Alphaville: From Germany with Love
BROTHERS IN ARMS
*This blog contains affiliate links. So you’re young though not necessarily forever young. You’ve got a great singer who can sing and write songs in English. You’re signed to WEA. Your first single is massive, you have the world at your feet, everything seems to have fallen into place with considerable ease and then… this happens…
…and as the ultimate nose rub they’re on the same label and would in time prove bigger in your own country. But band comparisons are nothing new; U2/Simple Minds for example. How about Duran Duran and Japan? And so it’s almost impossible to write about Alphaville without mentioning the word A-ha. But it’s the Alpha boys who went first; embellished in what was then zeitgeist synth-pop.
Their original name was Forever Young but this changed after they saw the film Alphaville – the dystopian future city suited their ethos as much as Barbarella’s matched Duran Duran. Alphaville (the film) has lent its influence to many artistic endeavours over the years including the above single by Bryan Ferry.
Something they share with Japan (the group) is the mainplayers all have ‘stage names.’ Marian Gold (born Hartwig Schierbaum), Bernhard Lloyd (Bernhard Gössling), Frank Mertens (Frank Sorgatz) and Mertens replacement Ricky Echolette (Wolfgang Neuhaus) named after an old microphone ‘the Echolette’ made by German company Sennheiser.
TAKING ON A VICTORY: TWO TALES OF A MOODY YOUTH
Let’s have a quick look at the debut albums. A-ha are straight out of the starting blocks with an uptempo pop phenomenon. They continue with Train of Thought and only slow down for the title track Hunting High and Low. Alphaville’s Forever Young feels more like an artistic statement. The Euro-cool of A Victory of Love is elegant, dramatic and plays with tempo (as well as love – lyrically speaking).
I don’t want to go into too much detail here, both are good albums in their field, but both bands have a slightly different line of vision. A-ha are more poppy; bright yet melancholic. Alphaville resonate with the more dramatic, eccentric and to some extent political (Summer in Berlin).
Both have romantic undertones. A-ha sing falsetto frescos to the bright blue skies of forlorn fjords. Alphaville poetically ponder the architecture of Gothic cathedrals on rainy days in (insert German city of choice here).
I often mention cities being collisions of other cities and that can occur with bands too. Where A-ha diversified, Alphaville stay mostly within the synth-pop genre, though there are faux-jazz touches here and there like the beginning of Red Rose, She Fades Away and on Heaven or Hell (though they do at least invest in a double bass for that one).
These are not the only musical comparisons. When Marian Gold kicks into gear on A Victory of Love for the ‘She’s playing with love’ lines he comes close to Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy. On Dance With Me’s euphoric chorus, Gold’s powerful larynx is not unlike Pete Wylie. And the propulsive blast of ‘AWAITING YOU’ which rounds off Romeos is on a par with Then Jerico’s Mark Shaw.
DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS
Both bands make a leap forward for their second albums (both 1986). Things start well enough with IAO. A neat little intro featuring a sprinkling of the title track. Universal Daddy and Jerusalem both display an element of funk and the Pet Shop Boys on the former. Something in the vein of Why Can’t We Live Together also released during 1986 so Alphaville were definitely tuned into what was happening.
For Afternoons in Utopia’s production, Wolfgang Loos is maintained from the first album while Colin Pearson is dropped completely. Loos is joined on the Christmassy title track by Peter Walsh and whenever I see that name my thoughts always see New Gold Dream.
He also produced Heaven 17, China Crisis and had a musical kinship with Scott Walker producing four of his albums (Climate of Hunter, TILT, The Drift and Bisch Bosch).
Loos and Walsh are in turn co-inhabited by Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero known for their work as remixers on the American club circuit. Clearly the band had its sights set on international success, recording Dance With Me in January 1985 in New York, returning to Berlin’s legendary HANSA Studio to record with Walsh.
There is not much of a stretch musically speaking between say Sounds Like a Melody and Dance With Me. But that’s not to say they didn’t try out other musical ideas notably in the first of their lengthier pieces Lassie Come Home which also brings some acoustic instrumentation into play.
However Marian Gold (looking like a Germanic Michael Hutchence) stated on TV they were more interested in music than markets and that the ideas they had for live work would be too expensive. As such the band opted to remain in Berlin rather than tour.
