If to me 1974 coalesced with 1975, then 1976 was a year of some change. For one thing, I got my first cassette recorder, which would set me off on a career of illegal copier of music (as we now know, home-taping killed music, stone dead. If only we had known!). In West Germany, pupils leave primary school after Grade 4, and that’s what I did in after the summer holidays — a very unhappy experience, as we’ll learn in part 2. And before that, I had my first holiday without my parents because they packed me and my brothers off to a church camp while they made a tour of France. It would be my father’s last ever holiday. I think I should apologise for the poor quality of the music that soundtracked my 1976. It will get better…
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Frank Farian – Rocky.mp3
Frank Farian had been trying for almost a decade and a half to become a famous Schlager singer. He had one minor hit in 1973, So muß Liebe sein, and then a big one in early 1976 with his German version of Austin Roberts’ tearjerker. But by then Farian had already branched out into the brave new world of disco. Recording under the name Boney M, his Baby Do You Wanna Bump (because the world needed more bump records), on which he did deep lead vocals and falsetto backing, became a minor hit in 1975.
Suddenly, Farian needed to send out a Boney M group to do gigs, and to front an album. So he drafted a bunch of West Indian female singers to lip synch on TV and at gigs. The line-up changed a few times before dancer Bobby Farrell joined to complete the group we all knew and despised. The latter didn’t appear on Boney M’s records — Farian did Farrell’s voice. But it wasn’t a huge secret, never mind a scandal. Notoriety would arrive with another group Farian had lip-synching: the Grammy-winning duo Milli Vanilli. The Milli Vanilli standard destroyed the lives of the two frontmen, but Frank Farian’s career continued merrily. In the ’90s he produced dance groups La Bouche and Le Click. And he never needed to become a Schlager star.
Pussycat – Mississippi.mp3
On my tenth birthday I was given a cassette recorder; a rather simple bit of audio machinery with big buttons and no radio. It might have been simple, but to me it was pretty new-fangled technology. My mother has only recently given up on her eight-track machine, and this portable cassette recording lark was a damn sight more convenient than that. Once we got over the novelty of recording our voices (I thought I sounded like a complete dork; how I wish now that we had kept those tapes), I had to figure out the technology of recording music. The recorder had no futuristic gizmos such a wire which one might connect to a transistor radio, so the process of recording music required that nobody in the room would make a noise, preferable maintaining perfect stillness in contemplative prayer for no ringing telephones or barking dogs, as I would hold the cassette recorder close to the radio or TV or record player speaker.
My first proper test with illegal home taping came at the instigation of my older sister, who in the 1960s had amassed a fine collection of Beatles records, but now, at the old age of 24, no longer bought records. Dutch trio Pussycat would be performing their international number 1 hit Mississippi on TV (memory told me it was on the Disco 76 show, but Pussycat’s appearance on that monthly programme preceded my birthday). I was ready to tape the song, for which I had little affection. At my order, we all fell perfectly still, and the gap-toothed lead singer lip-synched her heart out. Like a great sound engineer, I allowed for the applause to fade out gently, and then clicked the pause button, rather than stop, because the former facilitated a smoother transition to the next song. Except all the other songs on the show were rubbish. In the end, my sister never collected the tape with my recording of Pussycat’s Mississippi…
Bay City Rollers – Saturday Night.mp3
Mississippi was a rubbish song to the 10-year-old dude, remained a rubbish song throughout the fallow period before the rehabilitation of ’70s pop, and is a rubbish song still today. The Bay City Rollers’ Saturday Night, on the other hand, was a great song to the 10-year-old dude, then fell into disdain during the fallow period, and is a great song again, even if only for reasons of nostalgia (I can never be sure whether my good judgment is clouded by an emotional connection to the past). Originally released in 1973 with Nobby Clark on vocals, it had been re-recorded in late 1975 with Nobby’s successor Leslie McKeown on the mic — as a glam rock number when glam rock was on its way out. The people in glam’s homeland knew that: the single did not do well in Britain. But it topped the US charts and was a big hit in West Germany, which defiantly kept the glam flame glittering. Of course, Saturday Night is a bit of a Sweet rip-off. And the stuttering evokes Bowie’s Changes. But, hey, do we really expect artistic innovation from a BCR song?
