Nena and Mozart

Nenacollagesmall

“Hast du etwas zeit für mich . . .” (“Do you have some time for me . . . ?”) is the storytelling beginning to German rock singer Nena’s biggest hit, “99 Luftballons.” It tells an apocalyptic tale of balloons innocently launched into the sky, triggering nuclear missile alert systems and setting off a nuclear war, and the song resonated way beyond Germany. The debut album Nena was released in German, and astonishingly “99 Luftballons” went to #2 on the US charts in the following year, 1984—in the German language! It was one of the biggest hits in a foreign language in the twentieth century in the US. Check out this live concert video that really shows the band’s energy.

Nena—the nickname of the lead singer, Gabriele “Nena” Kerner, and the name of her band—created an English-language version that reached an even bigger audience and went to #1 on the UK charts. That version, “99 Red Balloons,” was later covered by bands such as 7 Seconds. [Luft means “air” in German; the switch to “red” for the English title was for rhythm—but red also conjures up danger!] “Nur Geträumt” (“Just a Dream” in the English version), another great track from the first album, got a lot of play on US college radio stations in both German and English as well. Formed in 1982, the band released a total of four German albums and two international albums (with English and German tracks) before disbanding in 1987. Nena Kerner then began a solo career.

The blog title “Nena and Mozart” probably leaves you with a big question mark, which coincidentally was the title of Nena’s second album, ? (Fragezeichen), c. 1984. The photo at top shows that record plus the band’s debut release. There’s also a 1980s poster of the band in Times Square, which back then was still seedy and practically a required publicity photo op for any edgy rock band. Also shown is my battered Bärenreiter score of Mozart Lieder, some of which I performed on a recital back in 2017. Lieder are German art songs for voice and piano—although Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) wrote some with mandolin. The lyrics of Lieder—Lied means “song” in German, and Lieder is the plural form—often already existed as a published poem when a composer decided to set them to music.

When I’m working on art songs in a language other than English, sometimes I listen to pop or rock music in that language, because it can be a good reminder of what a native speaker sounds like, even if the style is more informal than the kind of diction used for classical singing. Before that Mozart Lieder recital, I had been listening to the first two Nena records. As a teen, I used to love singing along with these songs in German, even though I didn’t speak a word of the language. I later studied German in college, but at the time I just tried to figure out what the words meant. Since English is a Germanic language there are some similarities. My favorite songs included “Vollmond” (“Full Moon”) and “Rette Mich” (“Rescue Me”).

For an encore, at the end of that recital, I sang Mozart’s “Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge” (KV 596), or “Longing for spring,” a merry-go-round-like song sung from a child’s point of view. Afterward, an older German couple came up to me with perplexed looks on their faces. They were stunned to learn that the song was by Mozart because in Germany, they explained, it is a well-known children’s folksong, called “Komm Lieber Mai.” It was so interesting to learn that Mozart’s song, written in 1791 (the year he died) in Austria, had morphed into a German folksong through two centuries of oral tradition—when a song is passed down from generation to generation by being sung rather than written down. The words are essentially the same too. When I looked online for this folksong version, who did I find had recorded it? Nena Kerner, on the 1990 album Komm Lieber Mai, the first of nine albums she did for children. I also found an animated version in a contemporary arrangement that acts out what the song means, in case you’re curious.

Nena (the singer) has had a long and successful solo career in Germany. And in 2003, she did a multilingual collaboration with singer Kim Wilde—“Irgendwie, irgendwo, Irgendwann”/“Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime”—a #1 hit in Europe! It had been a hit for Nena and her band in 1984, and you can find the earlier version here complete with smoke machine and New Wave outfits. The German translation actually would be “Somehow, somewhere, sometime,” but “Any” is a better rhythmic substitution for the prefix “Irgend.” Enjoy!

On French Bands and Context

In the 1980s there was a resurgence of the ’60s garage-band rock sound that drew on ’70s punk, like the Ramones, and what is sometimes loosely called “1960s punk”—bands like the Sonics and the Standells. Some French garage bands in the 1980s covered old ’60s American rock and pop tunes, releasing them in English along with new songs in French or English. The Dogs (sometimes “Les Dogs” but just listed as “Dogs” on their records—not to be confused with the later British band) did this on their 1982 release Too Much Class for the Neighborhood—which was entirely in English (as were most of their records, actually). I once played songs from it for a friend who complained about the lead singer’s French accent. But his accent made it way more interesting to me. Listening to it again, I think his English is great and the words are completely understandable.

It’s easy to forget how hard the English language is. Just think of the variety of our past tenses. I sang the song. A song was sung in her honor. He said he’d bring the coffee; he brought the coffee. [Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary lists brung, brang, and even broughten as “substandard” past tenses for bring—they’re used in English dialects regionally, but are not standard.] Also, some of the sounds in English are difficult for people simply because those sounds don’t exist in their own languages.

