Graded on a Curve:
Heino,
Mit Freundlichen Grüßen

The septuagenerian German superstar Heino has spent more than five decades doing the predictable–churning out mortifyingly maudlin Schlager and Volkmusik songs for sentimental German-speakers to sing and clap along with. He really has no American equivalent, although Neil Diamond at his very worst comes close.

Heino (aka Heinz Georg Kramm) is perhaps best known in English-speaking countries for his frightening album covers (google the cover of Liebe Mutter, I dare you), but in Germany his old-fashioned renditions of Schlager (it means “hit,” but these are most certainly not your idea of hits) and German folk songs make him much beloved, albeit mostly by the elderly and the kinds of folk sentimentalists who never miss out on a chance to break out the lederhosen.

Germany’s alternative-music loving young people, of course, consider him the enemy–the personification of backwards-looking nostalgia and the bane of anyone who has ever turned on German television only to be treated to a solid hour or two of sheer Schlager terror. But Heino had a surprise–or should we say a blitzkrieg?–up his sleeve. The platinum-haired, dark-glasses wearing Teuton may look like the epitome of a sinister Bond villain, but he has more in common with Liam Neeson’s character in Taken.

To wit, Heino has a particular set of skills, a set of skills he developed over a lifetime, and in 2013 he put them to hair-raising and nefarious use on the ironically titled Mit Freundlichen Grüßen (which translates as “With Best Wishes”), on which he covered songs by some of Germany’s most popular punk, industrial metal, and hip hop artists. It was a master stroke of agitprop by a man eager to take revenge on the people who despise him, as he made crystal clear in interviews where he expressed contempt for the very songs he was covering.

The English-speaking world has had its parallels; Pat Boone shocked the world with a heavy on the kitsch metal LP (In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy) in the late ’90s, and the Osmonds put out a hard rock album (Crazy Horses) in 1972. But here’s the difference; Mit Freundlichen Grüßen scored big.

How could such a thing have happened? Who bought the damn thing, and why? I’m sure a lot of people–on both sides of the great alternative music/Schlager divide–bought it out of sheer curiosity. And I’m also certain a lot of the alternative folks bought in on a lark, correctly surmising that it would be good for shits and giggles.

But that hardly accounts for record-breaking sales, so here’s my theory: Mit Freundlichen Grüßen sold like good wurst because it’s a wonderful album–a campy, ridiculous lark and perhaps the most audacious thing of joy to come out of Europe since Laibach. I expected to suffer through it once and file it away forever, but I’ll be damned if Heino’s portentous baritone and straight-faced takes on songs by the likes of Rammstein, Die Ärzte, Sportfreunde Stiller, and Die Fantastischen Vier aren’t a whole lot of fun.

This sounds like the Schlager Musik I used to hear so much of on German television–which is an article or even book in itself–but Heino puts the originals to good use. Sure, he Schlagerizes the hell out of ‘em, but you can only Schlagerize such hip hop tunes as Absolute Beginner’s “Liebes Lied” and Die Fantastischen Vier’s “MFG” so far.

This has the feel of Spaghetti Western music, but really schmaltzy Spaghetti Western music; the oompah horns, glockenspiel and schlock backing vocalists are pure Schlager. But Heino, who never met an “R” he couldn’t roll, is smart enough to employ the occasional electric guitar for punch, and wise enough to use the melodies of the originals to good stead.

The results are relentlessly upbeat, remorselessly over the top, and make for a brand new kind of Autobahn sound. As part of his PR campaign for the LP, Heino took to being chauffeured around in a Mercedes S class limousine complete with a 600-watt sound system and his new personalized logo (a human skull wearing his titanium mane and black shades) on the hood, and I can only imagine that tooling along the Autobahn in that baby while listening to Mit Freundlichen Grüßen would be a whole lot of Teutonic fun.

He attacks Die Ärzte’s “Junge”–a punk fave–like a deranged Johnny Cash, ratchets up the histrionics on Peter Fox’s jaunty “Haus am See,” and transforms the Sportfreunde Stiller rave-up “Ein Kompliment” into a supersized slice of impossible-to-resist pop kitsch. And you simply have to check out what he does to Rammstein’s industrial metal on “Sonne,” which is all portentous horns and lurid melodrama.

I could go on, but I won’t. Let me just make one note that will certainly be met with scorn by my young German friends; one reason that Heino’s Schlagerization of their songs works so well (in at least some cases) is that their songs have more in common with his variety of Schalger/Volksmusik than they’d care to admit.

Many German pop bands beloved in Germany look to America and England for their cues, but most of them have also incorporated (at least to some extent) Sclager’s sentimental and nativist ideas into their music. If you want to be a distinctively German musician (as opposed to a slavish imitator of American and English music) you have to start somewhere, and what better place to start than the Deutschland’s rich Schlager and Volksmusik traditions? In other words, Heino was infiltrating a music that had already been infiltrated from the get go, and I suspect that Germany’s hip young people responded to it because Schlager and Volksmusik are an inescapable part of their cultural DNA.

Allow me to close by saying that Mit Freundlichen Grüßen is a triumph, if not of the will then of bad taste that simply won’t be denied. I’ve been listening to this LP for days, mortified but with a smile on my face. At this moment I’m listening to Heino’s cover of Keimzeit’s “Kling Klang,” and I can only describe it as a victorious example of the ridiculous sublime. Or of the sublime ridiculous. With Heino you never know, and I’m not sure it makes a bit of difference.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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