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Step back to 1980 – Part 1

September 28th, 2011 9 comments

The series now hits 1980, which was a pretty good year for pop music. Good enough to warrant four instalments, I think. It was the year in which I turned 14.

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Cheap Trick – Dream Police.mp3
This was the first record I bought in 1980. Cheap Trick probably were the first hair metal band. I didn”t really dig them very much, but I did like Dream Police, even if I had no idea what the song was about. It had a good guitar riff, a catchy chorus and some amusing sound effects. The term “dream police” has been used to describe a state on an LSD trip when the brain figures out that it”s not in charge anymore (or something like it; what the hell do I know about LSD trips?). But I think the lyrics are far better applied to describe a state of schizophrenia, with its paranoia and controlling inner voices.  The half-minute interlude at 2:50 certainly sounds like mental illness. Or, indeed, an alarming drugs trip.

Electric Light Orchestra ““ Confusion
And this was my second record of 1980. As with Cheap Trick, I”d never been much of an ELO fan. Don”t Bring Me Down changed that, and I liked Confusion even better (and perhaps still do; I prefer whichever of the two I’m presently hearing). Strangely, I didn”t buy the LP the songs were from. Later I discovered, as it were, that it”s a pretty good album. The purists don”t like it, I believe, because they thought that Jeff Lynne had sold ELO out to disco. Funny enough, disco often incorporated strings, which Lynne mostly dropped for the Discovery album. I”ll grant that Shine A Little Love and Last Train To London are a nod to disco, but for the most part it”s a wonderful pop album (Horace Wimple excepted).

Cherie & Marie Currie – Since You’ve Been Gone.mp3
In later 1979 and early 1980 there were two versions of the Russ Ballard-penned Since You Been Gone (or Since You”ve Been Gone, as some have rendered it. You can get Ballard”s original here). The excellent Rainbow version was the more successful, and apparently South African popsters Clout had a single of it out as well. I bought this single, by former Runaways singer Cherie Currie with her sister Marie (whom you will remember if you saw the recent biopic of the Runaways). I think the Curries” cover can just about compete with the Rainbow record. I”m not sure why I bought this single though. In the face of compertition by Rainbow, who were huge in West Germany, it wasn”t a big hit. Perhaps I saw it on the Musikladen TV show on which the sisters appeared in December 1979; but if I liked it, I”d have bought it right then, not in January (somehow I always had money for a single). Perhaps I bought it on strength of Cherie Currie, seeing as I liked The Runaways back in the day. Maybe I just like the cover”¦

AC/DC – Touch Too Much.mp3
Bon Scott was my first rock death as a fan. Of course, people whose music I had known had died before. Elvis, of course. Marc Bolan of T. Rex. Keith Moon of The Who. I had known their music, but I wasn”t a fan at the time. However, when Bon Scott died on 19 February 1980, I was something of an AC/DC fan. When the others died, I had no interest in their next record, but I was very much looking forward to the next AC/DC record, with Bon Scott on vocals, maybe featuring as great a song as Ride On from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. When the next album came out, with undue haste later that year, I had mixed emotions. The songs ““ Hells Bells, title track Back In Black, and especially You Shook Me All Night Long ““ were great, but to my mind new singer Brian Johnson was a pale imitation of the great Scott. I still think he is. So I started 1980 mourning the death of a favourite singer. I”d end the year in mourning an even more favourite singer.

Marianne Faithfull – The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.mp3
Like Since You Been Gone, The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan was a cover version, in this case of Dr Hook and the Medicine Show”s original penned by Shel Silverstein. Marianne Faithfull”s version is beautifully arranged, and the melody is lovely, but it was, of course, that broken voice which raised the song to another level. At the time I hadn”t heard of Faithfull”s history with the Stones. When I did, I went off Mars chocolate bars for a bit. Faithfull insists that the story is an untruth spreads by the London narcs after they raided Keef”s Redlands mansion. The singer says she is far too prudish to do that. In her biography she wrote: “It”s a dirty old man’s fantasy… a cop”s idea of what people do on acid!” Anyway, at the age of 13, Faithfull seemed to me so ancient as probably being close to death”s door from natural causes (of course, her drug use might have killed her). She was only 33, four years younger than Lucy Jordan”¦

Kenny Rogers – Coward Of The County.mp3
I never bought the single, though the chorus was pretty catchy. But buying a country record? Not very likely. It”s a jaunty little number that rather cloaks the disturbing lyrics. You don”t get many pop hits about gang rape. And that”s what happens in the song to poor Becky at the hands of the ghastly Gatlin boys. Trouble is, Coward of the County”s dad was a bit of a troublemaker in his time and on his deathbed extracted from CotC an oath of rigorous pacifism, with Uncle Ken serving as a witness to the pledge. So what does a pacifist do when the Gatlin boys violate his girl? Ah, I shall not spoil the ending for you, but it does not involve a visit to the local police station followed by a judicial process. We are not told whether Coward ensured that Becky would receive appropriate counselling.

