Archive

Archive for the ‘German stuff’ Category

Curious Germany

July 14th, 2009 6 comments

A reader of this blog has asked me to post some interesting German-language songs, recalling a German version of Abba’s Ring Ring I put up a while back. His request coincided with a phase in which I have been rummaging through my German music in preparation for a new series. So here is the first of two posts of random German pop curiosities.

* * *

ABBA – Waterloo (German version) (1974).mp3
waterloo_deutschWaterloo was ABBA’s breakthrough hit after they won the Eurovision Song Contest with it on 6 April 1974. At the time, contestants at the contest had to perform their song in their native language, so Waterloo was initially presented in Swedish. Swedes had no history of achieving success in the English-speaking market, so ABBA’s determination to break that famine was quite audacious. For Swedish musicians hankering after international success, the market of aspiration was Germany, whose record buyers loved nothing more than foreigners molesting their language in heavy accents. ABBA had released records in German before Waterloo, so when the song won the Eurovision Song Contest, it was natural that a German version would be released. In fact, word is that the German version had already been recorded before the song contest.

.

ABBA – Wer im Wartesaal der Liebe steht (1973).mp3
abba_germanOne of Abba’s pre-Waterloo singles released in German was Ring Ring (as Bjorn Benny Anna Frida…BBAF?), which would become a big hit when it was re-released. ABBA certainly had some designs on the lucrative German market. Before joining the group, Agnetha had even tried, and failed, to become a Schlager star. And the Schlager — the German brand of pop marked by banal and/or sentimental music and lyrics — was a significant influence on ABBA, one which would manifest itself even in later years. In the beginning, the Schlager influence was particularly striking. Songs like Hasta Manana or I Do I Do I Do I Do were in essence Schlager songs. Both were bigger hits in Germany than they were in Britain (where the former wasn’t even released as a single).

Wer im Wartesaal der Liebe steht (He who stands in the waiting room of love) emphaticallyis a Schlager number. The b-side of the 1973 German version of Ring Ring, it is quite awful. Björn takes over lead vocals, proving why that was never a good idea, to spout forth hackneyed lyrics to a track that suggests nothing of the pop genius the group would exhibit just a year later. A pop curiosity rather than a manifestation of early genius.

.

Max Schmeling – Das Herz eines Boxers (1936).mp3
schmelingSchmeling was a German heavyweight world champion who, after controversially losing that crown, proceeded to sensationally knocked out the great Joe Louis in 1936, before receiving a thrashing in the return bout two years later. His sporting exploits, as well as his gregarious and philanthropic character, secured him life-long German celebrity status until his death at 99 in 2005. His victory over the Black Bomber confirmed to the Nazis the supposed superiority of the Aryan race, and Schmeling — not an enthusiastic Nazi himself and not a party member, but also not immune from enjoying the benefits of hobnobbing with them — was celebrated accordingly. When he lost the return fight, the Nazis quickly dropped him. They might have done so even more forcefully had they known that Schmeling was involved in smuggling two Jewish children to safety in 1938.

After winning his 1936 bout, Schmeling did what many celebs have done since: make a record, in this case a belated inclusion in the apparently woeful film Liebe im Ring (in which Schmeling appeared nude in a shower scene and prepared to fight a black boxer named…Ali!). The trouble was, Schmeling had no singing or even musical ability whatsoever. So he spoke his part of the song, with co-stars Hugo Fischer-Köppe and Kurt Gerron doing singing duties. So Das Herz eines Boxers (The heart of a boxer) may be the first rap song.

As for Joe Louis, the two fighters remained life-long friends. While Schmeling became a very wealthy man post- war after taking over the German Coca-Cola franchise, Louis fell on hard times. Schmeling supported Louis financially, and was a pallbearer at his funeral.

.

Fehlfarben – (Ein Jahr) Es geht voran (1980).mp3
fehlfarbenQuite suddenly in 1980, a new genre revolutionised German music. The Schlager, so dominant in the 1970s, had become a tired form enlivened only by an onslaught of regrettable novelty songs (none more so than a comedy remake of You’re The One That I Want). Now it became supplanted by post-punk artists with attitude singing about burning schools, social alienation, prostitution, not paying one’s busfare and so on, set to synth-pop and punk rock. Among the first acts to hit were Hagen’s Extrabreit (friends of the red balloon allegorising Nena), Berlin’s Ideal, Cologne’s Zeltinger Band, and Düsseldorf’s D.A.F. and Fehlfarben. Many of the acts of what was dubbed Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave) were one-hit wonders. So it was with Fehlfarben, who didn’t even like their only hit. It’s difficult to see what’s not to like: it’s a rousing, chantable chorus backed by some serious funk grooves that cut into the New Wave sensibility.

I’m no expert on hip hop, but the bassline of the Fehlfarben song reminds me a lot of that in Grandmaster Flash’s White Lines, released in 1983. Flash’s bassline is credited to Liquid Liquid’s song Cavern, which was also released in 1983. I’d love to claim that a Neue Deutsche Welle song invented a fantastic bassline picked up by a rap legend for a true hip hop classic. But I won’t — I suspect Fehlfarben borrowed it themselves. But from where?

.

