This is an edited extract from the Schlager chapter of Make Me German. Which is why it begins in the middle and ends before the end. You can read the whole thing inside the book.
…“I think Schlager works because Germans listen to everything else in English,” Fred began, “Schlager lets you listen to German music. But it doesn’t have to compete directly with English music, because it’s its own unique thing, with its own rules.”
“Ok. What is that unique thing?” I asked, picking up a guitar that was laying by my feet. I put it in the official guitar-playing-position on my lap. Fred looked on, now expecting me to play it. Which was a reasonable assumption. However, looking down at it, I was reminded again that I have no idea how. Fred looked on. I plucked at a string or two, nervously.
“I’ll just put that back then,” I said, returning the guitar to the floor.
“What was I talking about?” asked Fred. “Why Schlager works? Right. Well. It’s about feeling content and rooted to where you come from, where everything is okay and the world is no longer big and scary. That works best in your native language.”
“Oh,” he added “it must also have a 4/4 beat.”
“What’s a 4/4 beat?”
“It’s a unit of time, four bars. In that time period a different number of beats can occur. With Schlager, it’s always a four over four beat. It’s that thumping constant in the background, usually a kick drum.”
And with that he began clapping, with a big fake grin on his face. Well, unless he really likes clapping. “It’s 1,2,3,4 – 1,2,3,4 and we’re clapping and we’re happy and everyone knows what’s coming, yep, again, 1,2,3,4 – 1,2,3,4. You try.”
He was right. You did know exactly when to come in. I did my best to do it wrong, but you couldn’t. You could veer just slightly out of time, only for the beat to find you again and gently right you back into time. There we were, two men in a bedio, clapping to the beat of non-existent Schlager.
“I dare you,” he said, over our claps, “to find me a Schlager song that doesn’t have it.”
“Please don’t,” I said, still clapping, “2-3-4, dare me to do things 3-4, Fred. It’s how I ended up here in the first place, 2-3-4. Can we stop clapping now?”
“Yes,” he said, dropping his hands to his lap.
“How realistic do you think it is that we can create a convincing Schlager song?”
“Can you sing?” he asked.
“Ha!” I laughed, “Can pigs fly?”
“No. How is that relevant?”
“It’s an English … forget it. No. I can’t sing.”
“Then, that could be the problem. But we’ll worry about that later,” he said, turning back to his computer screen, and arranging different documents next to each other. I moved over next to him and saw that they were lyrics to different songs.
“What I’ve done, is create a Schlager blueprint. It’s based on the work of the world’s finest Schlager performer.”
“Helene Fischer?” I guessed.
“No,” he laughed, “She wouldn’t be fit to kiss this guys feet.”
“I would, assuming I knew any other Schlager singers.”
“Dj Ötzi!” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Who the fuck is Dj Ötzi?” I asked.
“Oooh, that could be a Dj Ötzi song,” and with this he began singing “Ötzi…Ötzi…who the fuck is Ötzi? La la la la, D-J-Ö-T-Z-EEEE-Y” to the tune of Who the X is Alice.
“He’s a God,” continued Fred, “a Schlager God. No-one has worked as tireless to prove how simple Schlager is to pen and produce than Austrian hit machine Dj Ötzi.”
With this, Fred’s speakers burst into life, making me jump in my chair, by emitting what I now know to be a 4/4 beat, over which came a succession of vaguely tuneful oooh’s, aaaah’s, and baby’s.
This was Dj Ötzi’s seminal masterwork “Hey Baby”. Everyone in the entire world knows this song and everyone over the age of eight hates it, yet would be stuck singing it for days should they accidentally hear it somewhere. It burrows itself deep into your brain.
We began dissecting three Dj Ötzi hits, the lyrics to which Fred had put side by side on the screen.
“Do you see any similarities?” he asked.
“I see a lot of ooh’s, and aah’s and not many, you know, words.”
“Exactly. Words are cheap.”
“Why do you people keep…” I said, before being interrupted.
“–It’s all chorus. I know people throw around phrases like ‘it couldn’t be simpler’, but really, Dj Ötzi proves it couldn’t be simpler.”
“Maybe that’s why I get tired of Schlager so fast. It’s all sugar, right? With Schlager it’s all super sweet chorus. It’s not a balanced musical diet.”
“Yeah, it’s mostly empty calories. You get full, but there’s little actual nourishment.”
“So, what’s our song going to be about?” I asked.
“Well, you’re the guy who writes nice things about Germany, right?”
“Germans are desperate for that moment when they can sing patriotically about Germany again. For a big sing-along Deutsch-land, Deutsch-land. But they’re not allowed to do it.”
“As a foreigner I’m allowed to,” I said.
It was exhilarating, just diving in like this, but then if you stopped for even a second to read back any of the lyrics, also equal parts horrifying. Once we’d written a bunch of them down in our document, Fred focused exclusively on the music. I just tried to stay quiet, so as not to disturb him in the vaguely trance like state he entered. He’d pop up on the keyboard, play a few keys, sing the chorus, shake his head, dart across to the accordion, play a few bars, nod, return to the computer, whistle, do something with his music app and then repeat.
Slowly, over an hour, he layered all the little bits of musical something into what would become the basis of our song. He came out of his mini trance by chucking me a headset and microphone. “It’s time.”
