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America will love Heintje: 11 failed English-language crossovers

1. Heintje, I’m Your Little Boy (1970)

A veritable juggernaut of kitsch, boy singer Hendrik “Heintje” Simons sold millions of records across Europe in the late 1960s. Heintje was the Liberace of moppetdom, belting out odes to motherhood. Though Dutch, he sang in German, and had a look that was meant to appeal to the kindliest of grandmothers. (He also starred in such films as No School Tomorrow, Hurrah! The School Is Burning!, and To Hell With The Student Cap, which became very popular in the People’s Republic Of China—but that’s a different story.) And as the 1970s rolled around, Heintje prepared to unleash his brand of misty-eyed sap upon the English-speaking world. His record label bought 12 consecutive pages of ads in Billboard announcing the arrival of his English-language debut, I’m Your Little Boy, complete with a picture of the singer striking a messianic pose in his trademark mock turtleneck. But then, biology stepped in. Before Heintje could lodge himself into the public consciousness, his voice changed. A few years later, he would re-emerge, furthering his legacy as a bizarre international pop phenomenon by learning Afrikaans and cornering a new audience in apartheid-era South Africa. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


2. Boris Grebenshikov, Radio Silence (1989)

Akvarium—the doyens of the brief, eclectic heyday of the Leningrad rock scene—seemed bent on making every kind of music that had passed the Soviet Union by, swinging from post-punk art rock and proto-indie psych to folk and jazz-rock, tied together only by the voice and esoteric vision of frontman Boris Grebenshikov. Columbia took notice, leading to a contract—but only for Grebenshikov. Imagine if Bob Dylan, the American icon traditionally used to explain Grebenshikov’s significance as a songwriter and cultural figure, had made his debut with one of his largely forgotten 1980s albums, and you’ll have some idea of the resulting record, a bland flop all too aptly named Radio Silence. (However, glimmers of the singer’s intense, chameleonic Soviet persona could be seen in a promotional Late Night appearance.) Grebenshikov wouldn’t release another LP of new material until 1992’s folk-rock comeback Russkiy Albom (The Russian Album). And though he’s long since returned to being Akvarium’s sole constant member, he never cut his ties with the English-speaking world, enlisting like-minded Westerners (including Robert Wyatt, Richard Thompson, Garth Hudson, and Andrew Bird) for his subsequent solo records. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

3. Chen Kaige, Killing Me Softly (2002)

Alongside Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige was one of the most famous figures of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese cinema, attaining unprecedented international success with Farewell My Concubine. Chen’s Palme D’Or-winning period piece had a major role in stoking wider interest in Chinese film, leading to more ambitious projects. And then, having mounted the most expensive production in the history of the mainland film industry with The Emperor And The Assassin, he proceeded to the logical next step: an inept, absurdly over-heated erotic thriller starring Heather Graham. Eroticism and desire played an important part in Chen’s best-known Chinese films, but Killing Me Softly found him veering into the Skinemax trash heap. Fondly remembered by nude scene screen-cappers and absolutely no one else, Chen’s sole English-language movie—which features lots of sexually charged indoor rock climbing and Zoolander-esque facial expressions—was shelved by MGM for two years before being dumped straight to video. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


4. Johnny Hallyday, Sings America’s Rockin’ Hits (1962)

Johnny Hallyday was a French rock ’n’ roller when there effectively were no French rock ’n’ rollers, which made him both a trailblazer and a novelty act, depending on your point of view and, more importantly, your language. Although he started out by singing in his native tongue, as evidenced by his first single, “Laisse Les Filles,” he found cross-European success with his cover of “Let’s Twist Again,” which resulted in Hallyday’s profile soaring high enough to secure an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show—albeit one recorded at the Moulin Rouge rather than in New York. Seemingly poised for global domination, Hallyday subsequently released a full-length, all-English album entitled Johnny Hallyday Sings America’s Rockin’ Hits. America was not swayed, sadly, but Hallyday has managed to get over the snub: to date, he has sold more than 80 million records worldwide. [Will Harris]


5. Jean Gabin, Moontide (1942) and The Impostor (1944)

Jean Gabin—the charismatic, world-weary star of Port Of Shadows, Pépé Le Moko, and The Grand Illusion—was one of the most acclaimed leading men of the 1930s, and a major draw in France, where he remains a film icon. At the peak of his fame, he rejected lucrative offers from Hollywood to remain at home. Then came World War II, which forced many of France’s biggest film talents to the other side of the Atlantic. Arriving in the early winter months 1941, Gabin was at last ready to give Hollywood a try. There was only one problem: his personality. Just a few years earlier, American filmmakers had seen Gabin as symbol of everything they admired about French film, but when actually faced with the man, they found him almost impossible to work with. Of the three projects he signed on to, the first two were little seen, and the third ended with him getting fired. Effectively told that he’d never work in Tinseltown again, Gabin joined the Free French Forces, serving as a tank commander. Returning to prominence in French with a string of hits in the 1950s, he remained popular (and notoriously difficult to work with) until his death. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


