Sometimes, it take quite a while for an iconic song to reach that recognizable point. Songs change, co-writers are brought in, singers are changed out, and the version that finally takes off could bare only a passing resemblance to the original. Today, we'll look at what it took to make Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" into an international hit. To start this globetrotting journey, we need to go all the way back to 1948 Austria. Prolific film composer Hans Lang and regular collaborator Erich Meder wrote a song called "Und Jetzt ist es Still." This roughly translates to "And Now It's Quiet." It was recorded by Austrian/German singer Horst "Harry" Winter (best known for competing in the 1960 Eurovision contest for Austria). Many of the strongest elements of Bjork's biggest hit are present in this recording. This recording uses a full orchestra, switching between a quiet polka waltz to a more aggressive sound. It's also very free in its use of tempo, playing with the silence between the sung phrases.
Shame there isn't a cleaner transfer of this online. It really is a fine recording with a lot of detail. You get the idea though.
The song traveled to America three years later. Betty Hutton--star of stage, screen, and radio--released a newly orchestrated and translated version of the song oddly called "Blow a Fuse." It's straight up a character song and it's fantastic. This is essentially a faster and less erratic version of Bjork's well-known song. All the elements are there 45 years 44 years before Bjork recorded it. Hutton even does the "shush" before the first big silence. The difference is in presentation. Hutton is a big brassy belter who acts this song like no one's business. It's a musical showcase of comedy acting. One strange addition is the men's chorus that kicks in for the third verse with Hutton "shush"ing their every line. Here, more than anywhere else, the song that was originally "Und Jetzt ist es Still" sounds like it was pulled from a Broadway musical.
Which brings us all the way to Iceland, 1995. The forgotten Betty Hutton song "Blow a Fuse" gets updated to be a showcase for a young Icelandic pop star just starting to get international recognition. Gone are the cheesy men's choir and excessive "shush"ing. Replacing them is Bjork's beautifully expressive voice. This woman has a phenomenal vocal range in pitch, tonal quality, and dynamics. It's probably my favorite thing about Bjork. Say what you will about her electronic alternative music. I think it's hard to deny that Bjork has an exceptionally trained voice.
This arrangement of "It's Oh So Quiet" maintains that theatrical edge without feeling so dated. Bjork is bringing a modern vocal interpretation to the material without losing the meaning of the song. I also think that this arrangement, more than any other, really brings out the subtleties in Lang/Meder's original concept. I think it all comes down to this awkwardness created by silence when an audience or singer expects sound. It's maddening to the performer and they have to take control. This erratic jester sounds just right when Hutton and Bjork sing it, but Bjork's rendition is far less tongue in cheek. She needs that music to come back and she'll scream until someone joins her.