Thursday, March 5, 2009

Go Ahead ‘n Ask: Mephisto in Swing By King Daevid MacKenzie

Since we’re awash in the wake of the Academy Awards (and, should you be part of the regular audience at the Loft, the Independent Spirit Awards), it’s rather fitting that I start out this week by reminding you of one of the winners from the past, the Best Foreign Language Oscar winner of 1981, Mephisto. In it, Klaus Maria Brandauer portrays “a vain, brilliant German actor who sells himself to gain prestige when the Nazis come to power” (that’s Leonard Maltin’s synopsis, anyway). I’ve just been reminded that Brandauer’s fictional character in the movie had a real-life musical counterpart.

On an email list I belong to, someone posted over the weekend what was alleged to have been a listing of standards that German dance bands were to stay within during the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, when the Nazis were in power in Berlin. Other list members were dubious about the existence of such a congregation of musicians in Hitler’s day, but I chimed in with a reminder that there was an outfit used by the propaganda ministry that was a moderately good swing ork instrumentally. They were known throughout England during the early days of the Second World War as Charlie & His Orchestra.

The “Charlie” in question here turns out to have been one Karl Schwedler, who began the War as the director of the English-language broadcasting unit producing Nazi propaganda for external broadcast to the United States and the United Kingdom. He also fancied himself a crooner in the Bing Crosby manner, and when propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels wanted to put together a swing band for airing on those external broadcasts, it was Karl Schwedler who fronted the band as Charlie.

There are two things to keep in mind about all this: one, that there were no swing bands in Germany under the Nazis, not for domestic listening anyway; and when the War broke out, while American shortwave stations may have sent Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and “The Shadow” towards the British Isles late on Sunday nights their time, the BBC Sunday schedule was a bloody boring proposition.

Thus, during the days of the “Phony War” the British radio audience, whose movie theatres and concert halls had been closed at the beginning of the war as a safety precaution, found themselves listening in ironic amusement to the pompous newscaster William Joyce, the infamous “Lord Haw Haw,” and the musical parodies of Charlie & His Orchestra.

Those parodies are among the more unusual Nazi items to have survived the War. WFMU, the New Jersey freeform radio station, has two CDs’ worth of the material in mp3s on their blog for free download; just point your browser at and search for “Charlie & His Orchestra” – but be forewarned, there’s a lot of offensive anti-Semitism among those spoof lyrics applied to the melodies of America’s greatest tunesmiths, themselves often Jewish.

At first, the lead vocalist was actually a guy who had a heavy German accent and probably had to read the lyrics phonetically, knot knowing what he was singing about other than something Hitler endorsed. That was circa October 1939. After a disastrous first recording session, that lead singer was ordered replaced, and Schwedler himself, with a lighter accent, took over for most of the band’s remaining time on the air.

By all accounts, Schwedler was an atypical Nazi. If there was a flamboyant playboy in wartime Berlin, Karl Schwedler was it, basking in the newfound prominence in the propaganda ministry thanks to his band’s ironic popularity in England on Sunday nights. Some of those accounts, from those who were acquainted with Schwedler after the War in New York City, claim that he was also Gay, making him a candidate for the death camps if his superiors ever penetrated his closet. This was itself an interesting aspect, as one of the main uses for the band’s records was sending them to P.O.W. camps for British, Canadian and American prisoners to listen to the things. The predictable reaction from the P.O.W.s was breaking the 78s in disgust halfway through Schwedler’s vocals.

By 1943, the war had taken a remarkable turn in the Allies’ favour, with the Soviets bombing Berlin on a frequent basis. The Nazis decided to move much of the radio propaganda activities to Stuttgart, but, interestingly enough, while “Charlie & His Orchestra” made the trip, Schwedler stayed in Berlin for the remainder of the War. There were no Deutsche Grammophon studios in Stuttgart, with the band broadcasting directly from the radio station there instead. The new “Charlie” making the vocals on the last set of recordings clearly sang and spoke English without any trace of a German accent.

After the Nazis surrendered, whereas “Lord Haw Haw” William Joyce was tried for treason and executed, Karl Schwedler was a wanted man for a different reason. The new head of the British Forces Broadcasting unit actually wanted to find and hire Schwedler to sing for their post-War Berlin station. But Schwedler, apparently fearing the same fate as Joyce, fled from Berlin to Bavaria, where he worked as a night porter at a hotel. Eventually, he moved back to Berlin, where he was spotted working as a croupier in a post-war casino, and shortly after that he took the opportunity to head to the United States, where he spent time in Greenwich Village before venturing westward. He appears to have returned to Bavaria to spend the rest of his life in complete obscurity.

The recorded echoes of Charlie & His Orchestra, however, live on as a caustic curiosity of the 1940s, with Karl Schwedler continuing from the grave to provide a voice as a Mephisto in Swing.

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