Here are 22 artists who’ve tasted international success despite their songs not being in the rock ‘n’ roll lingua franca (English).
Bjork’s not afraid to slip a bit of Icelandic tongue into her songs, and her international breakthrough hit ‘Birthday’, with the Sugarcubes in 1987, introduced UK record buyers to a language they’d maybe never heard before.
Serge Gainsbourg caused an international scandal in ‘69 when he released ‘Je t’aime (moi non plus)’ with Jane Birkin; the saucy chanson featured simulated heavy breathing and was deemed so naughty in some quarters that the Vatican called for its banning. £4m record sales and a baby boom later, it also introduced the world to the genius of Gainsbourg.
Psychedelic valley rockers Super Furry Animals decided to record their fourth long player, ‘Mwng’, completely in the Welsh native tongue, and it was a move so significant that MP Elfyn Llwyd saluted it as a sign of “a new wave of confidence in the Welsh nation” in the House of Commons. ‘Dacw Hi’ was a highlight.
K-Pop master Psy nearly broke the internet with the hilarious promo for ‘Gangnam Style’, the first YouTube video ever to exceed one billion viewers. It has now exceeded two billion and it sold by the bucketload in the UK too back in 2012.
Kraftwerk had an international hit in 1983 with their ‘Tour de France’ track, peaking at no.22 in the UK charts. The tune featured a new technique they were calling sampling, and the verses were in German, where they hail from, obviously. Some language-y pop trivia for you: Kraftwerk means Power-station in German.
The big, laidback summer hit of 1987 was the cool, parpy sound of ‘Joe Le Taxi’ by Vanessa Paradis, a no.1 in the then 14-year-old’s native France and a surprise whopper in the UK too, eventually landing at no.3. Her ‘Be My Baby’ track with Lenny Kravitz in 1992 was even better, though she sang it in English so it doesn’t count.
If there’s a weirder band on earth than Die Antwoord then we’ve yet to come across them, though their unique mashup of Afrikaans and English leads to some surprisingly mega flow from Ninja and Yolandi, and they’re massive everywhere to boot. ‘Fok Julle Naaiers’ is a great track for starters.
‘Ça plane pour moi’, the irrepressible Belgian punk anthem, proved DIY rock was breaking out all over the globe in the year of Punk 1977, and it was only slightly spoiled in 2010 when it emerged in court that plastic punk Plastic Bertrand didn’t actually sing it! What’s French for Milli Vanilli?
Bowie/Eno’s haunting ‘Warszawa’ from Low was supposedly inspired by the desolation of Warsaw, which actually came out of the two hours the singer spent in the station on a layoff to the Soviet Union in 1973. Polish choir Śląsk were drafted in for the song. Later a young singer, Ian Curtis, chose Warsaw for his band’s name before changing it to Joy Division.
Nena won the Eurovision Song Contest with rockin’ ‘99 Luftballons’ in 1983, only six years after punk broke. Still it was the most credible winner since Abba’s ‘Waterloo’ in 1974, and probably still is come to think of it.
What the Sandpipers are going on about in the 1964 hit ‘Guantanamera’ isn’t entirely clear as its sung in Spanish, but it’s still heartrending and life affirming all at the same time, at least until the guy breaks into a spoken section in English: “The words mean I am a truthful man from the land of the palm trees...” Then it just gets a bit cheesy if we’re honest.
One of the most memorable metronomes in the history of pop appeared in the massive international 1982 Trio hit ‘Da Da Da’, or to give it its full title, ‘Da Da Da I Don't Love You You Don't Love Me Aha Aha Aha’. Most of it was in German, and thanks to the title, we’ve run out of space to tell you anything more about it.
Israeli singer Ofra Haza was first propelled into the consciousness of many in the UK when she was sampled on the seminal M/A/R/R/S no.1 ‘Pump Up The Volume’ in 1987. The following year ‘Im Nin ‘alu’ (sung in Hebrew) got a full release and went top 20 in the UK. Sadly Ofra Haza died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 2000 aged just 42.
Enigma’s ‘Sadeness part 1’ - with its mixture of Monks chanting in Latin and supposedly seductive French spoken word - was the biggest thing since sliced off Royal heads when it stormed to the top of the charts in 24 countries in 1990. Question is, what the hell is “sadeness”?
Brazilian psych rockers Os Mutantes had a cult hit way back in 1968 with the brilliant Portuguese sung ‘A Minha Menina’, which was later memorably covered by the Bees in 2002, and the latter was used to advertise Citroën and ended up on the soundtrack of Kick Ass 2. Os Mutantes, who are still going, were probably happy with the royalties.
Sigur Rós came to the attention of many with ‘Svefn-G-Englar’ in 2000 when it was featured as first track on the NME giveaway CD Come On Try Young. But what were they singing? Was it Icelandic or gobbledigook? Or a bit of both? Possibly only those fluent in Icelandic or gobbledigook could possibly say.
Syrian musician Omar Souleyman became a massive hit with UK hipsters in 2011 when he brought his remarkably frenetic wedding party music to the UK, capped with a triumphant show at Glastonbury that year. In 2013 he signed to British label Ribbon Music, and his Kieran Hebden-remixed ‘Werni Werni’ track has been watched over 2.5m times on YouTube.
What’s better than Edith Piaf singing ‘La Vie en Rose’? Grace Jones singing it of course. Jamaican Grace is fluent in Jamaican patois and English, and she picked up French which she now speaks fluently when she spent years in Paris modelling.
Hard rockers Rammstein have recorded songs in English, though it’s when they singing in their native German, like on ‘Du Hast’, that they sound at their most uncompromising and electrifying!
Spanish singer Jeanette’s ‘Porque te vas’ was largely ignored when it was recorded in 1974, though through the Cannes film festival-approved Cría Cuervos movie in 1976 it broke out, and its cult has grown ever since. Sebastien Tellier told NME in 2013 that “the sound of the hi-hat is the best sound of the hi-hat ever! Better even than Marvin Gaye or Prince.”
Freddie Mercury was a singer up for trying almost anything, and in 1978, on perhaps Queen’s most outré album, 'Jazz', the singer sang ‘Mustapha’ in latin. The internet is awash with rumours but nothing concrete regarding what languages Freddie spoke, having been born in Zanzibar and having grown up in British India. Hindi? Swahili? Any ideas?
Belgian superstar Stromae had his biggest hit in 2009 with ‘Alors on Dance’, a song so popular even France’s Nicolas Sarkozy said he liked it (not that that was Stromae’s fault). The song hit no.1 in nearly every European country, and no.25 in the UK, not bad for a tune sung entirely in French. Also check out his beautiful ‘Papaoutai’ from 2013’s Racine Carrée.