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Pete Paphides on the influence of Europop

Abba. Photo credit: nico7martin via / CC BY - Credit: Photo credit: nico7martin via / CC BY

Europop has to be the most maligned genre in the past 50 years. Music writer, broadcaster and record collector Pete Paphides hails its influence.

You’ll find it somewhere amid the sweeping strings and disco drums of Boney M’s Daddy Cool; between the hesitant verses and defiant chorus of Yes Sir I Can Boogie. It’s abundant both in the minor-key melodrama of Laura Branigan’s Self-Control and the symphonic synth arpeggios of Cappella’s U Got 2 Let The Music. At the time of their release, critics didn’t rush to praise Haddaway’s What Is Love or Modern Talking’s Brother Louie, but in both of those hits, there’s a certain something that tells you the people who wrote this music could never have come from America. We know Europop when we hear it, but identifying a single audible characteristic that unites all of these songs is an altogether harder task.

If we can call it a genre, it surely has to be the most maligned genre in the past 50 years. It encompasses the songs many of our parents listened to when they went on Spanish package holidays and hit the local disco while left us in the care of childminders. But it also encompasses music that is found favour in gay clubs and, albeit in bastardised form, filled dancefloors at acid house nights in places like Shoom and The Hacienda. Without it, we wouldn’t have Pet Shop Boys, Daft Punk or possibly even Madonna. It never took itself seriously – which is something that its critics never quite realised. But it gave pleasure to a huge amount of people, and continues to do so.

It’s almost impossible to find a single identifying characteristic that distinguishes Europop from other music. It is, however, far easier to identify Europop by virtue of what it lacks.

The wellspring of American pop – and most British pop – is blues and gospel music. It’s where rock’n’roll came from. It’s where soul came from. In 1974, making a form of pop that was divorced of all those influences was the challenge that Kraftwerk set themselves when they set about making Autobahn, the album which effectively heralded their mission statement. Just as The Eagles’ Hotel California album traded on its depiction of a mythic, instantly recognisable America, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider set about finessing a German equivalent.

In Stockholm, just over 1,370km north of Dusseldorf, Abba’s Benny Andersson had put his years with bluesy Swedish pin-ups, The Hep Stars, way behind him. With Abba, he set himself the challenge of making a version of pop that reflected his own upbringing. Speaking at Abba’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2010, Andersson talked about his early years listening to music on the single radio channel that was available to him.

‘We didn’t have any blues like you would call it blues in Sweden, we had some kind of blues because above [59 degrees latitude]… from eastern Russia, through Finland into Scandinavia, there’s this ‘melancholy belt’, sometimes mistaken for the vodka belt (laughter)… It’s definitely in the Swedish folk music, you can hear it in the Russian folk songs, you can hear it in the music from Jean Sibelius or Edvard Grieg from Norway, you could see it in the eyes of Greta Garbo and you can hear it in the voice of Jussi Björling. And actually you can hear it in the sound of Frida and Agnetha on some of our songs too.’

Europop wasn’t a wholesale rejection of American or British pop. It was more of a recalibration. Giorgio Moroder had a number of false starts before experiencing a eureka moment similar to those of Abba and Kraftwerk. It’s a story you can hear in the first person on Giorgio By Moroder, the track put together in collaboration with and in tribute to Moroder on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. After a number of years struggling to catch a break as a singer-songwriter, the Italian studio pioneer swapped guitar for Moog and realised that he had stumbled upon the sound of the future. ‘Once you free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want.’ Constructed with the help of Pete Bellotte in the pairs Munich studio, I Feel Love bears testament to that realisation. During the recording of David Bowie’s Heroes album, this was the song that prompted an excited Brian Eno to tell Bowie that ‘this single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.’

It’s easy to forget how utterly alien I Feel Love must have sounded as it hit the dance floors, but writing in Record World in 1977, Vince Aletti brings home both the impact 
of I Feel Love and Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express that year. ‘I Feel Love… took the synthesiser rhythm [of the Kraftwerk song] and compressed and intensified it so it was both more physically exciting – like stepping into a tangle of high-voltage wires – and more commercial.’

