When Bob Dylan sang “Forever Young” in the early ’70s, he did so in the context of a prayer for a newborn child. It makes sense then that when Alphaville delivered an entirely different song with the same title in 1984, they turned that quest for eternal youth into a first-person plea. It was the Me Decade, after all.
Alphaville was a German group that came in on the tail end of the synth-pop craze that held sway for much of the first part of the ’80s. Bernhard Lloyd and Frank Mertens handled the keyboards on their debut album, also titled Forever Young, while Marian Gold did the singing. The title track was the third single released, and although it only squeaked to #65 on the Billboard charts, a dance remix gained traction in the clubs and extended the song’s shelf life.
In an interview for an Alphaville fan magazine in 2014, Gold explained that his lyric-writing technique for “Forever Young” included some mashing up of familiar parts into an unpredictable whole. “What I personally often find intriguing is to read aimlessly through movie- or book- titles and arrange them according to sudden inspirations,” he said. “A prominent example for that is ‘Forever Young.’ ‘Heaven can wait’, ‘Diamonds are forever’, ‘We are watching the skies’ and so on are all more or less quotations from movies. The creative part is to put them into a new environment where they miraculously change their meaning into the desired direction.”
In the original version of the song, Gold floats upon a bed of sighing synths, giving the whole production a weightless, dreamy feel. There’s not a trace of irony in the vocals; indeed, the genuine, aching open-heartedness of the song is one of its most endearing characteristics and a good reason why it’s endured all these years. You really believe Gold and root for him in his quest to be “Forever Young,” while the inherent melancholy comes from the knowledge that you know he can’t possibly get there.
“Let us die young or let us live forever,” Gold sings, settling for nothing in between. “We don’t have the power but we never say never,” he continues, hinting at the optimism that shines forth from his generation even as the possibility of nuclear annihilation (“Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?”) looms. The imagery is elegiac throughout: “Can you imagine when this race is won?/ Turn our golden faces into the sun.”
Differences aside (“Some are a melody and some are the beat”), a sad fate awaits us all: “Sooner or later they will all be gone/ Why don’t they stay young?” Yet even as the song suggests there is no way short of a youthful death to avoid old age, the last verse adds a hopeful twist to its regrets: “So many adventures couldn’t happen today/ So many songs we forgot to play/ So many dreams swinging out of the blue/ We let them come true.”
Gold equivocates some in the chorus; directly after singing “I want to be forever young”, he follows by asking, “Do you really want to live forever?” However they might feel about it, Alphaville found out with “Forever Young” that the easiest path to immortality is to write a memorable song about it.