Hey Baby: The Legend of DJ Ötzi
Image source: Universal Music Group/Unsplash (Tao Jones)
“Heeeeeeeeyyy, hey baby (ooh, ahh)/I wanna knooo-oo-ow/If you’ll be my girl.”
It was the first night of Splendour in the Grass 2018, and Lorde had just paused her set to deal with a wardrobe malfunction. “This is crazy. Talk amongst yourselves,” she instructed the crowd as she ran off-stage. Almost immediately, the first strains of DJ Ötzi’s 2000 hit ‘Hey Baby (Uhh, Aah)’ broke out. Soon the whole audience was chanting along on an endless loop, echoing around the amphitheatre louder than any of the day’s performers. Lorde returned, and the rendition of the school disco classic abruptly finished. But ‘Hey Baby’ would resurface multiple times throughout the weekend, proving its worth as the ultimate singalong track for festival drunks.
It’s well-known that the chorus of ‘Hey Baby’ is burned into the minds of anyone between the ages of 18 and 35. It was impossible to avoid it during the early 2000s, when the song peaked at #1 on the ARIA Charts and remained in the top 50 for 19 weeks. It ruled over classics like Shakira’s ‘Whenever, Wherever’, and even beat out our own Kasey Chambers’ ‘Not Pretty Enough’ for top spot. It was club ready, but also family-friendly enough to be played on commercial radio. By the time ‘Hey Baby’ charted in Australia in 2002, DJ Ötzi had released two well-received albums in his home country of Austria. In the following 16 years, he’s released 14 albums, with another currently in the works. So why is he widely considered a one-hit wonder?
The Man Behind The Music
In a survey of 107 of my Facebook friends, predominantly 20-something-year-old Australians, only 9 of them knew DJ Ötzi by name. Not one person could name one of his songs other than ‘Hey Baby’. Yet in German-speaking countries, he’s sold over 16 million records and consistently plays to packed audiences. He’s regarded as one of the most successful Austrian musicians ever, which becomes even more impressive if you know his back story.
Born January 7 1971 in Tirol, Austria to a 17-year-old mother, Gerhard Friedle was placed with foster parents shortly after birth. He lived with them until he was 2, when his father discovered his existence and moved him to live with his grandparents. Gerhard, known as Gerry, was diagnosed with epilepsy at a young age. He lived with his grandparents until he was 16, when he left their home and became homeless for a few months. He took on an apprenticeship in a kitchen and became a professional chef. He also helped to run a karaoke evening every Tuesday night in Sölden, where he sang occasionally. Through karaoke, he was scouted to move to the tourist town of Lake Klopein, where he performed for three summer seasons.
Shortly after a brush with testicular cancer in 1998, he took on the DJ Ötzi moniker and featured on a track called ‘Anton aus Tirol’ with Anton. With lyrics that translate to “I’m Anton from Tirol/My giga-lean calves drive the girls crazy/My build is a wonder of nature”, the track was an instant hit that went triple-platinum in Austria and sat in the Austrian charts for 75 weeks. Despite extensive Googling, it’s unclear whether the accompanying Anton exists, or is merely another name used by Freidle, whose father’s name is Anton. Regardless, he’s had to fight over whether he owned the ‘Anton aus Tirol’ name, a battle which he lost. An Austrian musician named Anton triumphantly announces on his website that he was awarded the right to perform under the name by the Munich District Court.
Friedle released his first solo work under the DJ Ötzi name in 2000: a cover of ’s 1962 harmonica-heavy love song ‘Hey! Baby’. Also incorrectly considered a one hit wonder, Bruce Channel sold over one million records and had the then-unknown Beatles support him for part of his European tour. Urban legend has it that he taught John Lennon how to play the harmonica, and while that might not be true, his influence is definitely recognisable on earlier Beatles records.
For Friedle, ‘Hey Baby (Uhh, Aah)’ was a nod to his karaoke roots, while slotting right into the zeitgeist of the early 2000s. Eurodance was in its peak, and World Cup fever was gripping Europe. ‘Hey Baby’ provided the perfect singalong for football fans, which Friedle capitalised on in 2001 by releasing the “unofficial World Cup remix”. The remix peaked at #10 on the UK charts. In the meantime, Friedle collaborated with Swiss milk company Emmi to advertise its flavoured Energy Milk. The Austrian Advertising Scientific Society deemed his TV ad to be “one of the ten most impactful commercials” of 2001.
Despite topping charts around the world, and boosting Swiss milk sales, Friedle continued to be struck by misfortune. Shortly before the 2002 birth of his daughter, he suffered severe hearing loss, temporarily becoming completely deaf in one ear and losing 40% of hearing in the other. At one point, he was performing over 200 shows a year and was on the fast-track to burning out. Yet he continued to produce upbeat bangers, including more covers of popular songs. His 2008 horn-filled take on ‘Sweet Caroline’, for example, is a world away from the Neil Diamond original (and would probably make your dad pretty mad), but is a pretty good club singalong. He told German website Schlager Planet that his music always comes from the heart, but that he remained insecure despite his success.
He fell into depression, and grappled with the discovery his mother was living just a few kilometres away from him in Salzburg. But with the help of professionals, and the support of his family, he pushed through. In mid-2017, Friedle completed the Camino de Santiago (aka the Way of St James) pilgrimage in Spain with his cousin, a trip he had been planning to take for 12 years. “I want to make a plus from all the minus that has happened to me in my past," he said before the pilgrimage.
Now 47, Friedle has dialled it back to about 100 shows a year, but still sings live throughout every performance. Recent profiles on him emphasise his chain smoking habit, but he maintains that he doesn’t touch alcohol or other drugs. His Facebook page consists of emoji-filled captions alongside videos of his shows and photos with friends and fans. He’s about to embark on a solo ‘summit tour’ of Germany, in support of his latest album Von Herzen (“From The Heart”). Despite being long forgotten in Australia, it’s clear that DJ Ötzi is still thriving in Europe.
So Why Do We Still Love ‘Hey Baby’?
While Friedle is unknown to most Australians, ‘Hey Baby’ remains ubiquitous. You can barely attend a sporting match or music festival without hearing a rendition of it, often led by a group of young men. The phenomenon has been documented in many a gig review, and has spawned some great memes (like this one). It was also the cause of a police raid on the Bondi Hotel, when a group of tourists refused to stop singing the track.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the song is so popular with large crowds, particularly if they’re under the influence. It could be a driven by a healthy dose of nostalgia, considering most festival-goers would know the song from childhood mix CDs. Tom, a 21-year-old from Sydney, agrees with this idea. “[It’s popular] because it’s a tune that everyone sung at school assemblies in Year 4,” he says.
Or maybe it’s just because it’s a banger. The lyrics are easy to remember, and it’s made for yelling in a group. Friedle even included a crowd singing along on the original track. Sophie, a 17-year-old from Newcastle, has a similar theory. “It’s catchy tune and [the] lyrics captivate the audience and really stick in your mind. I think it’s so popular because it’s upbeat and easy to sing along to,” she says. “It unites partygoers as they sing.”
At the end of the day, we might just like ‘Hey Baby’ because it appeals to our basic human needs. Through his breakthrough hit, Friedle gifted the world with two things that eluded him for much of his younger years: happiness and companionship. As Sophie put it, “the song is a true hit of the modern era,” and even though we may not know who he is, DJ Ötzi has a well-deserved place in the hearts of all young Australians.