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Step back to 1976 – Part 1

March 12th, 2010 14 comments

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.

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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…

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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?

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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More Stepping Back

Step Back to 1975 – Part 2

January 29th, 2010 9 comments

For the second part of my journey back to 1975, when I was nine years old, I dug out an old Arcade sampler of that year. A number of songs featured here were included on that album: I’m On Fire, Down By The River, Moviestar and New York Groove. Some other songs might well have featured here as well, such as Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, Typically Tropical’s Barbados, Chris Spedding’s Motor Bikin’, or Billy Swan’s Don’t Be Cruel.

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Van McCoy – The Hustle.mp3
What a tune! Disco guitars, strings, flute, horns, a killer bassline and friendly ladies and imposing gentlemen commanding us to do The Hustle. Do it! It’s the sound of summer ’75. Before trying to peddle a dance nobody could really do, McCoy had been a songwriter, a producer and a label boss. He co-wrote such songs as Jackie Wilson’s I Get The Sweetest Feeling, Brenda & the Tabulations’ Right on the Tip of My Tongue, The President’s 5-10-15-20 (25 Years of Love), David Ruffin’s Walk Away from Love… And then, in 1979, McCoy died of heart failure. He was only 39.

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Bay City Rollers – Give A Little Love.mp3
When the sartorial disaster zone that was the Bay City Rollers had a hit with a ballad — a cover of the Four Season’s Bye Bye Baby — it was inevitable that they’d release another retro ballad. And it gave them a second #1 in Britain. Give A Little Love was not a patch on Bye Bye Baby, and yet I preferred it. I suspect I was showing my preference for the understated. Or I was just being in touch with my feminine side because, let’s face it, this song was for all you girls out there for whom it supposedly was a teenage dream to be thirteen. Lucky girls. By the time I hit 13 four years later, I discovered that it was a nightmare being that age. Anyway, in ’75 I might have liked the girly song, but within the next year and a bit, BCR would release Saturday Night and Yesterday’s Hero, two real bubblegum pop stompers.

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I Santo California – Tornerò.mp3
The holidaymakers’ import hit from sunny Italy in 1975. I really like this song. But I do have a soft spot for some Italian pop, supplementing my great love for Italy. I have no idea how desperately uncool it may be to like songs by Umberto Tozzi (“Ti Amo”, “Gloria”), but I do. There was a German version of Tornerò by Michael Holm titled Wart’ auf mich, but the melody is so essentially San Remo pop, it requires the sound of the Italian language. I wonder how many Europeans in their mid-thirties owe their life to Tornerò?

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Albert Hammond – Down By The River.mp3
Albert Hammond – To All The Girls I Loved Before.mp3

Originally a minor US hit for Hammond in 1972, the re-recorded version of Down By The River that became a über-hit in Germany in autumn 1975. The merry tune masks the fact that the song states Hammond’s ecological concerns. It’s pretty well done; starting out as a camping romance poisoned by the polluted river, Hammond ends the song in ways that might have given me nightmares had I understood English then: “The banks will soon be black and dead, and where the otter raised his head will be a clean white skull instead, down by the river.” The b-side could feature in The Originals series, but I’ll post it here, simply because I really don’t like Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias’ awful duet.

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Harpo – Moviestar.mp3
A Top 30 hit in Britain only in 1976, Germans got to know the barefooted Swedish singer Harpo in late 1975 with this cheerful and sarcastic number, which apparently features Anni-Frid of ABBA on backing vocals. In Britain Harpo might be remembered as a minor one-hit wonder, but he had a string of hits in Germany between 1975 and ’77. In 1977 Harpo was jailed for four weeks for refusing to do his compulsory military service in Sweden. By 1978 his German career had fizzled out. I was loyal to Harpo beyond the call of duty, buying 1977’s Television and 1978’s With A Girl Like You, a cover of the Troggs hit. Both had pink and black covers, neither charted.

