The Lost Years


What happened in the years Toten Herzen were gone?

The exact circumstances surrounding Toten Herzen’s disappearance in 1977 may never be known and vary depending on who you speak to: Rob Wallet, Barry Bush, Jonathan Knight, Terence Pearl, the Metropolitan Police. Even less clear is what happened to the band in the years between their disappearance in 1977 and their reappearance at a press conference in 2013. For the rest of us, the Lost Years were a time of great change in the music industry, from the loss of important record labels to the advent of on-demand streaming services.

Here’s a rapid run through of thirty-five years of Toten Herzen’s absence.

In Rob Wallet’s initial analysis of the band’s disappearance, he focused on the approaching storm that was punk. At the time, Toten Herzen’s image saw them clumsily dumped somewhere on the glam rock spectrum, a musical subset that would be swept away by the new wave. Wallet speculated that this was one reason why the band called it a day, but also concludes that Dee Vincent and Elaine Daley might have found a new home in punk.

Punk fragmented, releasing all manner of subcultures; a musical diversity that ran through the 1980s, and a tolerance for difference that was rare in the decade before. The rockers and hippies of the 70s were always at risk of a beating from the punks and mods who lived alongside them. Not so in the 80s. Diversity was accommodated which led to some strange hooks up, like Aerosmith collaborating with Run DMC.

Just as punk was kicking and punching its way into the public realm, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal ran in its wake (and would ultimately outlast it). By the middle of the decade hard rock and heavy metal was on the verge of becoming mainstream. Led by the big hair acts of the US, bands like Van Halen and Bon Jovi adapted to the visual opportunities provided by MTV, and not wanting to lose out on the action, big names of the 70s like Kiss, Heart and the aforementioned Aerosmith reinvented themselves and cleaned up at the ticket office.

Like the advent of the talkies in cinema history, MTV offered a new platform for a musical style that was always as much about image as sound. Rock received a huge injection of publicity that led to bigger concert productions, bigger regular festivals across Europe and the US, and new anti-heroes who, unwittingly, reimagined the glam rock excesses from ten years previously. But just as punk swept away the pretty boys in ’76 and ’77, grunge swept them away in the late 80s.

Some observers say it was a necessary cleansing, but heavy rock didn’t really recover from the cull and throughout the nineties a top ten hit for a heavy metal act was a rare event. The big festivals folded, and music in Britain became a landscape of indie bands and Britpop, bothered and pestered by manufactured pop acts. Short of a prog rock rebirth, the 90s had similarities to the seventies right down to the hairstyles and fashions. Blur aped the Kinks, Oasis went even further back to ape the Beatles.

In America, the landscape was dominated by the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna, with U2’s juggernauts rolling from one mega-tour to another. Rock was left to Nirvana’s legacy and the likes of REM and Pearl Jam. No one who really set the world on fire or made much of a visual impression either on video or live. The big spectacle was in hibernation.
But of course it would come back. Heavy rock, like the vampires of Toten Herzen, wasn’t dead, merely sleeping, and in a curious way benefited from the upheavals beginning to stir in the music industry. Throughout its history, heavy rock has relied on touring to generate an income. Album sales were often stratospheric, but rock bands couldn’t rely on singles and chart exposure to become popular; they had to get on the road and work. When this business model looked to be the only game in town, the 21st Century found itself with a few notable rock acts who were bigger than ever.

From the 70s, the likes of ACDC and Iron Maiden were joined by Metallica and German band Rammstein. The festivals started to reappear as big money spinners, from Download and Sonisphere in Britain to Wacken and Rock am Ring in Germany. Major rock acts were pouring out of Holland, Germany and Finland, as well as the usual suspects from the UK and America, not only cashing in on touring, but utilising the emergent social media platforms in a sustainable way only the pop acts could dream about unless supported by one of the big three major labels.

Toten Herzen came back to an industry with one or two familiar faces still performing, but within a transformed landscape.

Gone were the familiar small labels, the incubator labels like Island, A&M and Atlantic, swallowed up in a succession of take-overs, buy-outs and consolidations until only four major labels remained. (Three after EMI was broken up and sold by Citigroup.) The corporations controlling the industry shifted from record label, to media company, to hybrids like LiveNation and TimeWarner; companies controlling the music ecosystem from band management to venue management.

During the business changes of the deregulated 80s, new small independent labels flourished, came and went, some of them set up by bands and artists becoming more aware of the financial and legal side of the music industry. Songwriters took control of publishing rights at the same time as recorded music sales dropped. But the comings and goings led to bizarre ownership anomalies, with Michael Jackson, for example, finding himself the legal owner of the Beatles’ back catalogue!

MTV may have opened doors for artists in the 1980s and LiveNation may have cashed in on live performances in the 90s, along with the rest of the corporate world clamouring for a piece of the musical pie. Entire tours became sponsored, and artists signed lucrative marketing deals with the likes of Pepsi. But the musical corporate world would be turned on its head, by another re-emerging force and a technological development that is still causing turmoil.

In the 1970s music piracy was rife, but invisible. The technology allowed vinyl albums to be shared on tape. It was impossible to calculate how much revenue was lost, but no one seemed to lose much sleep over it. When computers and the internet took hold the scale of the issue was made visible. Piracy was a multi-million dollar problem.

Some would argue that piracy, apart from being an ever-present element of recorded music, was also a symptom of an industry becoming increasingly desperate for revenue and increasingly greedy. The advent of the compact disc in the 1980s promised better music quality and a more durable recorded medium. But many complained the sound of CDs lacked the warmth of vinyl and the discs themselves were nowhere near as durable as the record labels made out. The smaller format in some ways reduced the experience of ownership and sleeve artwork was never as impressive as its twelve inch predecessor. Sleeve notes required a magnifying glass.

Technology was developing exponentially, and digital was the perfect format for the internet age. It was also the perfect format for Apple, who caused a stir in 2002 when it introduced the iPod to the world and changed the music landscape. Apple took control of how music – increasingly referred to as content – was bought and listened to. The ability to buy individual tracks off an album undermined the concept of the album (undermined the concept of the concept album…). Utilising the MP3 format of compressed music files, the degradation in sound quality continued, revenues for artists and labels plunged, and this was only the start.

By compartmentalising music into bits of albums, and digitising music until it was an on-demand service, streaming became the inevitable next step and a Doomsday-like scenario for the major labels too big to change direction and keep up with the development; it was the smaller beasts who adapted best. Rock bands may endure their fair share of pain, but a glance at the roster of independent labels like Nuclear Blast and Napalm Records reveals a healthy list of relatively successful names.

By the time Toten Herzen made their comeback, the digital revolution had thrown up one more irony. It allowed people to make their own music at home. Just as aspiring musicians had picked up instruments in the Seventies and decided I can do that, a new punk ethos took advantage of technology, the internet and social media to do it themselves again.

Toten Herzen resisted the digital landscape, issuing their 2014 album Malandanti on vinyl only. They may be swept away a second time by change, but they’re old enough to see the patterns repeating and, according to the myth, immortal enough to survive them no matter how often they come around.

And alongside them those faces from the 70s: Iron Maiden, Kiss, Iggy Pop and the almost-indestructible Stones, but none of them look as good. None of them have what Toten Herzen have, if you’re prepared to believe Rob Wallet’s discoveries.