Reel Stories about Wende Flicks
Ear to the Wall: Rock in Late 1980s East Germany
The DEFA documentary whisper & SHOUT (Dir: Dieter Schumann, 1988) is the only official documentary ever made about the East German rock scene before the Wall came down. For a year, the film crew traveled the country filming interviews and concerts with well-established bands like Silly, underground groups like Feeling B. and Sandow, and less easily-definable bands, such as André + Die Firma, Chicorée, and Die Zöllner. Of course, whisper & SHOUT covers only part of the GDR rock scene—which people remember as more diverse, vibrant and colorful than was possible to report in a film produced by the state film studio…
At the end of the 1980s, music in East Germany was represented by a strong and well-established scene that included bands playing all genres of music: from blues to jazz, from avant-garde to rock, from heavy metal to punk (mainly played in private or church spaces). And people had their ears to the Wall and knew about the latest musical developments outside the GDR. Although this scene flourished both underground and on state-supported ground, it was also divided by the state and its affiliated music-related organizations. On one hand, there were state-supported bands, like Silly or the Puhdys, that even represented East German music abroad. On the other hand, there were bands whose music was rejected or banned, such as the Klaus-Renft Combo (banned in 1975). In Wir wollen immer artig sein, a detailed account of the East German independent and music scene in the 1980s, Ronald Galenz and Heinz Havemeister point out that “rock music in the GDR was a synonym for youth, protest, emancipation and dissent and it was always a poor copy and knock-off—especially in the early years—of Anglo-American ideals.”1
But where did East Germans hear other kinds of music than were produced in the GDR? The answer: lots of places. On DT64, a radio program for young people. And on records—although resources were limited when it came to records, as the VEB Deutsche Schallplatten was the only record company in the country. Licensing recordings from non-socialist countries cost “hard” currency. As this currency was limited, the number of such records produced and distributed in the GDR were accordingly limited as well. Despite this, small editions of records were put out in East Germany, especially in the late 1970s and 1980s. Fans stood for hours in long lines in front of record stores waiting to get records by ABBA, Uriah Heep, Santana, Dire Straits, the Eagles, Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson, The Kinks, John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, the Scorpions, Supertramp and others. Even if they didn’t like these bands, people would buy a record to use this “hot item” as an object for bartering. Parallel to this, music films made it to the East German movie screens, including Fast Forward (1983, USA), Magic – Queen in Budapest (1986, Hungary), Linie 1 (1987, FRG) and Dirty Dancing (1987, USA).
There were also countless “Diskos”—the “k” signaled that East German discos were strictly differentiated from Western discos. Had a Schallplattenunterhalter(literally, the person entertaining you with records—not a DJ!) followed the letter of GDR law, he would have had to adhere to a strict quota: 40% from non-socialist countries, and 60% productions from the GDR and other socialist countries; in addition, 40% of the music played had to have been released in East Germany or played on East German radio stations. This was the official way! It was not what the crowds wanted, however, and the reality looked very different. The West/East breakdown of Disko playlists was more like 100:0, instead of 40:60. Each Disko evening was therefore a balancing act for the DJ, because officials would conduct spot checks and verify the playlists. Getting caught could cost the DJ his license.
But East German music fans did not rely on domestic music sources alone. They also turned their antennae toward the Wall to stay informed about what was going on in the music world. They listened to West European radio stations that transmitted into the East, like Radio Luxembourg, SFB (Sender Freies Berlin) and RIAS (Radio in the American Sector). They watched West German television shows—like Beat-Club, Der Musikladen and Disco—that featured musical heroes like the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, the Beatles and Deep Purple. They listened to records and read magazines sent by West German relatives and friends. And they listened to rare recordings found in Hungary or Poland. If they had the “right” currency—which meant West German marks—they could even buy records at the elite East German Intershop outlets.
In the summer of 1987, a set of three concerts was held at the Reichstag in West Berlin, just across the Wall. Following concerts by David Bowie and the Eurythmics, the band Genesis was to play the final night. The wind blew the music over the Wall far into East Berlin. Young people—who had learned of the concert on RIAS or from other sources—tried to get as close to the Wall as possible to listen to their idols. But the police held them back. East German officials had always feared “decadent Western rock music” and argued that it would infiltrate and contaminate “their youth”—the same youth that longed for more entertainment. By the late 1980s, the government was looking for ways to bring the young people of the GDR back into the fold, so they planned a series of concerts to take place in East Berlin.
In 1988, thousands of fans came from all over the country to sing along with Depeche Mode on March 7 and Joe Cocker on June 1. The FDJ (the Free German Youth—the official youth organization of the GDR) invited the American star Bruce Springsteen to perform on July 19. This became the biggest concert in East German rock history. One concert-goer remembers: “I got tickets for my West German friends too. They only had to pay 20 East German marks. For a concert like this, it was a bargain for them. The concert was great and my West German friends were surprised the concert was alcohol-free.”
