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Der fünfte Beatle

Klaus Beyer, the Fab Four's fifth member, is back with a vengeance. And the world is a better place for it. By Detlef Kuhlbrodt

I hadn't heard anything from Klaus Beyer for a long time. We've known each other for at least ten years, we used to meet at his flat in Kreuzberg for coffee and cake and chats, and his concerts which mostly began with "Hauptmann Pfeffer" (Captain Pepper) or the "Grünblauen Unterwasserboot" (Greeny-blue submarine) were always great. Mostly he plays alone, sometimes though he's accompanied by Stereo Total, Mutter, die Sterne or Götz Alsmann.

Klaus Beyer. Images courtesy of the official website

But somehow I'd lost contact with the fifth Beatle. The last time we met was four years ago when he played a concert to coincide with an exhibition of his pictures and objects (like his kindred spirit Daniel Johnston he's multi-talented). It was an ideal concert for December, which I often prefer to call November to try to take away its conceited terror, to put the brakes on it, so to speak. I just pretend it's still November until the 20th, celebrate Christmas and land safely in the new year.

Then I read in der Spiegel recently that Beyer was in Namibia together with Patti Smith and Christoph Schlingensief (in whose world of DIY artists Beyer has been a regular performer) making some weird film. And suddenly I got a call from Frank Behnke, Beyer's manager who told me that Klaus Beyer would soon be performing in the Burgtheatre in Vienna and not long after that, two new Klaus Beyer releases landed in my post box: the CD "Helft!"and a DVD with a documentary film called "The strange universe of Klaus Beyer" together with lots of little music films and sketches that Beyer has made over the last 23 years, mostly in the comfort of his own four walls.

Everything is very strange and wonderful again and makes an ideal Christmas present. The DVD offers a good cross-section from the work of the former candle-maker, who fell in love with the Beatles' music in the early seventies, after hearing them on the radio. And because he didn't understand the lyrics he bought an English dictionary so he could translate them into his own language. While the revolutionary contemporaries of the now 53 year-old artist liked listening to English pop music because their parents couldn't understand it, one of Beyer's key motivations for translating the songs of John, Paul, George and Ringo was so his mother could understand them. Beyer's translations are therefore also a gesture of conciliation. And it is precisely this gesture that made Beyer so popular in the post-punk scene – among people who couldn't or wouldn't make it themselves. And because he was able to be himself and made art that encouraged everybody else to be themselves as well.

Later Beyer recorded his version of the Beatles songs. Using two cassette recorders, he played over the instrumental passages in each song, sometimes looping them to make the song the right length, and then he sung his German lyrics over the top. The idiosyncrasy of the lyrics mean that his recordings are really Klaus Beyer's variations on a Beatles theme. The music which is reconstructed from short Beatles samples often sounds very experimental.

At the beginning of the eighties, Beyer began making films to accompany the songs of the Fab Four using Super-8, stop frame animation and wonderful hand-made props. The most famous of these being the two-by-one metre long submarine which he made for his "Yellow Submarine" film. He made films of some of his own songs ("Die Glatze" or "bald head" even ran on MTV) and comedy sketches like the one about a failed bank robbery, or little dogs and tall Kreuzberg women, "2 meters 10". All this and more fills the wonderful DVD which I decided to look at first because I didn't expect too much from the "Helft!" CD. Which meant I was all the more surprised when I finally listened to it. The albums "Mit den Beatles" (with the Beatles), "Lass es sein", (let it be) "Gummiseele" (rubber soul), "Ein harter Tag" (a hard day) and the "Rätselhaft magische Tour" (mysterious magical tour) were great. "Helft!" is even better.

photo © Corinna Gielen

The title song features twice and it's perhaps the most beautiful Beatles cover version that Klaus has ever played. His voice in the studio version sounds crystal clear, LoFi in HiFi so to speak. In the live version the most impressive thing is that he sings with two voices, further accentuating the dramatic arrangement of the song by splitting himself in two, so to speak, into someone who needs help and someone who's otherwise doing just fine. "Naturgetreu" (which translates as 'lifelike' and is Beyer's version of "Act naturally") sounds at first a bit squeaky psychedelic a la Daniel Johnston: "… I like filming / because filming makes me feel good / stories are what I film and play / and I always act naturally" (original Beatles lyrics here).

photo © Corinna Gielen

"Du machst mich hitzig Miss Lizzy" ("You make me dizzy Miss Lizzy") emphasises the innocent rock 'n' roll side of Beyer & the Beatles, "Ja, ich glaub an gestern" sounds much more melancholy that "I believe in yesterday" and after hearing his closing comment "Have a good evening and best wishes for your life" – suddenly everything feels much better again.


"Klaus Beyer's - die DVD", 16 euro. "Helft!", 9 euro available at Amsel-Records & Films. Visit the official website for more information.

The article originally appeared in die Tageszeitung on December 20, 2005.

Detlef Kuhlbrodt is a freelance journalist living in Berlin.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european