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Step back to 1976 – Part 2

March 16th, 2010 11 comments

The long, hot summer of 1976 brought changes in my life. I had graduated from primary school, and at the age of ten would attend a high school which included in its student population bearded old hippies, some of them as old as 18. And in the summer we were packed off to a church camp while my parents went on holiday in France, the first time we didn’t all go on holiday together.

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Bellamy Brothers – Let Your Love Flow.mp3
The big summer hit of 1976, in its original form by the country music siblings and in its German version, titled Ein Bett im Kornfeld, by Jürgen Drews (like Boney M’s Liz Mitchell an alumnus of the Les Humphries Singers). I certainly wouldn’t have recorded this on my cassette recorder. In fact, it still reminds me of my miserable time on church camp, at which my older brother was a youth leader. For reasons probably related to his being a 16-year-old teenager on a power-trip, he asserted his fascist ascendancy through the brutal persecution of yours truly (my little brother, blond and the youngest in the group, enjoyed the protection of all the girls whom older brother fancied). Sturmtruppenoberführer Big Brother did get his just desserts towards the end of the camp when an insect bite gave him mild blood poisoning. He would be a youth leader again the following year, but that camp turned out to be one of the best fortnights in my life.

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Boney M – Daddy Cool.mp3
Much as I hate to admit it, this is a pretty good song. Indeed, if Boney M hadn’t jumped the Zugspitze after 1977 with shocking songs like Rivers Of Babylon, Hooray Hooray It’s A Holi-Holiday and the hilariously bad “We Kill The World”, they (or Frank Farian, whom we met in part 1 of 1976) might be remembered with greater respect. Daddy Cool, Ma Baker, Belfast and their cover of Sunny are fine disco-pop songs, even if the lyrics were exceptionally bad, especially those of Belfast. And to a boy about to enter puberty, the covers of the first two LPs, featuring the three exotic ladies in various states of undress, were rather appealing. Though I did hope that as a grown up there would be no circumstances that would compel me, by dint of being an adult, to wear anything as absurd as Bobby Farrell’s gold underpants.

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Johnny Wakelin – In Zaire.mp3
Mohammad Ali vs George Foreman. The Rumble in the Jungle. Back in the day, I was actually a Joe Frazier fan, and was delighted to find among my late father’s possessions an autograph by the great man (since faded, alas). He also had an autographed picture of the erstwhile Cassius Clay, obtained when he interviewed The Greatest in 1966 in London while covering the football World Cup there. Sadly, that autograph has gone missing. In Zaire is a novelty number, obviously (Wakelin made a career of novelty songs). And yet, the African percussive beat, though entirely hackneyed, were an innovation in the upper reaches of the pop charts of the day. Wakelin was something of a Muhammad Ali cheerleader: a year before In Zaire, he had a UK hit with Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)..

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David Dundas – Jeans On.mp3
As I mentioned in the introduction, after finishing Grade 4 I departed the safe cocoon that was primary school for the local gymnasium (the highest of Germany’s three tiered school system). My father had gone to the same school, and my elder brother was a student at the converted medieval monastery. My father, whose politics were centre-left, knew that the school’s teaching body comprised many old Nazis, people whom he knew back in the bad old days. Still, he sent me to that hell hole. The teachers were gruseome. The severe German teacher, who’d enter the classroom with big strides and purposefully bang his bag on the table by way of intimidation; the unpleasant religion teacher (doubtless one of the old Nazis) whose forbidding theology I could not follow because I was hypnotised by the strand of white slime that invariably moved between his lips; the geography teacher (definitely a Nazi) who had us standing to attention when he entered the classroom, stopping short from having us salute him with a raised arm; and the biggest bastard of them all: the coach, who systematically robbed me of all my self-confidence because I was not quite the legendary sportsman whom he believed my father to be. And David Dundas’ Jeans On provided the soundtrack to my miserable time there.

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Sherbet – Howzat.mp3
I am certain that if cricket had caught on in Germany in good time, the country would have become quite excellent at it. Look at the German national football teams who have a way of hitting form at just the right time. That’s the secret to test cricket: winning the decisive sessions, coming back from setbacks, maintaining pressure on equally or more talented opposition. Basically the attributes that made Australia so domineering a side for a decade until a couple of years ago. Cricket fans will know why I’m yabbering on about what really is a minority sport (but huge in India, so in terms of numbers, it’s a significant discipline). The word “Howzat” is typically shouted by bowlers (they are like the pitcher in baseball) when the ball hits the batsman (that’s the guy with the bat) on the leg in a certain position, which the umpire may declare illegal and give the batsman out. Sherbet, being Australian, employed that cricketing term to give a cheating girlfriend “out” (they use another cricket term when they inform the girl: “I caught you out”). None of that made sense to me at the time, of course, even had I known about cricket. After all, I had started learning English only a couple of months before this became a minor hit in West-Germany.

