Car-aoke | #2

"Im Wagen vor mir" by Henry Valentino & Uschi

Few other everyday objects have shaped modern music as much as the car. In this column, our editors regularly write about songs that tell stories related to a vehicle. Some of them even went down in music history – but certainly not all of them.

Rada rada radadadada, rada rada radadadada … – As connoisseurs of German “Schlager” music of course will know, this is not some Dadaist poem, but the refrain of the evergreen German hit song: “Im Wagen vor mir” (which, literally translated, means: In the car in front of me). Those who would not refer to themselves as connoisseurs of German Schlager should be aware: It is a highly polarizing genre. If you have never heard it, it might be a treat - or a severe shock …

However, Schlager can be generally described as a style of popular music that is a catchy instrumental accompaniment to vocal pieces of pop music with happy-go-lucky, repetitive, and often sentimental lyrics. The genre emerged after the Second World War and is a bizarrely enduring phenomenon: The most-downloaded German album of all time was Schlager music – Helene Fischer’s “Farbenspiel” (Color play) was released in 2013 and stayed in the charts for four years.

The Schlager “Im Wagen vor mir” was recorded back in 1977 by a certain guy called Henry Valentino – in a duet with a certain girl named Uschi. For me personally, this track is my first musical memory, for two reasons: on the one hand it was the first song in which a car – to be specific: a Citroën 2CV with a young lady at the wheel – played a significant part. And on the other hand it was a song that I only ever heard in a car – to be specific: from the back seat of our family's station wagon.

The latter not entirely voluntarily (the experience was probably when I decided that I do not intend to join the “Schlager is a treat” fraction). However, when we headed south on vacation my father was always the one firmly in charge, not just of the steering wheel but also of the cassette deck. While my two sisters and I didn't exactly keep statistics on the matter back then, we heard the duet between Henry and Uschi so often that it still triggers a lot of shared memories.

I used to wonder, who is this guy with the distinctive gravelly voice? Why is he so keen to know about the girl “with the soft hair” and why does he keep asking “where she's going and what she's thinking about right now”? 35 years later, a quick search on Google provides the answer to the first of these questions at least: Henry Valentino's real name is Hans Blum; he's now over 90 and lives with his wife (Ingetraud, not Uschi!) near the German city of Cologne. “Im Wagen vor mir” was his biggest hit single as a singer and remained in the German charts for an impressive 33 weeks.

“Meine Schönste Melodien” is Henry Valentino's best-of album – and of course it contains “Im Wagen vor mir”, his greatest hit.
“Meine Schönste Melodien” is Henry Valentino's best-of album – and of course it contains “Im Wagen vor mir”, his greatest hit.

The song must be judged in the context of its time. Nowadays, the girl who asks in her part of the duet, with increasing irritation: “What is this stupid guy behind me up to? … He's been on my tail for half an hour now” would probably report the man in the rear mirror for stalking her. But back then? Did Valentino ever see the lady of his dreams again, once they had gone their separate ways at the intersection? The German magazine Stern uncovered the answer to this mystery in an interview with the composer in 2005: although his inspiration was indeed a genuine sighting from behind of an “extremely attractive-looking creature”, this was revealed, upon overtaking, to be a “tall man with long, wavy hair”.

Just so that you don't get the wrong impression about the exercise of fundamental democratic rights in the family car, I should perhaps reassure you that my sisters and I were actually able to intervene from time to time to ensure that a Benjamin the Elephant cassette was played instead of Schlager. But at the very latest when the cries of “Are we nearly there?”, “I'm bored” or “My sisters are really annoying me!” reached an unacceptable pitch at the front, you could be sure that the tape with Henry and Uschi would make its comeback: Rada rada radadadada, rada rada radadadada

Cornelia Hentschel

Has a playlist that does not feature any Schlager songs. But she does listen mostly to the news radio channel in the car. Unless, of course, her four-year-old daughter insists on Benjamin the Elephant.

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