Theatrical in their performances and Marxist in their politics, Floh de Cologne were one of the most remarkable bands to come out of West Germany’s Krautrock scene. The band tells Jacobin about their time as Europe’s only communist prog-rockers.

Vridolin Enxing, Hansi Frank, and Dieter Klemm of West German rock band Floh de Cologne in 1979. (Courtesy of Vridolin Enxing)

In the 1970s, the cities and university towns of West Germany were the site of a cultural awakening. Only a few years earlier, tens of thousands of young people had taken to the streets for a revolution that never came. But the energy they released had to go somewhere, and much of it eventually flowed into the culture industry. Inspired by exciting new sounds from the United States, several West German bands began to fuse psychedelic rock, jazz, and the beginnings of electronic music. They created a dynamic music scene that soon became known as “Krautrock.”

In the midst of it all was a group of long-haired leftists who called themselves Floh de Cologne, a play on words combining “eau de cologne” with the German word for flea. Originally founded as a radical cabaret troupe in 1966, by the end of the decade they had transformed themselves into a rock band, and in 1970 they ended up playing on the same stage as Jimi Hendrix after what would end up being his last concert ever. As card-carrying members of the German Communist Party (DKP), “die Flöhe,” as their fans called them, toured tirelessly for over fifteen years, playing their unique brand of theatrical prog-rock with a revolutionary twist to enthusiastic audiences of young socialists and trade unionists across Germany and beyond.

When the band realized that the political and cultural winds had shifted, they laid down their instruments in 1983 after one last eight-hour concert full of what the Süddeutsche Zeitung called “fighting spirit and anarchic irony,” never to play together onstage ever again. Forty years after that last concert, band manager and occasional percussionist Dieter Klemm and keyboardist Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing spoke with Jacobin’s Loren Balhorn about their music, their politics, and their most memorable gig.

Loren Balhorn

Floh de Cologne disbanded forty years ago. Between 1966 and 1983, you released ten records, published three books, and put on over 1,500 concerts — an impressive record. How did the band actually start?

Dieter Klemm

I wasn’t there from the very beginning, but joined after a year. We all studied theater. Gerd Wollschon, the band’s founder and for a long time the main lyricist, had already performed cabaret in school. At university, he wanted to found a student cabaret group, so found some comrades in arms, and Floh de Cologne came into being in January 1966, together with Markus Schmidt and three others who didn’t stick around for very long.

Loren Balhorn

How did you two come into the fold?

Dieter Klemm

I used to be a civil servant in Hamburg. They knew that and thought, “He knows how to handle numbers, let’s ask him if he wants to be managing director.” From the get-go, I said that I also wanted to be on stage — but, I said, “studying comes first!” That turned out to be an illusion after a couple of years, because we became very successful.

Loren Balhorn

Did you end up finishing your degree?

Dieter Klemm

No, none of us did.

Loren Balhorn

And you, Vridolin?

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

I graduated from high school in 1969 in a small town in Westphalia. My father was the village teacher, and for a year I’d had nothing on my mind but growing my hair long. When I went to Cologne to study at the music college, I encountered the [DKP student organization] Marxist Student League Spartacus, and through that, I heard about Floh de Cologne’s concerts. I saw them for the first time at the university; a thousand people were there. I was blown away. Unbelievable! It still gives me the shivers even today.

About four months before I graduated, someone came to me and said, “Listen, die Flöhe are looking for a new guy; that might be something for you.” So I called Floh de Cologne, there was a meeting with Gerd Wollschon, and I was supposed to introduce myself then and there. I think the most important thing, however, was that I was in the Communist Party.

Loren Balhorn

You were already Communists before you became band members?

Dieter Klemm

Well, I wasn’t. In those early days, we played in a back room of a tavern in Cologne, the Franziskaner am Gürzenich. After the show, we would go on talking and discussing and politicizing each other. There was already a big left-wing awakening going on, with lecture hall occupations and demonstrations and attacks on right-wing professors and so on. But I didn’t come as a leftist, I became one.

There was a big left-wing awakening going on, with lecture hall occupations and demonstrations and attacks on right-wing professors and so on.

Loren Balhorn

Nevertheless, for most of the time you were members of the DKP?

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

Yes, that was a criterion. The others all joined the DKP independently. There was no joint group decision; it was simply the logical consequence of our activity. The other left-wing groups — the Trotskyists, the Maoists, and so on — were all too wacky for us.

Dieter Klemm

We got to know all the political currents, but developed in the direction of the DKP — the “revisionists,” as it was called at the time. It seemed to us to be the most realistic option. One shouldn’t forget that the DKP was founded in 1968 and was very respected across the left-wing cultural scene at that time. Many authors [were members] who you wouldn’t believe today were in the DKP, along with many artists and musicians.

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

It was the tradition of Rosa Luxemburg, of Karl Liebknecht, of the Communist Party in the 1920s — that credibility! I admired the veterans I met there who talked about the resistance. At that time, I was of the opinion that there was only one kind of decent German: those who either emigrated or got sent to the concentration camps. I was quite aggressive, because we got a lot of flack on the street: “How can you walk around like that? You belong in a work camp!” People were still saying shit like that, and it enraged me.

