Umlauts and metal -- How the letter has permeated the hard rock scene

Sometimes genius strikes at the least-expected moment. In 1971, musician and songwriter Sandy Pearlman was trying to devise a new name for his band. Standing on a New York street corner with rock writer Richard Meltzer (who had been in an earlier incarnation of the group), Pearlman glanced into the window of a nearby restaurant and noticed that the menu included Blue Point oysters. ”I said, ‘Why don’t we call it Blue Oyster Cult?”’ he recalls. ”And Richard said, ‘And we’ll add an umlaut over the o!’ And I said, ‘Great!”’

So never mind the 10th anniversary of MTV. Twenty years ago, one of rock’s most wonderfully demented traditions was born: sticking an umlaut — those two little dots derived from the German language — in the name of your band to connote mystery and menace, even if, to a German, the usage makes absolutely no phonetic sense. In addition to Blue Öyster Cult, just ask Mötley Crüe, Queensrÿche, Hüsker Dü, Motörhead, and Amon Düül (a ’60s German art-rock band that had legitimate linguistic reasons on their side; likewise, Hüsker Dü, whose name, umlauts and all, is Swedish for ”do you remember?”). Not to mention Spi¨al Tap and of course Voivod, young headbangers from Canada who went all out for the title of their 1986 album, Rrröööaaarrr.

In German, the umlaut does serve the useful purpose of signaling a change in the pronounciation of the vowel to which it is applied. Not so in rock & roll. Says Pearlman, who went on to produce and manage (but not play in) BÖC, ”It was meant to bring all sorts of ambiguous implications to the name.” Perhaps too many: According to one record company source, some labels have removed umlauts from singles sent to radio stations for fear that program directors will automatically deem the bands ”metal” and not play the records.

Adds Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe, who brought the umlaut tradition into the ’80s, ”We didn’t think about its proper use. We just wanted to do something to be weird, and the umlaut is very visual. It’s German and strong, and that Nazi Germany mentality — ‘the future belongs to the youth’ — intrigued me.”

Hearing that, we paused to let our thoughts run wild: Imagine what an umlaut would do for the likes of Dan Fögelberg, Ü2, and Nelsön. But then Sixx burst the bubble. When the Crüe first toured Germany, he says, fans took the umlaut too much to heart. ”All the kids were going, ‘Mutley Cruh!”’ he recalls. ”And we were going, ‘Huh?”’ Or is that ”Hüh”?