German Melody Thieves

Every time I whip out my favorite collection of German mainstream pop music, Schlager für Millionen, I can’t help noticing that many of the songs have melodies which are directly copied, note for note, from American or British pop songs or traditional ballads. The brazen theft is never noted on the album info, and I’d imagine that the vast majority of German fans aren’t aware they’re listening to musical copies. Given that the German rights-enforcement agency is blocking thousands of Youtube videos in an attempt to ensure (what they consider) proper payment for artists, I’d also be interested to know whether the German Schlager stars at least licensed and paid for the music they used that was still under copyright when they stole the tune.

Just a few examples. First, Udo Lindenberg’s 1983 hit Sonderzug nach Pankow:

which is a copy of the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s Chattanooga Choo Choo. To be fair, Lindenberg never tried to conceal this fact, and his song itself is about trains. But still, he copied the music note-for-note from Glenn Miller.

And now the ‘hymn’ of the Cologne football team, FC Köln, being sung by thousands of fans.

How many know it’s a note-for-note copy of this traditional Scottish ballad?

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Christan Schorn, who reminded me of one of the most shameless thefts, Bert and Cindy’s transformation of Black Sabbath’s scorching ‘Paranoid’…

into this abomination:

Double derivativeness points for the German text drawing from Conan Doyle’s ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’.

14 thoughts on “German Melody Thieves

  1. Did you say Sonderzug nach Pankow was about trains? Lindenberg’s cover does not belong in that list. The rest just saved my day. I tried to listen to Cindy und Bert ironically but it was just too much…


  2. As for Sonderzug nach Pankow. I am old enough to have already been adult enough when Udo Lindenberg published his song. In this time everyone knew that this was a cover. They even played Glen Miller sometimes in the radio at this time. But this was just part of the fun: Making the glamorous Glen Miller into some kind of political fun song. This tickled the German sense of humor which dates back to the late 1960’s.

    Also the 1. FC Köln hymn is well known to be a cover. In the early 90’s a group called Runrig landed a huge hit with their version of the song. Today it is played rarely but is still not unknown. I’m pretty sure that most cologne fans will know this.

    Nevertheless you are right, but this is true everywhere in the modern music world. Who created “House of the rising sun”? “Cat’s in the cradle”? “Summertime”? “Over the rainbow”? “I shot the sheriff”? “Tainted love”? Who is credited for it?

    That not many songs are covered from German in English is obvious.



  3. Well, what do you expect when you open a can of worms like “Schlager für Millionen”? I would not call that mainstream pop, since in Germany we usually differentiate between pop music (German or English) and “Schlager”. Schlager is for less educated people, I dare to say.

    The songs from that CD are from a time when very few people in Germany understood English. The majority then were not aware of English songs, so it was easy for people of the Schlager business to take a popular song, put a silly German text on it and roll in the cash. But I am pretty sure the English or American composers got their share since GEMA also collects money for international artists. So German “Schlagerstars” got the fame, but not all the money.

    But “Sonderzug nach Pankow” is different. Back then, the melody of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was still well known, and I guess many people knew it was from Glenn Miller Orchestra. I would call that a cover version. Udo Lindenberg already was in the position to cover popular songs and this was more like a tribute than a rip-off. Nobody would call the Stones, the Doors, the Beach Boys or Zappa thieves for covering “Louie Louie”. And they didn’t even bother to come up with new lyrics.

    I must say that I enjoy music with English lyrics more because I can fade-out the text and concentrate on the melody. Most lyrics are just plain dumb, both German and English ones. But if it is in English, I can stand it more easily. I wonder if English native speakers feel similar when they happen to know German songs.


  4. This is called “cover version” and has been done forever, and, so I guess, not only by German pop singers. To my knowledge the original authors of the tune are usually credited and receive royalties. Folk tunes do not belong to anyone, of course.
    Admittedly, it is ludicrous when text and character are completely changed, only the melody retained.