Utopia makes it to number 20 in four different countries. In the main I don’t think the three pronged approach to production helped the band. Had Walsh or Thompson/Barbiero overseen the whole thing who knows what it may have sounded like. But there’s no denying Utopia is dated, and easily outclassed by Scoundrel Days.
Both second albums have portrait shots but A-ha’s Scoundrel Days is more considered, art directed by Jeri Heiden while Afternoons in Utopia has the band shot by Sheila Rock and an inner sleeve which to my mind makes little sense.
In red with white type instead of the peach and turquoise colouring on the ALPHAVILLE lettering on the front. I’ve produced a few alternative looks for an imagined inner sleeve (no lyrics/details).
A re-imagined UTOPIA image shows up in the bands merchandise store. Taking its cue from cult film A Clockwork Orange – doesn’t it look much better than the original? By 1986 A-ha had well and truly stolen their thunder (even if they were on the same label). The biggest difference is like Simple Minds and U2 – the line up.
While Morten, Mags and Paul have remained a tight unit, Alphaville falter almost immediately. The shy and retiring Frank Mertens unable to cope with the limelight departs only to form another (short-lived) band.
From 2010 it’s pretty much been Marian Gold with session players though kudos to Gold he welcomes and lists everyone as official band members. He might have been a hotelier such is his hospitality and believe me I’ve met worse!
Somewhat ironically, Alphaville’s first two albums were very popular in… you’ve guessed it, Norway! While A-ha have a huge following in Germany – just one of those interesting quirks between them. Interesting factoid 2, neither (aside Take on Me) would trouble America, commercially anyway though both have followings in South America.
A-ha in Brazil, while Alphaville have a dedicated posse in Chile. After this the rails separate and the bands continue on their own tracks if you like. A-ha manage to squeeze out album three in ’88 while Alphaville’s The Breathtaking Blue followed a year later. The blue on the cover and inner sleeve is breathtaking, the album less so.
NEW ROMANTICS: EUROPE AFTER THE SUMMER RAIN
Beginning with the grandiose piano led ballad Summer Rain. Gold shifting vocal subtleties between Morten Harket and a dash of Bryan Ferry. If the film Casablanca is ever remade then Summer Rain would be a good soundtrack. Having said that it was included on their Songlines project. Nine films by different directors based on music from the album.
The second track Romeos couldn’t be more different entranced by a screeching guitar solo – apparently difficult to record – before settling on a stocky synth strut; kind of Summer in Berlin’s meaner cock and bull cousin.
It would have been interesting to see what Eurythmics ace David A Stewart might have done with them, or even Ian Stanley but they stuck with fellow German Klaus Schulze. The problem with Breathtaking Blue is it doesn’t really know what it is or wants to be and this is mirrored in its running order.
The Mysteries of Love would have followed Summer Rain better than Romeos which itself behind Mysteries would work. OR was Summer Rain itself misplaced as the opener; though it does give mention to the album’s title. Also given reference is A Saucerful of Secrets!
Ariana and Middle of the Riddle are among the worst musical atrocities committed to tape! Truly dreadful for a band on their third album at the end of the eighties. For a Million is better. Anyway (the final song) more jazzy synth strings.
In terms of album releases A-ha took a seven year sabbatical between ’93 and 2000. Alphaville switched off the Audi in ’89 and hit the ignition again in ’94. Though like Morten Harket, Marian Gold released solo work in the downtime. The first of these So Long Celeste appeared in 1992, though I’d say like John Foxx the single cover imagery (by Stylorouge in this case) is stronger; especially on And I Wonder.
Unfortunately however great the sleeve art, it doesn’t really match the song, if anything an upbeat synth pop with guitar rather than dreamy. Hold onto your hats though ‘cause the second track is so fast you’ll think you’re in a speeding car. The Shape of Things to Come is one of the best moments on Celeste.
Its subject matter is fervently futurist ‘welcome to the future.’ If John Foxx’s When I Was a Man and You Were a Woman had been released in 1991/92 it might have been like this minus the poncy spoken word part in the middle. Instead the lyrics are more informed with lines like ‘you live in your dream, I live in mine, maybe tomorrow we will collide.’
