Metal Tongue

 

With over 100 million albums sold worldwide, it can safely be said that Scorpions (there’s no ‘The’; it’s just ‘Scorpions’) are the most successful hard rock/metal band to have ever originated from Continental Europe. Why is this geographic distinction important? That the Scorps hail from Germany is interesting because English is NOT the native language spoken in that country. Critical to the band’s massive international success is the fact that all of their lyrics are sung in English. The only other non-anglophone group to have had that kind of global impact has to be Abba (360m sold), whose records are also sung in English. Would either band have had such massive international success if they delivered their lyrics in their native languages? Doubtful. Let’s face it: English is the globally accepted language of Rock and Roll.

 
Scorpions learned the language or Rock early on; not just English but all of the useful signifiers and tropes of Western Hard Rock: cars, girls & R’n’R, along with a healthy dose of hippy-esque existential poetry for good measure. There were a few clunkers in the early-early days, with some lyrics obviously translated from the German and coming out more than a little wonky in English:

 
‘Test the mend, devil melt / Bloody money when it’s lent / Scum repair everywhere / They want money, oh’

 
Overall though, Scorpions had a pretty firm handle on English right out of the gate, which allowed the band to find early success outside of Germany (in Japan!), rub shoulders with UK greats like UFO, Thin Lizzy and Judas Priest in Europe and the UK toward the end of the 70s, and then to break through commercially word-wide in the 80s. Their international success, as well as Metal’s resurgence with the NWOBHM in 79/80, opened the doors for bands from many other countries on the Continent and in Japan, including some that had been releasing records for years in their native languages. These younger European bands were watching the NWOBHM explode in the UK, and saw Great Britain as their target to expand their audience and made the necessary linguistic adjustments.

 
Spain’s Baron Rojo (‘Red Baron’ in English) had established themselves in their homeland with a Gold certification for their debut album ‘Larga vida al Rock and Roll’ (‘Long Live Rock and Roll’) before setting their sights on the UK. The Baron was apparently well-connected in Britain; second effort ‘Volumen Brutal’ was recorded at Ian Gillan’s Kingsway Studios in late 1981, and Gillan member Colin Townes contributed keyboards to the record. Vocals were recorded in both Spanish and English, and BR had some notable help in dealing with the language barrier; Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson is credited in the sleeves notes as having assisted with their English lyrics.

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Baron Rojo’s UK connections created a sufficient buzz to land the band on the cover of Kerrang! magazine and garner them a slot on the 1981 Reading Festival, where they played 4th from the top on Night One under Budgie, Trust, and Praying Mantis. A NWOBHM-ish single, ‘Stand Up’ (the English version of album track ‘Resistere’) was released to the UK market. By all accounts, Baron Rojo sat poised on the brink of breakout success at the end of 1982… However, BR’s 3rd record, ‘Metalmorfosis’, while again recorded at Kingsway, featured Spanish lyrics. In fact, Baron Rojo would never revisit English again, and, predictably, would sink into obscurity immediately thereafter.

 
Did someone mention Trust? This French band’s potent NWOBHM-ready mix of Punk and Hard Rock had gotten their debut album noticed outside of France, French lyrics and all. An English language version of 2nd album ‘Repression’ was cut. But Trust’s volatile socio-political message (justice for the oppressed) hit hard enough to get several of their songs banned in France; such was the importance of Trust’s staunchly political lyrics that a genuine UK Punk Rocker was sought to interpret their lyrics for Anglo ears: Jimmy Pursey of Sham ’69. No stranger to political controversy, the Sham attracted a large skinhead following. Their concerts were plagued by violence, and the band stopped performing live after a 1979 concert at the Rainbow was broken up by white power skinheads fighting and rushing the stage.

