From Metal to Modern: Bands Find Common Chord
- By Vladimir Kozlov
- Oct. 01 2014 00:00
Thomas Anders of the 1980s duo Modern Talking, singing in Cologne in 2007.
German music has proved a successful export, largely in the pop and rock segment. Now russian performers are beginning to repay the compliment.
Throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s, Germany was a gateway through which contemporary rock and pop music came to the Soviet Union. Two decades later, Rammstein's huge popularity in Russia came as another proof of the two countries' special relationship in the domain of pop and rock music.
Musical connections between Russia and Germany, however, go back much further than the 1970s.
A few years ago, Oleg Nesterov, the front man of the Moscow-based band Megapolis, launched a side project, Berlin Postmen's Orchestra. Featuring violin, accordion, bass, guitar and drums, the orchestra has been performing 1920s and 1930s German songs, with lyrics translated into Russian.
"When I was translating German pre-WWII songs into Russian, I was struck by the melodic similarity [between them and Russian songs of the time]," says Nesterov. A real conquest of Soviet audiences by German pop acts began in the 1970s when the likes of Boney M. and Dschinghis Khan made it through the Iron Curtain.
"By the 1970s, West Germany had regained its economic power to become Europe's strongest economy," says Yevgeny Safronov, general director of the music news agency InterMedia. "Accordingly, a very powerful music industry formed in the country. Unlike, for instance, France, which deliberately protected its market and language from expansion of English-language culture, the majority of Germany's music industry was export-oriented and was therefore English-speaking."
Boney M. hits featuring Caribbean and Jamaica-born singers were so popular in the Soviet Union that the band, which has gone through numerous lineup changes and several rifts during a career of almost four decades, still remains sought after for new year corporate parties in Russia. One of the band's singers, Bobby Farrell, died in St. Petersburg of a heart attack in late 2010 while doing a series of New-Year gigs with Boney M.
Another band that originated from Germany, Dschinghis Khan, owes its popularity to the 1979 song "Moscow" and to Soviet censors who banned the innocuous song themed on the upcoming 1980 Moscow Olympics for no apparent reason.
Soviet television intended to air a video of the song as part of the new year show on the night of January 1, 1980. But Communist censors apparently got scared at the very last moment and only a 15-second clip of the song was actually aired.
In the second half of the 1980s, a new wave of German disco acts, such as Modern Talking, Blue System and C.C. Catch conquered the Soviet Union's dance floors.
"Modern Talking's huge popularity in the Soviet Union and Russia is explained by the fact that they didn't try to follow British pop standards but produced very primitive melodies and arrangements, which were easily adopted by local groups copying those aesthetic approaches," adds music expert Alexei Mazhayev.
Incidentally, the most popular Russian pop acts of the late 1980s, Mirazh and Laskovy Mai, were, to a large extent, copying Modern Talking.
Throughout the 1980s, Western music often came to the Soviet Union through East Germany, which, as a member of the Socialist Bloc, had close ties with the USSR.
The East German record label Amiga put out licensed records by Western rock acts, which were legitimately available at Soviet music stores and were in high demand. At the same time, East German rock bands, including Puhdys, Karat and Stern-Combo Meissen, which often toured the Soviet Union were, to some extent, a substitution for Western acts that almost never made it through the Iron Curtain.
New music trends and styles often came to the Soviet Union through Germany rather than directly from the United States or England, where they originated. That was the case with heavy metal as Germany-based Accept and Scorpions were more popular here than any British or U.S. bands.
Scorpions were among the first major Western acts to tour the USSR as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika reforms led to the removal of the Iron Curtain and the USSR's gradual opening to the outside world in the late 1980s.
In early 1991, Scorpions released the Perestroika-themed single "Wind of Change," which sold millions of copies as the world rediscovered Russian themes. A decade later, a new music phenomenon from Germany arrived in Russia, the industrial metal band Rammstein, which became hugely popular here.
"Rammstein turn their shows into clownery, featuring swearing, marches, elements of the industrial and soundtracks to porno films," says Mazhayev. "However, nowhere in the world is Rammstein treated as seriously as in Russia. For Germany and Europe in general, this is a parody of everything German, a very exaggerated parody. Plus, the adjective "Teutonic," used in just about every article on Rammstein, sounds cool in Russian."