I’d say it should have been a single but futurism in the early nineties was woefully out of fashion. Think Glenn Gregory’s Boom The Future single as part of the band project UGLY – and fellow German Claudia Brücken’s Kiss Like Either, so Shape of Things probably wouldn’t have stood a chance.
In 1984 when asked by WEA for an uptempo song (Sounds Like a Melody), Marian Gold felt he was betraying his hippy roots. Well, they are well and truly honoured in Heart of the Flower featuring a didgeridoo and sitar intro similar to It Can Happen by YES.
But those are the two strongest songs. From there it’s rocky (Today, Peace on Earth). For Sweet Needles the tone is sedate and his voice again like Then Jerico’s Mark Shaw.
With those pesky Norwegians having a break the coast was clear to release an album which went by the rather eye-catching title Prostitute! I reached out to the band to find out why it’s called that but no response. A whopping 16 tracks running to 70 minutes. Five years later but familiar; Breathtaking Blue 2?
The titles range from run of the mill (The One Thing, Some People and Oh Patti – sadly not covers of INXS, Paul Young or Scritti Politti) to interesting Iron John, Ivory Tower, and All in the Golden Afternoon which again sounds like a lyric John Foxx would come up with. And there’s another potential producer; Foxx himself or Zeus B Held (though the latter did do the extended mix of Big in Japan).
Again the album suffers in its running order but also its cover art. Within the inner booklet, the concept becomes clear and it’s a visual force but the front on its own just looks like a scrappy mess. It could have been inspired by Anton Corbijn’s work with Depeche Mode (but don’t quote me on it).
The songs, even in the first three, vary from the quirky synth tunings of Paradigm Shift (a little like Tony Banks synth-work on Genesis’s Tonight Tonight Tonight and crying out for a Richard Barbieri remix) to the summer pop of Fools which gave them a top 10 in Finland.
It might be light and airy in the music but the lyrics pack of punch ‘all these politicians make me sigh, democracy is just a lie’ and ‘we feed like vampires on the world’ while the chorus alternates between ‘keep on dancing – all you fools, keep on dancing – all you clowns.’
Backed by female vocals, which is nothing A-ha didn’t do on Memorial Beach though here the music is more synth pop acoustic rather than the more funky wide-screen Americana A-ha were up to. Speaking of which I wonder if Morten Harket had a sneaky listen to The Impossible Dream and used it as the basis for his own A Kind of Christmas Card.
I should say that regarding female b/vox Alphaville were way ahead there too, on Utopia’s The Voyager, Universal Daddy, Sensations and Breathtaking Blue’s Romeos. On the latter it’s not too bad but I wouldn’t say it was a particularly good move overall.
THE BOOTS ARE BACK
Beethoven’s contemporary beats mask a dark song about racism. A popular choice for Gold and also Paula Cole the same year (Hitler’s Brothers). There are all sorts of hidden meanings as to why the song is called Beethoven but rest assured he was no racist.
His 5th symphony has influenced so many over the years including the disco version on Saturday Night Fever and the California Guitar Trio who feature it on their 1998 album Pathways.
The first few notes were known as the ‘knock of fate’ and the short short short long (that is to say the famous ‘da da da daaa’) notes in morse code mean V for victory. In other words good will triumph evil. With lyrics like… ‘Once again the racial fury is burning down the house. There’s a bleeding yellow man dying in the street. When it gets dark in Europe, it’s just a state of mind, the blind leading the blind.’
Let’s hope so. However sad the lyrical catchphrase ‘The boots are back’ are as relevant in 2020 as they were in 1994. Quite what were they thinking with Faith, Synth-reggae! I really don’t know but whatever Prostitute became the last album with Echolette.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
The see-saw of album releases between band and frontman continues through the nineties. For solo album two Gold wisely unites with the late Rupert Hine which totally makes sense (and I wonder why this partnership was dropped for the next Alphaville record or why it wasn’t considered for say Prostitute or Breathtaking Blue). Perhaps their contractual stars did not align but they do on United and it’s very good!
Danger in Your Paradise is pleasantly adept synth pop with strings. This is followed not by Caroline as listed on the album cover but by a really good cover of David Bowie’s Five Years, tastefully done and very well executed.
