Wolfenstein Rocks! The Fake German Rock of Wolfenstein: The New Order

Games Features The New Order
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This might be the most soulless version of “Boom Boom” that’s ever existed. The band’s turned John Lee Hooker’s bluesy strut into a finger-snapping shuffle, all clean tones and straight notes with a bouncy piano solo. The singer, his indoor sunglasses framed with a white Warholian moptop, prances about arms akimbo, with occasional shouts of “rock and roll!” He’s singing in German, for Christ’s sake.

It doesn’t get that hot in Boston in April, and the Royale nightclub isn’t crowded enough for claustrophobia to kick in, but if you didn’t know what was actually happening, it’d still be a little uncomfortable at the Neumond Recordings launch party. Despite the German MC, the German food and beer, and the German versions of “She Loves You” and “Nowhere to Run”, this isn’t actually a German band playing. Although there are 45s from various Neumond artists, this isn’t really a record release party. There isn’t even really a Neumond Recordings. It’s a promotional event for Wolfenstein: The New Order, a first-person shooter set in an alternate reality where the Nazis won World War II, took over the world and colonized the moon, all before 1960. Somewhere along the way they ditched Richard Wagner for Little Richard.

Neumond Recordings isn’t real, but the music is. Machine Games and Bethesda, the game’s developer and publisher, commissioned new music in the style of 60s rock and roll and R&B, both to promote the game and to add depth and color to the game’s setting. It’s the sort of atmosphere-creating detail that the designers of Machine Games were known for at their previous studio, Starbreeze, where they famously let players watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird in the game The Darkness.

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As Pete Hines, Bethesda’s vice-president of public relations and marketing, recalls, the idea of Neumond Recordings grew out of Machine Games’ “interest in exploring culture, and how it would have evolved under Nazi rule. How would music have been different?” Jens Matthies, the Creative Director of Machine Games, describes the role of the music as trying to “convey a sense of familiarity, but perverted through a Nazi filter.” It makes the world of The New Order more real even as it further distances us from its dystopian setting.

To create the Neumond sound, Bethesda reached out to Ravi Krishnaswami and Jason Menkes of Copilot Music + Sound, a firm that specializes in music for television, film and advertising. “Music is such an important part of the 60s, and they were really interested in this idea of using music and rock to fill in this universe,” Krishnaswami says. “The whole concept of the game taking place in a 60s where the Nazis had won the war gave us fertile ground for the music.”

Copilot wound up recording ten songs for the project, and although seven are originals, the initial idea was to record German-language covers of songs from the time period. That’s where that Teutonic version of “Boom Boom” comes from. The idea for covers grew out of Bethesda’s first trailer for the game, which featured the original recording of Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower”. Of course the Hendrix records we know probably wouldn’t exist in a world where the Nazis won World War II, so Bethesda, Machine Games and Copilot talked about reimagining songs from the era as if they were originally recorded by Germans. “We ended up working on rearrangements of ‘Nowhere to Run’, ‘Boom Boom’ and [the Animals’ version of] ‘The House of the Rising Sun’…that reflected this universe,” Krishnaswami says.

The teams quickly realized how unfeasible it would be to create an entire soundtrack of covers.”In order to really tap into the 60s zeigeist we were looking at some pretty massively expensively songs to license,” Krishnaswami says. “From a creative and business standpoint, creating originals was a better idea, not only to imagine artists that could exist in this universe, but to create songs and own them and be able to use them whenever needed, rather than have to renegotiate the license every time they want to use them.”

“You don’t have to worry about getting somebody to agree to what you want to make or how you want to use it if you just create it yourself,” Hines reiterates. “It’s a game with Nazis in it, and that makes people uncomfortable, so we’ll just do our own made-up versions.”

The decision to make original songs inspired the concept of Neumond Recordings, a fictional label “tapping into youth culture to create proper German rock and roll,” as Krishnaswami describes it. Fake bands were created, each tied in to a specific pop music genre from the 1960s. Protopunk garage band the Bunkers would’ve fit easily on a Nuggets compilation. A Theremin lends a spooky sci-fi vibe to the surf rock of the Comet Tails, making them sound like a German Man or Astroman. Karl & Karla sing a pop duet not unlike Paul & Paula. Schwarz-Rote Welle ape early psychedelia on “Ich Bin Überall”, which translates to “I Am Everywhere.” It’s all well-executed pastiche, with both the songwriting and production proficiently capturing the sounds of the 60s.

To help write the songs Copilot corralled talent adept at recreating each one of these genres. “If it was one band and we were writing ten songs for them, we could create a consistent cycle of songs around that,” Krishnaswami says. “But for a record label you’ll want a lot of different voices and people who are really good at writing in one style or another.”

