In 1979 Die Fehlfarben were formed in Düsseldorf from the ashes of Mittagspause, an influential punk band comprised of Peter Hein (vocals), Franz Bielmeier (guitar), and Markus Oehlen (drums). The trio had previously established themselves in 1977 as Germany's first punk band, Charley's Girls, as documented in the 22-minute documentary film Charley's Girls (2005), which chronicles the burgeoning Düsseldorf punk scene surrounding the club Ratinger Hof circa 1977-1979. When Mittagspause split in 1979, Bielmeier -- already a central figure in the Düsseldorf punk scene, with the first German punk fanzine to his credit, The Ostrich -- went on to form an independent record label, Rondo-Label, which he maintained until 1981. Hein and Oehlen, on the other hand, went on to form Die Fehlfarben, a post-punk band, with some fellow musicians from the Düsseldorf punk scene: Thomas Schwebel (guitar), who had played with Mittagspause for a while, as well as the band S.Y.P.H.; Michael Kemner (bass), formerly of the D.A.F. collective; Frank Fenstermacher (saxophone); and Uwe Bauer (drums), who like Schwebel had also played with Mittagspause for a while.
The idea for the band arose during a November 1979 trip to England, where Hein, Schwebel, Bauer, and Oehlen were greatly inspired by the 2 Tone style of ska-punk that was then taking London by storm. They decided to bring this style of music back with them to Germany. So they formed Die Fehlfarben upon their return and cut a double-sided 7" ska-punk single, Abenteuer und Freiheit ("Abenteuer und Freiheit" b/w "Große Liebe"), releasing it in December on their own independent label, Welt-Rekord-Label. The band name ("Fehlfarben" roughly translates to "wrong colors" or, more accurately, "erroneous colors" in English) was informed as much by the 2 Tone graphic style (for instance, the cover art of Abenteuer und Freiheit was an homage to the black-and-white checkers of 2 Tone) as it was by the trade of Hein, who worked for Xerox. In January 1980, after a few weeks of rehearsal, the band made its live debut in Mannheim, even going so far as dressing in authentic ska-punk fashion, that is, in suits. Further shows followed that spring, and new songs were written and performed along the way, with the band quickly broadening its style and moving away from the ska motifs. In July Die Fehlfarben were approached by EMI, which wanted to buy the rights to Welt-Rekord-Label and sign the band to a recording contract. While this was clearly verboten for a punk band -- for EMI was one of the major labels, against which punk was rebelling, in theory at least -- the guys went ahead with the deal anyhow and in turn were treated to a first-class recording studio.
The result of these late-summer recording sessions at the EMI studios was Monarchie und Alltag (1980), the band's full-length debut, released in October. (The Fehlfarben lineup had been shuffled a little by this point, with Bauer remaining as the sole drummer and George Nicolaidis and Kurt Dahlke, the latter also known as Der Pyrolator, credited for synthesizers.) Critical opinion of the album was almost universally negative upon its release, and the punk establishment remained sour about the EMI deal. Too, the album sold poorly, despite the major-label support. At this point, with a long tour booked to commence in early 1981, lead singer Peter Hein faced a difficult choice: stick with either his career at Xerox or the prospects of a seemingly unpromising band, for he couldn't tour for weeks on end yet still retain a job as professional as his. He chose to leave the band, and even more problematically, he did so just before the tour began. Dates had to be canceled. Saxophonist Frank Fenstermacher also left at this point. In the end, after some soul-searching and many unsatisfactory singer tryouts, guitarist Thomas Schwebel assumed the vocal duties and took charge of the band. He was able to do so in part thanks to the addition of guitarist Uwe Jahnke, formerly of S.Y.P.H., Schwebel's previous band. This new Fehlfarben lineup was securely in place by spring, at which time the band cut a new single to announce their return ("Das Wort Ist Draußen" b/w "Wie Bitte Was?!") and hit the road, arousing interest along the way. In May Monarchie und Alltag entered the German album chart, buoyed by the rising interest in Die Fehlfarben. Then that summer Die Fehlfarben recorded a new album for release, 33 Tage in Ketten (1981), and saw it enter the album chart as well. By the end of the year, both Monarchie und Alltag and 33 Tage in Ketten had broken into the Top 40, though bassist Michael Kemner had been the next bandmember to depart, leaving after the album recording sessions. Hans Maahn filled in his slot, and as before, this new lineup cut a one-off single ("14 Tage" b/w "Feuer an Bord") to announce the return of the band in early 1982. NME (i.e., New Music Express) chose "14 Tage" for its coveted Single of the Week award; the British publication was a key supporter of the band, particularly championing Monarchie und Alltag as a masterwork. Keenly aware of the influence wielded by NME, EMI reissued "Ein Jahr (Es Geht Voran)" as a single. The song, originally released in 1980 on Monarchie und Alltag, became a surprise Top 20 hit single in 1982. "Ein Jahr (Es Geht Voran)" is in fact an atypical Fehlfarben song, driven by a disco-funk riff reminiscent of Chic; in a way, the song was to Die Fehlfarben what "I Love a Man in Uniform" was to Gang of Four. The belated popularity of "Ein Jahr (Es Geht Voran)" was partly on account of the Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW), which was in style at the time. Die Fehlfarben toured throughout Central Europe in spring/summer 1982 in the wake of "Ein Jahr (Es Geht Voran)" and entered the studio that September to begin recording Glut und Asche (1983), the band's third album.