Caroline itself which follows in track 3 is rather lovely too. For the Sake of Love has some clever lyrics ‘I forgive… the stars when they fell too fast, I forgive a shit but I couldn’t write a hit,’ his wailing cry on the intro and outro remind of The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers.
Change The World is a laid back soulful swoon and it’s always good to see Claudia Fontaine on the credits of any album. Cosmopolitician continues the dusky terrain with a spoken word slot in the middle.
Indeed the only thing wrong with United is the cover, absolutely abysmal and it could easily have been better. Just take the lines off and give some more consideration to the type and voila! As is it’s up there in the worst cover art category.
United is swiftly shadowed by Alphaville’s Salvation – which by comparison has artwork which is absolutely gorgeous – the next year. The design was art directed and designed by Dirk Rudolph and featured a dog called Gwendolina possibly summoned by the high pitched guitars on Romeos. So to the music…
Briton Andy Richards is given full member status as he’s not only at the mixing desk but also plays keys for the departed Echolette (who co-wrote the music) but does not feature on the artwork. Aside Richards the big name mixers are in for the ride.
Steve Fitzmaurice (SEAL) and Mike ‘Spike’ Drake (Human League) add creative elements to several of the tracks while strings seamstress Anne Dudley works her magic on the emotive symphonic ballad Flame (it’s a bit too sickly for me though).
Strangely what with all the names and being recorded in London, the record didn’t get a release in the UK. Nevertheless Salvation re-aligned them nicely with the zeitgeist.
Streamlined synthetic pop melded to trance like club beats in the vein of BT; Monkey in the Moon and Wishful Thinking with its morose top line of ‘Sometimes I wish that you were dead!’ The club beats of Soul Messiah isn’t bad either (if you like Human League’s Secrets album for example).
Some fare less well, Guardian Angel a vapid Euro-cheese that might have been considered for Eurovision. Point of Know Return is a mid-tempo drum and bass, Control more trance-like pop. Dangerous Places again reminds of John Foxx and Louis Gordon so they were ahead of the curve there. Spirit of the Age maybe a dash of Pet Shop Boys (especially when Helena Springs was backing them up in the early days).
New Horizons – hippy electronica with acoustics ‘you are a rainbow to the new horizon,’ again a touch of BT’s ESCM or Movement in Still Life. Pandora’s Lullaby is a beautiful finale with its strings. A more poppy Men and Women (if you know the INXS closer on Welcome to Wherever You Are).
Salvation is their Minor Earth, Major Sky. It would also prove to be Lloyd’s curtain call (himself becoming a producer of younger German bands) though he remains on good terms and in touch with Gold. It is this period 1996/97 that is to me their most consistent and strongest.
After a decade away the band’s sci-fi origins simmer to the boil on the cover art of Catching Rays on Giant. A bearded Gold with his face off! Looking similar to Doctor Who’s nemesis The Master or a James Bond villain.
The album, like A-ha’s Analogue, gave them their biggest hit at home for quite a while in the resplendent I Die For You Today and their first top 10 German album since Forever Young. There’s a fantastic unplugged version from German TV on You Tube and you can see Marian has lost none of his vocal power!
Heaven on Earth (the Things We’ve Got to do) like Ole/subshine or an electro Enrique Iglesias acoustic synth pop. Song for No One, End of the World has a motif almost like Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy! The Deep is an emotive ballad, while Carry Your Flag a pleasant one.
Call Me Down is better than Call Me and the kind of synth-pop that Human League or OMD are doing only there’s an acoustic ace up its sleeve for the break in the middle meaning that it sounds like the aforementioned mixed with the Lightning Seeds. Miracle Healing updates the vibe of Lassie Come Home.
CONFERENCE OF THE STRANGE
Another seven year itch results in Strange Attractor (2017) produced by the band with Andreas Schwarz-Ruszczynski who I’ve never heard of, but man the songs are long! Five are over five minutes and one is near eight! House of Ghosts, and Around the Universe are – you’ve guessed it, reminiscent of A-ha.
The funky pop of single Heartbreak City finds his voice in good shape and this recalls to my mind The Mysteries of Love. Like Prostitute (14 tracks) 13 songs is too long and obviously designed perhaps for fans to expect a lengthy absence.