Menkes adds, “Karl & Karla’s duet is a very traditional, almost 1950s approach to ballad writing. We know this amazing lyricist and composer who do a lot of theater writing and whose collaboration mirrors the Brill Building work that was happening in the 50s and 60s, so we brought them in to write that song. They wouldn’t have been appropriate for the big rockers, like the Bunkers, so we had an amazing composer who lives in that rock world and could easily bring it to life.”

After writing the songs, Copilot recorded them using vintage amplifiers, microphones and instruments from the 1960s. They considered two-track recording gear for the most authentic sound possible, but couldn’t rely on the antiquated equipment, especially with an international crew of performers who couldn’t all convene in one location at one time. They researched the sounds and studio techniques of the day and tried to replicate them as thoroughly as possible using modern-day digital methods. The result is a reasonable approximation of early 60s recordings. And if there’s a bit of sheen or clarity that wouldn’t have been possible from a 1960 studio, that only reinforces the unease of sci-fi otherness and the sense of German efficiency and technological advancement.

To truly succeed at creating the right atmosphere, though, Copilot couldn’t just mimic well-known styles of rock and roll. They’d have to imbue the music with a Germanic sensibility. They accomplished that through how the songs were arranged and performed, as in the accordion and flute-heavy version of “House of the Rising Sun”. They aimed to reflect what Krishnaswami says, for lack of a better term, “a pure German approach to rock ‘n’ roll might be. ‘Boom Boom’ is a great example, taking this song so rooted in blues, and musically removing the blues from everything about the way the song is recorded, to the way the guitar is played, where the notes are bent but played really straight, to singing it in a nice, clean, melodic way with a harmony, rather than with a rough, bluesy voice. And there were other decisions that we made as we were experimenting with artists that sort of reflected that. We had another song written for Karl and Karla that had more of a Marvin Gaye / Tammi Terrell sound. We decided [the Germans] probably wouldn’t have eliminated soul but they might have minimized it on the label.”

It’s easy to wonder how the Nazis could ever have let this type of music exist, much less flourish, considering their genocidal hatred for non-Germanic culture. The crucial developments in blues and R&B that happened in the late 40s and early 50s and fed directly into the earliest rock and roll music likely wouldn’t have happened in a world where the Nazis conquered America in 1950. It’s hard to imagine a Nazi-ruled America where African-Americans were able to pursue any kind of creative expression, or simply allowed to survive. But this is science fiction—if we can suspend disbelief enough to accept that the Nazis won the war with an army of robot dogs, we can probably let the existence of rock and roll slide.

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Although the real world Reich fell before rock and roll existed, Copilot was still able to look at history to get an idea of how the Nazis might have exploited rock and roll. That history shows that if rock and roll did exist alongside the Nazis, there’s real world precedent for them co-opting banned popular culture for propaganda means.

“As a model in part of our research we used the way Nazis handled pop culture in the 30s and 40s,” Menkes explains. “For the most part they banned what was considered American and African-American music at the time, which was jazz, in favor of Wagner and German folk music. But their department of propaganda created their own jazz band called Charlie and his Orchestra, which existed to write songs about how Germany was going to win the war and how England was going to lose, or was a puppet of the US. They were played on shortwave radio in London and throughout the UK to try and lower morale. In that way they co-opted pop culture and accepted it as long as it suited their needs, and we used that as a model of how it would happen in the 60s.”

Hines reiterates that these songs can be seen as propaganda within the world of the game. As he explains, they’re “trying to use music to brainwash people they’re trying to keep control of. The cover of ‘Nowhere to Run’ is in some ways an obvious subliminal message to all of these people they’re trying to keep under control that there is nowhere to run and they are going to get you.” Even the label’s name, Neumond, is a bit of propaganda—it translates to “new moon”, bragging that the Nazis of this timeline were the first to reach and colonize the moon.

That focus on the moon inspired one of Menkes’ favorite ideas for the soundtrack, a song concept that was scrapped due to not quite working as propaganda. “We knew we wanted to address the moon colony musically, and one of the early pitches was an artist that was a balladeer that wrote songs about space in the model of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ or Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’. It’s a better fit to do the surf, Jan & Dean, Beach Boys, fun type of rock, though, for its energy and sense that everything is great and happy. ‘Rocket Man’ and ‘Space Oddity’ are more about the loneliness of space travel, and we don’t want loneliness. The Nazis want everything to sound perfectly happy, and that their new world is wonderful.”

With all their songwriting collaborations and fastidious studio work behind them, Menkes and Krishnaswami themselves sound perfectly happy at the Neumond Recordings launch party, watching a group of local musicians lead by Emeen Zarookian of the Boston band Spirit Kid run through a set of their songs and covers. (Zarookian on the experience: “It was really cool. And we all got to snazz up our wardrobe so that was a bonus.”) Menkes calls it Copilot’s “Weird Science moment. We created these artists out of fiction on a computer.” They recorded these fake 60s rock songs to expand on the world of a videogame, and now the songs have crossed over into the real world on real records. Hopefully it’s the closest we ever get to living in the world of Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Photos and concert notes by Carli Velocci.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.