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Pursey translated ‘Repression’s lyrics, including ‘Antisocial’, which Anthrax covered to much acclaim years later utilizing Pursey’s lyrics. Ironically, the standout track from ‘Répression’ is ‘Le Mitard’, which was the only song not translated for the English version. It’s likely that Pursey found the song untranslatable, as it’s subject matter is uniquely French; some of the lyrics were taken from the memoirs of Jacques Mesrine, a career criminal who was controversially killed by French police in 1979. Trust’s next two albums, ‘Marche ou Creve’, and a self-titled 4th album, were both released in English language versions (‘Savage’ and ‘Man’s Trap’, respectively), but failed to catch fire outside of France; fifth and final album ‘Rock and Roll’ was sung mostly in French and released in Canada and France only.

 
Japan’s Loudness broke the language barrier in 1983, when they left their homeland for the first time to tour the US and Europe without ever having released an album outside of Japan. To prime foreign audiences for the tour, their single ‘Road Racer’ was released in those territories with English lyrics. The following year, the band once again headed to Europe, this time to record their 4th studio album, ‘Disillusion’, in 2 languages. Both versions of ‘Disillusion’ became the first Loudness album(s) released outside of Japan. Ironically, it was the version sung in the band’s native tongue that sold the most in the UK & Europe, and is considered by many to be the band’s best album.

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In truth, the first three Loudness albums were sung in a style known as ‘Japanglish’; an mix of Japanese and English commonly used in Japanese entertainment and advertising, consisting mainly of Japanese interspersed with key English words and phrases. All song titles (and most choruses) were in in English, but verses were sung in Japanglish. After ‘Disillusion’, the next three Loudness records would be released as English-only throughout the world… Although, in an ironic twist, after the US success of their ‘Thunder in the East’ album, a backlash at home saw homegrown fans upset over the band’s apparent abandonment of Japan, and a Japanese-language version of seventh LP ‘Hurricane Eyes’ was hastily assembled and released there to appease an angry Japanese fan base.

 
But the most fascinating language barrier story brings us back to Germany and those Teutonic terrors, Accept. Accept followed the template set by Scorpions, with all of their lyrics sung in English. The band’s early material is rife with awkward, poorly translated lines and phrases that hinted at a willingness to provoke the listener with vulgarity/profanity… ‘Take Him In My Heart’, from the band’s 1979 debut tells the story of a beautiful young girl who decides it’s time to lose her virginity:

 
“One morning she was feeling bad and didn’t go to school She went to town to find a man who fucks her very cool”

 
Another track from the album, ‘Glad to be Alone’, starts off with the line ‘I don’t like your fucked up bunch’. Is this clumsy translation or something more? Then there’s Accept’s third album ‘Breaker’, and the infamous ‘Son of a Bitch’:

 
“Son of a bitch/Kiss my ass/Son of a bitch Son of a bitch/You asshole/Son of a bitch Cock suckin’ motherfucker I was right – take this”

 
It’s pretty clear that there was something more to Accept’s blunt use of profanity than sloppy translation. The language here is blatant and the message is clear: Fuck You! Here was a band unafraid to use vulgar/provocative language to communicate their ideas.

 
Enter Gaby Hauke. Hauke, a self-described ‘journalist and poet’, became the band’s manager after the release of ‘Breaker’. While they readied material for their 4th album ‘Restless and Wild’, the band worked with outside writers to polish up their English lyrics. Robert A. Smith-Diesel contributed to five of the album’s ten songs, and Hauke, credited under the pseudonym ‘Deaffy’, contributed two complete poems, which became ‘Neon Nights’ and ‘Princess of the Dawn’. Hauke’s poetry worked well as lyrics, adding a depth and fluency missing from Accept’s first three records. With Accept’s next album, Hauke would become the band’s sole lyricist, and come to embrace the bluntly sexual elements of the band’s vision… with controversial results.