HEARTBREAK CITY: WHY ALPHAVILLE WERE NOT HUGE
You might ask why Alphaville were not huge and for that there is no logical answer. I have to admit I’m as guilty as the next person. I loved A-ha but for some reason Big in Japan was my sole purchase for Alphaville. Having now listened to their albums I think there are three main reasons why Alphaville never hit it big (or as big as some of their contemporaries).
1 They lacked the right producers at moments critical to their career (notably albums 2 and 3). Alan Tarney was a bizarre choice to be fronting up what was then a cool new band (A-ha). He hadn’t had a commercial hit for a few years (Cliff’s We Don’t Talk Anymore and Leo Sayer’s More Than I Can Say).
Yet because Take on Me is a love song – accentuated by the video it caught the public’s imagination. The Norsemen were able to follow up strong with Scoundrel Days.
2 Alphaville were intentionally more arthouse which would have put them on the back footer though it didn’t stop The Flying Lizards, Laurie Anderson or indeed Japan and the Cocteau Twins from having hits in the UK; admittedly not too many.
3 Promotion, it seems unintelligible that Forever Young should not land anywhere in the UK top 40 (both single and album) so it’s pretty clear some sort of record company politics were at play. Even A-ha were lucky here as an American exec in London signed them.
Once he returned to the States the British WEA gave the band little interest – this was very common with labels in the eighties – see also ICEHOUSE and Chrysalis records.
Both A-ha and Alphaville had pretty solid starts but even A-ha’s lack lustre third (Stay on These Roads) is better than Utopia and Breathtaking Blue. In recent years this trend has been reversed with Cast in Steel proving to be utterly abysmal while Alphaville’s recent albums have been among their strongest.
FOREVER YOUNG: OPENING THE TIME CAPSULE
I can appreciate Hunting High and Low in that I heard it as a new release when I was 15 and now on a more nostalgic setting. But I never heard Forever Young (the album) until now. So it’s a time capsule for me and I can only hear it in the second sense; almost a parody of the time.
I remember picking up The Breathtaking Blue a few times; once a second hand copy in the gloomy light of Cardiff market. But for whatever reason, it never made it to the counter. So let’s go back to 1984 just after Big in Japan’s swelling wake.
Forever Young performed well in Europe, especially in Scandinavia but the UK and the US seemed immune. Both seem strange when you consider A-ha’s chart run a year later and that NENA was hitting the heights with 99 Red Balloons. In the UK Forever Young simply does not exist. I mean not even no85, 93 nothing! It did not chart at all. Even the single limped to no 98.
This bearing in mind the musical climate seems as bizarre as any band I’ve mentioned. But that is the reason I am writing about Alphaville here on Kulture Kiosk, they are underrated. That and the fact to represent Germany in song as well as place.
JET SET SOCIETY
The Jet Set gained some exposure in the UK – DJ Peter Powell – whom I mention in the ICEHOUSE blog championed it to no avail. But it was good. I’ve been playing it as part of the research for this blog and it’s still very relevant. Both Jet Set and Dance With Me made it to #11 in Germany but the candle was slowly wavering.
Looking back now it’s astonishing how A-ha Forever Young (the album) is (or should that be how Alphaville Hunting High and Low is?) Anyway check out Lies and Sounds Like a Melody for an alternative A-ha-fix! Both could easily have featured on Hunting High and Low and I kind of wish they had in place of Love is Reason and Dream Myself Alive which were both crap.
Forever Young’s own poo comes in the form of To Germany with Love (the intro is excellent and some of the harmonies but it’s dated) and In the Mood. But let’s concentrate on the good shit, such as the cool European vampish opener A Victory of Love (which I mentioned way back). A synth-swing beat before a clever change of tempo mid-way through and an astonishing vocal!
MELODY WILL TRAVEL
Summer in Berlin might sound light and flimsy but it’s a meaty political stab at what happened in the east of the city and its segue into Big in Japan is neat. The title track has really kept them in good stead over the years.
Lyrically smart ‘hoping for the best but expecting the worst’ and ‘let us die young or let us live forever, we don’t have the power but we never say never.’ In America it hit #65 twice! And it’s been covered by a multitude of artists including Beyonce and Laura Branigan who turned it back into the uptempo song it was originally.