    An early example from around 1930 is “Wochenend und Sonnenschein” by the famous vocal group “Comedian Harmonists” which is based on “Happy days are here again”

    Probably the ’50ties with their sentimental, shmaltzy “Heimatfilme” were worst in this regard. Famous covers include Freddy’s “Heimat” (Brennend heißer Wüstensand) which is “Memories are made of this”. The ballad of the green berets was changed into an anti-war-song(Tausend Mann und ein Befehl)…

    You can find all this stuff and much more on youtube which is an inexhaustible source of the curiosities and abominations of German Schlager.
    Or if one checks the wikipedia article of a famous 30ties-60ties tune, the German version, if it exists, will often list those “translated” cover versions (usually not translations, but completely new lyrics, as I said above).


  5. @Johannes: Actually, no, these aren’t cover versions. A cover version is when one band sings a song by another band without major changes to the melody or lyrics. Say, for instance, like the Sundays’ cover of the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses. A cover version is an open tribute to the fine work of a previous artist, and is understood by all who hear the music that way — especially since the band doing the cover invariably announces it to be such, and credit is clearly given to the original artists.

    This German melody theft is something totally different. The lyrics are completely replaced — often by totally unrelated or even ridiculous substitutes — and the fact that the melody is stolen is definitely not openly and prominently acknowledged. Sure, the melody stealers might be paying the original artist royalties, but they are not prefacing every performance with: ‘Here’s a song we wrote to the music of ‘Paranoid’ or ‘Loch Lomond’ or ‘My Way’ (which was covered, by the way, by the Sex Pistols). Why aren’t they doing this? Simple: because they know their German fans aren’t sophisticated enough to recognize the theft, and probably don’t care about that fact anyway.


  6. Oh, and I wouldn’t have had so much fun pointing this out if the German media didn’t spend so much time lecturing Americans on the finer points of Urheberrecht, as they understand it. (Google Books, anyone?)


  7. And the other way round: German to English

    When a Schlagersinger uses a melody by another composer, she/he
    1. has to ask for permission
    2. usually has to pay a licence fee to the holder of rights
    3. is legally obligated to print the name of the composer(s) on the record label.

    Here is an example from an old Roberto Blanco record:
    He has three songs of American origin on his album:
    1. San Bernadino (Orig. text and music J. Christie)
    2. I.O.I.O (B. & M. Gibb)
    3. Aquarius (McDernot, sic!)

    Quite often, a license fee is not necessary, because a German singer was chosen that had a contract with the same music company like the composer of the original song. In other cases, the rights of successful songs were sold like the right to translate and publish a book in another language.

    Add: My favourite Hotel California by Jürgen Drews.
    Even better: The copy of the copy

    A good list:
    You see, what is covered by the German term “Coverversion”. It is different from the English term “cover version”.


  8. I am too young to know how this was handled in the 30ties through the 70ties. But “melody theft” sounds to me like sinister and unacknowledged plagiarism which does not apply to these cases. As long as authors are credited in the fine print and royalties are paid this just isn’t a good case of violations of any moral or legal rights.
    And Germany may have been backwards, but most of the original versions must have appeared as well in the radio and as records. After all the tunes were not taken from some obscure forgotten folk ballad, but from roughly contemporary hit songs or very popular folk tunes (like Loch Lomond etc.). Still, there certainly was (and maybe still is) a large percentage of listeners who would be reached by the Schlager-Covers, but not the originals.
    Of course I agree that most of those covers are rather ludicrous, but this is a question of taste. They are not something completely different from “hommage covers” (and legally they are about the same thing, for all I know).

    As has been pointed out, this was also done to French chansons and I am pretty sure there are French and Italian versions of American and German hit songs. It was common practice and quite a few artists oscillated between Chanson, Schlager and Jazz effortlessly. (One of the most famous ones was Caterina Valente, who can be found in “scat duels” with Ella Fitzgerald on youtube.)

    How many people would attribute the “Alabama Song” to the Doors? I did so myself 20+ years ago when I heard it for the first time. And BTW this cover completely misses the irony of the original in context, AFAIC.


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