The first caveman to make a beat by banging a dinosaur skull and a human shinbone together sang along to the sound in an American accent. And that’s the way it went. America invented rock music, the British took it over, and it’s been ping-ponging between the two countries ever since. Except in the eighties. Suddenly, the influence of other countries was felt. Germany. Italy. Belgium. France. Even Norway. Let’s remember some of the highlights from those few short years when America opened her doors to all manner of musical immigrants. (On Spotify? Check out our Euro New Wave Faves playlist there too.)
“Forever Young,” Alphaville
One of my Mad World regrets is that I was unable to track down any of the members of Alphaville. I wanted to get their perspective on being continental Europeans during an era that was so UK-centric. (Although the early new wavers modeled themselves on the late-seventies electronic acts coming out of Germany, Alphaville’s homeland.) I also wanted to talk to them about “Forever Young”: its unexpected longevity (it’s much more popular now than it was at the time of its 1984 release), its reimagining by Jay-Z, its licensing for Napoleon Dynamite. To me, “Forever Young” is new wave at its apex. It’s melancholy; the vocals are haunting and sung by a non-traditional singer with a foreign accent; the recording sounds throughly modern yet, at the same time, like it was just retrieved from a time capsule. See, Alphaville, we have so much to discuss — do get in touch for Mad World 2, you hear?!
“Hunting High and Low,” A-ha
The pride of Norway, A-ha were granted knighthood in their land-of-the-midnight-sun homeland. During my interview with Mags (who seems to only have gotten hotter with age), he talked about “Take On Me,” and how different it is from the rest of the band’s discography. “Hunting High in Low” is more their usual speed. Like “Forever Young,” “Hunting” exudes a bitter sweetness, a sense of intense longing. “There’s no end to the lengths I’ll go,” sings Morten Harket in his quest to find his lover. Sigh.
“Major Tom (Coming Home),” Peter Schilling
We tried to find Peter Schilling for Mad World too. (No luck with Nena either. Clearly the Germans had better things to do than submit to our interviews. Although JB did manage to interview Propaganda — more on that below.) We also tried in vain to find the original English version of “Major Tom” for our Spotify playlist, so we added the German version. Like his country-mate Nena and the late Austrian Falco, Schilling’s biggest hit was originally released in his native tongue.
“Heaven I Want You,” Camouflage
In the early 90s, DJ Father Jeff was a hearse-driving lawyer who had a new wave night upstairs at the Palladium in Manhattan, and I was a faithful member of his weekly Saturday-night congregation. His playlist included songs I’d never heard in a club before or since – OMD’s “Maid of Orleans,” Kirsty MacColl’s “Walking Down Madison,” and this one by the German synth outfit Camouflage, who’d made a name for themselves on the new wave scene with the 1988 dance hit “The Great Commandment.” I didn’t realize until today that it was produced by Colin Thurston (Bowie, Talking Heads, Duran Duran).
“Once in a Lifetime,” Wolfsheim
This was another club fave, but the location was Aldo’s Hideaway in beautiful Lyndhurst, NJ, and the DJ was Ted Wrigley (who’ll be warming the decks for Vince Clarke at our April 21 Mad World launch party in NYC). “Once in a Lifetime” is a turn-of-the-millenium dark wave hit by the German group Wolfsheim that quickly became an Aldo’s dance floor classic, thanks to melodramatic lyrics like “You took my wife, my unborn son/Torn into the deep of the ocean.”
“Dr. Mabuse,” Propaganda
As frequently stated in this blog, my favorite album is The Lexicon of Love by ABC. My other favorite album — there’s no rule that says I can’t have two — is A Secret Wish by Propaganda. Also produced by Trevor Horn, it’s a towering achievement, the result of unlimited resources meeting unlimited imagination. Germany’s Propaganda were the first post-Frankie Goes to Hollywood release on Horn and Paul Morley’s ZTT label. “Dr. Mabuse,” their debut single, was a vast and nightmarish evocation of Germany’s favorite fictional unkillable criminal mastermind. I interviewed the band’s singer Claudia Brucken for the book but that chapter sadly fell victim to the editing process. Perhaps it was for the best; neither my questions nor her answers really did justice to how epic Propaganda’s music was and remains.
“Hypnotic Tango,” My Mine
Bananarama had a small UK hit a few years ago called “Look On The Floor.” It’s an okay record, then the chorus kicks in and suddenly it’s a way-better-than-okay record. Good for you, Bananarama, I remember thinking. Still some gas left in that tank. Didn’t think you had it in you. A matter of moments later, there was a small, bloggy Italo-Disco revival which opened my clogged ears up to a sub-genre of which I’d had little previous knowledge. Amid the welter of cheaply-made Italian synth-pop records with terrible vocals in garbled nonsensical semi-English posted indiscriminately among the welter of mp3 blogs that thrived then burst like bubbles, a few genuinely great records rose to the surface. This was one of them. And Bananarama totally lifted that memorable chorus straight from it.
“Main de la Main,” Elli et Jacno
Just like Billy Idol and Adam Ant shed their punk skins and evolved into pop stars, Ellie Medeiros of formative French punk band Stinky Toys stopped screaming about injustice at the boulangerie and formed a delightful synth-pop due with taciturn ex-band member Jacno.
“Moskow Disko,” Telex
Irresistibly cheeky Belgian appropriation of “Trans-Europe Express.”
“Careless Love,” Humpe & Humpe
Inga and Annette Humpe seem to have been fixtures of Germany’s new wave scene for most of the eighties. Very endearing record.
“Los Ninos Del Parque,” Liaisons Dangereuses
German, despite the French name. You can hear the seeds of industrial music and Chicago house being sewn right here.
“Amoreux Solitaires,” Lio
Tying the whole European new wave scene together, here’s a song written by Elli and Jacno for their old punk band, Stinky Toys that was produced by Telex for Belgium’s Lio, who was the awkward, self-conscious Britney of her day and had a hundred hits that are more or less variations of this one.