Perhaps not too surprising is that the first three singles (Big in Japan, Sounds Like a Melody and Forever Young) were and remain Alphaville’s commercial kings. Two back to back #1’s in Brazil and all three doing the same in Sweden!
In terms of the artwork some of these are beautiful period pieces, the 12” of Big in Japan in its graphic whites and pale greys and Sounds Like Melody which borrow the portrait typeface from Tears For Fears early singles and The Hurting album.
In 2019 the album was given an extensive deluxe reissue with no less than three discs, a DVD (Never Grow Up – The Story of Forever Young including interviews and the promo videos) and the vinyl album remastered. All the usual trimmings are here, B-Sides, Extended versions, and demos. It also charted within the German top 10. In May 2021 both Afternoons in Utopia and Breathtaking Blue also received the deluxe treatment. Buy A L P H A V I L L E on eBay.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
Further still, if you like what I’m doing? Please consider hitting the social channels: Kulture Kiosk on Facebook and Twitter, photos on Instagram. Playlist and Photo Credits to follow…
Big in Japan (single version) – Alphaville
Alphaville (from Olympia) – Bryan Ferry
Take on Me (from Hunting High and Low) – A-ha
A Victory of Love (from Forever Young) – Alphaville
Dance With Me (from Afternoons in Utopia) – Alphaville
Universal Daddy (from Afternoons in Utopia) – Alphaville
Why Can’t We Live Together (from Please) – Pet Shop Boys
Afternoons in Utopia (from Afternoons in Utopia) – Alphaville
Summer Rain (from The Breathtaking Blue) – Alphaville
Romeos (from The Breathtaking Blue) – Alphaville
The Mysteries of Love (from The Breathtaking Blue) – Alphaville
For a Million (from The Breathtaking Blue) – Alphaville
The Shape of Things to Come (from So Long Celeste) – Marian Gold
Heart of the Flower (from So Long Celeste) – Marian Gold
It Can Happen (from 90125) – YES
Paradigm Shift (from Prostitute) – Alphaville
Tonight Tonight Tonight (single version) – Genesis
Solar Storm (from Planets and Persona) Richard Barbieri
Fools (from Prostitute) – Alphaville
The Impossible Dream (from Prostitute) – Alphaville
A Kind of Christmas Card (from Wild Seed) – Morten Harket
Beethoven (from Prostitute) – Alphaville
Danger in Your Paradise (from United) – Marian Gold
Caroline (from United) – Marian Gold
Say it Ain’t So, Jo (from United) – Marian Gold
Change The World (from United) – Marian Gold
Half in Love, Half in Hate (from Wild Seed) – Morten Harket
Monkey in the Moon (from Salvation) – Alphaville
Never Give Your Heart (from Secrets) – Human League
Wishful Thinking (from Salvation) – Alphaville
Soul Messiah (from Salvation) – Alphaville
Shameless (from Secrets) – Human League
Point of Know Return (from Salvation) – Alphaville
Spirit of the Age (from Salvation) – Alphaville
Violence (from Please) – Pet Shop Boys
New Horizons (from Salvation) – Alphaville
Orbitus Teranium (from ESCM) – BT
Pandora’s Lullaby (from Salvation) – Alphaville
Men and Women (from Welcome to Wherever You Are) – INXS
I Die For You Today (from Catching Rays on Giant) – Alphaville
The Things I Didn’t Do (from Catching Rays on Giant) – Alphaville
Carry Your Flag (from Catching Rays on Giant) – Alphaville
Heartbreak City (from Strange Attractor) – Alphaville
The Jet Set (single version from Forever Young Deluxe) – Alphaville
Lies (from Forever Young) – Alphaville
Sounds Like a Melody (from Forever Young) – Alphaville
Summer in Berlin (from Forever Young) – Alphaville
Big in Japan (from Forever Young) – Alphaville
Forever Young (from Forever Young) – Alphaville
sleeves from discogs
Alphaville film promo poster from wiki
Afternoons in Utopia inner sleeve alternates by KH
Utopia alternate art from their merchandise store.
Clockwork Orange image from wiki.
Songlines wiki by source, fair use.