Of course, the FDJ invitation had a hidden agenda. In addition to wanting to calm down restless East German youth—–at least for a while—they labeled the event a “Concert for Nicaragua.” According to Jan Lengert, who designed the poster for the concert, Springsteen’s manager did not like this at all.2 Springsteen wanted to read the following words to his fans in German: “Es ist schön, in Ost-Berlin zu sein. Ich bin nicht für oder gegen eine Regierung. Ich bin gekomm‘n’ um Rock 'n' Roll für euch zu spielen, in der Hoffnung, dass eines Tages alle Mauern abgerissen werden.” (It’s nice to be in East Berlin. I’m not for or against a government. I came to play rock ‘n’ roll for you, in the hope that one day all walls will be torn down.) The FDJ made him change one word in his text, however; “barriers” (which was very hard for Springsteen to pronounce in German) was substituted for “walls.”3 But 160,000 fans understood him nevertheless and cheered and went wild. The audience joined in and sang Springsteen’s anthem with him: “Born in the U.S.A.”
Among them was not Kai-Uwe Kohlschmidt, the lead singer of Sandow, featured in the documentary whisper & SHOUT (1988). In a 2008 interview, Kohlschmidt remembers watching the Springsteen concert on television.4 Seeing and hearing the fans “singing along so beautifully” gave him the idea to compose “Born in the G.D.R.”5 This song, performed by Sandow, truly expressed the feelings of many East Germans at that point in time and became very popular during the Wende period.
The government’s new interest in promoting Western entertainment came too late to stop people from thinking about radical political change. After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR in 1985, the GDR government began distancing itself from Soviet policies; the East German slogan widely used since the 1950s—“von der Sowjetunion lernen, heißt siegen lernen” (learning from the Soviet Union, means learning to win) was no longer in style. But perestroika and glasnost did not stop at the borders of the Soviet Union; the old slogan had become ingrained and, especially now, East German citizens wanted to learn from Gorbachev. When officials banned the Soviet magazine Sputnik—allegedly because the November 1988 issue included articles that jeopardized GDR historiography—oppositional groups and ordinary citizens joined in public protest.
Over the course of the next year, the protests became unstoppable. In the late spring and summer of 1989, thousands of people expressed their anger at the outcome of the May ’89 election and thousands more left the country. In September 1989, known musicians raised their voices against the ignorance and stubbornness of the government and shared their concerns about the current situation in the country. The so-called “Rocker Resolution” was initiated and drafted by the singer-songwriters Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel, whose cabaret satire is featured in the 1990 movie, Latest from the Da-Da-R (GDR, Dir. Jörg Foth). Many musicians and artists signed the Resolution starting on September 18, 1989. Because daily papers refused to publish the text of the Resolution, artists and musicians read the declaration before concerts and performances, and on other public occasions throughout the country.
Jörg Foth, the director of Latest from the Da-Da-R, found his copy of the Resolution pasted on the inside of the script for the film Biology!, which he was directing at the time.6 Foth describes how he first learned about the Resolution: “I saw Hans-Eckardt Wenzel some days later. He stopped his Wartburg [car] and asked me through the window if I would sign this text. I got into the car, read the page and signed it. The next day, while shooting Biology! I read the Resolution to my film crew. All the rock musicians and singer-songwriters who had signed this text, read it in front of audiences all over East Germany. It had to be done this way because the official media did not report on the Resolution until mid-October—and it was only briefly noted on West German television. After reading the text to my team, I had to appear before Rudi Jürschik, the DEFA Studio art director; but we had a fair discussion.”7
The widespread grassroots distribution of the Rocker Resolution resulted in an extraordinary meeting of the Rock Music section of the government’s Committee for Entertainment in October 1989. This meeting resulted in the first official acknowledgement of and reaction to the worsening political situation in East Germany.
On July 21, 1990, when Pink Floyd and many other guests artists—including Van Morrison, The Band, and Bryan Adams—performed their historic rock milestone entitled The Wall in Berlin, they played before the ruins of the Berlin Wall and many East Germans were among the estimated 500,000 fans in the audience.
— by Hiltrud Schulz.
1. Wir wollen immer artig sein: Punk, New Wave, HipHop und Independent-Szene in der DDR von 1980 bis 1990. Ronald Galenza and Heinz Havemeister, eds. (Berlin: Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf Verlag, 1999) 6.
2. Personal communication.
3. 4 July 24, 2008, MDR TV-Special. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sSe9-Z3pnE&feature=player_embedded
5 “Born in the GDR” by Kai-Uwe Kohlschmidt; performed by Sandow. See the music video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nyfJdm3G5M&feature=player_embedded; and a performance video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tp8CGBipITw&NR=1. Read the lyrics at: http://www.ostmusik.de/born_in_the_gdr.htm (or see “GDR Rock Extras”)
6 Copy “Rocker Resolution” courtesy of Jörg Foth. English translation by Delene White. (Also see “GDR Rock Extras”)
7 Personal communication.