In 1968, an Italian movie purporting to examine wild sex freedom in Sweden was released (in English, titled “Sweden Heaven and Hell”). It wasn’t much of a cinematic treasure, but during a sauna scene an insanely catchy song played. Composed by Piero Umiliani, it was performed by a “band” called Marc 4 (four session musicians) and the nonsense vocal part was sung by Italian singer/composer Alessandro Alessandroni and his wife Giulia.
A soundtrack album was duly created and in mid-1969 the tune, entitled entitled “Máh Ná Máh Ná”, was released as a single on the obscure Ariel label. Ariel clearly didn’t really understand the record business; they didn’t list an artist or performer on the disc, just noting it was from the movie Sweden Heaven and Hell.
Despite being uncredited, the song started to get some traction on radio
and was played across North American in September 1969, peaking at No. 55 in the Billboard Hot 100 singles and #12 on their Adult Contemporary list. It made # 44 on the Cash Box magazine chart. In Canada, the song reached No. 22 in the RPM magazine top singles chart. Even when Columbia Records leased it from Ariel for release in Canada, no artist was listed.
So record stores and radio stations didn’t know what to do with the single. Every other song on the charts had an identifiable artist. Some lists credited the song to “Ariel” (the name of the label), while Canada’s RPM simply called the performer “Original Soundtrack”. Billboard and Cashbox charts had it as by “Sweden Heaven and Hell soundtrack”. WPTR in Albany, NY, credited it to one of their DJs, J.W. Wagner, while Chicago’s powerhouse WLS listed it as being by a mysterious “Pete Howard”. Nobody ever listed it as being by the actual performers, “Marc 4”.
The popularity of “Máh Ná Máh Ná” grew with its use in the opening sequence for television’s popular Red Skelton Show starting in October 1969. In late November it got performed on TV’s Sesame Street, and later gained a whole new level of fame once it began being used in the UK TV show The Benny Hill Show (1971) and in The Muppets in the US (1976).
The original UK single release didn’t hit but upon reissue in 1977 it made it as high as #8. There were numerous cover versions as well.
Now, of course, everyone thinks it was by The Muppets!
Let’s take a look at the international spread of pop music in the 1960s. It goes without saying that the English-speaking pop music industry extended its reach around the globe during that decade, from the US and then the UK. Groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys, and singers like Petula Clark, Elvis Presley, and Stevie Wonder became household names in places like Italy, The Philippines, South Africa, Brazil, and Thailand. Their songs were covered in native languages, and their images were framed in bedrooms and schools around the world.
But what about the reverse? Were English-speaking countries ready to listen to pop music from other cultures? In other languages? Could a German rock star become world-famous? Or a Japanese pop group? Was there any mechanism for “international” pop stars to breach the American and UK markets?
We can examine the evidence, in the form of our international hit singles charts from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. We can look for performers who were based in countries other than the above; although some international performers ended up recording, performing, and living part-time in the US or UK, we draw no distinction here between those and others who “stayed at home” and let their music do the travelling. For the sake of argument, this list of “international” musicians will not include performers from Ireland (e.g. The Bachelors, Them / Van Morrison) on the premise that they wrote, sang, and performed in English and for all intents and purposes were part of the UK pop scene. Conversely, we do include French-language records made in Quebec that crossed over into the English Canadian charts.
There is another sub-category (and perhaps the subject of a separate essay) – songs that originated from “overseas” and were covered (and Anglicized) by English pop performers such as Paul Anka and Connie Francis. These were usually Italian ballads, but the odd rocker snuck through, such as The Grass Roots’ 1966 smash “Let’s Live For Today”, which covered TheRokes’ Italian-language original.
Of course, much of this international dialogue was fostered by record companies, who were ceaseless in their quest for “the next big thing” and scoured the globe for any music that could be imported and sold to an American or British teenager. They weren’t so much interested in making big stars of the overseas performers as they were in grabbing a catchy song and selling records, hence most of the international hits we will see fall into the One Hit Wonder category. And it was difficult for an international performer with perhaps one recognizable hit to justify the expense of touring North American or Britain, in competition with hundreds of local English-speaking bands and singers of equivalent fame. Consequently, of the 130 or so “international” performers to chart in English-speaking countries in the 1960s, 87 (two-thirds) are seen to have only one charting song (setting aside the fact that a few might have had a follow-up charter in the ‘70s).
Nevertheless, several startlingly memorable songs did find their way from distant lands into the radios and turntables of English-speaking listeners; amazingly, many were not even in English, which demonstrated the power of a strong, catchy melody.
