Four 1980s U.S. Hits that Were Originally Recorded in Other Languages

While the second British Invasion stormed the American charts in the early ‘80s, there was also a surge in European rock and pop acts who also captured our attention. But many of the originals were in another language which at the time required translation to reach American ears—and in some instances, a remake. Here are four 1980s classics that were originally recorded in different languages—two are remakes by other artists, and two were redone by the original artists. Which do you prefer?

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“Der Kommissar,” After The Fire (1982)

Here’s an unusual story of a song that announced the arrival of a new talent while signaling the end of a decade-long run of a veteran band. Four years before he scored big with the English language hit “Rock Me Amadeus,” German techno-pop singer Falco released this lighthearted German language hit with rapping and catchy guitar riffs. But the chances of it making it in the UK and States were minimal without an English version. British rockers After The Fire did a version that sticks to the structure and vibe of the original, although they rewrote some of the lyrics and singer Andy Piercy took a more serious approach to his vocal performance. Falco’s American video, where’s he running in front of a blue screen image of police cars pursuing him, was silly, while the After The Fire clip was moodier and more dramatic.

Falco’s version was a big hit in Europe, topping the charts in Austria, Italy, Spain, and West Germany and going Top 10 in five others. It even reached No. 22 on what is now Billboard’s Mainstream Rock radio chart. After The Fire’s rendition hit No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, No. 2 in South Africa, No. 12 in Canada, and No. 17 in Australia. Sadly, After The Fire disbanded in 1982 before the song became a hit on MTV and radio in the U.S. by 1983, and their label could not convince them to reunite in the wake of its success. (They did so between 2004-13.) Funnily enough, both versions of “Der Kommissar” peaked around the same in Canada. Go figure.

(Fun fact: Laura Branigan reworked this song as “Deep in The Dark” with different lyrics for her second album Branigan 2 in 1983. It’s interesting to hear but not as good.)

“Gloria,” Laura Branigan (1982)

During the first half of the 1980s, Laura Branigan scored three Top 5 hits and two more Top 20 singles. “Gloria,” which peaked at No. 2, remains her signature song. However, it is a reworking of a 1979 single by Italian singer Umberto Tozzi of the same name. Tozzi’s Italian original, which featured a more raspy vocal performance and was more subdued in the verses, went No. 1 in Switzerland and Top 10 in four other countries, including his homeland (No. 2). He also recorded a Spanish-language version that reached No. 1 in Spain, and an English version that reached No. 7 in South Africa and No. 46 in Australia. That’s quite a feat.

When Branigan set about to do her own version, she and co-lyricist Trevor Veitch changed the original intent of the song. Tozzi’s version was about a melancholy man who finds joy in fantasizing about an imaginary woman named Gloria who can make him happy, and he seeks her out in real life. While not differing in terms of structure, Branigan’s version, with its soaring vocals, is about a woman who, in the singer’s words, was “running too fast for her own steps” as she seeks love. Her version sold a million copies in America and at last 300,000 more outside of it. It went No. 1 in Australia and Canada and Top 10 in four other countries. She made it her own.

“Major Tom (Coming Home),” Peter Schilling (1983)

German synth-pop/new wave artist Peter Schilling had a dual-language career for a time as three of his albums in the ’80s came out in both English and German. The one hit he is known for here, “Major Tom (Coming Home),” was evidently inspired by the character in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and chronicles the moments when the astronaut blasts off from earth and experiences a little bit of the cosmos. The song came from his debut album Error in The System, which was also originally released in German. Fans of early MTV will no doubt recall this atmospheric classic that hit No. 14 on Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and went #1 in Canada. Hearing it in its original language as “Major Tom (Völlig losgelöst) does not detract from its emotional power.

“99 Red Balloons,” Nena (1984)

Here’s an example of a song that goes a bit against the conceit of this feature because it walks a fine line. The narrative in this hit is how 99 red balloons innocently released into the sky show up on American and Russian military radars as unidentified flying objects, which then triggers a nuclear war. This chilling concept, performed in an often upbeat manner, tapped into very real fears during the Cold War era. The original German version of this danceable single, “99 Luftballons,” actually went to No. 2 in America and No. 1 in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and a half-dozen European countries including West Germany. The lyrics were written by Nena guitarist Carlo Karges.

The English version from 1984, translated by Kevin McAlea, took a few liberties with the original poetic prose, but it went No. 1 in Ireland, Canada, and the UK. It did not really register here. That’s not bad, but the band were displeased with the English version. While some Americans and Canadians might remember the English language version, the German original still registers with more listeners. It has 37 million views on YouTube (and remains the highest-charting German language single in American history), while the remake has 10 million. The original single sold over 2 million copies worldwide and went Platinum in America.

Nena achieved their single success in the U.S. more than a decade before Rammstein scored sales here while singing in their native tongue. 

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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