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Penny McLean – Lady Bump.mp3
The sound of Munich disco. Penny McLean was one of the three members of the Silver Convention (Fly, Robin Fly), and possibly not the most talented of the lot. The recurring scream on Lady Bump? Not Penny. The spoken bit? Not Penny. Which leaves us with some pretty ropey vocals. The scream was the work of one Gitta Walther and the introductory recital by Lucy Neale (of Love Generation). Penny McLean, you’ll be shocked to learn, was a pseudonym; the singer’s real name was Gertrude Wirschinger, not a moniker to inspire much by way of sexy disco fever. But she didn’t even use it in her career as a folksinger, as part of a duet with husband Holger Münzer called Holger & Tjorven in the 1960s. After her disco career fizzled out, McLean became an author on New Age twaddle, such as numerology. How fitting then that the follow-up hit to Lady Bump (a German #1) was titled 1,2,3,4…Fire.

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5000 Volts – I’m On Fire.mp3
Another disco hit, this one from Britain, and much better than Lady Bump, if one can get past the blatant rip-off of Black Is Black. 5000 Volts was basically Martin Jay (whom we would later encounter in Tight Fit and Enigma) and Tina Charles, who would soon score a huge solo hit with I Love To Love. And good for her: when I’m On Fire became a hit, Charles was replaced on the lip-synching Top of the Pops by blonde actress Luan Peters, who also appeared on most single sleeves (she is otherwise best known as the hot Australian over whom Basil Fawlty fawns in Fawlty Towers’ “The Psychiatrist” episode). The subterfuge caused a scandal at the time, with the German label replacing the single sleeves for I’m On Fire to depict Tina Charles with Martin Jay and another dude. I don’t recall whether I watched the Disco ’76 show of 5 December. I hope I did, catching in the process not only 5000 Volts, but also ABBA singing S.O.S. (months after having a hit with it) and Hello performing New York Groove.

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Hello – New York Groove.mp3
Americans are more likely to know New York Groove in the version by Kiss man Ace Frehley, but it first was a hit for the English pop group and BCR labelmates Hello, who were clearly aimed at the teenybopper market while holding for themselves higher aspirations. Three of the four Hello members were only 19 at the time, and had been releasing records for three years before having their first hit in 1974 with a cover of the Exciters’ Tell Him. New York Groove a year later became their only other hit. They also supported Gary Glitter on tour (good thing then that the drummer was ten years older than the other members). New York Groove was written by Russ Ballard, who to my knowledge never released it.

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Juliane Werding – Wenn Du denkst Du denkst, dann denkst Du nur Du denkst.mp3
Essen-born Juliane Werding was just 15 when she had her first hit, a German cover of Joan Baez’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down in 1972. After that she disappeared from the scene, completed her education, and returned in 1975 with this verbosely titled country number, which translates as “If you think you think then you only think you think”…that a girl can’t play cards. This is the storyline: like Udo Jürgens in part 1 of the 1975, Juliane fancies a late night drink. Unlike the Greek tavern dwelling Udo, Juliane finds a nice working-class Kneipe in which beer swilling men challenge her to a game of cards, thinking she’ll be easy prey. Of course, she beats them and proceeds to drink them under the table, giving cause for her good-natured taunting in the manner of tongue-twisting posers. In the middle of all that, a man interjects in a disconcertingly creepy manner that he’ll get her next time. On the ZDF Hitparade show, presenter Dieter-Thomas Heck does the creepy guy honours.

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Smokey – Don’t Play That Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me.mp3
I was going to write an essay about why Smokie were uttley naff (and fans of the group will know what I did there). And, of course, they were. But here’s the thing: some of their songs were quite good, in the ways of 1970s pop ballads. I quite like this Chinn/Chapman production, which borrows its riff rather too liberally from His Latest Flame. Anyway, the eagle-eyed reader will have noticed that the heading and the single sleeve spell the band’s name Smokey. As I recall it, the Motown legend Mr Robinson apparently believed that the name Smokey was his trademark alone, suggesting that the public might become confused between his high-pitched voice and Chris Norman’s pebble-garglings. Or that people might not properly process the picture of four white Yorkshiremen on a sleeve, and buy the record in the belief that they were getting a Quiet Storm. Faced with the threat of litigation, our four friends changed their name to Smokie. Incidentally, Sammy Davis Jr didn’t sue Robinson for appropriating the rather indelicate nickname Frank Sinatra called him by.

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