By Richard McKenna / September 14, 2016
Upon first coming across them, it is barely possible to believe that Warning is not simply a superhumanly dexterous hoax, so perfectly engineered do they seem for the purposes of titillating the psychological taste buds of anyone who grew up in the incipient Star Wars era nurturing an unsophisticated love of horror, the occult, cosmic electronica, and sci-fi (the mass-produced, Forry Ackerman end of the spectrum, machine-tooled to prey upon the ids and pockets of the young, as opposed to the primmer, “worthier” older sibling, SF). If proof were needed of the nightmarish, archetypal power that can be created by things casually thrown together from the dressing-up box, let it be Warning, an unremembered (and even at the time, essentially unnoticed) German duo who produced two LPs in 1982 and 1983: Warning and Electric Eyes, respectively.
The cover of their self-titled debut lays out the band’s aesthetic agenda in no uncertain terms: two eerie, black-clad figures, their outlandish garb—for a rig as inspired as this can only be referred to as “outlandish garb”—consisting of black masks equipped with goggles and air tubes (inspired as much by the aviation masks in Hypgnosis’ cover art for Black Sabbath’s 1978 Never Say Die! as by their other obvious inspiration, Darth Vader), silky black capes, and black gloves with skeletal detailing. They stand, arms crossed, on a pink- and blue-lit escalator, as though balefully awaiting an opportunity to switch dimensions.
Even more amazing than Warning’s fiendish, alien appearance is the fact that over the course of the band’s two albums, they delivered on the underlying conceit with unexpected brilliance, if possible actually honing their schtick between the Euro horror-rock stomp of their debut and the synth-driven, science-fictional swan song. The music is genuinely peculiar, and even a cursory listen reveals how far it transcends its joke-shop origins. In one of the more perceptive insights of his much-reviled biography of Elvis Presley (Elvis, 1981), Albert Goldman argues that it is often through cynical parody and pastiche that genuine breakthroughs and progress occur in the popular arts, and the theory applies perfectly to Warning. While there is every indication that the enterprise began as little more than a couple of muso hacks cobbling together a miscellanea of popular tropes in the hope of garnering a few Deutschmarks from easily gulled kinder, the results of their efforts go so far beyond that mandate as to enter the realm of the visionary.
Known whilst costumed as Ed Vanguard and Mike Yonder, Warning was actually Edgar Schlepper and Hans Müller (with occasional assistance from producer “Lord Bender”), and the absurdity of the endeavor deepens even further upon discovery of the actual face of its lead member: Schlepper’s cheery, avuncular features are nearly impossible to reconcile with the gasping rasp of his alter-ego. The son of a pilot, Schlepper wrote and arranged a plethora of records, including I Am Aggressive (1976) for teacher-turned-singer Nina Martin, later known as Martinique, and synth-pop gem Second Hand Lover (1983) by German Kim Wilde clone Gee Caytor. He also provided the music for keep-fit LPs from German women’s magazine Brigitte and released a series of albums on which he played medleys of chart hits or disco songs. At the same time, Schlepper had a long-running career producing, directing, and providing sound effects for radio plays, including science fiction series Antares 8 (1978), and he realized, under the (wonderful) pseudonym Jean Bill Board, the LP Galaxy Flash (1980). Played entirely upon a monstrous Yamaha Electone EX 1, the instrumental album, though clearly intending to capitalize on the fame of the other cosmic Jean, possesses its own strangely compelling magic.
Warning’s first record appears even more incongruous when viewed in the context of Schlepper’s pop gigs and the German charts of the early ‘80s, a grim broth of schmaltz and schlager dominated by cheerfully incomprehensible domestic novelty act Gottlieb Wendehals and his plastic chicken, the lumpen Munich rock of The Spider Murphy Gang, and F.R. David’s hegemonic Words (1982). It had been two years since the release of The Empire Strikes Back, and anticipation was palpably high for Return of the Jedi, due out the following year. George Lucas’ grip on the juvenile zeitgeist remained firm enough to guarantee any vaguely space-related enterprise a modicum of success. Warning leads off with the duo’s only hit single, “Why Can the Bodies Fly,” whose nursery rhyme horror chug, punctuated with angelic washes of synth and a female chorus adding notes of emphatic nonsense, reached number 11 on the German charts and was featured on an episode of long-running German detective series Tatort, Peggy Hat Angst. The song came with its own official video, an appealingly utilitarian orgy of dry ice, green lighting, and sketchy chroma key.
