I.C.R.N. Paper 4: Alexei Monroe: Gerechtigkeits Liga: Many Unhappy Returns?

Gerechtigkeits Liga: Many Unhappy Returns?

The name Gerechtigkeits Liga is one which re-surfaced only recently, but which has recurred at key points since the early eighties. The group appeared alongside SPK, Laibach and others on the seminal compilation Vhutemas Archetypi on Graeme Revell’s Side Effects label. It also performed at the Berlin Atonal festival in 1985, an event which still casts a long shadow, and which, due to its reputation, is possibly even more significant for those who weren’t there than for those who were. Given GL’s association with these key moments in the development of second-wave industrial, the group has had a surprisingly low profile. Partly this was due to the vagaries and adversities of the music business: tracking the trajectory of such a group you discover that industrial groups also suffered from bad deals and neglect, even on independent and supposedly progressive labels. Yet although force of circumstance conspired to keep GL silent for long periods, particularly in the 1990s, this silence and the rarity of its works may have actually have helped maintain an aura of fascination and elusiveness that motivated collectors and others to track down rarities and which has now inspired both a re-issue programme and a return to recording.

In 2005, the long unavailable first album Hypnotischer Existenzialismus and single were re-released on CD, together with a live recording from New York in 1985. In recent years the group has released new material on the German compilations Statement 1961 (Ironflame) and Paranoise One (Paranoise) and the group is working on new collaborative projects. Further re-releases are planned, as well as new material, and this is a good opportunity to analyse the work of this obscure but still fascinating group. This article is based on conversations with founder member Till Bruggemann, initiated in March 2005.

GL emerged in Bremen in 1981 and its members were from the generation slightly too young to have been involved in, but creatively captured by, the first wave of Punk and industrial. Beginning as a punk/noise group it soon switched to using industrial-electronic textures and equipment. The group assumed the sinisterly fascinating name Gerechtigkeits Liga – certainly one factor in the aura surrounding the group. This was a ready-made name, taken from the American comic Justice League and translated into German. Like many key industrial groups, the choice of name instantly generated a sinister and ambivalent aura.

GL grew up in what was Bruggemann says was already a post-industrial society, but industry was an important presence. Like so many (post)-industrial producers, Bruggemann was interested in industrial buildings, but could never imagine doing factory work. He was fascinated by the impact such monotonous work must have had on people’s lives and the fact of being born into it and having no other options. GL were fascinated by post-industrial landscapes, and would always visit the ‘outer areas’ of towns they visited. Bruggemann was particularly inspired by London’s docklands in the 1980s. He recalls it being possible to imagine the most fantastic post-apocalyptic scenarios. It was possible to drive for 20-30 minutes across Docklands: an area that looked “as if a revolution or hell knows what” had taken place. In 1986, Bruggemann together with members of Laibach and Test Dept. were extras in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, partly filmed in the ready-made war-zones of Docklands.

GL also assimilated some of what could be called the “canonical” cultural sources particularly associated with first and second wave industrial. These included Dada and the work of John Heartfield (later also used by Laibach and Front Line Assembly amongst others). The montage Der Henker und Die Gerechtigkeit (The Hangman and Justice) was a source of particular inspiration and GL used it on the cover of a promo VHS in the early 1980s. Concerns over copyright issues and meant GL never used it more publicly but it remains clandestinely associated with their work. The combination of GL’s name and the disturbing Heartfield image of mutilated justice produce rich associations and contradict any right-wing interpretations of GL’s ironic and ambivalent name. In a way similar to other industrial groups, GL were using this type of image to hint at the group’s agenda without being explicit, even at the risk of misinterpretation. Since Heartfield’s imagery in itself now seems liable to misinterpretation by those unaware of its context, the chances of (ironic) misinterpretation remain high, even before the imagery is appropriated for counter-cultural use.

From an early stage, GL’s actions and images have been misperceived as rightist, but its art doesn’t seem marked by an unmediated will to power so much as an urgent, existential will to communicate some of the most disturbing aspects of present day life.

Heartfield and Dada style collage and montage techniques were an inherent part of the GL aesthetic, particularly in the designs of some of their now sought-after cassette releases but also in their early home-recorded sound collage work, which was closer to a sonic application of artistic techniques than to the sample culture that shaped industrial later in the decade. At this stage GL worked mainly with tapes and transferred sounds between numerous recorders, a method Bruggemann describes as having been quite an effective. They also had a primitive emulator and other devices built for them by a friend.

