There is something about Heino’s image that captures the imagination. All of the interview subjects in the documentary Heino: Made in Germany talk about the elements of the look: the blond hair, the dark sunglasses, the turtleneck, the inert stage presence. “Like a traffic sign or a pictogram, even children can memorize him,” former Heino impersonator Norbert Hähnel says. But what hides behind those dark glasses? There’s no lust, no dread, no anger, no sorrow, no mischief, no humor, no identifiable human desire of any kind in his persona. One young fan praises his “sobriety and modesty,” which may be the only qualities that can be positively attributed to the star.
Heino has called himself “the singer of the silent majority,” boasting that he’s sold more records in Germany than Frank Sinatra or the Beatles. There isn’t a perfect American analogue to Heino, but Pat Boone might give you some idea of the singer’s temperature. Both singers strive to appear wholesome and nonthreatening, though there’s a touch of militaristic pomp in Heino’s voice that would sound very strange coming from Boone. On his 2013 comeback album Mit Freundlichen Grüßen, Heino took a page out of Boone’s playbook, adopting a kind of Vegas/Ed Hardy “hard rock guy” image and covering Rammstein’s “Sonne,” along with other “folk songs of the young generation.”
Norbert Hähnel, one of the most interesting characters in the film, owned a Berlin record store and label called Der Scheissladen (I don’t speak German, but I believe this translates as “the Shit Shop”). Hähnel created a minor scandal in the 80s by impersonating the singer and insisting that he was the real Heino, earning him the hatred of Heino fans everywhere. Heino’s record company ended Hähnel’s career as “the true Heino” with a lawsuit that landed the Shit Shop owner in jail. Hähnel’s reminiscences of his first encounter with Heino are telling; even his youthful attempt to antagonize the singer only left him staring into the void:
It must have been at the end of the ‘60s. Maybe I was 17 at that time. Heino performed at a fashion show for older people. He had like two or three singles out so far. I thought it was actually very frightening to see what came up to us. But still I was fascinated by that person and so I had to watch his show. [...]
I think I remember a situation in which he was onstage saying, “All the young people nowadays don’t sing in anything but the English language,” and so on. I interrupted by yelling “fascist” or something like that. It ended up in a tumult. All the old people turned around looking for me. That’s the story. Just a small commotion, nothing to be too excited about.
Schlager singer Guildo Horn suggests the secret of Heino’s popularity lay in the relationship between his folk repertoire and postwar German identity:
After the Second World War, everything concerning German culture, German music, and especially folk music was so infested that you better not touch it at all. All the folk songs and stuff like that had been sung by the Nazis. They broke and tainted those songs. But then Heino came and didn’t give a damn about it.
It seems there was a thrill of the forbidden associated with Heino’s return to traditional German culture—that’s why it was banned in East Germany. The documentary includes a clip of East German broadcaster Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler denouncing Heino:
Every young and old reactionary can identify with this right-winger of the West German Schlager business. He is the flaxen-haired past singing the old songs.
The film also includes quite a bit of Heino-head Jello Biafra talking about his fascination with the singer, whose records used to blast through the PA before Dead Kennedys shows to wind up the crowd. Be warned: if you listen to enough of this stuff, you might start to like it.
Thank you Greg Bummer of Azusa, CA!