Beachy shows in his book Gay Berlin. The fine arts and cul­ture of Weimar flour­ished along­side the cabaret scene, whose camp showed up in every­thing from Ger­man Expres­sion­ist film to avant-garde opera.

“I think there prob­a­bly had nev­er been any­thing like this before,” Beachy tells NPR, “and there was no cul­ture as open again until the 1970s.” Klaus Nomi arrived in the 70s with his cabaret space alien act to announce that the cre­ative and per­son­al free­doms of Weimar had returned, and he was their avatar, freely mix­ing opera and pop with aston­ish­ing facil­i­ty, incor­po­rat­ing mime and vaude­ville. “The influ­ence of play­wright and the­atri­cal icon Bertolt Brecht would come to serve as a defin­i­tive touch­stone” for Nomi’s career, writes Evan Zwisler at Fly­pa­per.

“One of the ideas that Nomi incor­po­rat­ed into his own act was Ver­frem­dungsef­fekt (or, ‘the dis­tanc­ing effect’)”—drawing height­ened atten­tion to the per­for­mance as per­for­mance, a sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture of near­ly all avant-garde the­ater in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. Klaus Nomi was also the most Mod­ernist act ever, at least in pop music. He would have fit in with a Dada cabaret revue of six­ty years ear­li­er. I’m not sure what it says about Berlin in the 70s that Nomi only tru­ly found him­self while onstage in New York. He moved to the city in 1972 after work­ing as an ush­er in Berlin opera hous­es, where his aston­ish­ing sopra­no went unap­pre­ci­at­ed.

Nomi became “a qui­et­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary part of the New York City art scene,” notes Zwisler, inspir­ing Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kei­th Har­ing. He appeared on Sat­ur­day Night Live with David Bowie in 1979 and in the 1981 doc­u­men­tary Urgh! A Music War. Had AIDS not claimed his life in 1983, Nomi’s fame may have spread even far­ther and wider. As it stood, how­ev­er, the year before his death, it had at least spread to his home coun­try, where he was wel­comed by TV host Thomas Gottschalk on the Ger­man pro­gram No Sowas!, per­form­ing with Kraftwerk, the biggest Ger­man pop cul­tur­al export to date.

See Nomi sing the aria from Camille Saint-Saens’ “Sam­son and Delilah.” Then, we have a rare treat: the very Cali­gari-like cabaret of Kraftwerk, at the height of their aus­tere synth pop fame. Nomi returns to sing “Total Eclipse” from his first album. You can read an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Nomi’s between-song inter­view with Gottschalk here. The host wraps up this seg­ment by say­ing, “he is already a big name in Amer­i­ca, and now we present him here in Ger­many.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Enchant­i­ng Opera Per­for­mances of Klaus Nomi

Klaus Nomi: Watch the Final, Bril­liant Per­for­mance of a Dying Man

David Bowie and Klaus Nomi’s Hyp­not­ic Per­for­mance on SNL (1979)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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