In 1987 Amiga released a self-titled album by English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, the contents of which were made up of the artist’s highly-acclaimed second record Talking With the Taxman About Poetry. This record is striking for the way in which it Bragg manages to wed the political to the personal without coming off as heavy handed.
Bragg’s commitment to left-oriented politics, including high profile opposition to then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and his support for striking British miners in 1984, established him as a spokesperson for progressive causes. As a result of this, Bragg was invited to perform at the 16th iteration of the Festival of Political Song which took place in East Berlin in February 1986. This annual event was organized by the Free German Youth, the GDR’s official youth group, and was intended to showcase politically-aware artists from around the world. After Bragg’s two festival appearances were well-received, the state record label Amiga licensed his second album for release in the GDR and put this out the following year.
The Amiga pressing of the album which I own was purchased at a record shop in East Berlin in January or February of 1989 for the standard price of 16,10 Marks. (It was subsequently autographed by Billy during a 2006 visit to Toronto to promote his reissues.) The sleeve features pictures taken from one of Bragg’s 1986 East Berlin performances includes on its reverse an essay by Dr. Peter Wicke, an expert on the aesthetics of popular music. trained at East Berlin’s Humboldt-Universität. To Wicke’s credit, his essay manages to provide a thumbnail sketch of both Bragg’s development as an artist and a sense of the cultural and political landscape within which he was operating largely without resorting to the jargon of much East German cultural-political writing. Which is not to say that the sleeve notes do not betray the ideological lens through which East German authorities insisted that all things be considered, but rather that Wicke manages to present things in such a way that neither the artist or his artistic and political work are distorted in any egregious way.
Wicke labels Bragg as a ‘folk hero of British working class youth’ and points out the numerous example of where the singer’s lyrics ‘consistently and emphatically’ engage with issues of peace (a theme which resonated with the GDR’s official politics and rhetoric in the 1980s and which was uppermost in the minds of many young people on both sides of the Cold War divide). Bragg’s commitment to changing the status quo in the U.K. is emphasized through mention of his support for a variety of leftist causes including Britain’s Labour Party, striking miners and unemployed youth. The notes end with Wicke praising “the masterful way in which (Bragg) links the subjective lived experiences of everyday life with an appeal to political action”.
I’d be interested in knowing how well-received this record was in the GDR in terms of sales. Rereleases of Western records were typically limited to small runs that tended to be snapped up right away. However, Bragg’s presence in the East was limited at the time of the record’s release as he had not toured extensively in East Germany and did not enjoy a high profile in West German pop music media. That I was able to pick up this record two years after its release date suggests that, as in the West at that time, Bragg spoke to a relatively small audience within the GDR.
Bragg and the GDR post-1987
Bragg has spoken about his experiences in East Germany on many occasions. In a March 2006 interview with A.V. Club, he explained the situation he faced when invited to play in the socialist bloc: “They assumed that because I was anti-Margaret Thatcher, I would be pro-them, but it actually wasn’t quite as simple as that. I was anti-arbitrary power, so it put me in a difficult situation there.” He went to call his experiences in the GDR “highly educational, particularly for someone like myself who believed in a more egalitarian society to see what a fuck-up East Germany was. That was pretty salutary. It didn’t stop me being a socialist, but it certainly stopped me just sticking up for totalitarian regimes.”
Bragg toured throughout the Eastern Bloc several times in the 1980s and was invited back to headline the 19th version of the Festival of Political Song in East Berlin in February 1989. He used this opportunity to do a small tour tour of the country, playing Halle and Dresden prior to the festival shows and Leipzig just after. This last concert was broadcast live on East German television and was cut short when Bragg made some negative remarks related to the Berlin Wall (“I wear that as a badge of honour,” he says. “I wasn’t thrown out for trashing hotel rooms. It was because I said on live TV that you couldn’t have perestroika and the Berlin Wall — it had to be one or the other — and that put me in a difficult situation.” – Exclaim magazine (May 2008)).
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bragg did a short tour of the GDR and Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1990. For this trip, he brought along several musical friends including Johnny Marr (The Smiths, The The) and Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs).
Lyrically, Bragg referenced the GDR in “Accident Waiting to Happen”, the first track on his successful 1991 album Don’t Try This At Home. In this song about Margaret Thatcher and set after the fall of the Wall, Bragg writes:
There you are standing in the bar
And you’re giving me grief about the DDR
And that chip on your shoulder gets bigger as you get older
One of these night you’re gonna get caught,
And She’ll give you a pregnant pause for thought
You’re a dedicated swallower of fascism.