Harpo – Motorcycle Mama.mp3
Motorcycle Mama, Harpo? Really? At the same time every German primary school kid was singing a song called Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad (My granny is riding her motorcycle inside the chicken coop)? The song is pretty standard pop stuff; our Swedish friend, who would perform barefooted because he had difficulties finding well-fitting shoewear, had a way with a catchy melody that was very much of its time, with a hummable chorus. The nostalgia-drenched lyrics on the other hand…oh dear. He remembers Jimi Hendrix from 1965? This was Harpo’s follow-up to the hit single Movie Star (which featured in 1975). Motorcycle Mama did not become a classic, but the far superior follow-up, Horoscope, was a big hit in West Germany. We shall encounter Harpo again in 1977.
Slik – Forever And Ever.mp3
If Forever And Ever sounds a bit like a Bay City Rollers song, then that’s because it was written by the songwriting team Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, who wrote several songs for BCR — including Saturday Night (they also wrote Sandie Shaw’s Eurovision Song Contest winner Puppet On A String and Cliff Richard’s Congratulation). And like BCR, Slik were a teen-pop band from Scotland on the Bell label. Their frontman was one Midge Ure, future singer with Ultravox and the forgotten co-writer of Do They Know It’s Christmas. Forever and Ever was a #1 hit in Britain. I don’t know how well it did in West-Germany, but I recall seeing it on TV. Then I forgot about the song for a decade or so, and rediscovered it on a K-Tel type LP I picked up in a second hand shop. Cue memories flooding back…
Nico Haak – Schmidtchen Schleicher.mp3
Among the Schlager dross of 1976, there was the novelty dross. Schmidtchen Schleicher was regarded as hilarious by Germans because of Nico Haak’s peasoup-thick Dutch accent and the “amusing” lyrics about the eponymous lounge dancer’s elastic legs sliding across the dancefloor by way of charming the ladies. I recall my mother and me being in agreement that this was all very funny, though clearly not so funny as to compel either of us to spent 5DM on the single. I might have recorded it on tape though. Alarmingly, this song seems to have some kind of cult status in Germany. Please say it ain’t so.
I believe this was also a big hit in East-Germany, where Haak’s shtick certainly was a lot funnier than the regime there, or any of the misery guts on TV there. Yes, while we in the West had Niko Haak to entertain us, the good citizens of the DDR had the arch-polemic Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, a joyless, goateed man of no discernible charm who in his TV commentaries peddled the ideals of an egalitarian, socialist brotherhood that was not evident in the workers’ and peasants’ state (not that Schnitzler’s West-German equivalent, Gerhard Löwenthal, was any more attractive). Haak, who possibly had no interest in all that, just managed to see the fall of German Democratic Republic before his death at 51 in 1990.
Sailor – Girls Girls Girls.mp3
This is the only pop song I can recall my father reacting favourably to. He was more of an opera man. When I asked him about his favourite singer, he replied Maria Callas. Absent her regular appearances on Disco or the ZDF Hitparade, I had no idea who Ms Callas was. I didn’t expect the old man to dig Slade or even ABBA, but I had hoped he’d give me Mireille Mathieu or, hell, even Nana Mouskouri. Somebody I’d know. And then I saw him tapping his foot to Sailor. With the passage of years, I can understand what he saw in the song. My father was born in 1923 and loved the theatre. Girls Girls Girls evokes the sound of his childhood and it is grounded as much in a pop tradition as it is in the theatrical cabaret. To me it sounds like it belongs in the Muppets Show, which had yet to be launched. It’s a dangerous earworm, too.
Tina Charles – I Love To Love.mp3
You have to love this disco-pop song alone for the Wooooooooooooo’s. I’d like Kylie Minogue to cover this, perhaps in a mash-up with the song’s spiritual cousin, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Tina Charles was a member, mostly in invisible form, of 5000 Volts, who had a hit with the Euro-disco song I’m On Fire (as recounted here). I Love To Love was produced by Biddu, the man responsible for Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting. Before storming the charts, Charles used to sing on the Top of the Pops albums, the cheap LPs on which session musicians would imitate (often badly) current chart hits. Before that, in 1969, she released her first single on which an unknown Elton John sang backing vocals. And Charles, for her part, sang backing vocals on Steve Harley & the Cockney Rebel’s Some Up And See Me, alongside Linda Lewis.