Unlike some of the other industrial groups, the young GL were then unaware of electro-acoustic or musique concrete, despite the similarity in techniques, if not resources. One definite influence was Einstürzende Neubauten’s junk aesthetic, and GL went on sound-hunting sorties in Bremen and elsewhere; recording pure noises and raw material from whatever industrial debris they encountered. However, GL did not share Neubauten’s fascination with the objects themselves, but were interested in their sonic potentials. They would treat, accelerate and slow down the gathered sounds into more abstract yet still oppressive and confrontational sounds. The new group soon relegated the guitar to its proper role as an extra source of distortion with layers of tape loops. GL acquired a drum machine and the archetypal industrial synthesisers – first a korg ms10 then an ms20.

Equipped with this new sound arsenal GL moved into one of several former air raid bunkers that the city of Bremen made available to musicians and groups as rehearsal spaces. GL were one of the first groups to receive a double room in one of these bunkers. They removed the wall down between the rooms and created what Bruggemann describes as an ideal location for GL’s kind of music with a great acoustic. GL already had an interest in Germany’s suppressed past and so to operate in such a historically and literally resonant space certainly had an effect on its work. Here their first cassette releases were recorded straight to tape with amplification from standard bass and guitar amps. GL cassette releases had distinctive self-produced booklets and graphics, remembered by those on the scene at the time and still collected. They were issued between 1981-1986 under two different label names. The first label was GL’s Lausch label; almost all of these releases were limited editions of 20-50 copies which sold fairly fast. The second was GL’s Zyklus Records, which distributed tapes and also videos in larger numbers.
Although the primitive quality of cassette releases by GL and other groups was primarily the result of limited resources, this very roughness was almost integral to the industrial tape aesthetic. However, despite the similarities and some influences, the group were still working in isolation and only joined the emerging industrial scene when GL became a more professional project around mid 1983.

Around this time original member Frank Stroepken left and was replaced by Thomas Furch. The group continued working in the bunker but did see the need to go into a studio and make their first professional recordings. Through a personal contact they gained access to a four track studio at a cheap rate. However, GL had no studio experience and the engineer (who later worked with Neubauten in Berlin) was unfamiliar with the industrial aesthetic, being used to working with Punk and indie groups. Despite this he liked the GL sound and became their live mixer for a while. As in so many other cases, technical limitations and accidents have helped cement industrial’s aesthetic of D.I.Y. monumentalism. Flaws obvious to their creators were taken by new industrial listeners to be stylistic templates and inspirations, and the genre as a whole has been shaped by successor groups taking the inherent “wrongness” of early industrial recordings as a staring point to be developed and perfected rather than overcome.

Around the same time, GL began to tour Northern Germany and came into contact with one of the industrial scene’s key facilitators, Uli Rehberg of Walter Ulbricht Schallfolien. Rehberg organised a slot for GL to play with Whitehouse at the YMCA in Hamburg, Germany. Rehberg liked GL’s live sound and had previously expressed interest in releasing some material but disliked the first studio recordings.

GL then took the material for mastering in London and had it transferred to eight track. The first single The Games must Go On then finally appeared in an edition of five hundred copies on their own label Zyklus records, distributed by Das Büro, mainly in Germany & Benelux. Looking back, Bruggemann feels that the recordings from early period were too minimal and although for many listeners this gives the material a certain charm and fascination, he still would have liked to have used just a little more percussion or other elements. This seems to be a motivation for GL’s current work – to produce a sound that is not technically hampered and that fully matches the scale of the vision.

One particular source of inspiration for GL in 1982-3 was SPK, particularly the Information Overload album and the Mekkano single. On their first visit to London, the group visited SPK video maker Dominic Guerin in his squat and then met Graeme Revell and Brian Williams (Lustmord). GL were now developing a stronger network of international contacts and began to visit London more regularly. The group managed themselves, retaining complete control over their work. They organised a successful U.S. mini-tour in 1984, and returned again in 1985. On these visits they played memorable shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Boulder- Colorado and New York as well as recording a session in the TV Studios of Columbia University.

The group were now recording on an eight track home studio and brought their latest recordings to London. Revell heard these and was impressed by the development of GL’s sound since the original material he had heard. By now, Revell had enough income from SPK’s more commercial work to finance releases on Side Effects and to release work by GL and similar groups who had problems finding labels to release their work. The early Side Effects releases left an impressive legacy but the first incarnation of the label folded at the end of the eighties. All this material except Hypnotischer Existenzialismus was later re-released on CD. The long unavailability of the album gave it a retrospective “classic” status.

