Previous columns have looked at stereotyping of other countries in pop music. One might think that Germany might suffer particularly here from a British perspective. At the time that pop music was coming of age, popular British culture was still full of an endless re-telling of World War 2. Films like The Dam-busters, or Reach For the Sky, or The Great Escape, packed the cinemas and were routinely shown on TV (In a 2006 UK poll regarding the family film that TV viewers would most want to see on Christmas Day, The Great Escape was the first choice of male viewers). Children’s comics had strip cartoons of British pilots saying things like “Take that, you square-headed sausage nosher" as they shot down another Messerschmitt.
This constant re-run of the past was kept going for decades , satirised by Sparks in their 1972 song Girl from Germany: “Oh, no! Bring her home and the folks look ill. My word, they can't forget, they never will. They can hear the storm-troops on our lawn when I show her in and the Fuehrer is alive and well in our panelled den “. In such a vein , I once had an elderly relative who would not allow two particular words to be said in his presence: ‘German’ and ‘pregnant’. It can still suddenly crop up in unlikely contexts. In a recent discussion about Eurovision between music critic Charles Shaar Murray and Cheryl Baker of Bucks Fizz, Murray made the curious remark that ‘If the Nazis had won, all popular music would sound like this (ie Eurovision).’ Oompah music = a totalitarian and racist ideology. Hmm.
Yet this perspective didn’t seem to figure much in pop songs , outside of football chants. In fact, in the early days of pop music Germany hardly figured at all, odd given the significance of Hamburg for the Beatles and the British beat boom and the continued popularity in Germany of artists that vanished from popular consciousness here years ago. (Even now in somewhere like Stuttgart or Munster you might see a poster for a concert by Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack or Alvin Lee). There seemed plenty there to inspire songs - castles with towers and battlements perched above the Rhine like pictures in a children’ fairy story, outdoor markets on cobbled streets and the Gothic Cathedral of a city like Cologne. Yet there seemed few equivalents for Germany of songs like Mary Chapin Carpenter’s What If We Went to Italy, or Bonnie Tyler’s Lost in France, or even Sylvia’s Viva Espana. Horst Jankowski’s jaunty piano hit from 1965 A Walk in the Black Forest, didn’t really count – and unfortunately was a decade too early to be the musical accompaniment to the classic 70’s English (with a Germanic tone) dinner party of cheese fondue, Black Forest gateau and Blue Nun wine. Mmm
As time passed, this did change. As mentioned before, Berlin as a city has inspired plenty of musical tributes - from Lou Reed and Bowie to Japan and Rufus Wainwright - but other towns have attracted less musical attention. Regina Spektor did a song called Dusseldorf, but it wasn't really about the place, any more than Ben Folds’ Cologne gives the listener any sense of that city. A much more evocative piece was Randy Newman’s In Germany Before the War, also set in Dusseldorf and based on a serial killer of the 1930’s. The song has been covered by others, including Katie Melua, but Newman’s version best conveys the underlying creepiness.
The song here from 2006- Germany - by American duo Ghost Mice gives a rather different perspective, a kind of Bill Bryson-type travelogue with an infectious hoe-down backing. The words, tumbling out before the music finishes, cover a quick backpackers’ tour, taking in a cathedral city bombed in World War 2 - maybe Cologne-, fairy tale castles, the Rhine and a passing mention of Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut’s novel on the fire bombing of Dresden. The song comes from their album Europe, a musical chronicle of the pair’s travels across several countries, apparently done on $10 dollars a day. It sounds an interesting, if hard-going, trip.
It also gives a reminder that reality and stereotypes can be a long way apart. During a time in Cologne,I stayed with a family who were not sausage-noshers at all but vegetarians, who told a joke about Helmut Kohl and kohlrabi (the punch-line of which I have forgotten). In the column , Let’s Get Out of This Country, I mentioned the ease when in the streets and markets of some English cathedral towns of imagining you were in parts of Germany. A shared history, despite what the films say.