Peter Schilling – Major Tom (1983).mp3
major_tomOne of this blog’s Facebook friends recently posted the video of the English version of Peter Schilling’s international 1984 hit. Here is the German original, a big hit there in 1983. As the title suggests, the song provides an alternative narrative to David Bowie’s two songs about the ill-fated astronaut, Space Oddity and Ashes To Ashes. The latter outed Major Tom as a junkie. Schilling’s lyrics can be read (and probably are intended) as a junkie parable. After his hit, Schilling stuck around for a few years, unable to follow up his international success (#1 in Canada!). In 1990 he suffered what is described as burn-out. In 1995, he formed an outfit called Space Pilots (you can spot a pattern here) which recorded one record, Trip To Orion, which became a big hit in the only market where obscurities can become hits and yet remain resolutely obscure: Japan.

.

Die Toten Hosen – Bayern (2000).mp3
bayernThere is a need to adapt this song into English, retitled Real. The Bayern of the title refer to Germany’s most successful football club, FC Bayern München, whom non-fans regard, with no exaggeration, as a cancer in the body of German football. So the alternative rock band Die Toten Hosen (The Dead Trousers) composed a very catchy number explaining how, if they were “super-talented” footballers, they would never sign a contract with that club because such an act would be thoroughly corrupting. At one point the singer demands to know: “What kind of parents must one have to be so stupid as to sign for that shit club?”

In the current climate, football fans might need to have such sentiments expressed in popular music in relation to the poisonous Spanish giants Real Madrid, who have spent crazy money in a bid to built the sport’s equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters. Those who have played football manager games will have been tempted to build their own team, by means of employing cheating strategies, of the world’s (or game’s) most highly rated players. That is what Real Madrid are doing, building up unbelievable debt which they know Spanish banks will not call in, thereby giving themselves a massive advantage even over other clubs that operate under heavy debt. The sooner the football bubble bursts, the better (but only after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, please). And if that puts my favourite team against the wall, then that would not be a bad thing either.

.

Peter Gabriel – Spiel ohne Grenzen (1980).mp3
spiel_ohne_grenzenSpiele ohne Grenzen was a Europe-wide TV show, known in Britain as It’s A Knock-Out and in French as Jeux sans Frontiers, in which residents of small towns would engage in silly competitive games involving teamwork, such as carrying on stilts logs of wood over a gelatine net above a melted-marshmallow moat while their opponents try to knock them off with flares in the shape of rubber ducks. The winners of these inane games would then qualify to pit themselves against their counterparts from other countries. It’s fair to say that Peter Gabriel was not a fan; in his hit song Games Without Frontiers he compared the whole thing to warfare. Oh, but if only international disputes could be settled by childish games played by rubber duck wielding soldiers dressed like the Vatican’s Swiss Guards.

Gabriel re-recorded his self-titled 1980 album (they all were, this one was nicknamed Melt) that featured Games Without Frontiers and Biko in German, titled A German Album. Spiel ohne Grenzen, the German version of the former track was even released as a single, using an alternative mix It was the English version that was the hit in Germany — and my 100th single (excluding all the Schlager stuff of which I had long divested myself). It didn’t help that Gabriel obviously wasn’t at all fluent in German: his delivery sounds as if he is trying, not very hard, to sing the lyrics off phonetic cue cards, degenerating into moments of apparent gibberish.

.

Zeltinger Band – Müngersdorfer Stadion (1979).mp3
Bläck Föös – Drink doch eine met (1973).mp3
BAP – Kristallnacht (1982).mp3

Every region in Germany has its own dialect, often incomprehensible even to other Germans. A handful of these dialects are unique to cities. Kölsch, the dialect of Cologne, is one of these. Strangely, it was that dialect more than any other which provided the language for many hit records in the 1970s and ’80s. It started in the mid-’70s with the folk trio Bläck Föös (which means “bare feet”), which sang only in Kölsch, though they did take care to be understood by anyone living outside Cologne. Then there was the carnival act Die Höhner, who are best left ignored.

zeltingerIn their wake came two rock bands: the Zeltinger Band, a punk outfit fronted by what may be Germany’s first openly gay singer (and one who, by his bruising appearance, challenged the stereotype of common imagination — see this video), and BAP, Germany’s answer to Bruce Springsteen. Neither cared whether they could be understood: learn Kölsch or fuck off, their message seemed to be. BAP became Germany’s biggest band for a while, based in no small part on their electrifying concerts. Zeltinger were of a punk mindset; Müngersdorfer Stadion (the swimming baths in Cologne, not the football stadium) is a cover of the Ramones’ Rockaway Beach, advising that fares on public transport are dodgable.

blackfoosThe Bläck Föös song (roughly translated as “Have a drink with us”) in the group’s folksy manner, tells the story of an indigent old man standing at the door to a local bar, lacking the funds to have a drink. In the Bläck Föös’ notion of their hometown, no Kölner would tolerate such a sad situation, and inevitably he is invited to join a group of drinkers, on their tab, with the admonition to drop his bashfulness about drinking off other people. A great social attribute of the city’s people, you will agree. Well, I’ve lived in Cologne (briefly) and tested the theory. Fuck all social interaction, never mind fee beer.

bapBAP’s song shows the group at its worthiest. Never shy to make a social point, the sing title is self-explanatory. Musically it is pretty good, building up slowly before it explodes in righteous anger. Frontman Wolfgang Niedecken, who wrote the song, has explained that it does not address only Germany’s terrible history, but the ever-present danger of “petite bourgeois fascism” — what he means is ideology underpinned by bigotry — which he says can erupt suddenly at any given time in the face of public indifference. It features a bizarre line about Zorro not coming to the rescue, but shrugging his shoulder, saying “so what” and at best pissing a Z into the snow.