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Wolfenstein's bizarre pop music takes a long, strange trip back to the 1960s

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Bethesda Softworks

The 1960s after a total Nazi victory in World War II would sound like the un-grooviest time ever to be a teenager. But that's part of the backstory for Wolfenstein: The New Order and to set that tone, the game's makers commissioned an original German-language pop music soundtrack for this bleak alternate history, and the baby gloomers growing up in it.

"Ich sitz im zug nach Hamburg," trill "Die Shäferhunde" — "The Sheepdogs," whose sound plainly marks them as the Nazi Monkees of this twisted decade, singing a faint homage to "Last Train to Clarksville."

Seven other original songs round out the atmospheric soundtrack encountered by B.J. Blazkowicz, the series' lantern-jawed avenger, as he tears down the Nazi occupation of America. In one setting, the lyrics and melodies of Wolfenstein's music may sound darkly comic; in another they become drained of all life. It's somewhat fitting, considering who the enemy is in all of this.

"We wanted to identify with different sounds that were kind of iconic, 1960s sounds," said Pete Hines, the vice president for marketing for Bethesda Softworks, "and then do our own twist on them to make a sound authentic enough that it felt realistic, but then, there's also something inherently funny about a German Beach Boys cover band."

That would be "The Comet Tails," whose "Weltraum Surfen," (Space Surfing) is at least as callow as "Surfin' USA" ever was. Bethesda released it and all of these tunes — plus three German-language versions of real 1960s hits — on a promotional website today called "Neumond Recordings." You may listen to them all there.

Wolfenstein: The New Order acts out an age-old argumentative premise, that we'd all be speaking the language of some historical adversary had we not, you know, defeated it years ago. In this case, the Nazis won, and MachineGames, the Sweden-based developing studio, wanted to enforce that metaphor in all facets of the game, even on the radios Blazkowicz encounters after emerging in 1960 from a bewildering 14 years spent in an insane asylum.

"The Nazis aren't going to be folks who are fine with you singing in English," said Hines. So if the game was going to have a pop-music soundtrack, that's why it had to be sung in German. "The developers felt it was important that, for immersion purposes, these things be in their native language, to reinforce the idea that you're a stranger out of time."

In a sense, recording new songs was the easiest way to deliver that motif. Wolfenstein: The New Order licensed two songs for use in promotional material only: John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom Boom" (for an earlier trailer in which Mount Rushmore is destroyed, in titular fashion) and "Nowhere to Run" by Martha and the Vandellas. But these songs do not appear anywhere in the game; that's because the songs' owners require — quite understandably — that their work never be associated with any Nazi imagery, and Bethesda can guarantee that in a trailer. But the main game, at least in its North American release, is shot through with swastikas, so no user will ever hear those tunes there.

Interestingly, a third song — "House of the Rising Sun" — is in the public domain. As Wolfenstein will not use The Animals' iconic performance, instead a cover of the vocals in German, it can appear in the game.

For the original songs Bethesda commissioned, lyricists still had to be careful. The game is releasing in Germany, after all, where there are strict proscriptions — constitutional laws, with criminal penalties — against the use of Nazi imagery in any form. A game can swap out visuals easily enough and, in the German release, Wolfenstein will. For a song, rather than conspicuously mute verboten words, it's just easier if the whole thing is inoffensive from the get-go.

That's partly how Wolfenstein: The New Order came into eight songs that seem to genuflect to the young love and good times of the 1960s but listening closely, don't really convey either. Intentionally or otherwise, they sound like the kind of propaganda spun up by with-it adults trying to keep the kids docile.

The artists of the Nazis' Neumond are recognizably Aryan, from "The Bunkers" to "Karl and Karla," dead ringers for Sonny and Cher. "Mond, Mond, Ja, Ja," by "Die Kafer" (go on, translate that name on Google) may make you beg for an invasion of British liberators.

Still, some bedrock 1960s music genres are not featured, not because of ratings concerns, but simply because they don't fit with the alternate reality Wolfenstein: The New Order is trying to establish. If the Nazis are running things, a Motown sound probably isn't going to take hold. And as tempting as it was, MachineGames didn't want to take any classic protest songs from the Vietnam War era and repurpose them against the occupation. No tin soldiers and Hitler coming, in other words.

"It didn't seem like a very Nazi thing to do," Hines said, "The Nazis wouldn't be the kind of people who let you write songs that in some way protested them. They wouldn't have tolerated that."