Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Blaue Augen": A Brief History

In the continued spirit of trying something different, today I'm going to provide a brief history of one of my favorite songs, one usually overlooked by English-speaking audiences. The song "Blaue Augen" ("Blue Eyes") is an odd blend of English pop, German punk, and international new wave, a combination usually labeled Neue Deutsche Welle ("German New Wave"). There are a variety of bands associated with the classification, but this song, with its unusually complicated history, involves two of the best.

The story starts with Neonbabies, a West Berlin-based band started in 1979 by two sisters, Annette and Inga Humpe. After quickly rising in the live circuit, they recorded their debut EP, self-released in March 1980. This was the first appearance of the song "Blaue Augen", but not the last. Annette, the writer of the song in question, founded a second band, Ideal, in early 1980, and by summer she had left Neonbabies to focus on the new group. Annette brought the song with her, and a new arrangement appeared on Ideal's eponymous debut album in November 1980. "Blaue Augen" became the band's second single (after the amazing "Wir stehen auf Berlin"), and it quickly became a hit. Meanwhile, Neonbabies kept active with Inga at the helm, and they recorded another version for inclusion on their own debut eponymous album, released in 1981. Both bands' debut albums were among the best-selling independent albums in German at that time.

[Neonbabies – "I Don't Want to Loose You" (sic) EP]

I first encountered the original EP version on the Verschwende deine Jugend compilation that I heard through my sister. It features Annette on lead vocals, Inga on backing vocals, the punkiest sound of any of the versions, and several bizarre saxophone segments. Ideal's version naturally also features Annette's vocals, but the song was rearranged for a more syncopated reggae rhythm. The lyrics were revised, and the verses were downplayed in favor of a big chorus sound, featuring a bright keyboard accompaniment. The second Neonbabies version is similar to the original, but what it gains in higher production values it loses in raw energy and enthusiasm. Inga takes the lead on this version, but her voice is just a bit thinner than her sister's.

[Neonbabies.]

I still find the first version to be the best. The vocals more consistently display the alternation between the frustration of the verses and the excitement of the chorus without going into excess. The Humpe sisters working together brought their best strengths to the original arrangement, and it rocks in a way the others don't, even if Ideal's version has a good but different groove. I also prefer the weird saxophone over Ideal's guitar solo.

It's worth taking a look at the lyrics. Again, the original features the best variation, but they're all similar. A translation of Ideal's version can be found here (alongside the German text), but I will provide my own translation of the original Neonbabies text:

"Blue Eyes"

Neonbabies on TV
Leaves me cold inside,
And the whole artists' scene
Is just too much for me.
So I stay cool – no emotion.

Garish rags from the 50s, 60s –
All hollow and rotten.
I won't be going anymore
To Skoda or Fiorucci.
So I stay cool – no emotion.

But only your blue eyes
Make me so sentimental.
Those blue eyes!
When you look at me
Nothing else matters at all.
Nothing at all!
Your blue eyes are phenomenal.
Hard to believe –
But what I feel
Is not normal anymore.

This is dangerous, life-threatening!
So much emotion, not cool anymore.
So much emotion, not cool anymore.

The insider parties put me to sleep,
And I don't want to be in London.
I get bored to tears
With sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll.
I stay cool, no emotion, no emotion!

All the hassle for dough
Leaves me deaf and dumb.
I won't bend over backwards
For a meager luxury.
Only the Sheik is really rich.

Diligent readers may know that love songs often bore me. However, I admire a song that can take a common theme and twist it. "Blaue Augen" is a great example – at face value, hearing only the chorus, one would clearly think this is a standard love song. "But only your blue eyes / Make me so sentimental" and "When you look at me / Nothing else matters at all" might be the epitome of cliché, but just consider the bridge! "This is dangerous, life-threatening" – maybe there's more going on here!

In truth, the verses express exhaustion and disaffection with the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. I appreciate the anti-commercial, anti-capitalist sentiment, and I like that she takes it to the extreme of even opposing the artistic or musical scene that the singer is caught up in. She seems genuinely surprised at herself for being so emotional about the titular blue eyes, considering how worn out she sounds in regards to everything else.

Sadly, like most songs sung in any language except English, this song has hardly ever received attention in the English-speaking world. As far as I can tell, the Neonbabies versions were never even pressed in any country except Germany, and while the album has never been reissued or released on CD, the original version was included on the Verschwende deine Jugend compilation in 2002. Ideal's Ideal saw limited international release throughout Europe as the album became more popular in Germany and Austria, but certainly never made it so far as the USA. It was issued on CD in 1987 and reissued in 2005.

[Ideal.]

Lest one think that was the end of the careers of the Humpe sisters, allow me to disprove that idea. After both bands released three albums each, they split up, but the sisters reunited briefly for the weirdo Tauchen-Prokopetz project, also known as DÖF (Deutsch-Österreichisches Feingefühl), then later formed Humpe & Humpe (known as Swimming with Sharks in the UK). Both women have extensive careers as top producers in Germany, and both still keep active with their own creative projects: Annette can be found in Ich + Ich and Inga with 2raumwohnung.

And now that you know more than you ever possibly wanted to know about these bands, how about actually listening to the song? The original Neonbabies version can be heard here (despite the appearance of the debut album cover!) and the Ideal version can be seen and heard here.

Sources: