Burt Bacharach is as good a symbol of 1960s America as you could want. He wrote irresistible pop songs that were simultaneously sophisticated and catchy, tunes that seemed to be part Leonard Bernstein, part cheery suburbia, and part rock ‘n’ roll. Take a ride in your wood-grained station wagon, flip on the AM radio, and enjoy some Dionne Warwick or Dusty Springfield laying out a hip tune, America!
In Germany, they also had warm-voiced pop singers during that time, of course. One generation after the Nazis fell, a singer named Marion Litterscheid (later, Maerz) was tooting “schlager”, the light pop music of Europe, and doing pretty well for herself. By 1970, though, she and her producers were looking for a new, more substantive angle for her career, and so they turned to the songs of America’s most impressive pop songwriter. The album Burt Bacharach Songbook was released in ‘71, and it promptly tanked. Allegedly prized by LP collectors since then, the disc now—mysteriously—makes its CD debut.
If you are familiar with the classic US recordings of these 12 Bacharach tunes, then Maerz’s versions—with arrangements by Ingfried Hoffmann, who played organ with German jazz-cat Klaus Doldinger—are faded Xerox copies that happen to be sung in German. The word is: disorienting. Or, maybe, disquieting.
Perhaps the songs translate well into German. I could not tell you. But to American ears, they seem to have lost their mellifluous joy and have gained a series of rough edges in which the translator has placed the syllable “ich” in as many places as possible. The likes of “Close to You”, forever associated with the raspberry bon-bon that was Karen Carpenter’s voice, becomes all elbows and knees here: “So Wie Ich”. It’s not that Maerz has an unpleasant tone or color to her voice, but it’s the way “Just like me / They long to be” turns into something less fluid and beguiling.
This change of the central element of the songs is that much more jarring because the basic arrangements are so similar. “Walk on By” gets the same chiming groove, with the title of the song similarly echoed by a five-note lick on Herb Alpert-ish brass. The weirdly muted flugelhorn solo on “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” is here, you can bet. “A House Is Not a Home” keeps its plain-spoken strings.
But each of these elements, for all their similarity, seems washed out, lightened, a generation removed. The bright plastic-ness of the American versions—so clean and so Bacharachy, so happy with their fancy chords and clever moments—give way here to pale imitation. (Insert your own Aryan joke here.) Bacharach’s ‘60s pop was hardly the “blackest” US music of the decade, but it relied on the harmonic magic of jazz as well as the rhythmic displacement of that invaluable art form. It was no coincidence that the best interpreters of Bacharach tunes were African-American singers such as Warwick, the Shirelles, Jerry Butler, and the Fifth Dimension. The “white America” of 1970 wasn’t exactly free of racism, but its Perry Como days were behind it. In German pop music, things just sound that much more bleached out.
As a singer, Maerz is bright and melodic, and she makes her way around the tunes with few hiccups. Her sound is, well, American in the same way that Mickey Mouse Club singers are American—Girl Scout-y, pony-tail-y, adorable. On “Raindrops”, she chooses again and again to chirp certain words off pitch on purpose, going for a kind of cuteness as if she were wrinkling up her nose at you while she smiles.
It’s little wonder that the German record-buying public left Burt Bacharach Songbook on the shelves. What can it have meant to the citizens of 1971 West Germany to listen to the song “24 Hours from Tulsa”? This is not to suggest that Bacharach’s songs, in this case one about choosing not to come home to a loved one, are culturally locked. But the total package—the snappy, jazzy melodies, the pert sense of arrangement, the syncopations, the overall white/blackness—is about as American as Smokey Robinson or Billie Holiday.
Apparently Marion Maerz had a couple of comebacks after Bacharach failed to remake her. In theater and in cabaret, she ultimately emerged as an adult artist. She can sing, so why not. But it is suggested that she was long proudest of this recording, her Smile, perhaps. Some folks, the promotional materials say, consider it a masterpiece. Which is a hard conclusion to reach if you simply compare the recording to the many originals it filches from.
One final thought: I really, really wish that Maerz had included “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”. I would like to have heard that one in German.