Georg Danzer – Zehn kleine Fixer.mp3
I was a year late with this one, but what a good song it is. Danzer was an Austrian singer-songwriter ““ or Liedermacher (song-maker), as they say in German ““ who had a good reputation for producing accessible songs with sophisticated, sometimes funny and often socially conscious lyrics. He died of lung cancer in 2007 at the age of 50, having been a heavy smoker for years. In Zehn kleiner Fixer he sings about “ten little junkies” who die one by one. His tone is sardonic: while he shows little compassion for the junkies, but blames the ills of society for their condition.

Here”s my clumsy translation of the lyrics:

Ten little junkies sat in a boat. Ocean Desperation, homeport Death.One of them jumped overboard and sank like a stone. “Shit” was his final word; then there were only nine.

Nine little junkies; among them were girls. One was just 13, couldn’t break free.Went out on the corner, froze to death, then there were only eight.

Eight little junkies, one just out of jail. Parole officer let him down, no money for rehab, parents written off; he saw no other way out, then there were only seven.

Seven little junkies were so fed up with their lonely desert in the high-rise ghetto. One, they say, suffocated on wine and biscuits and indifference; then there were only six.

Six little junkies, one ended it with a golden fixall on the station toilet. Some tramp who found him took his shoes and socks, then there were only five.

Five little junkies, left all on their own, had neither hope nor money. One walked into a bank and “asked” the cashier who didn’t hesitate; then there were only four.

Four little junkies sat in a boat. Ocean Desperation, homeport Death. One reported a dealer to the police; when he was released again there were only three.

Three little junkies on the final tour; among them they had just one more fix. Oh, the heroin ran out and they capsized the boat.
Love was never their home, and now they were all dead.

Ten little junkies were now gone. Clearance sale, urban garbage, just lowly filth. But how long do we want to sweep them under the carpet? One day, when they rise again, they will strike back.

The Nolan Sisters ““ I”m In The Mood For Dancing.mp3
Now here”s a record I most definitely didn”t buy. I didn”t particularly like or dislike the song it was a hymn to my indifference. And yet the song stuck in my head for years. It was one of those earworms I found myself inexplicably singing at random moments. That kind of song. Some 11 years after this was a hit, I met my future wife. One day she randomly sang I”m In The Mood For Dancing. Then, a while later, she did so again. As it turned out, we had a shared permanent earworm of the random-singing variety (I don”t know the technical Greco-Latin terms for the phenomenon, I”m afraid). I”d like to say that I knew at that point that we would grow old together, but there were other, much better clues which did not involve the Nolan Sisters. Truth be told, I quite like the song now, in as far as inoffensive pop music from that era goes.

Peter Gabriel – Games Without Frontiers.mp3
Peter Gabriel – Spiel ohne Grenzen.mp3

This was my 100th single. Now, that doesn”t mean it was the 100th single I had ever owned or bought. But when I bought it, it was the 100th single in my possession. Before that I had frequently swapped singles with friends (who exploited me; I gave away some really good records. So after that, I stopped trading). Others I had discarded for being too embarrassing to own, such as my Bay City Rollers records. But when I bought Games Without Frontiers in March 1980, it was single #100, a milestone. Within a year I would almost stop buying singles in favour of albums (though I”d rediscover the joy of the single when I lived in London in the mid-“80s).

Games Without Frontiers refers to an game show that was popular throughout Europe at the time in which village teams representing different countries were pitched against one another in bizarre action games, usually dressed in silly costumes. In French the show was called Jeux sans Frontiers and in German Spiele ohne Grenzen (both mean Games Without Frontiers); in England it was It”s A Knock-Out. Gabriel re-recorded his entire 1980 album, which also included the anti-apartheid song Biko, entirely in German. Hence the second file: the German version of Games Without Frontiers.

Tim Curry – I Do The Rock.mp3
When I bought this, I was blissfully unaware of that overhyped cult twaddle that is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Indeed, I remained so until the late “80s. So when Tim Curry visited a restaurant in London where I worked as a waiter in 1985, my excitement was based on my love for I Do The Rock. The 80-year-old owner of the restaurant, an old Australian whom we had nicknamed Mr Magoo, was dining on Table 15 at the same time, and somebody advised him that a celebrity was at Table 8. Mr Magoo moseyed over, stood before Mr Curry and his lovely companion, stared at them for a bit while pushing his rolled-up tongue back and forth through his fleshy and disconcertingly moist lips, as he habitually did, and then blurted out in an accusatory manner: “So, you”re famous!” Mr Curry responded gracefully that he was an indeed an ac-tor. Thus informed, Mr Magoo grunted, turned and waddled back to Table 15 to complete his meal.

The song itself was one of thise that referenced the celebs of the day ““ from Solzhenitzin and Sadat to O.J. Simpson and Virginia Wade to Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Liza Minelli and Charlie’s Angels ““ and a few characters from the past, including Joe DiMaggio and former English cricket captain Colin Cowdrey. I Do The Rock also acquainted me with The Dakota as the New York residence of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, a piece of information that would become relevant later in the year.

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More Stepping Back

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.