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Tina Rainford – Silver Bird.mp3
If one wanted to locate a song with English lyrics as a good example of what a German Schlager sounds like, Silver Bird would be a most astute choice. Indeed, it was written by a Schlager producer, Drafi Deutscher (an old friend of Rainford’s whose ’60s hit Marmor, Stein und Eisen is one of the few truly great Schlager), under the pseudonym Renate Vaplus. It is a song of its time, recalling the likes of Pussycat and the George Baker Selection — and, indeed, ABBA in their Schlager phase. It was a massive hit. Quite bizarrely, Silver Bird also reached the top 20 of the US country charts. I had long forgotten about this song, so when I heard it again, it proved the powerful impact of music on the long-term memory as all kinds of feelings came rushing back, beaming me back to our living room.

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Ricky King – Le rêve.mp3
German-speakers of my generation who may be reading this will not thank me for posting his. Ricky King was a German guitar virtuoso located firmly in the muzak genre. The Fender Statocaster wielding King, known to his granny as Hans Lingenfelder, had been a session man for assorted Schlager types when he released Verde (an instrumental adaptation of a song by the improbably named Italian duo Oliver Onions) and this song, Le rêve. I suspect the only readers who will be interested in this are fellow nostalgist on a quest to recapture the feeling of the autumn of 1976. For everybody else, Ricky King is to Jimi Hendrix as Richard Clayderman is to Al Kooper. Bernhard Brink, who sported a blond afro, recorded a quite horrible vocal version of Le rêve.

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Marianne Rosenberg – Marleen.mp3
As mentioned in Curious Germany Vol. 2, Marianne Rosenberg began her career as a maidenly teenage singer, trilling songs about Mr Paul McCartney. After doing the standard Schlager thing, Rosenberg turned to disco in 1975 with the marvellous Ich bin wie Du (also in Curious Germany Vol. 2), all the time maintaining her secretary-next-door look. Today she is a cult legend in Germany’s gay scene, a status she seems to embrace. Marleen follows the same story line as Dolly Parton’s 1974 hit Jolene (note how Marleen more or less rhymes with Jolene). Marleen is in love with Marianne’s man, and the latter begs the more beautiful (less housewifey?) Marleen to abandon her romantic designs on Marianne’s man. Just hear Rosenberg’s tortured, drawn-out cry of Marleen. And all that is set to a gentle disco beat, so that we may dance and weep at the same time. The song, like many in the Rosenberg catalogue, was co-written by Joachim Heider, whom we met previously as a member of Krautrock band Glory Be in Curious Germany Vol. 3.

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More Stepping Back

Curious Germany vol. 2

September 22nd, 2009 5 comments

The first instalment of German music and novelties was rather popular. So here’s another one, with a third instalment waiting.

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Marianne Rosenberg – Ich bin wie Du (1975).mp3
Rosenberg - Ich bin wie DuMuch of Eurodisco was made in West Germany, with Giorgio Moroder producing Donna Summer in Munich, and acts like the Silver Convention strutting their shiny trousers there, too. It is fair to say, however, that the German Schlager scene was not a hotbed of disco (or, indeed, anything else but banality). The exception was Marianne Rosenberg, whose sensible secretary’s hairstyle complemented her girl-next-door image. She retained the coiffure and high collar dress during her foray into disco in 1975, the splendid Ich bin wie Du (“I am like you”). The fusion of straight-lacedness and disco queenhood established Marianne as an icon in Germany’s gay scene, a position she continues to occupy today.

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Marianne Rosenberg – Mr Paul McCartney (1970).mp3
Die Beat Oma – Ich Bin die Beat Oma (1965).mp3

Rosenberg - Mr Paul McCartneyBefore she became a gay icon, a gawkier teenage Marianne Rosenberg appealed to Paul McCartney to reply to her fan letter, because no other girl likes him as much as she does. She resorts to emotional blackmail: John and Ringo and even the odd Rolling Stone would have sent her an autograph by now. But not Paul, oh no. So she has to resort to singing this song to attract his attention. There are, of course, other ways to get Paul’s attention (if not a thumbs up sign). Seven years later, in 1977, German newspapers were agog with the claims of a teenager that Mr Paul McCartney had fathered her during one of the Beatles’ stints in Hamburg. To the shock of nobody, the claims were found to be — gasp — untrue.

