Metal Umlaut

blue oyster cult

spinal tap

A metal umlaut [oom-lout] (also known as röck döts) is a trema (in Germanic languages called Umlaut) that is sometimes used gratuitously or decoratively over letters in the names of hard rock or heavy metal bands—for example those of Mötley Crüe and Motörhead. Amongst English speakers, the use of umlaut marks and other diacritics with a blackletter style typeface is a form of foreign branding intended to give a band’s logo a Teutonic quality—denoting stereotypes of boldness and strength commonly attributed to ancient northern European peoples, such as the Vikings and Goths. Its use has been attributed to a desire for a ‘Gothic horror’ feel. The metal umlaut is not generally intended to affect the pronunciation of the band’s name.

These decorative umlauts have been parodied in film and fiction; in the mockumentary film ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ (spelled with an umlaut mark over the n and a dotless i), fictional rocker David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) says, ‘It’s like a pair of eyes. You’re looking at the umlaut, and it’s looking at you.’

The German word Umlaut roughly means changed sound or sound shift. In standard usage (outside heavy metal) the umlaut version of a vowel is pronounced differently from the normal vowel; the letters u and ü represent distinct sounds. The sounds represented by umlauted letters are typically front vowels. Ironically, these sounds tend to be perceived as ‘weaker’ or ‘lighter’ than the vowels represented by an un-umlauted u, and thus in languages like German which use it normally, the umlaut does not evoke the impression of strength and darkness which its sensational use in English is intended to convey. Therefore, the foreign branding effect of the metal umlaut is dependent on the beholder’s background. Speakers of such languages may understand the intended effect but perceive the result differently from speakers of languages in which umlauts are rarely used.

The German Krautrock band Amon Düül II released their first album in 1969. However, their name came from Amon, an Egyptian sun god, and Düül, a character from Turkish fiction, so this use of umlauts was not gratuitous. The third part of Yes’s progressive rock epic ‘Starship Trooper’ is entitled ‘Würm’ (1971). However, this again is probably not gratuitous, seemingly coming from the Würm glaciation (the most recent ice age).

The first gratuitous use appears to have been either by Blue Öyster Cult or by Black Sabbath, both in 1970. Rock critic Richard Meltzer claims to have suggested it to their producer and manager Sandy Pearlman just after Pearlman came up with the name: ‘I said, ‘How about an umlaut over the O?’ Metal had a Wagnerian aspect anyway.’ In that same year, Black Sabbath’s record label, on a rare picture-sleeve 7″ single version of ‘Paranoid,’ for no apparent reason, retitled the song ‘Paranoïd’ with a diaeresis above the ‘i’ (as is correct in French).

On their second album ‘In Search of Space’ (1971), Hawkwind wrote on the backside of the cover: ‘TECHNICIÄNS ÖF SPÅCE SHIP EÅRTH THIS IS YÖÜR CÄPTÅIN SPEÄKING YÖÜR ØÅPTÅIN IS DEA̋D.’ This was before Lemmy, later of Motörhead, had become a member of the group. Motörhead followed in 1975, and the idea for the umlaut came from Lemmy, the group’s lead singer, who said, ‘I only put it in there to look mean.’

The band Hüsker Dü debuted in 1979, though they were based in punk and not heavy metal, their name is derived from the board game ‘Hūsker Dū?’ which translates to ‘Do you remember?’ (the slash above the u’s are macrons, not umlauts). Mötley Crüe formed in 1980, and according to Vince Neil, the inspiration came from a bottle of Löwenbräu beer. They subsequently decided to name their record label ‘Leathür Records.’ At one Mötley Crüe performance in Germany, the entire audience started chanting their name with the proper German pronunciation.

Queensrÿche, who took on that name in 1981, went further by putting the umlaut over the Y in their name. Frontman Geoff Tate stated, ‘The umlaut over the ‘y’ has haunted us for years. We spent eleven years trying to explain how to pronounce it.’ In contrast to other examples, the spelling of Queensrÿche was chosen to soften the band’s image, as it was feared that the original spelling, Queensreich, might be misconstrued as having neo-nazi connotations.

One Comment to “Metal Umlaut”

  1. Very interesting.

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