Since the death of Richard Wagner, the story of music in Germany has been one of a long, slow, seemingly unending and inexorable decline, The Scorpions, Kraftwerk and Rammstein, the excepted. Perhaps there is no brighter glaring example of this than at Oktoberfest. The songs heard at Oktoberfest with German lyrics are often also sung at the local Kindergarten. This fact has made me very popular with my daughter’s classmates and teachers.
The Bavarians have, however, maintained their musical independence from the rest of Germany with their “Blasmusik”, which very broadly can be described as the “Oompah-pah” we associate with Bavarian brass bands. This kind of music can be heard in the beer tents at Oktoberfest until around five in the late afternoon, when the changing of the guard (and band) takes place.
I love the traditional Bavarian brass band music as much as the next guy, but these days that doesn’t get “da party sta-sta-started” like these modern sing-along classics. So don’t pretend you came to Oktoberfest to use good judgment; just scream right along. My Top-10, in no particular order, are listed here:
- “I Will Survive”– Originally a B-side, it rose to become a number-one disco hit, gay anthem and Oktoberfest “Evergreen” (Germans think evergreens are classic songs, not trees. No one knows why.), Gloria Gaynor’s bittersweet musings on the price of love will get them dancing on the benches every time. The song also allows the band to “rev up” to the chorus, starting out slow and building to the hook (“And… so … you’re … back … from outer space!”), and gives under-appreciated trumpet players a chance for a solo in the spotlight. Outer space is exactly where you’ll think you’ve arrived to by the time this tune hits the tent. With thousands of your new friends!
- “Take Me Home, Country Roads”– There comes a time in every man’s life where he will find himself drunkenly weeping in public to John Denver’s music. Your time has come. A lot of traditional Bavarians enjoy American country music and the hit-the-high-note chorus is the key: “to the plaaace…. where I BE-LOOONG!!!!” Mountain mommas don’t hurt none, neither. We will refrain from harping on the fact that West Virginia is the epicenter of ‘Coal Country’, ‘Economic Depression (or just plain depression)’, ‘the Methamphetamine Epidemics’ and ‘Trump Country’. On an aside, John Denver was born Henry John Deutschendorf (Village of Germans), which sounds about as German as one can be — in America.
- “New York, New York”– Many Germans love New York City more than many Americans love New York City. New York City, though hardly American and yet totally American, is without much doubt the number one destination for Germans on their first visit to America. This song has stood the test of time like no other song on this list and, like “Country Roads,” it allows the band to start slow and end loud. Tempo AND dynamics? Ja, voll!
- “YMCA”– Speaking of those from the village, the Village People were a phenomenon which I can scarcely remember. I do recall, however, that I had the album Cruising on 8-track. One of my favorite memories of my first Oktoberfest was watching a tent full of Germans try to figure out the arm movements to this song. There was general agreement that coordinated waving of appendages should take place during the chorus but then it all sort of fell apart. In any case, they can showcase the horn section and scream the chorus with the best native English speakers and that’s what it’s all about. And yet, still today, Germans who speak English quite well forget how to say the letter ‘Y’ when reciting the English alphabet unless this song is playing.
- “Hey! Baby”– I’ll be honest here, this is my least favorite song on the list, and that’s saying something. Not sure what does it for me, but a lot of something. The 1961 original is just fine, but its popularity at the Oktoberfest is due to the 2001 remake by DJ Ötzi. Not only is the chorus easy, but “The Genius That Is DJ Ötzi” added “Ooh! Ahh!”, cementing his status as a DJ famous for being famous. Hugely popular still and, again, no one goes to a beer tent because of their discriminating tastes. I hear he’s also done a remake of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, but there some things in life once heard which can’t be unheard, so I’ve yet to listen to it.
- “Sweet Caroline” – Neil Diamond’s song about a Kennedy are perhaps about as close as one can find on the list to a German love song. Couched lyrics with references to awkward moments associated with puberty and lost innocence make it the perfect song for drunken revelry. DJ Ötzi also made a remake of this too, unfortunately.
- “Sweet Home Alabama”– Lynyrd Skynyrd seems like a logical choice because anything which has to do with blue skies is sure to be popular in the land of ‘Weiss and Blau’ (White & Blue, for the skies which are always hovering above the grey clouds). The Bavarians are also very set on ideas of home; they are reluctant to leave it for any price. After living here for over 15 years, I understand.
- “Born in the USA” – Back before the current political currents, the idea of being born in America was a major attraction for many Germans. The place where dishwashers could become restaurant owners, freedom rang, etc. Though it may have lost a bit of its lustre, it remains a beacon of independence, cowboys, and Hollywood. There’s hope that America’s turning a corner away form its dark past. I won’t hold my breath, but I’ll hold your beer.
- “Knock Three Times” – This happy song from 1971 is the second attempt on the list at a love song for German sensibilities. Can it get any simpler than “Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me, twice on the pipe if the answer is no. . .”? It’s right about this time that I am ready to hit a pipe, and it wouldn’t be full of tobacco.
- “La Bamba” – No Oktoberfest Top 10, or even any German Top 10, would be complete without a song sung in Spanish. From the “Ketchup Song” to “Despacito”, the dearth of good music in Germany again manifests itself in kitschy Spanish lyrics. This song makes everything whole and complete.
Honorable Mention: “Seven Nation Army” – The White Stripes, Indie rockers from Detroit don’t normally make this sort of list, but the song has been popular in European soccer stadiums for years. If you see the bass player playing the opening riff, feel free to inform him or her that it should really be a semi-acoustic guitar run through a whammy pedal set down an octave if they want to capture the magic of the original. The song is rarely sung in its entirety (Jack White is that unique), but the rift often caroms off the inside of the tent. It is a signal to drink. T
The reason it’s not on the list is because the guitar rift is played so often it’s more of a theme song than a true song.
Honorable Mention: “It’s My Life” – Bon Jovi’s popularity in Germany is one of those things which is inexplicable, like “Dinner for One” or “Leberkäse“. The idea that everyone’s life is there own is a nice one though…
Jason Eilers contributed to this article.