One thing lost in translation is context. When singing a song in another language you often need to do research to understand something in the lyrics/poetry. Another French garage-rock band, the Calamities (Les Calamités, 1983–88) released their first LP in 1984 (A Bride Abbatue in France; The Calamities in the US), with both French and English songs, which included a cover of the ’60s hit “You Can’t Sit Down.” The lyrics “When you’re on South Street” wind up as something that sounds like “When you’re on Sigh See.” I’m not poking fun here; I mean, why would a French teenager in the 1980s know about some street in Philadelphia, PA, that had a “scene” in the 1960s—it was where “hippies meet,” according to the Orlons’ song “South Street” (hippies meant hipsters in this context, not flower children). Also, there was no Internet then; now we can just Google places and it’s so much easier. The Calamities (three filles and un type) broke into the US college radio market with this record, probably because it included songs in English, expanding their audience. Check out “Toutes les Nuits” from this LP. And if you want more songs in French and English (sometimes simultaneously), listen to the band Stereolab—less garage-band, but lots of ’60s electronic keyboard sounds. (Coincidentally, I discovered while writing this that the lead singer of the Dogs, Dominique Laboubée, appeared on that Calamities record.)

Informational footnote: I was in an elevator last week when a news blurb came on the Captivate media screen about Scarlett Johansson releasing an EP, and one of the twentysomethings in the elevator said, “What’s an EP?” Her friend had no idea. I said “Extended Play” and then got off the elevator, realizing as the door shut how completely unhelpful that was. So, that’s what it stands for, but it usually means a record that has more songs than a single, sometimes 3 to 5 songs, but is not as long as an LP (“Long Playing” record), which usually have more like 10 songs. Sometimes EPs were just extended versions of the hit single, often dance mixes so it would get played in clubs, with one or two additional songs on the B side (which theoretically enticed people to buy the full record). The Dogs first released songs on EP, as did many others, because it was cheaper than an LP, or else the bands only had three or four songs at that point.

Multilingual Music: A First Look

When I think of multilingual music in the US, my mind goes straight to songs like “Que Sera Sera,” “Danke Schoen,” and other hits of the 1950s and 1960s that were mostly in English but included phrases from other languages and became universal favorites. Or even further back, there’s “Besame Mucho”; I love the 1943 Jimmy Dorsey swing version, sung mostly in English by Kitty Kallen and Bob Eberly (which I discovered on an old 78 in the attic when I was 13), but the original was written in 1940 by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez, in Spanish, and it became a global hit in many languages.

A song or text that includes two or more languages was historically called macaronic, and this practice started way back in the Middle Ages with texts that included words from both Latin and another language. A lot of macaronic songs became top-sellers in the US in the 1950s and ’60s. And, surprisingly, a number of songs that weren’t in English at all did too. In 1958, Domenico Modugno’s “Nel blu dipinto di blu,” informally known by its refrain, “volare,” reached the top of the US charts, despite being in Italian, and stayed there for five weeks. Dean Martin released a multilingual version in English and Italian, titled “Volare,” which hit #15 that same year.

In 1963, “Dominique,” a French song by The Singing Nun, was a top US hit, as was a song in Japanese! In 1964, the Beatles had a US chart-topper with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but they were told that if they wanted to break into Germany, they’d need songs in German. That seems laughable now, since Beatlemania turned out to have no language barriers, but conventional wisdom of the time prevailed, and they released “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” and “Sie Liebt Dich” (aka “She Loves You”). They also recorded a cover of “Besame Mucho” in English at a live concert in Germany.

Also in 1964, the song “It’s a Small World (After All),” written by the Sherman Brothers, debuted at the NY World’s Fair, eventually finding a permanent home at Disneyland. As a child, I listened to a multilingual version of the song. You can read about how wildly popular it’s become in an article by Richard Corliss for Time magazine (which also links to a 50th anniversary video sung in many languages). Even if you might be cynical about the commercialism now attached to it, consider that it was written in a sincere attempt to promote world peace.

The singer Connie Francis was a bestselling rock-n-roll and pop singer in the 1950s with hits like “Stupid Cupid” and “Who’s Sorry Now,” and in 1958 she was voted the #1 Female Vocalist of the year in the US. Born Concetta Franconero to first-generation Italian-American parents, Connie had heard several languages from an early age. At her father’s suggestion, she began releasing albums with popular songs from other countries and cultural traditions—on each record some songs were in the original language and others were translated into English. She sang in Italian, German, Yiddish, Spanish, and more (with some help from a diction coach). In 1959, the album Connie Francis Sings Italian Favorites peaked at #4 on the US pop charts, and she made a highly successful career transitioning out of the “teen queen” world to perform in a variety of genres.

How did so many songs that weren’t in English wind up at the top of the US pop charts in the mid-twentieth century? Looking at the lyrics for “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” for the first time now, I’m laughing as I remember that one of my best friends and I (both of us singers into oldies) thought the lyrics went “Oh, Komm, Gob, Komm to Mir”—we thought “gob” was the German word for “girlfriend”! (It’s actually “Komm doch.” See this post explaining doch.) It didn’t matter that we got one word wrong, we knew what it meant—it’s so close to the original in English and there are similar words in each language: Komm/come, Gib/give, and “hand.” In these blogs I’ll be looking at words, music, meaning, and context to try to find answers to some of my questions, and hopefully some of yours.