6. Münchener Freiheit, Fantasy (1988)

After finding considerable success in Germany with albums Von Anfang An and Traumziel, Münchener Freiheit decided the time had come to expand its popularity internationally. To that end, the group released Romancing In The Dark, which featured new recordings of six songs from Traumziel and three of its earlier hit singles, this time sung in English. It found enough success in Europe—including a No. 1 hit in Greece with the song “Every Time”—to take a shot on America. Indeed, things briefly looked promising for the newly name-shortened Freiheit when the song “Keeping The Dream Alive” made it onto the soundtrack of Say Anything… Unfortunately, when the band subsequently released its full-length U.S. debut, Fantasy, it was soundly ignored, and was the band’s one and only American album. [Will Harris]


7. Rain, Ninja Assassin (2009)

Korean pop star and actor Rain made his English-language debut in Speed Racer, impressing the Wachowskis so much they recruited him for a starring role in James McTeigue’s Ninja Assassin. Rain played the title character, who is raised from birth to murder for money, but eventually turns his back on his trainers to avenge his former mentor. The ultra-bloody film paid homage to ninja flicks of yore (including the casting of martial arts legend Sho Kosugi), but that was about all it had going for it. Rain, who had the bare minimum of lines, couldn’t make his charisma translate to the English-language market. Despite winning Biggest Badass at the MTV Movie Awards, he’s only appeared in one American movie since, 2014’s Bruce Willis vehicle, The Prince, a movie that made even fewer waves at the box office than Ninja Assassin did. [Molly Eichel]


8-9. Akina Nakamori, Cross My Palm (1987) and Seiko Matsuda, Seiko (1990)

Seiko Matsuda and Akina Nakamori were two of the biggest Japanese pop idols of the 1980s, and were often seen as being in direct competition; Matsuda was the popular girl-next-door type who managed to score an unbelievable two-dozen consecutive No. 1 singles, and Nakamori was the more mature (though actually younger) successor to earlier stars like Momoe Yamaguchi, with lyrics that were deemed risqué by the ultra-conservative standards of ’80s J-Pop. They had one thing in common, though: Bad luck with the English-speaking world. Soon after releasing Fushigi, the definitive “difficult” album of J-Pop, Nakamori made a go at the American charts with Cross My Palm, which sold predictably well in Japan, but was a non-item in the United States; the songs weren’t very memorable, but, more importantly, Nakamori’s distinctive sultry alto was obscured by her thick, sometimes unintelligible accent. Matsuda’s English was much better—enough for her to land the occasional guest star role on American TV—but 1990’s Seiko flopped, despite extensive promotion. Perhaps it didn’t help that the lead single was a duet that paired up Japan’s most enduringly popular girl idol with the dulcet tones of Donnie Wahlberg, then enjoying a brief run as America’s most famous Wahlberg. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


10. Luis Fonsi, Fight The Feeling (2002)

Given that he was born in Puerto Rico, raised in Orlando, and graduated from the Florida State University School Of Music, it’s easy to understand why MCA Records looked at Luis Fonsi and thought that they could take his tremendous success on Billboard’s Latin Pop charts and make it work just as well for English-speaking listeners. Unfortunately, their best intentions only proved to be a case of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” phenomenon in action. Fonsi’s debut album, 1998’s Comenzaré, had hit No. 11 on the Latin Pop chart, and his two subsequent releases, 2000’s Eterno and 2002’s Amor Secreto, hit No. 6 and No. 1, respectively. Fight The Feeling, which hit record store shelves at the end of 2002, didn’t chart at all—not on any chart—nor did its single, “Secret.” As soon as Fonsi went back to his native tongue for 2003’s Abrazar La Vida, however, it was straight up to No. 3 on the Latin Pop chart. Unsurprisingly, he hasn’t bothered to record another album in English since. [Will Harris]


11. Pink Lady, Pink Lady And Jeff (1980)

In the late 1970s, pop duo Pink Lady was enjoying a level of success in its native Japan not far off from what The Beatles had a decade earlier in the English-speaking world. The group had nine consecutive No. 1 hits, one of which was on the charts for a record 63 weeks. They had starred in a feature film and an anime series. (Like Yellow Submarine, it used stand-ins to voice the singers.) And they had a crossover hit in America, “Kiss In The Dark”—to this day, one of only two Japanese-language songs to chart in the United States. So in 1980, ratings-desperate NBC was eager to cash in on Pink Lady’s success, so much so that they handwaved away the small problem that neither woman in the group spoke more than a few words of English. There were also rights issues preventing the group from performing any of their hits on the air. Undaunted, NBC launched Pink Lady And Jeff, still infamous as one of the worst variety shows of all time. Thanks to the language barrier, co-host Jeff Altman did most of the heavy lifting, with Pink Lady left to look pretty, participate in some very broad sketches, and sing disco versions of American pop songs. The result was unmitigated disaster. What’s worse, by the time Pink Lady returned to Japan, the disco craze had ended and the group was seen as behind the times. Unable to bounce back from their failed U.S. invasion, the duo disbanded the following year, only reuniting 25 years later for a series of comeback tours that continues on and off to this day. [Mike Vago]


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