There are these really good stories that are good because they're set in the right places. And there are these really special places that are so special because the right stories happened there at the right time. Some of them are so good that they have to be told in full. Like the story of the Grand Hotel van Cleef.
In short, the story goes like this: A couple of guys with the right taste in music meet in Hamburg. They decide together to make German guitar music, are rejected by all record companies, so they found their own label and change the German pop landscape forever. Of course, that reads terribly cheesy, of course, but in detail the story is better.
Marcus Wiebusch, singer of the legendary super-left 90s Hamburg punk band …But Alive had emancipated himself from super-left 90s punk at the end of the century and embarked on a different musical path with his newly founded band Kettcar. He now relied more on acoustics and harmony instead of distorted power chords and quickly put the lyrical I over the social we.
Because no record company was interested in releasing their debut album "Du und wieviel von deinFreunden", Wiebusch quickly founded his own label with his bassist Reimer Bustorff and the singer of the band Tomte - Thees Uhlmann. The Grand Hotel van Cleef.
The Grand Hotel, which in its early days was actually just a tiny alibi room for office stuff, very quickly became much more than just a label, it became the meeting place and powerhouse of a movement that shaped German indie rock in the early 00s -years not only redefined, but immediately subjected to a sustainable paradigm shift.
This year the Grand Hotel is celebrating its 20th birthday and yes, of course, 20 years, that's of course a damn long time in the Rock'n'Roll calendar and even more than three-quarters of an eternity in the Pop calendar, but somehow also exactly the time frame that is needed to actually be able to measure or understand the pop-cultural dimension of this musical caesura.
In its external perception, the Grand Hotel was shaped by the founders and driving forces, the bands Kettcar and Tomte, who embodied two tonalities of the same basic musical idea. Kettcar sang about friendship and love, about distinction and fitted kitchens, about bar fights and sad taxi rides. Thees Uhlmann mused with Tomte on the sun, which shines even when the clouds cover it, and he took his time spelling the zenith long before he had reached it. What Tomte sounded hopeful and euphoric was rather sluggish and kept in minor with Kettcar. And yet, what united the two bands between punk and pathos was the pregnant self. Everything, really everything, was suddenly big and heavy. Everything mattered.
One has to look at the musical paradigm of the time to see why this type of music struck a chord. The phase of finding a reunited Germany and the proclaimed "end of history" were excessively celebrated in Berlin with the arrival of a hedonistic techno culture, while in Hamburg - at some distance from the epicenter of these cultural impacts - the new Germany was viewed more soberly and critically. At the end of the 1980s, the Hamburg School emerged, a collective term for up-and-coming bands and artists such as Blumfeld, Die Sterne, Bernd Begemann and Tocotronic, who established so-called discourse pop.
Slogan-like, double-layered texts that negotiated political and social coexistence. In her lyrics, too, the political was personal and the personal was political. Instead of mechanical music, people in Hamburg preferred to play the guitar. Tomte and Kettcar came from this socio-cultural tradition and this Hamburg milieu (Uhlmann even wrote a book about Tocotronic, which he accompanied on a tour). In the early '00s, the Hamburg school had then attained the general higher education entrance qualification. Blumfeld turned to hits (she still loved the feuilleton and found every form of verbalized banality somehow meta), Tocotronic turned their backs on Hamburg, and the new generation of bands around Tomte and Kettcar and Herrenmagazin and whatever they were called, put it down Focus from now on radically on your own state of mind.
Suddenly there was no longer a double bottom. The outside world, if it still appeared, could only be used to reflect one's own self, which was plagued by insecurities. This flight inwards was anything but a matter of course, because the image of the triumphant advance of the western world had long since cracked. With 9/11, even in German pop literature, the much-vaunted irony as a distancing strategy ended; rock music, as the dominant youth culture, reacted to the Islamist attacks in the United States with renewed politicization (Rock Against Bush campaign).
In Germany, on the other hand, the decision was made to retreat inwards. The world around you didn't seem perfect, but it seemed good enough not to want to change it, after all the mustiness of the Kohl era was gone, there was a red-green federal government that was perceived as progressive, the country was a lot become more progressive, and they didn't take part in the Iraq war either. You could hear the right music that didn't just suggest depth, and the cool indie girls around you were wearing skirts over their jeans and band buttons on their parkas, which could be considered surefire differentiators long before the Slayer shirt Moving into the H
So anyone who checked into the Grand Hotel van Cleef somehow knew they were on the right page, they didn't have to say it. Especially because the label had so much more to offer than it seemed from the outside. The Grand Hotel van Cleef sold pearls of indie culture that were hardly noticed in the mainstream (like "Transatlanticism" by Death Cab For Cutie) and managed, at least for a while, to gather everything that had any status and name in Hamburg's subculture on the label. An oasis of well-being was created in the middle of a crumbling world. Of course, there were also mistakes, that's inevitable. The fact that a highly talented and unjustly forgotten band like Junges Glück was not included in the squad for all newcomers was a fundamental strategic mistake.
But the real descent began with the onset of the 2010s. Thees Uhlmann left Hamburg and moved to Berlin. A serious betrayal of the cultural roots of a music that embodied the Hanseatic city with every breath and actually made it a place of longing for like-minded people who somehow couldn't be defined. When Kettcar once decided to play in Hamburg as often as Hamburg wanted to see the band, a total of eight dates in eight different locations came about. All sold out. The city became a place of pilgrimage for young people, all part of something that was never really said. Consequently, Uhlmann also broke up Tomte and since then has only done solo things that sound like Berlin.
Kettcar, on the other hand, created their definitive masterpiece with their third album "Sylt" (2008), which they could no longer surpass. On this album they perfectly negotiated personal emancipation, which is in constant conflict with the old ideals. Growing up as punk - it never sounded better. Today Wiebusch is back singing about the stupid Nazis and the shallow political nonsense that everyone can agree on and has thus become part of the mainstream culture, which he has always rebelled against. There are no new innovative bands on the label anymore. The Grand Hotel van Cleef has suffered the fate of many old Grand Hotels. They still live by their name. Of her fame. From the memory of the splendor of better times. They are refuges of bygone grandeur and evidence of a culture that has long since disappeared. But it still left footprints.
The Grand Hotel van Cleef forced a paradigm shift that is still having an impact today. The emancipation from the strictness and the intellectual baggage of the Hamburg School has the success of a future generation of German indie bands like Wir sind Helden, Karpatenhund, Virginia now! or even Tele made possible in the first place. The Grand Hotel van Cleef opened a space in which a new, German pop music could develop, which focused on one's own state of mind - without being embarrassing.
The fact that the following generation of bands had such commercial success that they themselves opened the door to today's soulless German pop rubbish surrounding Mark Forster and his clones is perhaps the last and probably the saddest chapter in this story. But hey, the best stories, as we all know, never have a happy ending.