This is the 97th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
There are conflicting reports as to how Johann Holzel became known as Falco. One story is that he began calling himself Falco after German skier Falko Weissflog; another states that he picked the name because “it sounded better. It means the falcon.”
Regardless of how he became Falco, the artist who would be Falco grew up in Austria and graduated from the Vienna Conservatoire in the 1970s. Upon graduation, he moved to Berlin, and though he had been a classically trained child prodigy, he began playing in a jazz-rock band. He returned to Austria, and in 1979, he played bass on punk band Drahdiwaberl’s album, “Psycho Today.” Falco then started his solo career, releasing his debut album, “Einzelhaft,” in 1982.
One of the songs that Falco included had been written by a songwriter named Robert Ponger. Ponger initially offered the song to an Austrian pop singer, but the singer declined. Falco then took the song and restructured it as a quirky German-English rap called “Der Kommissar.”
Translating to “the commissioner,” Falco’s “Der Kommissar” told the story of a police captain who attempted to go after a cocaine user and her dealer. Though it was mostly in German, he wrote some of it in English in the hopes that “Der Kommissar” could cross into the US market. But when the single was released in the US, it initially failed, despite being a hit in Austria and Germany.
An English band called After The Fire decided to translate “Der Kommissar” into English, staying faithful to Falco’s original story:
She said, “Babe, you know I miss Jill and Joe
And all my funky friends”
But my street understanding was just enough to know what she really meant
And I got to thinking while she was talking
That I know she told the story
Of those special places that she goes
When she rides with the others in the subway singin’
Don’t turn around, oh oh oh
(Ja ja) Der Kommissar’s in town, whoa oh oh
And if he talks to you and you don’t know why
You say your life is gonna make you die
Alles klar, Herr Kommissar?
Well, we meet Jill and Joe and brother Herr with the whole cool gang and, oh
They’re rappin’ here, they’re rappin’ there, but she’s climbin’ on the wall
It’s a clear case, Herr Kommissar
‘Cause all the children know
They’re all slidin’ down into the valley
They’re all slipping on the same snow
But just like Falco’s version, After The Fire’s “Der Kommissar” didn’t fare well in English-speaking markets when it was first released. Dismayed after years of trying to have success, the members of After The Fire were ready to call it a day. They announced they were breaking up.
Around that same time, Laura Branigan was working on her next album, which would be “Branigan 2.” Her producer — who happened to be named Jack White, not to be confused with half of The White Stripes — played Falco’s “Der Kommissar” for her. Branigan and White then sampled the song for a new track, keeping the backing arrangement but adding new lyrics.
The result was “Deep In The Dark,” which resembled the versions of “Der Kommissar” in music only. Lyrically, Branigan’s song was about a womanizer being bested, rather than policemen, drug dealers, or cocaine.
And yet, just before “Deep In The Dark” was to be released, After The Fire’s “Der Kommissar” began to gain traction in some markets. As a result, Falco’s original also began to climb the charts. Branigan and her label worried that the newfound popularity of “Der Kommissar” could negatively impact sales of “Deep In The Dark,” so they opted to release the single “Solitaire,” originally written by Martine Clémenceau and Diane Warren. “Solitaire” peaked at Number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May of 1983. Three weeks earlier, After The Fire’s “Der Kommissar” had peaked at Number 5.
Falco went on to have a Number 1 hit with “Rock Me Amadeus,” but After The Fire never recreated the success of “Der Kommissar.” After all, the band had already announced its breakup before the song became a hit. Over the years, both the English and German versions of “Der Kommissar” have been covered, not to mention the covers that translated the song into another language altogether.
After The Fire’s version spawned several other covers that same year, including versions by blues singer Ronnie Jones…
…by Suzy Andrews…
…and Matthew Gonder, who released two versions in 1982: an English cover faithful to the After The Fire version…
…and a French version called “Clair, Commissaire!” It was similar to his other version, except, well, in French.
That same year, Italo disco group Pink Project released a mashup of “Der Kommissar” and Trio’s “Da Da Da,” called “Der Da Da Da.” Because of course.
Before he formed Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor was in a new wave band called Option 30. The group’s cover of After The Fire’s “Der Kommissar” didn’t reinvent the song, and its appeal comes from getting to hear a young Reznor sing pop. And it’s adorable.
Former Missing Persons singer Dale Bozzio’s 2007 release “New Wave Sessions” included hits from her band, as well as a few covers. Her take on “Der Kommissar,” using After The Fire’s English lyrics, didn’t recast the song, but man, did she sound cool. Of course, she could sing “Rubber Duckie” and I would still think she sounded cool. (You should hear her singing “Hello, I Love You.”)
Punk/garage band The Squids included a lo-fi version of “Der Kommissar” called “Don’t Turn Around” on the 2007 collection, “4 Floors Of Whores: The Squids Collection.” In this version, many of the lyrics were combined, edited, or left out altogether, including, strangely enough, all references to “der kommissar.”
Těžkej Pokondr is a Czech comedy duo comprising Miloš Pokorný and Roman Ondráček, who record parodies and spoofs of popular songs. “Trápi Mě Dluh” was a Czech take on “Der Kommissar” for the group’s 2011 album, “Superalbum.” What that song was about, I’m not sure, because the Google Translate results made no sense.
German-Dutch singer Sven Ratzke blends jazz, pop, and burlesque. When listening to his live version of “Der Kommissar” on his 2011 album “Macht Musik at the Bimhuis,” one could get the impression that some of the performance got lost in translation when it could only be heard and not seen. And yet, not all was lost, as Ratzke’s rapid flow was impressive.
Austrian sextet Global Kryner included “Kommissar” — sans “Der” — on the group’s 2012 album, “Coverstories.” It sounded less like Falco’s version and more like something you’d hear at an Oktoberfest. And that’s not a bad thing.
The band Bloodsucking Zombies from Outer Space covered “Der Kommissar” on its 2016 album, “Bloody Unholy Christmas.” There’s a lot to unpack in that one sentence, but there’s not a lot I can say that will do justice to this metal/rockabilly cover. You’ll have to hear it for yourself.
You listened to it, yes? And I was right, yes? Goes well with the jarring cover art for the album, yes?
When I reviewed covers of “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” and “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” I struggled to define the relationship the two songs had to each other. Their shared backing track meant that the songs were connected, but neither one could be considered a cover of the other. What complicated the matter was trying to figure out the relationships that covers of “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” had with covers of “Ça Plane Pour Moi.” Or did they have any relationship at all?
In the case of “Der Kommissar,” I have similar questions. After The Fire’s version is a translation of Falco’s version. Should a translation be considered a cover, or should there be a separate category for versions of a song performed in a separate language? If so, then many of the versions in my review of “Vamos A La Playa” would not be considered covers.
What these hairsplitting, nitpicking questions get at is how to treat the songs that change the lyrics of a song. When I reviewed “Ray Of Light,” I hesitated to call that song a cover of “Sepheryn,” yet it was more than just a sample. It had some of the same lyrics, but “Ray Of Light” added new verses and cut some other verses out. And, it’s worth noting, the two songs were instrumentally different. But After The Fire’s “Der Kommissar” sounded almost exactly like the Falco version.
But let’s say that a translation of a song is treated as a cover. What then is said of that translation’s covers? Should Dale Bozzio’s “Der Kommissar” be considered a cover of After The Fire’s version, or Falco’s version? Or is it possible that it’s a cover of both? It definitely wouldn’t exist without the After The Fire version, which itself wouldn’t exist without Falco’s original.