Schlager – A well-kept British secret?


Last week I saw a poster announcing that Cliff Richard would be playing in Berlin next May. Sir Cliff, at the O2 Arena – one of the biggest venues Berlin has to offer. Clearly his audience in Germany is not limited to mildly curious Brits abroad with a taste for the ironic. But who is it, then, that the organisers are hoping will pour into the stadium come May? Could it be that Sir Cliff appeals to the same kind of people who listen to ‘Schlager’, a genre that has lately enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in Germany?

Schlager literally means hit music. More specifically, it has simple, easy-to-remember tunes and lyrics and is sung by solo artists sharing happy ever after stories, often in an almost confessional style. Heimweh, or homesickness, is as upsetting as its gets. As a late-night infomercial for a multi-CD Schlager compilation has it: ‘Nur Schlager, nur gute Laune’ (loosely translated: Only Schlager, only a good mood). Tonally, parallels may be drawn to folk and country, but without any hint of hardship. In other words, Schlager does its best not to offend or upset, which may go some way to explain its wide appeal and enduring popularity.

The 50’s and 60’s were the heyday for Schlager in Germany, a time when post-war austerity was giving way to the good times of the ‘Wirtschaftwunder’. Holidays in southern Europe became popular, and so did romantic tunes of sun-kissed bliss by the azure Mediterranean. Golden hits hail from this era: ‘Santa Maria‘ by Roland Kaiser, ‘Ein bisschen Spass muss sein‘ by Roberto Blanco and ‘Griechischer Wein’ by Udo Juergens. However, Germans were not the only ones who liked to spend time in the sun: in 1963, a very young Cliff Richard went on his ‘Summer Holiday’ and came home with a hit – a Schlager of gute Laune, easy rhythm, and sing-a-long potential.

And if you think Schlager in Britain begins and ends with Sir Cliff, think again. Try humming along to these ones: Elton John’s ‘Nikita’, Tom Jones ‘Delilah’ or Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown‘; easy on the ear, and impossible to get out of your head. While they are there, why not go for the full Schlager experience? Link arms with your companions, and sway gently from side to side. You are now partaking in the art of ‘Schunkeln’ and have truly crossed over.

Hardcore Schlager (savour that oxymoron) remains rare among British artists and audiences, though. From our shores, only Sir Cliff has managed to enter the Schlager Hall of Fame (ZDF on a Saturday night, in other words), perhaps in no small measure thanks to his willingness to sing in German. Swing by Youtube for a listen. Even better, buy a ticket for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to schunkeln to Sir Cliff live. Who knows, you may find me standing next to you, ready to link arms.