In the inchoate days of pop, it wasn’t just assumed English would become the rock ‘n’ roll lingua franca. Therefore it wasn’t unheard of for British bands to learn the words to their own songs in French or German or Italian in order to ingratiate themselves with fans from another market, naturally at the encouragement of their record companies.
In those days you couldn’t just type your lyrics into Google Translate and voila! Most labels in the UK didn’t have an in house translator just waiting to turn your beat combo’s words into Swahili, so the chances of a successful translation would depend on a myriad of factors: luck, aptitude, the budget for a campaign, the size of the record company, whether international staff were employed or not (and could be tapped up for their translation skills), the talent on hand etc etc…
When Paul McCartney wrote ‘Michelle’ he ran the lyrics by his boyhood chum Ivan Vaughan, whose wife so happened to be a French teacher. Ivan taught him the French sentence “sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble” (are words that go together well) verbatim, and it just so happened to fit perfectly. So far, so fascinating, but what about the translation of entire songs?
The American singer Connie Francis (ask your grandmother) expanded her singing portfolio to a remarkable 15 languages, though she had to learn most of the vowel sounds of her tunes phonetically and by rote. Francis grew up in an Italian / Jewish household and could speak Italian, Yiddish and Spanish fluently, so it would be fair to say she had a natural aptitude for languages, though she said she always had a translator on hand to make sure her pronunciations were as perfect as possible. Francis was a massive star in the early 60s, so she could afford to have a translator just hanging around.
Scott Walker has often said that the moment everything changed for him was when he came across a book of the musical review of ‘Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris’ in the late 60s, which featured English translations of the French lyrics, reinterpreted by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. Walker began performing Brel’s chansons, and the Belgian was so pleased with Walker’s delivery that he requested that all his subsequent words be translated and made available to the American crooner should he need them.
In France during the 60s, songs by American artists were often translated into French and passed off by artists like Johnny Hallyday, Eddy Mitchell and Ronnie Bird as their own. Their audience would rarely, if ever, hear the original, so it’s not as if anybody minded, and besides, it wasn’t like singers were expected to write their own songs, at least not until the Beatles came along anyway. Hallyday is often referred to as the French Elvis, and having had over 200 of his songs adapted for the French market, it’s easy to understand why. Heartbreak Hotel? Je me sens si seul, mate.
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David Bowie is not a man to miss a trick, either. The Thin White Duke recorded his anthem to internationalism – ‘Heroes’ – in a number of languages. The German version, ‘Helden’, is widely known, but there were also Spanish versions (a bit dodge, apparently) and a French version.
In honour of Notre Dame Dave, here are 10 other artists who’ve released songs in a second language…
Charli XCX – ‘Boom Clap’ (in Japanese)
Charli had massive international success with ‘Boom Clap’, reaching no.8 on the Billboard Charts, and that success looks likely to be replicated in other provinces too now that she’s just recorded a version in Japanese. The onomatopoeic title remains, but most of the English words elsewhere have been translated, and from what we can gather from this clip, it sounds pretty good.
Blur – ‘To The End’ (In French)
You wouldn’t have caught Liam Gallagher at it, but fair play to Damon Albarn for attempting to sing their nouvelle vague-inspired ‘To The End’ tout en français. Damon even has a noble stab at the rhotic sound in ‘trinquons’ (meaning ‘toast’) – which certainly isn’t easy – and unfortunately with his south east accent he just ends up sounding a bit like Bill Wyman on ‘Je Suis Un Rockstar’. Probably best to leave the French to legendary chanteuse Francoise Hardy, who’s on backing vocals, but points for effort!
The Beatles – ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ (German)
If John F Kennedy was a jelly donut, then the Beatles are forever a bunch of Hamburgers. Having spent over two years in the German city, they’d certainly picked up enough of the local dialect to make ‘Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand’ sound vaguely authentic. They also recorded ‘Sie Liebt Dich’ (‘She Loves You’) and then nothing else in German ever, because it took far too many takes to get it right apparently and wasted too much tape.
Blondie – ‘Sunday Girl’ (French)
Having recorded ‘Denis’, ‘French Kissin’ (In The USA)’, and this version of ‘Sunday Girl’ all in French bar the title, one begins to get the impression that maybe Debbie Harry was/is something of a Francophile. Just one question: why not change the title when the syllables of ‘Dimanche fille’ fit fine? I guess we’ll never know…
Beck – ‘Jack-Ass’ (Spanish)
As president of the Record Club – an occasional gathering of musicians coming together to recreate classic albums – Beck is a man not afraid to take songs and fuck with them. His puckish nature was ably demonstrated when he took his own song, ‘Jack-Ass’ from his brilliant 1996 Odelay album, and re-recorded it as the Spanish ‘Burro’, complete with romantic mariachi trumpets. Now that’s what we call commitment.
Theaudience – ‘A Pessimist is Never Disappointed’ (French)
Back in the mid-90s before Sophie Ellis-Bextor was (properly) famous, she was in a band called Theaudience, whose portentous powers foresaw a world where the space bar wouldn’t be needed as much. Their best song, ‘A Pessimist is Never Disappointed’, was a modest top 30 hit, and it sounded even better when it became ‘Ne jamais déçu’ on a later b-side. SE-B had clearly been paying attention in French classes.
The Teardrop Explodes – ‘Treason (It’s Just a Story)’ (French)
As I mentioned earlier, in the old days bands used to learn songs in different languages in order to break other regions. With the Teardrop Explodes it was done for shits and giggles because Julian Cope felt like it, and he was a man who nearly always acted on impulse. The Arch-Drude fares admirably on ‘Trahison (c’est juste une histoire)’, but then Saint Julian always was a man of many hidden talents.
Peter Gabriel – ‘Games Without Frontiers’ (German)
The French refrain (“jeux sans frontieres”) sung by Kate Bush remains the same, but on the German version of Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers – ‘Spiel Ohne Grenzen’ – the lyrics sound far more sinister, especially the bit where Adolf builds the bonfire, probably for obvious reasons.
Johnny Cash – ‘Ring of Fire’ (Spanish)
Johnny Cash’s classic ‘Ring Of Fire’ sounds Spanish enough with it’s carnivalesque cantering and dueling trumpets, so it stood to reason that Johnny himself should sing a version in Spanish. Let’s be clear, Johnny Cash singing in Spanish doesn’t sound Spanish. It sounds like it’s sung by someone who couldn’t point to the country on a map and thinks español is a breed of dog. He had a go, I suppose.
Abba – ‘Waterloo’ (English, French, German)
The default version of Waterloo in the minds of most is the English version, but the song they won the Eurovision Song Contest with in 1974 was actually recorded in Swedish first. They produced versions of the song for the German market and also the French market, and actually, despite some sensitivity at a song that mentioned the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, the song still made no.3 in the charts in La France. In Belgium, where the battle took place, it went to no.1.