 
‘Balls to the Wall’ was the band’s breakthrough, and the only Accept album to be certified Gold in the US. Metal’s early-80s resurgence was a factor, as was MTv’s exposure of the album’s title track. But a significant factor in the album’s success, and its’ notoriety 35 years later, was the record’s flirtation with homoerotic imagery in the artwork and lyrics. A minor controversy erupted in the pages of many Metal mags and in the minds of headbangers across the globe… “Is Accept Gay?” To be sure, there was a lot here to potentially cause folks to at wonder whether BttW was a ‘pro-Gay’ record, and by extension, if Accept were Gay themselves.

 
First and foremost, let’s remember that Gaby Hauke was responsible for 100% of the lyrics on BttW. This alone explains a lot. When lyrics such as ‘Feel the power of lust as these guys passing by’ are delivered by a male, one might make some reasonable assumptions about the song’s message. When one considers that these lyrics were written by a woman, suddenly they make a very different kind of sense. The song ‘London Leatherboys’ added to this with ‘Got some kind of feeling/Looking in his eyes/I feel the power surge to a head’, and of course with it’s title. It would have been easy to change a few pronouns or alter the gender of the narrative voice in Hauke’s lyrics; clearly there was a conscious decision not to. Accept had to realize this would cause some controversy. Controversy is not always a bad thing… Hauke & Accept embraced the dynamic and ran with it.

 
R-1963527-1426685157-4801.jpegOther elements were tied in, such as the title track: the phrase ‘balls to the wall’ originated as an aviation term, and has evolved to mean ‘all-out’ or ‘to the limit’; in the context of the song it means ‘you must fight oppression with everything you’ve got’. This fit the loose political theme of the album; that the phrase contained the word ‘balls’ worked well with the daring presentation, and so the phrase also became the album’s title. The cover art seals the deal, with fashion photographer Dieter Eikelpoth’s b&w cover photo of a decidedly male …um, area, clad in bondage gear and clutching a ball in his hand… It’s a very provocative package. The’ cover idea’ is credited to Deaffy, indicating that ‘management’ was behind the entire scheme. A band pic was also included featuring the band shirtless (except for Udo), and Wolf Hoffmann and Stefan Kaufmann with arms intertwined.

 
What’s fascinating about the use of Hauke’s lyrics is that, for a time, while working to deliver their lyrics in another language, Accept also ended up delivering some of them in another gender. There are some raunchy hetero-derived lyrics on BttW, like ‘Why don’t you screw the girls that’s next to you’ from ‘Losers and Winners’, but nobody noticed; it was material perceived as ‘pro-Gay’ that got all the attention. Again: It was 1983. This was a bold stance; one that could have backfired badly. Instead, it helped give Accept (‘accept’ what, by the way?) their well-deserved breakthrough. Hauke also wrote the words for Accept’s next five albums, but on ‘Balls to the Wall’, Accept and their manager/lyricist fucked with our heads, pushed the envelope, and made us think. All of that, delivered in a language we can all understand: Metal.

 

 

NOTES


Baron Rojo:
-‘Gold’ in Spain = 20,000 copies sold

 
Loudness:
-Producer Max Normal reportedly had a major role in shaping the lyrics for both the ‘Thunder in the East’ and ‘Lightning Strikes’ albums.

 
-Just what does ‘M.Z.A.’ stand for? A highlight of Loudness’ biggest hit ‘Crazy Nights’ is the band chanting these letters, begging the question— W.T.F.? Here’s the official explanation:

 
“Actually it does not have any meaning. When we were doing pre-production for the Thunder in the East album, I did not have any lyrics for Crazy Night then, so I sung total nonsense as a guide vocal for the demo recording. I sung “M.Z.A.” by accident and the producer Max Norman liked the line, even though that did not have any meaning. We were trying to create some cool line but we could not beat “MZA.” Max ended up deciding to use ”M.Z.A.” for the real take.” -Minoru Niihara

 
Accept:
-The album’s title track contains the familiar lines “Happiness he cannot feel/And love to him is so unreal”… Hmm… feels vaguely familiar…)

 
-‘Son of a Bitch’ was altered for the UK market; the title and chorus were changed to ‘Born to be Whipped’, and the more graphic lines quoted here were translated into yet another language: nonsense.

