A Shared World

The German-French duo Stereo Total, whose member Françoise Cactus died in February, made charming, cheap, and democratic music out of the wreckage of post-Wall Berlin.

Credit: Eva Edsjo / Redferns.

Watching Stereo Total live could sometimes feel a little like intruding on some private domestic drama. I remember the last time I saw them, a few years back at a small club in Paris’s 20th arrondissement. The full final third of the show consisted of drummer Françoise Cactus repeatedly announcing their last song and guitarist-keyboardist Brezel Göring repeatedly dragging her back on stage for one more encore.

By that time, Göring and Cactus had been together — both as a group and as a couple — for some two decades, and they had that sense of a lively shared world, patiently built up together, that often characterises the long-term wed. But as an audience member, this was never a world that you felt excluded from: they were always inviting you in, giving you the space to find a way into their often-surreal bundle of private jokes and subtle codes.

So it was with a kind of peculiar sadness that I heard the announcement in February that Françoise Cactus had passed away. ‘We are devastated to announce the passing of our beloved friend,’ the band wrote on social media. ‘She died peacefully at home this morning February 17th, 2021, of cancer. Rest in peace, notre amie! FOREVER 16!’

That sense of mingled exuberance and tender melancholy was evident in the group from their very first album, with its trash-rock covers of Gainsbourg, Bardot, and Salt ‘n’ Pepa, jostling for place with original songs about typing pools and canoodling in the park. Originally hailing from Burgundy and Kassel, respectively, Cactus and Göring both moved to what was then still West Berlin in the late eighties.

They found themselves in Kreuzberg, at the time mostly populated by Turkish immigrants and West German squatters, and bordered on three sides by the Wall. But it was also home to the geniale dilettanten, an informal movement of ‘professional amateurs’ initially brought together by a festival organised by artist Wolfgang Müller of Die Tödliche Doris. Müller, for a brief time, would act as manager for the fledgling Stereo Total and the pair found inspiration in his message of Dadaist absurdity and radical inclusivity (many performers at the original Geniale Dilettanten festival had never even picked up an instrument before).

Over subsequent years, Stereo Total would be often critical observers of the transformation of their home turf from a scuzzy enclave at the very edge of the Western world into a playground for globe-trotting hipsters. But they remained faithful to its surviving institutions, organising a benefit for the Georg-von-Rauch-Haus, a former squat turned alternative cultural centre named after one of the radical student movement leaders of ’68, after it was attacked in an arson attack in 2011.

In the liner notes to their best-of compilation of 2015, Stereo Total would trace the origins of the group to the period immediately after the Wall came down. ‘1992 — in the former eastern part of Berlin there were huge containers for trash everywhere,’ they wrote, ‘people were throwing away everything that reminded them of their former life in the GDR: records, books, clothes, furniture . . . That gave us the idea to be musically inspired by the “throw-away-society”.’

Before they had any songs, they had a manifesto: a set of strictly defined rules which banned the use of any instrument costing more than fifty Deutschmarks, eschewed major record labels and all forms of virtuosity, and endorsed the use of all languages, apart from English.

Though the band would cheerfully admit that all these rules have been broken at one time or other, they nonetheless prove a reliable rough guide to their modus operandi over the succeeding decades. There have been Stereo Total lyrics in French, German, Spanish, Turkish, and Japanese. They remained, to the very end, sharply at odds with any prevailing trends.

And yet in their dumpster-diving approach to music history, their encomiums to and appropriations from yé-yé, easy listening, Yoko Ono, and Wendy Carlos, they anticipated many of the obsessions of latter day ‘hauntologists’ like Broadcast and Ghost Box. On stage, their songs teetered on the brink of collapse (their drums and guitars, likewise), seemingly borne to their conclusions by sheer enthusiasm alone. Their peculiar brand of anarchism was rarely confrontational, always welcoming. Every cheap guitar sound seemed to hold out the promise: you, too, could do this. Every scrappy, skeletal arrangement invited the listener to fill in the gaps with their own imaginations. There is, in this feeling of something raw and unfinished, a glimmer of that utopian potential once perceived by Ernst Bloch. ‘Art is not at all a totality,’ insisted Bloch in The Spirit of Utopia; instead, it must remain open and in process, bearing candidly the mark of its unvarnished possibility.