Five years before Marianne’s plea to Macca, there was Germany’s insane answer to the wonderful Mrs Miller. Beat Oma (The Beat Granny) based her autobiographical anthem on A Hard Day’s Night, very loosely so, intoning her credentials while aggressively hurtling across vocal keys, hitting none in the process. When she claims that she sings “everybody else against the wall”, the listener virtually feels blindfolded and condemned, hoping only that his superannuated executioner will experience a mishap of the kind depicted in Don Martin’s cartoons in Mad magazine. As the song closes, the drummer puts an end to Beat Oma’s atonal wailings with an assault on the drum kit, perhaps metaphorically beating some sense into the thoroughly charmless Oma (of course, Any Major Dude With Half A Heart disapproves of actual violence against grannies).

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Agnetha – Geh’ mit Gott (1972).mp3
Agnetha – Señor Gonzales (1968).mp3
Agnetha – Mein schönster Tag (1968)

Agnetha - Geh mit GottLast time we encountered ABBA recording in German. Before she became one of the As in the groups’ acronymised name, Agnetha Fältskog tried to realise the ambition of many Scandinavian singers of the day with a dream of musical success: breaking into the German Schlager scene. Agnetha released a batch of German singles between 1968 and 1972, most of them quite awful even by the low standards of the genre, though a couple were actually quite good. In her endeavours, Agnetha — who already had a career in Sweden but put it on hold while going for stardom in West Germany — was produced by her boyfriend, Dieter Zimmermann. Once Dieter was history, her next boyfriend, Björn, worked out better on the way to stardom.

Geh’ mit Gott was released towards the end of her futile bid at Schlager stardom. It was the German version of Ennio Morricone’s song Here’s To You (sung by Joan Baez) for the 1971 film Sacco e Vanzetti (about two Italian immigrants executed in the US for a crime they possibly didn’t commit).

Agnetha - Senor GonzalesFour years earlier, Señor Gonzales was Agnetha’s second German single. I see no reason why it shouldn’t have been a Schlager hit. It has the necessary clichéd lyrics and banal melody; it even has the faux-Mexican sound the Schlager-buying public was so fond of (though here Agnetha might have been ahead of her time; the Mexican Schlager wave peaked in 1972 with Rex Gildo’s superb Fiesta Mexicana, which I shall feature soon). The b-side to Señor Gonzales is a rather better affair. Mein schönster Tag is a country ballad which our girl sings rather well; it is a cover version of a country song, but I can’t work out what the original is. Somebody will surely tell me.

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Johnny Cash – Wer Kennt den Weg (1966).mp3
cashIn the 1960s it became common for English-speaking artists to make foreign-language recordings of their hit songs. Foremost among the European countries to offer a market for such things was West Germany. In 1966, Johnny Cash recorded I Walk The Line as Wer Kennt den Weg (alas not as Johannes Bargeld). In the early 1950s, Cash had been based as an US soldier in southern Germany. Clearly he did little in that time to benefit from the opportunity to learn German; his accent is quite appalling.

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Sandie Shaw – Einmal glücklich sein wie die Andern (1965).mp3
sandie_shawLike her compatriots Petula Clark and, to a lesser extent, Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw recorded a lot of her repertoire in German (and in French), including her epic version of Bacharach/David’s Always Something There To Remind Me. Here the title translates as “Just once to be happy like the others”. Recorded in 1965, Sandie sounds like she actually knows what she is singing. She clearly makes an effort (though towards the end the effort apparently becomes a bit too much for her), and her diction is charmingly foreign. That’s all the German public ever asked for; as noted previously, nothing could win the hearts of Germans as much as somebody butchering their languages gently.

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The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go (German version) (1964).mp3
The Temptations – Mein Girl (1964).mp3

supremesBerry Gordy could spot a marketing opportunity, and so he had the stars of his Motown roster record their big hits in various European languages, apparently singing from phonetic lyric sheets. Diana Ross makes a game attempt at it; one can understand her implorations not to be left by the addressee of the song. The Temptations take rather more relaxed view of linguistic doctrines, anticipating the German tendency to include English words as part of the conversational language. Germans are quite happy to use the word “girl” instead of Mädchen, or indeed “happy” instead of glücklich, as the Temptations do here (dear Diana is more purist about this: she actually uses the word glücklich, which must be a bit of a tongue breaker for non-German speakers).
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Millie – My Boy Lollipop (German) (1964).mp3
millieAnd another German version of an English-language hit. Millie (who sounds even more chipmunkish in German) doesn’t make an effort to translate the chief rhyme — sweet as candy/sugar dandy — into German. And how could she? “Du bist so süss wie Süssigkeiten / Du bist mein Zuckerbursche” somehow wouldn’t work well as a line of seduction. So we can forgive that. But why didn’t the songwriters bother to change the line “I love you I love you I love you so” to “Ich lieb’ dich ich lieb’ dich ich lieb’ dich so” ? That’s just lazy.

