Modern Talking – You Can Win If You Want
Guest contributor: Pete Paphides
On Saturday afternoons, when we couldn’t be bothered to go all the way into Birmingham city centre, my best friend Richard and I would take the number 37 from Acocks Green in the opposite direction and make the shorter journey to Solihull. There were less record shopping options here. WHSmith, Boots, John Menzies and Woolworths all sold records, but Discovery was the only dedicated record shop. In 1983, this was where I bought a 12-inch single of The Doors’ live version of Gloria and floated out of the shop proudly after the assistant at the counter commended me on my good taste. A year later, aged 15, I bought Lloyd Cole & The Commotions’ Rattlesnakes. This time, there was no endorsement from the person who took my money, but that was ok. Even as I waited at the counter for my 51p change from a fiver, I was feeling pretty good about my gradual transformation from pubescent Abba obsessive to Thoughtful Appreciator Of Artisan Pop.
Sometimes, if there was nothing on which Richard and I obviously wanted to spend our pocket money, we would take a thrilling leap into the unknown with a Discovery Lucky Bag. These came in two sizes. £1 for a sealed pack of ten seven-inch singles or £3 for ten 12-inches. After this, we would scurry back to my house and excitably open our Lucky Bags to see if we had indeed been lucky. Usually, there would be something here to justify the gamble. The first time I heard Laid Back’s White Horse – the song which, alongside McCartney II basically invented Hot Chip – was minutes after pulling it out of one such mystery pack. Ditto Narada Michael Walden’s Gimme Gimme Gimme.
It was also in one of these bumper bundles of unknown pleasures that I first became aware of German synth-pop titans Modern Talking. Just one look at the 12-inch of You Can Win If You Want was enough to let me know that this wasn’t where I wanted to be heading in terms of my musical evolution. The separate mugshots of Dieter and Thomas on the sleeve told me that neither of these people owned a copy of Horses by Patti Smith. If you mentioned Joy Division to Modern Talking, there’s every chance they would reply by telling you they’d never heard of her. These are all things I love about Modern Talking now, But, quite frankly, this wasn’t where I was headed in 1985.
Our rule, however, was that we had to play every record, no matter how unpromising it looked. This even applied to Modern Talking: the blonde, mulleted guy whose advancing years no amount of Vaseline on a camera lens could conceal; and the raven-haired handsome guy who appeared perfectly in focus at all times. With its minor-key setting and plaintive single-finger piano intro, You Can Win If You Want threw me into an emotional tailspin within seconds. There were no Simon Reynolds or Jon Savage types holding forth on the delicious dichotomy that underpins great pop, from early Motown via every Chinn/Chapman RAK smash and, indeed, Europop itself… No-one with any critical cachet had ever referenced Europop in complimentary terms – namely that, if you strive to create a throwaway moment of pop brilliance with no pretensions to timelessness or durability – you somehow always end up creating something that people will want to play decades later.
Back in 1985, there were no music paper thinkpieces that celebrated the synergy of sadness and euphoria that great Europop had inherited from the best Disco and Ni-NRG tunes. In 1985, there was no more forbidden love in pop than Europop love. In my bedroom, aged 15, alone with Modern Talking, I was experiencing feelings I didn’t understand. I was becoming a Modern Talking fan.
“You don’t fit in a small-town world/But I feel you are the girl for me,” intones Thomas or possibly Dieter (I’m still not sure) encapsulating in two lines the dilemma that seems to have inspired You Can Win If You Want. The song’s subject wants to strike out for a new life in the big city. But the song’s narrator is older and wiser. He knows that such a decision will entail hardships. Plus, he doesn’t want to break up with her. As we head inexorably into the chorus, he wearily sings, “Rings on your fingers/Bells on your toes/That’s the way your story goes.”
And then, leaving barely enough time for you to wonder if she is, in fact, planning to join a circus, we’re into the chorus. “You can win if you want/If you want it you will win,” intones Dieter or maybe Thomas (somehow, at this late stage, it feels pointless to check), “In the end, you will see/Life is not a fantasy/Take my hand for the night/And your feelings will be right/Hold me tight.”