Loren Balhorn

So, the rejection of the fascist past and mainstream German society was a big motivator?

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

A really big one. I bought a little chain with a hammer and sickle and hung it around my neck to provoke people. At that time I imagined that I was a better German, a revolutionary! I always had the feeling that I would find comrades wherever I went. It gave me something like a second home.

I wasn’t primarily looking to East Germany and never intended to emigrate. I had gone on tour there with Floh de Cologne, and as a leftist with strong anarchist tendencies, I couldn’t be satisfied with that. That said, there were also great things in East Germany — for example, you had the feeling that feminism had broken out there a long time before.

Loren Balhorn

Your performances were once described as “agitational revues,” a mixture of political lecture and experimental rock music. What were the issues that preoccupied you?

Dieter Klemm

We already did performances like the Vietnam play as a cabaret group, SimSAlabimbambaSAladUSAladim. It was only half an hour long, but it was a harsh indictment of American crimes in the Vietnam War. People walked out in silence afterwards.

The big issue in the next production was consumer society. We had realized — or thought we had realized — that more and more consumption did not lead to a meaningful and fulfilled life. “Consumerism terror” was a big issue for us in the first years.

Loren Balhorn

You can hear that in your first real rock album, Fließbandbabys Beat-Show, which still featured a lot of anti-consumerism, whereas in later years themes like class struggle and anti-imperialism dominate. Your style also changed a lot over the years. How did you develop from cabaret to prog-rock?

Dieter Klemm

We were the pinnacle of the young German cabaret scene at the time. We played for four weeks at Munich’s Rationaltheater, Reiner Uthoff’s cabaret in Schwabing, and within three days all the tickets were sold out — they went like crazy. Of course, we could have continued on like that and maybe became wealthy, but we didn’t want to make a lot of money — we wanted to change the world!

It was the tradition of Rosa Luxemburg, of Karl Liebknecht, of the Communist Party in the 1920s.

We wanted to reach a different audience: schoolkids, apprentices, university students — because they were willing to think and change their lives. Cabaret was inside us, but we had to do something different; we had to make rock music. But how did that work?

Loren Balhorn

You weren’t musicians?

Dieter Klemm

No, me personally, not at all. Markus Schmidt had already played the piano and sung to the guitar in the cabaret group, and we brought in Dick Städtler, who had taken piano lessons as a child. But we had nothing, no equipment or anything, and no instruments. Until then, only Hansi Frank had drummed on a snare drum, which we expanded into a drum kit, and then we got an electric guitar, built our own loudspeakers out of wood, and started to develop and practice music.

Loren Balhorn

Did you have any role models?

Dieter Klemm

Frank Zappa in the United States, for example, or Tuli Kupferberg and the Fugs. We met them at the International Essen Song Days in 1968. They made good rock music, but with political lyrics. We were very enthusiastic — we had to go in that direction.

Loren Balhorn

Your music was obviously meant to convey political messages; the pedagogical intent is very apparent. Were you influenced by certain concepts or theorists?

Dieter Klemm

No, it was more spontaneous, we all wrote and rewrote the lyrics together. We all stood behind every line that was sung on stage.

Loren Balhorn

Your first proper album was the very first record released on the legendary Krautrock label Ohr, and later recordings were produced by Conny Plank, an icon of West German experimental music at the time. Did you see yourselves as part of this scene? Did you have contact with other bands from that era, like Can or Guru Guru?

Dieter Klemm

We were more in the political singer-songwriter scene. We were friends with Franz Josef Degenhardt and Dieter Süverkrüp and Hannes Wader. I think we once performed together with Guru Guru, and of course we knew Can; they were also from Cologne. But the music scene always looked down on us a bit. We made music, but it had a purpose. It wasn’t just supposed to sound nice, and that’s what set us apart from the other bands.

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

We met at festivals, and we knew each other, but we always had the impression that the others didn’t take us seriously as musicians, and they had good reasons for that. We were not good musicians — except for me, because I had studied music. None of us could play a Deep Purple guitar solo. I remember when Udo Lindenberg and the Scorpions came on the scene; those were musicians. We were musical performers. Our drummer used to say, “I’m not a drummer, I play a drummer on stage.”

We made music, but it had a purpose. It wasn’t just supposed to sound nice, and that’s what set us apart from the other bands.

Later on, I made a real effort to make better musicians out of the others. It wasn’t easy, but they kind of accepted it. They also noticed that we got more compliments from colleagues and musicians after I joined the band.

Loren Balhorn

What were your concerts like?

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

It was actually a piece of musical theater, with dialogues, multimedia, film, projectors and prerecorded sounds. Die Geyer-Symphonie is a great example of that. We also set up everything ourselves at every concert, two-and-a-half hours of backbreaking work before every performance.

Dieter Klemm

When it came to the big stage productions like Koslowsky, we were a rock group and a theater group at the same time. We also made and showed films. In Koslowsky, for example, there was a shot of me in a telephone booth, after which I came on stage wearing the same costume.