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Franz Beckenbauer – Gute Freunde kann niemand trennen (1966).mp3
Gerd Müller – Dann macht es bumm (1969).mp3

Fans of English football (or soccer, as my American friends would say) are likely to cringe at the memory of their players’ attempts at pop stardom: Kevin Keegan’s 1979 hit single Head Over Heels, or Glenn Hoddle & Chris Waddle with their 1987 #12 hit Diamond Lights, or Paul Gascoigne teaming up with Lindisfarne to belt out The Fog On The Tyne (there’s a Newcastle United thread here). Bad though these might be, English football fans would have no cause to cringe if they knew what their German counterparts have been subjected to, horrors that would make Hoddle & Waddle seem like the Righteous Brothers.

beckenbauerAnd yet, the two Bayern München legends featured here can be forgiven for their amateur warblings (if not for their club affiliation). Beckenbauer is, in my view, the greatest defensive player of all time. Adept at playing in virtually any position, he was an elegantly authoritative figure on the pitch. Germans, always acutely sensitive to their troubled history, called him “Der Kaiser”, which is preferable to “Der Führer”.

After finishing his playing career (which included a stint with New York Cosmos), Beckenbauer led the West German national team as coach to a World Cup final in 1986 and the world championship in 1990. After abdicating, as it were, he became a functionary for Bayern München, doing all he could to diminish the affection in which German football fans hold their heroes. Today he is a dear friend of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, a thoroughly nasty piece of work behind his grinning mask of buffoonery.

gerd_mullerIf Beckenbauer’s nickname was somewhat misguided, that of his teammate Gerd Müller’s is quite mind-boggling, coming just a quarter of a century after World War 2: “Der Bomber”. The moniker was supposed to testify to Müller’s genuinely breathtaking ability to score goals — he’s by far the best I’ve seen in my lifetime. But it was a misnomer. The nickname suggests that Müller had a mighty shot, firing V2 rockets with accuracy from outside the penalty area. In reality, Müller had no particularly powerful shot. He was, however, compact with a low centre of gravity and an almost unerring positioning instinct. Many of his goals were scored with his backside, or while he was on the ground. His single, Dann macht es bumm (“And then it bangs”), perpetuates the mistaken notion of the blitzkrieging bomber. It also perpetuates the reality that Gerd Müller wasn’t particularly bright. Still, the man is a legend and probably not a friend of the evil Blatter.

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Johannes Heesters – Ich werde jede Nacht von Ihnen träumen (1937).mp3
heestersVera Lynn has just become the oldest person to have a British #1 album (alas not with her collection of Rammstein covers), but the world’s oldest still active performer is Johannes Heesters. The Dutch-born singer and former actor, whose career was directed almost exclusively at German audiences, is still at it at 105 years of age. As one might expect, he is much loved in Germany.

But he is not very popular in the country of his birth, where he has not been forgiven for continuing his career in Nazi Germany (where all entertainment was subject to Joseph Goebbels’ censorship and even dictate), and especially for performing for SS troops at Dachau. After the war Heesters pleaded that he had no idea about Dachau’s the extent of function. I suspect that he might not be entirely loose with the truth here (not all entertainers are very bright); and even if he knew, how much courage might he have needed to muster to tell the SS to bugger off. At the same time, he did move to Germany in 1935, so fuck him for that.

Still, almost 106 years of age, and still performing. And he has a wife who is 45 years younger than he is — Respect!
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Noel Coward – Don’t Let’s Be Beastly To The Germans (1943).mp3
Noel_CowardNot a German song, obviously, but a stinging propaganda satire by the legendary English wit at the expense of Germans. Of course he had no intention of pleading for post-war clemency towards Germans; quite the contrary. And yet, to some extent his satirical entreaty would be realised. To be sure, some Germans were treated badly after the war, especially the many women who were raped by occupying soldiers (and not just by the Russians, who clearly did not share the song’s sentiments). But, truth be told, Germans subjected to occupation in the West cannot have too many complaints about the treatment they received.