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JENNIFER SHARPE reporting:

For the past few years I've been amassing a small collection of what I like to call foreign-tongue recordings.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

That's producer Jennifer Sharpe, and here are some examples from her collection.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

BRAND: Foreign-tongue recordings are versions of hit songs, mostly from the '60s, sung by the original artists, usually in German, Italian and French. The singers often learn the lyrics phonetically line by line, taught by a language couch. Our contributor Jennifer Sharpe says they were recorded in a time when English-language songs had a tough time making it in Europe, and she loves to imagine a scene where, say, Sonny & Cher are trying to record a hit in French.

(Soundbite of song)

CHER: (Singing in French)

SHARPE: If you could have peered into the studio while one of these recordings was being made, you probably would have seen a fatigued performer standing next to a Berlitz instructor, stopping and starting their way through a string of phonetic pieces that somehow equaled their song.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

SHARPE: Because I can't understand anything that isn't in English, for me these recordings are filled with mystery, absurdity and accidental beauty. Take for instance David Bowie's Italian version of "Space Oddity."

(Soundbite of "Space Oddity")

Mr. DAVID BOWIE (Singer): (Singing in Italian)

SHARPE: I was able to find an Italian named Roberto who was a teen-ager when this came out. He said he remembered that David Bowie's accent was good, but that the lyrics were ridiculous. As you can imagine, the translations of these songs could get pretty rugged. But with "Space Oddity," the Italian lyrics had almost nothing to do with the original. As it turns out, the record company thought that a song about floating through outer space in a state of alienation was too deep for the Italians, so they changed it. In their version, a lonely boy wanders the streets of his city saying things like `If you need my hand to swim, thank you, but tonight I want to die.'

(Soundbite of "Space Oddity")

Mr. BOWIE: (Singing in Italian)

SHARPE: Like so many other artists, Bowie was under enormous pressure to outsell the foreign-made cover band versions of his songs. To compete, you had to have a good translation and a good accent.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. CHUBBY CHECKER: (Singing in German) Let's twist again (Singing in German) Yeah, let's twist again...

SHARPE: There were people like Paul Anka, Petula Clark and The Beatles who all sounded great in other languages and who all sold a lot of records. But then there were others like the Four Tops, who in Italian were almost completely unintelligible.

(Soundbite of "I'll Be There")

THE FOUR TOPS (Pop Group): (Singing in Italian)

SHARPE: But not all foreign-tongue recordings were profit-driven. In the mid-'70s, when David Bowie was living in Berlin, he decided on his own to do a German version of the song "Heroes." According to Tony Visconti, his producer at the time, Bowie sang the song with the Germanic intensity of someone performing part of the "Ring" cycle.

(Soundbite of "Heroes")

Mr. BOWIE: (Singing in German)

SHARPE: Bowie was very pleased with the recording...

(Soundbite of "Heroes")

Mr. BOWIE: (Singing in German)

SHARPE: ...and the Germans liked it too.

(Soundbite of "Heroes")

Mr. BOWIE: (Singing in German)

SHARPE: These days, it's the other way around. Most people sing in English. Tony Visconti now works with a Danish band called Kashmir, who in their 10 years together have never recorded a song in their own language.

(Soundbite of song)

KASHMIR: (Singing) Ya! Check it!

SHARPE: In 2003, long after its 1960s heyday, Dutch and British police recovered a final specimen from this genre. Buried in a stash of stolen Beatles recordings that had been missing since the 1970s, they found this recording, made just three months before The Beatles broke up.

(Soundbite of "Get Back")

Mr. PAUL McCARTNEY: (Singing in German)

Ms. VALERIE SCHOLTZ(ph) (Berlitz Coach): Follow as I go. (German spoken)

SHARPE: (German spoken)

Ms. SCHOLTZ: (German spoken) Jennifer Sharpe.

SHARPE: (German spoken)...

Ms. SCHOLTZ: (German spoken).

SHARPE: (German spoken) Jennifer Sharpe.

(Soundbite of "Get Back")

Mr. McCARTNEY: (Singing in German)

BRAND: Thanks to Berlitz coach Valerie Scholtz for helping Jennifer Sharpe. And you can listen to more foreign-tongue recordings. We put some of Jennifer's collection up on our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of "Get Back")

Mr. McCARTNEY: (Singing in German)

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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