One of the great ironies of postwar pop culture has been the ease with which European musicians have been able to sell American music back to the Americans. The British invasion bands of the mid-'60s were a classic example, with a sound built from American blues records that went virtually unheard in their original versions, but sold millions when remade as rock records.
Cultural exchange, though, is a two-way street, and it's worth noting that these days the traffic moves in both directions. Consider "Rock Me Amadeus," the recent chart-topping single by the Austrian singer Falco. With its tape tricks, booming drum machine and persistent electronic pulse, it boasts all the hallmarks of a hip-hop hit, even though Falco and his producers, Rob and Ferdi Bolland, have been careful to include enough of a chorus to lend the tune pop appeal.
Given the rage for hip-hop in Europe today, it would be easy to assume that "Rock Me Amadeus" is simply another imported pop hit based on home-grown ideas, and in a way, it is. After all, the tape edits used to produce the odd repeats that leave Falco stuttering "zu-zu-zu-zu-zuperstar" were introduced by New York remix artists four years ago, while the monolithic drum sound and bursts of heavy metal guitar the Bollands sprinkle through the single are obviously inspired by the hits of Run-D.M.C.
On the other hand, it ought to be remembered that the electrobeat hits that form the basis of the hip-hop sound were themselves derived from the works of bands like Kraftwerk, whose "Numbers" was a major club hit in Harlem before Afrika Bambaatas' Soul Sonic Force cut "Planet Rock." That may help explain why, on radio, the single sounds equally at home whether sandwiched between rock songs or dance records.
Most impressive of all, the single's success is purely musical. Granted, the Mozart angle lends the record a certain novelty value, but its classical overtones are so muddled that the violin break comes closer to quoting Beethoven (the first movement of the Fifth Symphony) than Wolfgang Amadeus himself.
Instead, it's the relentless stomp of the production that sells the single, as each element in the mix is eventually reduced to a component of the beat. As a result, "Rock Me Amadeus" is a perfect piece of pop craft, a single so mindlessly catchy that it's hard not to get hooked.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for "Falco 3" (A&M SP 5105), the album from which the single is taken. Like far too many European pop stars, Falco prefers eclecticism to consistency and clutters his album with all sorts of oddities, ranging from the mock-Springsteen of "America" to "Munich Girls," a German-language version of the Cars' "Looking for Love." By the time Falco gets around to closing the album with Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" done as a glitzy calypso, the success of "Rock Me Amadeus" seems merely a matter of luck.
The English duo Pet Shop Boys, by contrast, are consistent to a fault. In fact, so many of the songs on "Please" (EMI America PW-17193) sound alike that when "Tonight Is Forever" feints through its introduction with a snippet of "Opportunities," it sounds too much of a piece to come off as a joke.
Part of the problem is that despite the efforts of producer Stephen Hague (the musical mind behind Malcolm McLaren's "Madame Butterfly"), the Pet Shop Boys rarely manage to improve upon the hip-hop and Eurodisco models from which they steal. "West End Girls," the group's current hit single, comes closest, if only because of the contrast between Neil Tennent's crisp, upper-class rap delivery and his wet, crooning singing style.
Elsewhere, the duo is depressingly derivative. "Opportunities" is little more than warmed-over Soft Cell, although without the witty menace that was Marc Almond's strength; "I Want a Lover" is a vapid declaration of lust that sounds vaguely like what might have happened had someone hypnotized Al Stewart into thinking he was Donna Summer. On the whole, the only realistic answer to an album like "Please" is "Thank you, no."