In the first few years of the decade there arose a few big international hits, but they were primarily instrumentals which could have come from anywhere – JorgenIngmann’s “Apache”, BentFabric’s “Alley Cat”, and BertKaempfert’s “Wonderland By Night” being prime examples. European orchestral pop showed up on movie soundtracks, which sometimes translated into a pop hit single, and bandleaders like Kaempfert cranked out album after album of easy-listening orchestrated pop instrumentals. The Spotnicks from Sweden went head-to-head with The Shadows in the battle for UK guitar rock instrumental hits. And odds and ends always popped up, like Lolita (Austria) with “Sailor (Your Home Is The Sea)”, Nina and Frederik (Denmark) with “Donkey Boy”, Italian EmilioPericolo’s “Al Di La”, and Ivo Robič (Croatia) with “Morgen”, a huge worldwide hit at the start of the decade.
But international music’s prominence moved to the next level in mid-1963 with the success of “Sukiyaki”. The Japanese-language song “I Look Up When I Walk” by Kyu Sakamoto had been issued in Japan in 1961. The catchy melody had come to the attention of Kenny Ball’s Jazzmen in the UK, and they released their instrumental version at the end of 1962. Renamed “Sukiyaki” by Pye Records (in a crassly commercial manner, using the name of a common Japanese restaurant item that had nothing to do with the song or its lyrics other than “sounding Japanese”), Ball’s version was a Top 10 hit in the UK. Just for fun, Capitol in the US and HMV in the UK leased and reissued the Kyu Sakamoto original, sticking with the new name, in mid-1963. It flared up to #1 in Cashbox, Billboard Pop, and Billboard Easy Listening; back into the Top Ten in the UK; #4 at CHUM in Toronto; and #2 in Sydney, selling some 13 million copies in the process.
“Sukiyaki”’s impact woke up a lot of record executives and producers to the potential of hits from elsewhere. While not exactly opening the floodgates to multilingual competition, the possibility of gaining the charts with a European or Asian single had been demonstrated.
Partly as a result, a few months later in 1963, The Singing Nun from Belgium topped charts worldwide later with “Dominique” (sung in French). Meanwhile, Germany’s Heinz (ex-bassist in UK instrumental outfit The Tornados) began his assault on the UK charts as a wannabe rocker, and Los Indios Tabajaros (Brazil) caught the world’s fancy with their mellow guitar work. However, the British Invasion and the rise of self-contained pop groups dominated 1964 and ’65 to the extent that interest in international music ebbed somewhat. But once overseas groups and record companies made the necessary adjustments (finding catchy upbeat songs, singing in English, performing in the UK and US) a new wave of international hits developed. Groups like Los Bravos (Spain) with “Black Is Black” led this resurgence, and Jamaica emerged as a source of catchy hits once Millie Small broke through in 1964 with “My Boy Lollipop”. The Skatalites, Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, and Prince Buster followed among the dozen Jamaican outfits that charted in the UK in subsequent years. Jamaicans had less of a connection with North American audiences, however. South Africa’s Four Jacks and a Jill made a big splash in North America in 1968 with “Master Jack”.
The soothing, jazzy, samba sound of Brazil made itself heard in North America, beginning in mid-1964 with American Stan Getz and Brazilian AstrudGilberto’s landmark “Girl From Ipanema”. From 1966 onward, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 was the most successful international group of the latter half of the decade with their smooth pop covers of English hit songs. They were promoted by American Herb Alpert, who had already made a hugely successful career out of appropriating Mexican mariachi sounds with his Tijuana Brass outfit (and spinoff Baja Marimba Band).
Of all the (close to 240) international hits of the 60s, the half-dozen that stand out are the only ones that went Top Ten in both the US and the UK (and in most cases, in Canada and Australia as well). They penetrated the world’s radios so much that they are still remembered today:
Kyu Sakamoto (Japan): Sukiyaki (1963)
Singing Nun (Belgium): Dominique (1963)
Millie Small (Jamaica): My Boy Lollipop (1964)
Los Bravos (Spain): Black Is Black (1966)
Desmond Dekker (Jamaica): Israelites (1969)
Shocking Blue (Netherlands): Venus (1969-70)
Honourable mention goes to Paul Mauriat (France) with the 1968 instrumental “Love Is Blue”, which just missed the UK Top Ten but was #1 everywhere else. Interestingly, the seven songs are from six different countries (and “Lollipop” was an American song recorded in England by a Jamaican). “Sukiyaki” and “Dominique” are sung in their original languages, while the others are in English. Every one of them is an earworm, and none are edgy or harsh enough to turn anybody off – they attracted countless radio stations and listeners of all ages. They are the definition of “pop” – i.e “popular” – music.
Here are some more details on “The Big Seven” International Hits:
Here is a breakdown by national origin, for the four major English-language pop markets, demonstrating the diversity of the International hitsmakers 1960-69. Note that the US, with 130 chart entries each week, naturally has more entries than the Top 30/50 lists in other countries. France, Italy, and Jamaica are seen as the primary pop exporters.