Like Georgio Moroder, Frank Farian achieved almost no success as a solo artist in the 60s – and like Moroder, he realised the potential rewards were greater if he stepped back from the spotlight.

Such was the ubiquity of their hit-making run that it’s easy to forget the bizarreness of Farian’s song choices. Let’s start with the covers, shall we? A version of Painter Man – a previously obscure release by British 60s psych-rockers The Creation; a rendition of Rivers Of Babylon, a similarly niche release by Jamaican vocal group, The Melodians.

But neither of these covers were as obscure or ostensibly unsuited to pan-European chart-domination as Boney M’s fourth British top-ten hit. Belfast was originally written by an old friend of Farian’s called Drafi Deutscher – whose own pop career had been cut abruptly short when he was photographed urinating over some schoolgirls from a hotel balcony.

Originally titled Londonderry, Belfast was Deutscher’s attempt to address the troubles in Northern Ireland. No-one really knew why it had been left to Boney M to address this political hot potato through the lyrics of a disco song, but it became a hit all over Europe – and in doing so, suddenly made Europop a genre where massive commercial success and bizarre subject matter weren’t mutually exclusive.

As if emboldened by the success of Rasputin, Farian’s next idea was to put the life of Russian playboy, would-be healer and advisor to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Grigori Rasputin, to song. In Russia, President Brezhnev was already a fan – although when Boney M became the first Western group to play a series of dates there, Brezhnev asked them to omit the song from their set ‘for historical reasons’. Ironically, the song didn’t fare better in America either. The heavy presence of balalaika on the track precluded it from getting a top-100 placing.

Nevertheless, Boney M helped set the tone for a succession of Europop smashes in which no subject was too bizarre. Fellow German disco troupe Genghis Khan came within a few points of winning the 1978 Eurovision song contest with their paean to the eponymous Persian warlord. Featuring Sandra, who would later go on to have a huge Eurohit with (I’ll Never Be) Maria Magadalena, Arabesque were an all-female German trio who opened their account with the impenetrably catchy Hello Mr. Monkey. By this time a method of sorts had established itself when it came to scoring a hit across the entire continent. Having become accepted as the de facto language of pop, there almost always had to be an English language element to any Europop hit.

A protege of Giorgio Moroder, based in Munich, Dee D. Jackson sang one of the era’s most memorable songs, Automatic Lover, which was written for her by Munich Machine husband-and-wife team Patty and Gary Unwin. The voice of the robot in the song was provided by Jimmy McShane who, as Baltimora, would go on to enjoy huge success when he teamed up with an Italian production team to record Tarzan Boy. Peter Schilling borrowed David Bowie’s second most famous creation for his single Major Tom and was rewarded with a Euro-wide smash.

By the late 70s and early 80s, Europop’s commercial success was inversely proportionate to its critical standing. There’s little evidence to suggest that anyone involved with the making of the records lost any sleep over what the NME thought of them – certainly not Daniel Vangarde. Over the early part of the decade, Vangarde developed an unlikely forte: writing incredibly catchy if slightly yearning songs and encasing them in a shell of ersatz ethnicity. Along with Belgian producer and writer Jean Kluger, he was the brains behind the cult 1971 album Le Monde Fabuleux Des Yamasuki, credited to an apparently Japanese troupe of singers called The Yamasukis. When that failed to yield any sizeable hits, he recycled one of their songs Aieaoa, changing its name to Aie A Mwana and gave it to Black Blood, a newly-formed Zairean/Angolan band formed around his songs. It was a formula Vangarde used to incredibly successful effect with The Gibson Brothers on hits like Cuba and Que Sera Mi Vida, but perhaps Vangarde and Kluger’s greatest achievement came with D.I.S.C.O. by a Caribbean-born French duo called Ottawan. One of the greatest qualities of rock ‘n’ roll in its infancy was its flagrant indifference to the prospect of saying anything of great significance. Lyrically, early songs by Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis do little more than celebrate the sound of the music you’re hearing. With a Europop sound that seemed to exist outside of the pop traditions of any single country Ottawan’s embrace of euphoric nonsense was no less uplifting. ‘Crazy music/Crazy music/For crazy people/Crazy People,’ went Crazy Music. It showed no more regard for what you thought of it than any of the early punk records that emerged from Britain a couple of years previously.