The recording sessions for Glut und Asche carried on until December 1982. It was a bigger production than past efforts, for the diminished core lineup of Schwebel, Jahnke, and Bauer was augmented by a cast of studio musicians. Released in March 1983, Glut und Asche was another hit for the band, charting at number 42 -- not up to par with previous releases, but good nonetheless -- and critics were pleased, with Musikexpress, an influential German publication, awarding it the honor of Platte des Monats (i.e., Album of the Month). There was no tour this go-round, however, perhaps giving to the studio-crafted nature of the album, and the band proceeded to build its own studio in Wuppertal that summer instead. Fits of touring did commence then and again throughout 1984 with a couple new bandmembers in place: bassist Hellmuth Hattler and drummer Martin Schwebel. Over time the relationship between Die Fehlfarben and EMI had grown unresolvably strained, and consequently the songs recorded by the band at its home studio over the course of 1984 went unreleased (for a decade, that is -- an album comprised of those sessions, co-billed to "Thomas Schwebel & Fehlfarben," was eventually released in 1995 as Popmusik & Hundezucht). A final 12" single, "Keine Ruhige Minute" b/w "Der Himmel Weint," was the last Fehlfarben output to see the light of day for five years.
The original Fehlfarben lineup (Hein, Schwebel, Kemner, Bauer, Fenstermacher) reunited to record Die Platte des Himmlischen Frieden (1991), released by WEA. The album itself met mixed reviews, but there was interest in the reconstituted original lineup nonetheless, especially among old fans. A couple years later came a concert showcase, Live (1993), sans Fenstermacher (and with the addition of Rolf Kirschbaum and Andreas Proff on guitar and saxophone/keyboards, respectively), and then the aforementioned collection of unreleased 1984 material, Popmusik & Hundezucht (1995). Next came Es Geht Voran (1998), a 17-track collection of highlights from the band's Welt-Rekord-Label catalog (i.e., 1980-1985).
Around the turn of the century there was a revived interest in Germany (as elsewhere) in post-punk and new wave. Though coincidental, it was only fitting that Monarchie und Alltag finally reached gold status in 2000, just as the album was being re-evaluated as a cornerstone of modern German rock. Indeed, to again draw a comparison between Die Fehlfarben and Gang of Four, Monarchie und Alltag is the band's Entertainment! (1979) -- a full-length debut touchstone that saw its stock rise significantly during the post-punk revival of the early 2000s, when it was rightly deemed a long-underappreciated classic. EMI keenly came to this realization and reissued the album in October 2000; this new edition boasted remastered sound quality and a handful of bonus tracks, including the Abenteuer und Freiheit (1979) ska 7" single. EMI followed with remastered editions of 33 Tage in Ketten and Glut und Asche in 2003, each appending relevant non-album material as bonus tracks. The bandmembers were well aware of the sudden resurgence in the popularity of Die Fehlfarben, and they capitalized on the moment by reuniting once again, this time for Knietief im Dispo (2002), released by !K7, a French label associated with dance music. Most of the original members were in place for this album (Hein, Schwebel, Kemner, Fenstermacher), along with occasional members (Jahnke, Pyrolator) and a new drummer (Saskia von Klitzing). A measured success, Knietief im Dispo was the first Fehlfarben album to chart since 1983, and though not everyone was crazy about the album -- despite the similar membership, this understandably was a much different band than the Fehlfarben of Monarchie und Alltag, which in the opinion of some deserved to rest in peace as a classic -- it was well received overall. In the wake of their comeback, Die Fehlfarben signed a major-label contract with V2 Records, debuting on the label with 26 1/2 (2006), a guest-laden album featuring collaborations with a long list of noteworthy German rockers. A standard album followed a year later, Handbuch für die Welt (2007), along with a 19-date tour of Germany. ~ Jason Birchmeier, Rovi