A Song For Saturday: In Germany Before The War by Randy Newman

For many years, Randy Newman meant very little to me although he had always been in my peripheral vision.

I knew Alan Price’s version of ‘Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear’ from when I was a kid and I was aware of ‘Short People’ but he was someone on the horizon; a writer of novelty songs. Of no interest to someone who grew up on glam rock and punk, then.

However, at some point in the eighties, during one of my longest periods of unemployment, I borrowed Nina Simone’s ‘Baltimore’ from the public library thinking that her voice could transform shit into shinola no matter what the song was. It was a ragged and occasionally brilliant album but the, (Newman penned), song ‘Baltimore’ impressed.

Some time after that, I visited the town’s premier second-hand record shop ‘The Other Record Shop’ where Newman’s ‘Little Criminals’ was always in the fifty pence section. The cover didn’t appeal but I bought it anyway.

A classic album, of course, but the strongest impact was from this one song. Lush strings, plaintive piano,  an aching nostalgic feeling. I loved it though I played it without really listening. So, I played it again. And listened.

In Germany Before The War

There was a man who owned a store

In nineteen hundred thirty-four

In Düsseldorf …’

Lovely sepia images. Snapshots and memories of somewhere that you’ve never been.

And more:

I’m looking at the river

But I’m thinking of the sea

Thinking of the sea ..’

A sad, sense of yearning. But then something changes :

A little girl has lost her way

With hair of gold and eyes of gray

Reflected in his glasses

As he watches her…’

The nostalgic melody starts to seem sinister. The lovely strings are like malignant clouds spreading across the sky. The river seems dark and dangerous .The plaintive piano seems to be stalking.

No, you think. It can’t be.

But then:

We lie beneath the autumn sky

My little golden girl and I

And she lies very still’

And you know it IS.

It chilled me more than any song had before. And maybe even since.

In Germany Before The War, it turns out, was inspired by the classic 1931 Fritz Lang film M, which featured Peter Lorre as a serial child killer.

This in turn was inspired by Peter Kürten who was known as the Düsseldorf Ripper, the Vampire of Düsseldorf or the Monster of Düsseldorf and was executed in July 1931 after confessing to nine murders.

Here are the lyrics:

In Germany Before The War

There was a man who owned a store

In nineteen hundred thirty-four

In Düsseldorf

And every night at fine-o-nine

He’d cross the park down to the Rhine

And he’d sit there by the shore

I’m looking at the river

But I’m thinking of the sea

Thinking of the sea

Thinking of the sea

I’m looking at the river

But I’m thinking of the sea

A little girl has lost her way

With hair of gold and eyes of gray

Reflected in his glasses

As he watches her

A little girl has lost her way

With hair of gold and eyes of gray



I’m looking at the river

But I’m thinking of the sea

Thinking of the sea

Thinking of the sea

We lie beneath the autumn sky

My little golden girl and I

And she lies very still

This post first appeared at Jedidiah Ayres’ Hardboiled Wonderland as part of his NARRATIVE MUSIC series.