“Why Can the Bodies Fly” is followed by “Magic Castle,” the record’s most metallic song, a crunching plod interspersed with screams and sloppy synthetic drips, the jolly and schlager-ish middle eight making ironic contrast with the surrounding doom. The duo take a more experimental turn on “Out of Tune,” where the sound of a concert-hall crowd is gradually drowned out by the tuning up of a synthetic orchestra. Though the songs do emit whiffs of puckish, Goblin-like prog, particularly on tracks like “Darkness” and “In Crowd,” there is something wholly unique about the chugging, almost motorik-esque cocktail of metal plod, glam stomp, and interstellar sound effects: galvanized by the friction between its carnival-mask exterior and undertone of genuine menace, it stands up to repeated listening.
On 1983’s Electric Eyes, Vanguard and Yonder evolve into more ambiguous characters, sounding less like avatars of wickedness and more like the weary footmen of cosmic forces. Their sound has changed too, the muted riffing of their debut replaced with throbbing electronics and drum machine rhythms. The airbrushed cover art of Electric Eyes—by “Roland”—shifts the setting to outer space, and the kosmische motif makes its appearance in the first track, “White Camels.” After a prelude of martial rhythms overlaid with odd two-note sequences, the song’s lyrics tell of “camels of ice in the desert” and “kingfishers dressed in gold,” a vision of interplanetary war as a delirious, impressionistic zoo, while the wonderful “Soldier of the Light” paints a melancholy, down-tempo picture of the thankless, lonely task of fighting for an unspecified form of illumination.
The video for the single “Journey to the Other Side,” the last song on side one of Electric Eyes, is another smoke machine masterclass in absurd, surrealist terror, and it gives us the opportunity to see the band in “concert,” complete with bizarre alien keytar and vastly oversized microphone. “Dark Crystal” is a creepy duet between a Deutschen moppet and Ed Vanguard over something that sounds like part Big Black and part Romeo Void—as charming as it is absurd and unnerving. The temptation to find overt or subconscious references to World War II in any artifact emerging from post-war Germany—particularly something which, through helmet and rasp, flirts third-hand with the echo of the stormtrooper—is hard to avoid, but those phased echoes on “They Are On Their Way Again” do sound like marching boots, and sirens activate as Schlepper groans about “Bad vibrations in the air/The fear is everywhere.” Is it possible that Warning did have some kind of agenda, and that perhaps their music is an actual warning against what the Cold War-driven future might hold?
One (possibly apocryphal) story about how Warning came to be relates that Schlepper—who in this version owned a music shop—started the band after a night spent experimenting on his new synthesizer with the help of friend Müller, who worked for a record company. Given the guitar-heavy, industrial sound of the first LP, the story seems somewhat fanciful. The characteristic Vanguard growl is an enigma too. Was it simply a low-rent way of creating Sith-like disquiet? Was he simply exaggerating the distinctive and goth-formative baritones of vocalists like Dave Vanian, Nick Cave, and Peter Murphy? Or did the inspiration, perhaps, go all the way back to Who bassist John Entwistle’s unearthly gurgle on 1966’s “Boris the Spider”? Information on the band is scarce enough, however, and as both members are now dead (Müller passed in 2004 and Schlepper in 2015), it seems unlikely that more will be forthcoming unless via paranormal channels.
It’s impossible to say whether Warning were, as some have claimed, an influence on Slovenia’s wonderful Laibach, and thus an ancestor to generations of metal and industrial bands. We will also never know whether the band’s distinctive brand of sci-fi goth was devised sincerely or simply the unwitting kismet of talented hams. Whatever the truth of the band’s reach and origins, their creativity and the cohesive and compelling world they created in the span of two records make them deserving of more respect. That the songs are repetitive, that the performers are dressed up in cheap costume, that the lyrics are for the most part incomprehensible nonsense—none of this is disputed. But nor should we deny that, in their all-too-brief moment, Warning created music that remains uniquely inventive, exciting, and immensely entertaining.
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being one day rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.