Monday, June 8, 2009

How a Third World conflict affected the American record charts (Dschinghis Khan, "Moskau")

It's fair to say that when I went away to college in 1979, my musical knowledge was expanded considerably. College will do that to you, and I was fortunate enough to live in a dorm with some people who had varied musical tastes. One of my roommates came from Japan, and he had a rather extensive music collection with songs from singers and groups from many countries. One of the songs that he had, for example, was a song from a German group that was popular over most of the world. Yet I was probably one of the few Americans who heard the song at the time.

Dschinghis Khan, Back On Thier Saddles by Jhayne (Foxtongue) used under a Creative Commons License

Why? Because the song, by German group Dschinghis Khan, was written in advance of a forthcoming international event. The song's title? "Moskau." The event? The 1980 Summer Olympics.

Now I'll grant that Americans have been notoriously resistant to songs with lyrics in foreign languages (in this case German), and that Moscow was not the most popular city to Americans in the midst of the Cold War. However, there was always the chance of the song making a dent on the American charts, especially since it was a happy disco song, and disco was still enjoying some popularity in the 1979-1980 period.

However, Christmas of 1979 was the date of a significant event:

In Christmas 1979, Russian paratroopers landed in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The country was already in the grip of a civil war. The prime minister, Hazifullah Amin, tried to sweep aside Muslim tradition within the nation and he wanted a more western slant to Afghanistan. This outraged the majority of those in Afghanistan as a strong tradition of Muslim belief was common in the country.

Thousands of Muslim leaders had been arrested and many more had fled the capital and gone to the mountains to escape Amin's police. Amin also lead a communist based government - a belief that rejects religion and this was another reason for such obvious discontent with his government.

Thousands of Afghanistan Muslims joined the Mujahideen - a guerilla force on a holy mission for Allah. They wanted the overthrow of the Amin government. The Mujahideen declared a jihad - a holy war - on the supporters of Amin. This was also extended to the Russians who were now in Afghanistan trying to maintain the power of the Amin government. The Russians claimed that they had been invited in by the Amin government and that they were not invading the country. They claimed that their task was to support a legitimate government and that the Mujahideen were no more than terrorists.

On December 27th, 1979, Amin was shot by the Russians and he was replaced by Babrak Kamal. His position as head of the Afghan government depended entirely on the fact that he needed Russian military support to keep him in power. Many Afghan soldiers had deserted to the Mujahedeen and the Kamal government needed 85,000 Russian soldiers to keep him in power.

While the Soviet presence in Afghanistan had some long-term consequences, not only for the Soviet Union but for the United States of America, the short-term effect is what concerns us here. President Jimmy Carter, who was at the time benefiting from a "rally 'round the President" surge after the taking of hostages in Iran, decided to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow in response to the invasion of Afghanistan. While that event had its own long-term ramifications, it also pretty much eliminated any chance of Dschinghis Khan enjoying stateside success with "Moskau" - even after the song had been re-recorded in English.

As for Dschinghis Khan's song lyrics, summarizes them as follows:

They're a little like a lovechild of Abba and the Village People (the Village People's outfits worn with Abba's sincerity), but there's really nothing in the history of English-language pop music to compare to their monumental lyrics. They sing songs about ancient history ("Machu Picchu, Machu Picchu, where the secrets are at home"), anthems to various cities (Rome ("Romulus and Remus the two brothers, raised among the wolves like no others") and Moscow ("Moscow, Moscow, throw the glasses at the wall and good fortune to us all, ah ha ha ha ha, HA!")) and contemporary explorers ("Thor, Thor He-ey-yerdahl…"), and one doozy from the perspective of Genghis Khan's son, who, and I quote, "wants to drum and sing-oh, just like his idol Ringo" because he's "a rocker and a roller [he's] a rockin' man," which of course causes dramatic family conflict since his father wants him to be the leader of the Mongols and not the drummer for a boy band. An even more dramatic drum-solo follows, by which the rockin' son of Genghis Khan hopes to convince his father that rockin' and rollin' is a noble profession. It says quite a bit about the band that said drum solo appears to consist wholly of someone having pushed a rhythm button on the synthesizer. Apparently synthesizers were still pretty impressive in the thirteenth century, though, because the song ends with Genghis's heartwarming assertion that "You're a rocker, you're a roller, you're a rocking man, and you are my favourite son." Awwww.

As for "Moskau," provides an English translation of the lyrics. Here's a portion:

Moscow, Moscow, throw your glasses at the wall
And good fortune to us all,
A ha ha ha ha - ha!
Moscow, Moscow, join us for a kazadchok
We'll go dancing round the clock
A ha ha ha ha - hey!

Moscow Moscow drinking vodka all night long
Keeps you happy, makes you strong,
A ha ha ha ha - ha!
Moscow Moscow come and have a drink and then
you will never leave again, a ha ha ha ha ha!

Put these lyrics together with German disco and outrageous costumes, and you get something slightly different from Silver Convention. OK, drastically different:

Oh, and I haven't even talked about Dschinghis Khan's 4th place Eurovision finish in 1979.

Oh ho ho ho ho. Hey!

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