And that, really, is that. Time for the next verse.
OR IS IT?!?!
Because this is the genius of pop’s master BOGOF practitioners Modern Talking. TWO CHORUSES. This was their “thing.” All of Modern Talking’s best songs (see also: Brother Louie, You’re My Heart, You’re My Soul) had TWO CHORUSES. Just as you had been stopped in your tracks by one achingly gorgeous hook, another one would come along straight after it, this time featuring the other guy – Dieter, Thomas, whatever – navigating his way through a higher, more reflective hook. The effect would be tantamount to that of a one-man Greek chorus, powerless to intervene as this episode approaches some sort of conclusion. Faced with such an unexpected melodic windfall, resistance is surely futile for all but the most stubborn of listeners.
For the longest time, I used to call such songs “double-yolkers”. Years later, I found myself playing Modern Talking to Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley and mentioning the double-yolker chorus phenomenon – and he said, “Oh, you mean a pre-chorus?”
Yes, I did. Because that’s what it is when a song has a chorus which then goes into a second chorus. Someone had already thought of a name for it. Here are some other great songs with pre-choruses/double-yolkers: Del Shannon: Runaway; Abba: Mamma Mia; Girls Aloud: No Good Advice; Muse: Resistance; Weezer: Buddy Holly.
But anyway, I digress. Back in my room, I developed a strange relationship to the music of Modern Talking. That it sounded cheap and horrible, somehow made it more beautiful to me – rather like the discarded Bazooka wrapper that Jonathan Richman sings about in his song Chewing Gum Wrapper. Shortly afterwards, I picked up a cheap copy of Modern Talking’s recently-released monster Eurohit You’re My Heart, You’re My Soul hoping that it might help me to get to the heart of the issue. And much later, when Brother Louie gave Modern Talking their first (and only) UK top 10 hit, I videotaped their Top Of The Pops performance. In time, I even bagged myself a copy of its parent album Ready For Romance for a sniptastic £1.99 from my local Woolworths.
Slowly but surely, between August and December 1985 I came to an accommodation with Europop. I achieved this in four distinct steps:
- Spectacularly failing my O-levels
- Funnelling my self-pity over (1) into a new hobby called Sitting At The End Of My Bed Listening To Julian Cope’s Me Singing Over And Over Again for approximately one month
- Getting bored of (2) and resolving to stop taking myself so seriously
- Fully achieving (3) by finally embracing the music I had previously felt embarrassed about
As it turns out, there had never been a better time to plant your Europop flag into the ground than the precise halfway point of the 80s. The previous 18 months had constituted a mini-golden age for the genre (selected highlights: Trans X’s Living On Video; Laura Branigan’s Self-Control; Limahl’s The Never Ending Story; Sandra’s (I’ll Never Be) Maria Magdalena) with the following 18 months yielding more mysteriously melancholy masterpieces from Princess Stephanie (Irresistible), France Gall (Ella Elle L’a) and Desireless (Voyage Voyage).
But perhaps, most exciting of all was that fact that, as 1985 came to a close, Pet Shop Boys – a duo fronted by a self-deconstructing, university-educated, pop-literate, Bobby O-loving Smash Hits journalist – had ridden to the top of the charts with a sound lovingly assembled out of electro, boystown, Europop records and, yes, even a touch of post-punk bedroom miserabilism. Pet Shop Boys were a perfect musical intersection between cool and uncool; high and low culture; underground and overground; detachment and sincerity; introversion and extroversion. In just one Top Of The Pops appearance, they legitimised all the seemingly irreconcilable sorts of pop I had ever loved.
But you know what? When it came to double-yolkers, even they couldn’t hold a candle to Modern Talking.
Entered chart: 08/06/1985
Chart peak: 70
Weeks on chart: 4
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Five years ago, Little Boots could have fared well with it, perhaps with a production in the vein of Stuck On Repeat. Actually, wait… I’m imagining Hozier doing it. Yes, that’s possible.