 
-Hauke and Accept guitarist Wolf Hoffman married at some point in the 80s.

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There Goes Tokyo

When KISS launched their 10-date ‘Sneak Attack Tour’ of Japan in 1977, legendary Japanese promoter Mr. Udo ensured that Japan’s biggest hard rock band would be the opening act on every date of the tour. But wait— Didn’t Loudness form in 1981? Could it be that there was another metal band from Japan? One that came BEFORE Loudness??

Yup. Bow Wow formed in 1975, and at the time they were invited to open on the KISS tour, they were already promoting their second (and best) album ‘Signal Fire’. While the ‘who was the first metal band’ debate will never be settled, it’s fairly safe to say that the first Japanese metal band was Bow Wow. Not the most successful; not the most well-known, but definitely the first, and because of that, perhaps the most important. Bow Wow blazed a trail that Loudness (and other Japanese bands) followed to much greater success… But Bow Wow was there first.

First, a few words about Japanese rock music: Rock and Roll did not begin to permeate into Japanese culture until the 1960s, with the arrival of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. These influences were mixed with American folk music, psychedelic rock and even mod, and emerged as a Japanese version of Rock music called Group Sounds. To these ‘western’ ears, this is some of the most bizarre rock music I have ever heard. The 1970s were dominated by Japanese singer-songwriters, making the appearance of a band like Bow Wow, who emulated American and European Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, quite the anomaly.

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Back to Bow Wow. The band was put together by Yoshimi Ueno, a young manager and wanna-be producer. Ueno built Bow Wow around two musicians he had previously managed: guitarist/vocalist Mitsuhiro Saito and drummer Toshihiro Niimi, and completed the band with guitarist Kyoji Yamamoto and bassist Kenji Sano, who were found attending Yamaha Music School. The band were signed to Victor in Japan and released their first album ‘Hoero!’ in 1976. That’s not a typo. It’s decent, but the follow-up ‘Signal Fire’ is excellent. Third album ‘Charge’ leans a little more in the ‘rock n’ roll’ direction, but still kicks ass. All three albums featured English language song titles, and lyrics that veered between Japanese verses and English choruses. Then, after a live album (‘Super Live’) in 1978, disaster struck…

No, nobody died. It was much worse… Bow Wow’s next three albums, ‘Guarantee’ (1978), ‘Telephone’, and ‘The Glorious Road’ (both 1980), completely changed direction. Disco, Pop, New Wave, wistful ballads and even a stab at Rockabilly indicated a band desperately flailing for a new direction. The band abandoned English altogether, and began using 100% Japanese titles and lyrics. Bow wow had inexplicably left Hard Rock and Heavy Metal behind them. The pioneering continued, however, when the band became the first Japanese rock band to play ‘overseas’ when they performed in Hong Kong in 1978 and the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

When the NWOBHM finally hit Japan, another change in direction was suggested by new manager and renowned music producer Touru Yazawa. This guy saw big things in Bow Wow in their previous incarnation as hard rockers, and worked hard to get the band international exposure. Step one was a switch back to Metal with 1981’s pretty-OK ‘Hard Dog’. ‘Asian Volcano’ and ‘Warning From Stardust’ followed in 1982, and after an appearance at the Reading Festival that same year, Bow Wow decided to do some serious roadwork outside of Japan and toured the UK with Hanoi Rocks. A headlining show at London’s Marquee Club was sold out, heavily covered by the UK rock press, and recorded. The gig was released as the ‘Holy Expedition’ lp. Then things got stupid again.

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Vocalist Mitsuhiro Saito left the band in 1983, and the band changed their name to Vow Wow to avoid confusion with the UK’s Bow Wow Wow… The name and line-up change signaled another change in musical direction to a more commercial, keyboard-oriented rock sound. Bye bye, Bow Wow. Vow Wow adopted the UK as their home base and began career building there, with some success. But something else had happened on Bow Wow’s European vacation… Another metal band had formed in 1981 back home in Japan, and by the time Bow Wow had become Vow Wow, this new band were making some serious waves.