Loren Balhorn

And after the concert?

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

We always went down into the audience. We had a table outside where we sold our posters for 1 Deutschmark. We also sold our records and discussed with the people.

Loren Balhorn

You sold left-wing propaganda as band merchandise?

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

We had big posters, A1- or A0-sized, on which the lyrics of the whole performance were printed like a textbook, along with agitational appeals like “Pass this on!”; “Occupy your canteen!”; “Buy left-wing books!”; “Read Marx!” and so on. They went like hot cakes.

Loren Balhorn

Did you party a lot after the concerts, the way one might imagine rock stars in the 1970s?

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

By the time we had broken everything down, it was usually pretty late. There wasn’t much in the way of partying. We had to get up again at 7:00 the next morning. And what kind of accommodations do you think we had? Always the cheapest hotels, always in double rooms, with a sink on the wall and a shower in the hallway — that’s how we did it for ten years.

Loren Balhorn

Was that a conscious decision?

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

Yes, we might have been able to afford a few roadies, but we wouldn’t dream of letting other people perform “menial labor” for us. We had principles: we didn’t earn more than a skilled worker’s salary, we didn’t distinguish between menial and meaningful labor, and we set up and broke down everything ourselves. We couldn’t preach about the working class without knowing ourselves what it meant to be a worker.

Loren Balhorn

Was “the working class” really part of your audience?

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

Yes, of course. Many students came, of course — the university crowd, if you will. But if [German metalworkers’ union] IG Metall organized the concert, for example, then apprentices and workers also came. Sometimes the DKP or the [Social Democratic youth organization] Young Socialists also organized concerts for us — that always got them into trouble.

We couldn’t preach about the working class without knowing ourselves what it meant to be a worker.

We insisted that admission could not be more expensive than a ticket to the movies. Of course, that scared off professional promoters because they couldn’t make a lot of money off of us. We still managed to survive because an unbelievable number of people came to our concerts. In 1975, we had even more concertgoers than [German rock star] Udo Jürgens!

Dieter Klemm

Many people felt confirmed in their thinking by our music and the way it was presented, but we definitely also had a political influence on a lot of people. It still happens today that somebody approaches me somewhere and says: “You were in Floh de Cologne. Without you, my life would have been different.”

Loren Balhorn

Is there a concert that you remember particularly well?

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

Definitely. The Goethe Institute had a tough time as a German cultural institution in the Netherlands, because the Germans were not so popular there, and decided: “So, let’s take something left-wing, let’s take Floh de Cologne.” When we arrived in The Hague, I briefly went on stage to tune the guitars, looked into the concert hall, and saw there were only very old people sitting there — all in suits, with ties and so on. I went back and said, “Guys, turn everything down! This must be a mistake, they’re expecting something else!”

But after the last note we received a thunderous applause! We didn’t know what hit us. We came out and already at least five small, elderly people had crowded around us. They hugged me: “It’s great what kind of youth you are today! We are all Jewish emigrants who fled from Germany, and we wanted to see what the German youth has to say today.” These old people dragged us around town until 5:00 in the morning and even cooked for us at night. It was so moving. You only get to experience something like that if you’re Floh de Cologne.

Loren Balhorn

You played your last show in 1983 and never got back together as a band. Why did you stop?

Dieter Klemm

For one thing, we were slowly getting older. Most of us were around forty and the audience started to address us with the formal Sie instead of du. Then there were signs of interpersonal wear and tear within the group. We were on stage up to two hundred times per year in the years when we were very successful.

But the third reason, I think, is that the political landscape had changed significantly in the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s. That spirit of optimism with the student movement and the extra-parliamentary opposition was no longer there. It was the years of [West German chancellor] Helmut Kohl; everything became so petrified, and many young people weren’t thinking about changing the world anymore, but only about securing their income and retirement.

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

I was surprised back then that no one said, “Oh, let’s keep going for a little while longer.” But it was becoming more and more difficult to earn money with performances, and we said to ourselves: “Before we’re forced to tour the ice cream parlors, let’s bow out gracefully.”

Loren Balhorn

Are you still politically active? Is there anything left of your career as revolutionary rockers, so to speak?

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

I still have political hope; you can’t live without hope. But my socialization in traditional “leftism” leaves a lot to be desired. I have become too skeptical and thoughtful. Especially on the question of industrialization and the destruction of natural resources, I fear that in a socialist society of some kind, things would continue in the same way only under different relations of ownership. Marxism does not offer a solution for me.

Dieter Klemm

I rejoined the DKP a few months ago after being out of the party for twenty years.

Vridolin “Vitti” Enxing

I never left! It’s just that here in Upper Bavaria, where I live, there was a branch in Weilheim with about six members, and it disbanded after the Berlin Wall fell. But I still have my old party cards in the drawer. So, if someone rummages around after my death and says, “Ah, he was a Communist until the end,” you know that’s not true. But I’d rather have someone call me a Communist than a stooge for the system.

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