The early 80s was prime time for scary music. Blame it on Reagan and his itchy nuclear trigger finger, but in its darkest corners, rock n’ roll devolved from the freeballing hedonism of disco and the happy computer blips of new wave into the gnashing teeth and ripping claws of hardcore punk, industrial, death-rock and extreme metal. Bands like Black Flag, Hellhammer, Christian Death, Venom and Whitehouse were making records so aggressive, unhinged, or suicidally depressed that they sounded like the work of actual lunatics. But, you know, rock n’ roll is supposed to be edgy. Dance music, well, you’re just supposed to dance. But in 1982, a year that birthed Negasonic teenage warheads like Venom’s Black Metal, Walk Among Us by The Misfits, and the Birthday Party’s Junkyard, it was a mysterious synth-pop band from Germany who released perhaps the most unsettling album of the year.
It was right there in the title of the band, really: Warning. That basically says it all. The cover of their self-titled debut album is both campy and terrifying. Two black-caped, space-helmeted figures—half Black Sabbath’s Never Say Die pilot, half Darth Vader—descend an escalator, presumably to kill you when they reach the lower level. Amazingly, the music contained within is just as unnerving. A sort of unholy g(h)oulash of horror-prog, clanging disco-metal and woozy electro-pop, Warning is dance music made by people who have never danced in their entire lives. Forget new wave or even cold-wave, this was harrowing doom-wave, anchored by the alternately hilarious and soul-piercing croaks of frontfiend Ed Vanguard.
Except that there was no “Ed Vanguard”...
It was actually the work of the positively jovial Edgar Schlepper, a turtleneck-wearing producer/songwriter known mostly for writing minor hits for minor pop singers and for “solo” records like 20 Disco Hits in Super Sound. Schlepper made happy, boring music for elevators and mall food courts, but along with his pal Hans Muller (AKA “Mike Yonder”) he created an inexplicable alter-ego so dark and disturbing that it hardly seems possible that this goofy asshole in the beige slacks could be responsible for it. Only Germans could come up with shit this wack. Warning’s crazed opener “Why Can the Bodies Fly” surged up the German pop charts, peaking at #11, despite the fact that it’s seven minutes long, has no hook, and is totally fucking crazy. It was like Daft Punk after a weeklong bath salts binge watching only Teutonic skat videos. It was also their only hit, but since when did Darth Vader care about the pop charts anyway?
A year later, Warning returned with Electric Eyes, a (very) slightly more accessible album, but it still sounded like two fleshy robots short-circuiting during the climax of Saturday Night Fever.
And that was it. They vanished without a trace by 1984. There are a few glimpses of recognition here and there: In 1993, Austrian death metal band Pungent Stench covered “Why Can the Bodies Fly,” and it’s entirely possible that Slovenian industrial weirdos Laibach lifted their heartless croak straight from Mr. Schlepper.
But otherwise, they remain a cult-ready band without a cult, one of the most genuinely haunting musical experiences of the 80s, the greatest death disco band no one (outside of the Fatherland) ever heard. Both Schlepper and Muller are dead now (2015 and 2004, respectively), so there will be no resurgence, no Coachella reunion, and no explanation. What were they warning us about? We may never know, but I will tell you this much, once you hear Warning, you will never forget them. Even if you really want to…
“Keytars? We got ‘em!”