Enter: Loudness. While Bow Wow were ‘overseas’ establishing themselves outside of Japan and capitalizing on the recent surge in metal’s popularity in other countries, Loudness were honing their chops and building a fan base with their first three albums, ‘The Birthday Eve’, Devil Soldier’, and ‘Law of the Devil’s Land’. Each record was better than the one previous, ‘Devil’s Land’ being particularly strong. ‘Devil’s’ drew a strong international response, with positive reviews from outside of Japan and imports selling well in Europe, and so Loudness began their westward expansion campaign.

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The timing couldn’t have been better. Bow Wow had just lost their lead vocalist, changed their name and commercialized their sound (again!). Following the trail that Bow Wow had pioneered, Loudness’ third single ‘ロード・レーサ’ (‘Road Racer’) was released in Europe in an English language version. Around the time that Bow became Vow, Loudness was touring America, which Bow Wow had never done. Fourth studio album ‘Disillusion’ was recorded in London in 1983 and released in Japan as “Disillusion~撃剣霊化” in January of 1984, with both English and Japanese lyrics. Loudness broke new ground themselves when an all-English language version of ‘Disillusion’ was licensed for a UK release by Music for Nations and in Europe by Roadrunner in July. The English version was also released in Japan…! Roadrunner re-released ‘Law of the Devil’s Land’ as-is in Europe.

Any metal fan alive in the ’80s know what happened next: ‘Crazy Night’. The success of the previous two years led to Loudness singing a deal with US label Atco, making them the first Japanese rock band to sign with a ‘major label’. The band’s fifth lp ‘Thunder in the East’ was recorded in California and released in January of ’85, where it peaked at #74, making Loudness the first Japanese band to break into the Top 100. ‘Crazy Night’ (listed as ‘Crazy Nights’ on the album) was the right song at the right time; Heavy Metal of the more commercial variety was enjoying a popularity spike after Quiet Riot’s ‘Metal Health’ topped the charts in 1983. The novelty of the band’s nationality was certainly a factor in the song’s success, especially on MTv, but ‘Crazy Night’ and the ‘Thunder’ album were solid, radio-friendly ’80s Metal that packed plenty of punch.

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Loudness had done what Bow Wow set out to do: Take Japanese Metal worldwide. But, as history shows, along with major success, comes major label meddling… ‘Thunder’ was followed-up with by ‘Shadows of War’, released in Japan in March of 1986, and the first single, ‘Let it Go’, featured lyrics in Japanese. Stateside, Atco balked at the album’s title, nervous about invoking bad memories of WWII. Really?? The album was re-titled ‘Lightning Strikes’; also changed was the album’s former title track, now re-titled ‘Ashes in the Sky’. LS was released in the States in July, and charted even higher than ‘Thunder in the East’. So far, so good. What could go wrong?

Here’s what: Because of their massive success in America, a backlash was brewing back home in Japan. To address this, Loudness released a Japanese language version of their next album ‘Hurricane Eyes’ for the Asian market. ‘Eyes’ failed miserably on both sides of the Pacific, peaking in the US at a dismal #190, and Atco promptly dropped the band. Loudness retreated to their homeland and released the Japan-only ‘Jealousy’ EP, hoping to appease unhappy fans crying still sell-out. Next, producer Max Norman arranged for the band to be re-signed to Atco… but only if vocalist Minoru Niihara was replaced with a vocalist more familiar with English. If the band’s Japanese fans were upset about all the attention their homegrown heroes were giving to America, how would they feel about Niihara’s Connecticut-born replacement? Nonetheless, Niihara was out, and American singer Mike Viscera was in.

