I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Musikladen: So Much To Answer For

by Cory Vielma
May 3, 2016
The legendary German live-music TV show Beat Club ended its run on December 9, 1972. Newly christened as Musikladen, the show picked up exactly where it left off with its first episode running a mere four days later. All told, Musikladen would end up running 12 years, with its 90th (and final) episode appearing November 29, 1984. In its 12 years, an incredible number of performers would grace its stage, from the top acts of the day to bands whose only point of reference today is their appearance on the show. Together, Musikladen and Beat Club had a huge impact on how music is presented on television, not just in Germany but in the rest of the world. If you are old enough to remember the early days of MTV, think about how often they played clips labeled “Closet Classics”— a hefty chunk of those videos were actually just clips from Musikladen or Beat Club. This is also interesting because I would posit that MTV and the rise of the music video were at least partially responsible for the demise of Musikladen, but more on that later.

Early in Musikladen’s history it seemed that while the show was trying to keep going with what it had built as Beat Club, they had also made small changes to set it apart. Anyone familiar with (the later years of) Beat Club knows that they embraced emerging video effect technologies whole-heartedly and were by no means shy about laying a massive dollop of eye-popping insanity on top of the performances. This continued with Musikladen, but the fact that the technology was improving rapidly at the time and the equipment to produce it was increasingly cheaper meant that the video effects were ever more complex and used much more often, sometimes to stupefying effect. (I cannot confirm my hunch, but it is my theory that the producers purposely used extra effects on some of the more dull acts as a way of balancing things out and retaining the audience’s attention.) In some of the early episodes of Musikladen, there were also slightly ribald, adult-oriented cartoon breaks between the bands, but this seems to have been not particularly popular as there were really very few before they were unceremoniously abandoned. Another thing to distinguish Musikladen from Beat Club was the Go-Go girls who would regularly accompany the bands with dance numbers, in various states of dress, from fully clothed in something invariably gaudy and/or sparkly to nearly nude. The Go-Go girls would prove to be so popular, that they would go on to get their own segments in later episodes, dancing along to songs with no band in attendance.

In Beat Club, all of the performances were played live, and this was true as well for Musikladen, at least in the early days. However, they slowly started to show more lip-synched performances as time went on. I don’t know the exact reason for this, but it would be reasonable to assume that it was simply because it is so much easier to have the performers lip-synch to playback. Over time, performing live on the show would become the exception rather than the rule, and in the last few episodes of the show, there is nary a live performance to be heard. Of course, even a lip-synched performance can be exciting in the right hands, and one need look no further than the Plastic Bertrand performance in the Best of Musikladen 2 Collection here in the archives for a prime example of someone ramping up the excitement without so much as a backing band pretending to play or even a microphone to at least give the illusion of singing live.

So what killed Musikladen? I have a few theories, and I think it was most likely a combination of these. Let’s break it down: the most obvious factor is surely the rise of MTV and music videos. By 1984— Musikladen’s final year-- music videos were the norm and MTV was steadily becoming not just more popular but also a real cultural juggernaut. Musikladen even had a video segment in the show for the last several episodes, obviously trying to keep pace with changing times. It seems that while people were watching more music than ever on television, their taste for viewing these performances had shifted, and even the elaborate video effects and dancing girls were no longer enough—now they wanted story lines, choreographed dance numbers (with huge numbers of dancers), and production values on par with major movies. Fittingly, the last thing to air on Musikladen was the then-brand-new “Do They Know It’s Christmas” video, which was nearly enough to kill me, so it was a suitable way to kill a TV series.

But that was not the only factor at work here. The show itself was also suffering from the lack of an enthusiastic and entertaining co-host for Manfred Sexauer after Uschi Nerke-- who had also co-hosted Beat Club—left the show in 1978. From this point, the show had two more co-hosts, both of whom were so boring and incompetent with miserable wet-washcloth personalities that I am not even going to take the time to look up their names for this article. To put it another way: suck it, post-Uschi co-hosts! You obviously did not help the show at all.

It is also worth pointing out that the guestlist on the show was, in my opinion, a little weak in the waning days of the show. I can’t say how much this had to do with the general state of music and music videos in the early 80s, if the show just didn’t have the booking clout it once had, or both, but many big names from the time are conspicuously absent from the show—Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, the Go-Gos and performers of their caliber had seemingly chosen music videos over live TV performances, whereas comparably popular acts in the earlier years appeared on the show in droves.

In any case, we are left with a remarkable legacy- a real benchmark in the history of music on television. Sometimes it was sublime in its beauty, sometimes it was confusing and hilarious, sometimes it was painful to watch and sometimes it was just plain mediocre, but all of these factors combined to create an overall effect that is fascinating and inherently watchable to this day. It is testament to the enduring appeal of the show that even though I have seen nearly every episode and have filled piles of VHS tapes with performances from the show, I will still watch the re-runs when they are shown on German TV every few years. Now, if I could just get that damn “Kazoo Kazoo” song out of my head!

Cory Vielma is an American musician, photographer and occasional guy who strings words together, based in Berlin. Under the name The Sadnesses, he has released several records and has had the pleasure of writing for such great publications as SF WeeklyGreencine.com and Si Señor Journalism Compendium. His love of music and film runs so deep that it has permanently altered his DNA and given him the ability to smell time and taste rhumbas. Additionally, he is very fond of a good veggie burger with fries and a side of mustard.