If Britain was able to maintain a sniffy distance from what it saw as cheesier excesses of Europop, the emergence of synth-pop and the affiliated New Romantic movement established some commonality between what was happening on either side of the channel. Ultravox siphoned off a little Weimar-era grandeur for their megahit Vienna; The Mobiles gave us Drowning In Berlin; Visage’s Fade To Grey had an entire verse in French; Dare by The Human League and the eponymous debut by Duran Duran both owed an audible debt to Giorgio Moroder. The influence went both ways. Laura Branigan’s Self-Control, Trans X’s Living On Video and Desireless’s Voyage Voyage were massive global hits that married Moroder-esque arpeggiations to the glacial melancholia of French and Belgian cold wave acts such as Ruth and End Of Data. Even Abba made light work of moving with sleeker, more futuristic times. The eponymous opening track from their farewell album The Visitors is a dystopian cold-war nightmare whose DNA seemed to find its way into several subsequent releases by New Order. By 1987, even Slovenian experimentalists Laibach noticed that the chord sequences that seemed to propel the biggest Eurohits were often possessed of a stirring cinematic sadness. When they covered Opus’s Live Is Life, they reinvented it as a neo-Wagnerian national anthem for any former Soviet republic that might want to claim it.

In the wake of 80s synth-pop, the success of Germany’s Modern Talking looked like something of an anachronism – a permatanned duo comprised of blonde, shark-toothed Dieter and Michael, he of the dark-haired, blue-steel glare – except that they went on to become the decade’s biggest selling practitioners of Europop. Their biggest hits all adhered to a rigid formula. If strangely melancholy minor-key meditations such as You Can Win (If You Want) and You’re My Heart, You’re My Soul didn’t get you with the first chorus, they’d follow through with a second one delivered directly afterwards. Their insistent pop BOGOFs made them Germany’s most consistently successful group in the latter half of the 80s. By contrast, Sweden’s Army Of Lovers left you in no doubt that they weren’t trying to be tasteful. In the decade that disowned Abba, the trio foregrounded the special relationship that Europop had always enjoyed with gay culture.

There was nothing accidental about Army Of Lovers. They looked like they’d been thrown out of a Pierre et Gilles photoshoot for overdoing it a bit. Their name was inspired by a German documentary about a gay rights activist. One of their two male co-founders Alexander Bard was a former sex worker in Amsterdam, who went on to become an acclaimed philosopher, writing a serious of books analysing the social implications of the internet revolution. His counterparts, during the group’s imperial early phase, were royal hairdresser Jean-Pierre Barda and Camilla Henemark, a model who, according to a recent book, was alleged to have had a year-long affair with Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf.

None of this, of course, would have mattered if the music was rubbish, but in the wake of Live Aid, when mainstream rock plumbed new depths of ponderous self-satisfaction, Army Of Lovers were a sensational antidote, emphatically embraced all the things that ‘serious’ music fans sought to avoid: the high camp, the melodrama, the synths, special attention to requirements of the dance floor. As such, Crucified was their calling card, a vertiginous masochistic fantasy in whose protagonist pays the ultimate price for their sinful behaviour.

If you were going to put Crucified on the ultimate Europop playlist, you’d probably place it directly between Princess Stephanie of Monaco’s fragile 1986 gem Irresistible and Pet Shop Boys’ own hymn to repentance It’s A Sin. Like Army Of Lovers, Pet Shop Boys knew exactly what they were doing. Fronted by a self-deconstructing, university-educated, pop-literate, Smash Hits journalist, they had ridden to the top of the charts with a sound lovingly assembled out of all sorts of thrillingly compatible influences. Alongside Miami electro, boystown and perhaps even a touch of post-punk bedroom miserabilism, one thing you could most definitely hear in the music of Pet Shop Boys was a deep-rooted love of Europop. It’s A Sin topped the charts in 11 European countries. Had they entered it for Eurovision, it would have surely left every other song trailing in its wake. Pet Shop Boys repeatedly identified themselves as European, be it in the eponymous tribute to Italy’s Paninaro youth cult, 1997’s Bilingual album or in the song they wrote for Eighth Wonder, I’m Not Scared – which Patsy Kensit subsequently recorded in French.