Can you say ‘Kamikaze’? 1989’s ‘Soldier of Fortune’, the first Loudness album without Minoru Niihara on board, was released on Atco in the US… and failed to intrude upon the Billboard charts. How about ‘Hari Kari’? Eight of the ten songs on the second Viscera-era album ‘On the Prowl’ were ‘cover versions’ of songs from the first four Loudness albums, with new lyrics written by Viscera. Another commercial (and dare I say artistic?) failure. Dropped by Atco once again, Loudness would spend the next decade fading from international view, and focusing solely on the Japanese market.

My listening recommendations come with some qualifications: On their ‘metal records’, Bow Wow titled their songs in English (resulting in some amusing titles like “James in My Casket” and ‘My Dear Alarm Clock’), but their execution of English highlighted a major hurdle: Any singer who is not fluent in the language of his lyrics can be an awkward listen, but he differences between the English and Japanese languages are particularly significant. This is more of an issue on Bow Wow’s second set of metal albums, by which point Mitsuhiro Saito had actually begun to learn to speak and sing in English, than on their first three, where he was reciting English lyrics phonetically and successfully emulating the standard western rock vox delivery. Bow Wow’s struggle with the English language was probably the primary issue that ultimately held them back from true international renown.

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That said, second album ‘Signal Fire’ is their finest moment. Coming just 3 months after their debut, and immediately after opening for Aerosmith on their first tour of Japan (hey, there were no other hard rock bands for the American heavyweights to chose from!), SF displays a mastery of mid-’70s metal tropes, a high-energy vibe, and chops to burn. On ‘Signal Fire’, Mitsuhiro Saito’s vocals are at their most convincing and natural, and as a guitarist, I’d rate Kyoji Yamamoto’s guitar playing in the same league as any of the big name axemen of the era— seriously. In fact, I’d rate ‘Signal Fire’ as one of the best HR/HM albums of 1977.

Loudness had zero issues with languages and lyrics. Singer Minoru Niihara was a vocal dynamo, attacking lyrics in both languages with gusto and rendering the entire language point moot through the natural power and charisma in his voice. Guitarist Akira Takasaki picked up where Kyoji Yamamoto left off, and quickly developed into an 80s guitar monster, spewing out a crazy amalgam of Gary Moore, EVH and Ritchie Blackmore via a unique guitar sound. Loudness started off sounding like a NWOBHM band but without the punk, and quickly grew into a high-energy neo-classical powerhouse. They wrote and played with authority, exhibiting a complete command of early 80’s metal. Their best? 1984’s ‘Disillusion’. Hands down.

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‘Disillusion’ is a GREAT record. Loudness came into their own here; while the band’s influences are obvious on previous records, with ‘Disillusion’ they elevated their sound into something unique and compelling. It’s the last album by Loudness before American ‘commercial considerations’ entered the picture; it’s heavy as hell and it rocks hard. Amazing chops, powerful performances, a stellar batch of high-energy tunes, and an excellent recording engineered by Julian Mendelsohn (Yes, Elton John, Jimmy Page, Bob Marley!) all add up to a killer listen. So listen! I’d grab the English version, but only because it has an extra song: ‘Anthem (Loudness Overture)’.

For both of these bands, it was a matter of timing. Bad for Bow Wow; good for Loudness. The international success that Loudness attained was significant (if brief); significant enough that when most people think ‘Japanese Metal’, the first and likely first thing that comes to mind is “M.Z.A.” …er, I mean Loudness. But would there have been a Loudness if it weren’t for Bow Wow? Alas, Japan’s first Heavy Metal export will have to forever settle for historical importance, footnote status, and trivia question obscurity: The price a band pays for being so far ahead of its time.

“Actually it does not have any meaning. When we were doing pre-production for the Thunder in the East album, I did not have any lyrics for Crazy Night then, so I sung total nonsense as a guide vocal for the demo recording. I sung “M.Z.A.” by accident and the producer Max Norman liked the line, even though that did not have any meaning. We were trying to create some cool line but we could not beat “MZA.” Max ended up deciding to use ”M.Z.A.” for the real take.”
-Minoru Niihara