“Really? Time to lay down vocals,” I said.
“Easy now, Kanye.”
Once we started singing, it became abundantly clear that I can’t.
“No. It’s Apfelschor–la, up at the end.” said Fred interrupting me, “la-la-la-la-la-la-la, it’s a higher note.”
“Okay. La la la la, up at the end.” I repeated.
There were high notes and low notes? Who knew? The only notes I ever received were angry and written by Annett. Music was a fascinating new world for me.
Eventually, after a few hours, Fred compiled it all into a rough cut. Rough cut. More great musician vocabulary. So far, my favourite part of the whole project.
“Are you ready?” Fred asked, finger hovering over the play button.
The first pre-Ötzi version
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The 4/4 beat crashed in, the pretend crowd began cheering, the intro was building and then, finally, after thirty seconds of build-up, we heard ourselves sing. We both shuddered. It sounded like someone was kicking a swan to death. It was clear this was not the vocal work of consummate professionals.
“We sound totally baritone, Fred,” I said, with authority.
His brow furrowed. “Do you mean monotone, maybe?”
“Yeah, that as well.”
After the song finished, he looked at me nervously for a response, I looked to the ceiling, pretending I was carefully mulling it over.
“So what do you think?” he said, when the silence got too much.
I leapt up and hugged him, grinning like a maniac. “Fred, you big, handsome genius! I love it. It’s obviously Schlager, but you’ve also added a bit of a Ska type vibe, it’s its own awesome thing. You’ve invented your own genre! Fredlager! It’s definitely way better than I imagined.”
The music was perfect. Maybe that was the problem, it was too perfect. The vocals, in comparison, were one very unmelodic man and his eccentric German friend. Fred then began doing his best to tune us (me), and we discovered firsthand the limits of his software, when he exceeded them, and his entire computer crashed.
Before the final recording session, I played the rough cut to just about anyone who would listen. Mostly, they responded enthusiastically. As the long intro built, and the cheering grew, they’d usually already be clicking, or tapping a foot. The instrumentation worked. Then, after thirty seconds, I’d hear the vocals kick in, and see their face contort in pain, like something really heavy had just fallen on their foot.
The problem was obvious. I was the problem.
We decided we had to start again. “It’s just not right” Fred said as I arrived at the bedio, pacing around the room, scratching his head.
“What’s not right?”
“All of it. I’ve had an epiphany. Everything we did last time is wrong. The lyrics are too clever, there are too many words, too many verses. It’s like someone inappropriately molested Schlager.”
“There are a lot of words, I’ll give you that. But words are not cheap. Ours are funny. Can we kick out a few per line and try it again?” I said.
“That’s not going to be enough. We wanted to make Schlager. That was your brief. Proper, trashy, sing-along Schlager. What we have is too safe. It’s flat.”
“So, now what?”
“Back to basics. We need to channel our inner DJ Ötzi’s. What would He do?”
“Kick out 70% of the words and replace them with ooh’s and aah’s?”
“Exactly,” said Fred, nodding. “We must trust our master. We must follow His way.”
“I don’t know, isn’t it kind of cheap just to rip off his style?”
“No, it’s Schlager. Schlager is not about originality. That’s the problem. We tried to make music, when we should have been making Schlager.”
“Your problem,” began Fred, handing me my microphone, “is that you’re playing too safe, too controlled. That’s why your vocals are so bad, they’re flat, you’ve got to let yourself go, you’ve got to dare.”
“How do I do that?” I asked.
”Watch this,” with that, he turned to his computer and played a YouTube video of some Schlager singer from the 70s. “Hear that thing he does with his voice? The kind of ooh and aaah, the way he over-pronounces the last syllable of each word?”
“Yeah, he really makes love to those words.”
“Exactly,” said Fred, nodding. “Make love to our words, Adam. Imagine you’re on stage. Work the crowd, really give them something.” With that, he opened his hands out to an imaginary, adoring audience.
I sang, louder and as with as little reservation as a reserved me allowed – “I’m going to really give the people somethin-ah, there’s gunn-ah really like my somethin-ah, YEEEEAAAHHH.”
“That’s it,” said Fred, bringing his hands together, “Okay, we’re ready.”
Last time we sang sitting down. We’d cue the music up almost line-by-line, sing, playback, practice, cue up again, repeat. This time we both stood up, so we could move around and really open our diaphragms (Fred told me this word, I misheard and thought he was going to open a diagram). We also sang the whole song from start to finish, then looped it and sang the whole thing again. It was like a real duet. We danced, we looked at each other, there was even one moment when I contributed some instrumentation, by playing air guitar. Finally I’d found an instrument I could actually play.
The imaginary crowd were treated to the gig of their imaginary lives.
One hour, and many repetitions later, we collapsed back onto that couch, completely hoarse and feeling sorry for Fred’s neighbours, who’d been subjected to nearly a full hour of high intensity off-key oohh’s and aaah’s (which now comprised 50% of the song’s lyrics).
But then Fred played the new song for the first time. The music was mostly the same, just with a few instruments removed.
The final post-Ötzi version
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“Great riff,” I said, nodded my head to the beat.
“Thanks,” said Fred. “But that’s not a riff.”
“Oh.” …Find out what happens next and at the song’s unveiling, in the book.
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