In common with many industrial and other musicians, Bruggemann has an instinctive distrust of musical categories. He found Graeme Revell’s term “post-industrial” interesting, but this never really caught on and isn’t widely known or used among younger listeners. Of course, GL’s work is close to industrial in many ways, and it operates primarily within the industrial scene, but Bruggemann dislikes categorisation and is uncomfortable with it. As he says, once named, something can be put into a drawer and forgotten. In fact, some reviews of GL’s first release described it “dancefloor.”

GL’s music in this period was a reflection not just of the still-developing (post)-industrial Zeitgeist, but of the political, cultural and personal terrors and excesses of the time. Bruggemann says that while he was not consciously aware of putting his anxieties into the music at the time, their influence is undeniable when listening now. The political atmosphere of the new cold war period in Germany certainly seeped into the music, being present as a sort of “background radiation”, even if it was never present as an explicit theme. During the particularly tense period between 1983 and 1985, Bruggemann had panic attacks induced by what seemed like the threat of imminent war (it’s easy to forget now how close war seemed in that period). He also found the paranoiac front-line atmosphere in Berlin particularly oppressive, even while enjoying the city’s alternative cultural life. Living on the front-line near the wall, Bruggemann was aware of the phone in his Berlin residence having its phone line monitored by both the Stasi and the West German Verfassungsschutz.

Like many others, Bruggemann came to Berlin in order to avoid national service but would spend two works there and two weeks in Bremen to recover from the pressures (and pleasures) of Berlin. This was interspersed with increasingly frequent samplings of the tense but dynamic London scene of the period. Eventually, he was permanently seduced by what seemed like the fascinating fertile chaos and greater breathing space offered by eighties London in comparison to the cleanliness and order of Germany and relocated permanently. He found that the German atmosphere induced both paranoiac and justified feelings of being spied on. Ironically, Bremen later experienced some of the traumas of de-industrialisation that were so fascinatingly apparent in London.

A key conceptual reference for GL in this period was the work of the controversial Romanian writer E.M. Cioran. Bruggemann’s partner was a great admirer of Cioran’s work and Bruggemann read it during the recording of the album and it was decided to integrate some Cioran material onto the album cover, alongside what they called the Manifesto of the Anti, which was a first attempted distillation of the vortex of influences operating on the group. GL were fascinated by Cioran’s work and Weltanschauung, and tried to express its spirit in their music.

Of course, like so many other industrial sources and references, Cioran was an ambiguous, even contaminated one, due to his early connections with the Romanian Iron Guard movement, from which he later distanced himself. Industrial in this period could be seen as a sort of mass-alchemical appropriation of a whole range of forbidden, compromised and unhealthy sources. Such material held a particular fascination for sensitive artistic types out of step with the mainstream zeitgeist of the pack, and desperate to communicate their horror at the state of things. In the experiences and concerns of these groups it’s possible to apprehend heroic attempts to process the vast range of half-understood contradictory cultural debris they were surrounded by or sought out.

This refusal or even existential inability to remain apart from horrific and forbidden material has been a key marker of industrial groups. In some cases, manifestoes arguing for a confrontation with painful reality have simply been a cover for un-thinking shock tactics and outrage for the sake of outrage. While GL always had some conceptual rationale for their shock tactics, their provocations certainly became more subtle and focussed as they gained in experience.

Certainly, use of some sort of ambivalent material became almost de rigeur for industrial groups. In the polarised, hyper-ideological context of the eighties, there was infinite scope for the misunderstanding of such work, and GL encountered their share of denunciation and obstruction, even though they were not always consciously seeking to provoke. Much of GL’s later provocation took more subliminal forms, appearing in their background films and slide projections, as well as in the music itself.

Despite its contacts with squat and alternative culture, to be even loosely identified with the industrial movement often meant being under suspicion – from certain types of leftist activists as much as from the authorities. Of course, for many groups and their listeners, their “outlaw” status was and remains a badge of honour. Certainly, to provoke some of those provoked by the very idea of industrial is almost always worthwhile.[1]

GL first attracted hostile attention in 1982 when they released a limited cassette based on the history of the Nazi era. They produced an A4 poster showing a wagon load of holocaust victims with what they believed was the self-evidently cynical title Scenes We’d like to See. As Bruggemann recalls, “all hell broke loose in Bremen” and an unsuccessful hunt for those responsible was launched. Perhaps naively, GL believed that the meaning would become clear when people took time to listen to the music. At the time, GL believed that through listening to the music, people would understand the group’s original intentions, or at least that they would taken a bit more time before jumping to wrong conclusions.