The evolution of pop is really a process of continuing bastardisation. Just as American musicians bastardised the innovations of Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk to create acid house; European musicians have bastardised acid house in order to create their own dance music. Inspired by the work of New York and Chicago producers such as Todd Terry and Marshall Jefferson, a coterie of inspired Italian producers set about making a version of techno that reflected their sensibilities. As with the music of Ottawan, a decade previously, the lyrical content to be found in the music of Black Box and 49ers didn’t stand up to close scrutiny. To think it mattered one bit though – as Channel 4 music show Hear Say did when they sarcastically showed a 49ers video with added subtitles – was to miss the point.

Working as part of a production team called Groove Groove Melody, Daniel Davoli’s ‘band’ project Black Box really just revolved around one trick, but in 1990 no-one else in pop even came close to having a comparably great idea: put down a backing track which combines a galloping piano riff to a house rhythm and repeat two or three samples of a legendary Hi-NRG singer (usually Loleatta Holloway but Aretha Franklin often worked just as well) ad nauseam to create a sense of ascending hysteria and imminent release. It worked so well on Ride On Time that they did it with I Don’t Know Anybody Else. If anything, Davoli’s compatriot Gianfranco Bortolotti achieved even greater results under a variety of pseudonyms. With Cappella he masterminded a string of singles which in which surging teutonic hooks waged war against desolate chord sequences – U Got 2 Know; U Got 2 Let The Music; Move On Baby – with relentless abandon.

By the late 90s, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Europop’s golden age had burnt out. But right at the end of the decade, in February 1999, a new American teenage sensation leapt to the top of the charts with a song that didn’t really sound very American at all. Swedish songwriter Max Martin had initially offered …Baby One More Time to three-headed R&B sensation TLC, but they hated the song. In a sense, it isn’t hard to see why. No-one in their right mind would attempt to score a US hit with a song set in C minor, especially one with lyrics that depict infatuation in terms more akin to an existential psychodrama. The only non-European aspect of Spears’ debut hit was Spears herself. It was written by Swedes, recorded in Stockholm and used Swedish musicians. Talking about that song and its successor Oops! …I Did It Again in 2002, Benny Andersson said, ‘Take away the production and it’s actually quite a folky quality. That’s why it sounds unusual to English ears. It’s Swedish music with an American production.’

In the interim, it’s become so common to turn on the radio and hear American artists such as Katy Perry and Taylor Swift singing songs that owe just as much to European tropes as they do their own traditions, that, half of the time, we don’t even notice it. But it’s definitely there. As Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo puts it, there’s a formula of sorts: ‘clear but simple lyrics… [but also] a lot about the melody, and also having a little bit of melancholy or a darker sense to it, to not make it too sugary or too bubblegum.’ With Abba hardwired into the collective memory, Scandinavian songwriters and producers such as Max Martin, Shellback, Stargate and Magnus Lidehäll have learned from the best. Drawing on the influence of both Abba and Giorgio Moroder in 2005, Madonna teamed up with Stuart Price to deliver the best album of her career with Confessions From A Dancefloor.

In a post-EDM world, Moroder’s stock has never been higher. His collaboration with Daft Punk on Random Access Memories even seemed to remind him of what it was he did so well. With the help of singers such as Sia and Kylie Minogue – both of whom would have been only too flattered to answer his calls – Moroder put his golf clubs into storage last year and released his first album in 13 years. Déjà Vu sounded like a Giorgio Moroder tribute album. Which, of course, is what we all secretly wanted a new Giorgio Moroder album to sound like. In it, you could hear echoes of I Feel Love and Love To Love You Baby. But also ghosts of less celebrated Moroder creations: Flashdance… What A Feeling, Neverending Story, Together In Electric Dreams. None of it sounds too uncool anymore. People no longer grimace if you compare something to Europop. But then, how could they? It’s everywhere.

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