However, snap judgements were and remain a sign of ideological rectitude on both left and right, and the idea of exploring anything in greater depth is inherently suspect to many ideologues. In this the current context of institutionally-reduced attention spans, patient analysis is even more unlikely. Like many of their generation, GL were very dissatisfied with the way the past was handled in Germany, the lack of open discussion, and the refusal of the older generation to discuss it. GL were struggling in their own, perhaps unsubtle, way to express this, but were never interested in simple shock for shock’s sake. When GL later became aware of Laibach they found much to admire, and would certainly have welcomed the almost unique chance Laibach and the NSK had to reach intellectuals, journalists, and the country generally.

Certainly, many people at the time misunderstood or chose to misunderstand industrial, and lost no chances to demonstrate their rectitude by attempting to suppress it. Later in the 80s GL were due to play at a Berlin festival organised by students at the technical university. The event was paid for and British groups had flown in when a rumour began among the university feminists that GL would show Frauen- feindliche Filme (films hostile to women). Their agitation led to the entire event, (not just GL’s performance) being cancelled. Bruggemann still has no idea where the rumour originated from: beyond a very small VHS release in America, no GL video material was available. One possible explanation is GL’s use of “video nasty” material in the film collages they used on stage, yet even this seems like a slightly insufficient explanation for the suspicious cancellation of the event. In these and other situations GL were certainly accused of rightist tendencies but while such accusations may have been more credible when attached to certain groups, in GL’s case it certainly was not. While they refused to restrict themselves to the “approved” range of material and subjects, they actually represented just the type of sensitive, alienated, individualistic, unsettling voices of the type that Fascists are the first to try and suppress.

GL’s use of film on stage was another point of similarity with their industrial colleagues, although GL’s case was slightly different. They never had a lead singer or front-man as such, and had always used background films to make a stronger statement, combining their own films with found footage. Bruggemann states that the films were used to “enforce” the ideas the music was trying to express. At I.C.R.N.’s Return of the Repressive event in Birmingham last September, GL film material was screened publicly for the first time in two decades. It was very evident that even among a well-disposed industrial audience, GL’s films still retain a power to shock as well as fascinate. In particular, the clip Jesus Crucified left a very strong impression on the audience. The final part of the GL re-issue programme will be the re-mastering and issue of some of this material on DVD, and it will certainly add to our understanding of this crucial period.

GL was more or less dormant in the 1990s, experimenting, observing, and adjusting to the post cold-war, fully post-industrial cyber-cultural context. GL has joined numerous other industrial groups in their colonisation of myspace and become part of the new and revived trans-national connections currently possible. Of course, given that my space is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the vivid and (largely) un-censored presence of an industrial sub-culture there is an intriguing paradox. However, as in other ways, GL and similar groups refuse to maintain imaginary ideological purity if it gets in the way of pragmatic objectives. Yet this does not mean not being vigilant: GL believes there is no room for complacency in the constantly escalating war of information being fought out in these online spaces.

Yet while Bruggemann is involved in the contemporary scene, he is also aware of the negative side of the proliferation of industrial (sub)genres and the impossibility of monitoring them all. He explains that GL originally wanted to inspire people to create their own sounds (a leftover Punk attitude), and not to be just consumers, to start to criticise governments and systems more. This has happened to a certain degree but Bruggemann is unsure at what price this has taken place.

The creative process now has a very different ausgangs-position (starting point) to the much more “black and white” 1980s, yet GL still responds to current events. Living very close to the scene of one of the July 2005 London bombs, Bruggemann responded with the anguished and aggressive track Slash 7705 (one of few if any commentaries on this already near forgotten event). With luck, GL will continue to issue more urgent warnings and dispatches in what seems likely to be a seductive(ly) neo-apocalyptic period.

[1] One of the central tenets of contemporary sonic correctness is that industrial was at best a regrettable necessity that shouldn’t be mentioned too much in polite society, and when it is, only certain groups are allowed into the charmed circle. Even some of industrial’s original advocates now seem embarrassed or afraid to attach themselves too closely to it, and now sometimes even teeter on the edge of self-denunciation. This is partly due to the degeneration of some types of industrial into one-dimensional provocation and unreflective rightist agitation, but also motivated by a fear of being associated with “unhealthy elements”. Distrust or wholesale dismissal of industrial is almost demanded by some of the same people who argue that all styles are equally valid. Yet, try to turn the tables and express a similar disdain for jazz or other favoured genres and the mask of liberal tolerance soon slips and it’s possible to watch a supposedly “liberal” person degenerate into hysterics or inarticulate abuse. In this sense, (selective) openness to industrial remains a harsh but necessary test of tolerance.