One of the first items I coveted from the East Bloc was a pressing of a Beatles’ album on the Soviet state record label Melodiya. On the infrequent occasions that reports about Soviet underground culture appeared in North American media, one would often find mention of Western popular music and its role in fostering an alternative mindset to that prevailing in the Soviet mainstream. All Western artists seemed to have their acolytes in the Soviet Union and there was still a scent of danger associated with listening to this music in that context – at least that’s how it was presented to us.
When I embarked on trip to Russia in 1996, acquiring a Melodiya pressing of a Beatles’ LP was at the top of my “to do” list. Forget the Hermitage, Red Square, the Kremlin: I need a vinyl fix. In Moscow I spent a rainy morning battling the effects of food poisoning given me by the Canadian Embassy (!) unsuccessfully trolling through the famous open air in Filovsky Park. In St. Petersburg, we were able to connect with a young film student who offered walking tours of the city and I enlisted him in my quest.
Off the Map and Underground: Western Music in Soviet Siberia
Peter confirmed that Western pop/rock music had indeed been an important part of escaping the realities of everyday life in the Soviet Union and told me how he and some friends gained entry to an informal group of music fans in his Siberian hometown of Samara (a key centre in the Soviet military-industrial complex which appeared on none of their maps). I remember a story of him taking a streetcar out to the end of the line one Saturday morning and then trudging out to find a cluster of garages where a group of music fans supposedly met. Once they had found the right garage, they knocked on the door and were then grilled by the others about their musical tastes and what records they had. Once it was determined that they had something to offer, Peter and his friend were allowed to participate in a lending library which saw individuals loan out their precious LPs to one another for a week at a time. Peter explained that he would bring an LP home and then wait until his parents were out to record this onto his one and only cassette using the portable player he had received for a birthday. Then he’d spend the rest of the week surreptitiously listening to it in his room. The next week he’d bring home another record and tape over the previous week’s album. Tempering the sepia-toned nature of this recollection is that the fact that he told me that his favourite of all the records he heard this way was “Fireball”, a slice of hard rock by Deep Purple (Though the cheesiness of the album’s cover art does have a vaguely Soviet pop aesthetic! – see below).
Despite our efforts, Peter and I weren’t able to uncover any Beatles’ vinyl in the stores of St. Petersburg. At one department store in a dire Soviet suburb, the clerk told us we’d missed out by a matter of weeks as they had just cleared out all the LPs to make way for compact discs! Aargh!
Later that same trip we ended up in Berlin and I related my unsuccessful quest to my good friend Martin. Unbeknownst to me, Martin sprung into action and when we stopped by to visit some friends of his, I was presented with a copy of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night LP on the Melodiya label by a woman who I barely knew! Helga was an Ossi and Melodiya pressings were sometimes available in the GDR’s record shops. I was truly grateful for this act of generosity and this disc is a prized possession of mine.
Beat Music and the GDR’s Wholesome Alternative – The “Lipsi”
It will come as a surprise to no one that the East German leadership had a hard time warming up to the revolution in popular music presented by rock ‘n roll. They saw in it what parents everywhere saw in it and then some. For GDR leaders, this music and the culture is spawned were both an unacceptable challenge to authority and a manifestation of the evils of capitalism from which their young charges were to be protected at all costs. Eager to give youth a wholesome alternative to the dance crazes popular in the West in the 1950s, the Party pushed the Lipsi, a dance developed by a composer and two dance teachers in the GDR city of Leipzig in 1959. With the support of the East German media and several records releases, authorities tried to sell the Lipsi as a “Made in GDR” alternative that was sweeping the nation, but, with their exposure to Western music and trends thanks to West German and American Forces Radio, East German youth were not buying. Check out the clip below and I think you’ll see why: forget rockin’ around the clock, you’d be lucky to stay awake until tea time doing these moves!
Freeze – Repeat: GDR Beat in the ’60s
By the early 1960s, it had become clear to many in the Party that maintaining their wholesale rejection of “Beatmusik” was counterproductive and putting them increasingly out of step with the interests of the country’s youth. As a result, a cautious opening of cultural policy began which saw some of the country’s numerous “beat groups” receive performance papers (necessary for public shows of any kind) and even saw the GDR’s state-run record label Amiga give releases to several of the scene’s most prominent outfits. One beneficiary of these developments were Die Sputniks, a primarily instrumental group whose repertoire and sound were oriented largely on the sound of U.K.’s The Shadows and whose name – a reference to the Soviet satellite which in 1957 had become the first to be successfully launched into orbit – was a condition of their record contract. The group had several singles released by Amiga in 1964 and appeared on both of the labels samplers of the scene, Big Beat I and Big Beat II which were released in 1965.
In addition to its promotion of homegrown artists, Amiga also began licensing Western releases for the first time in this period. Among the first such acts to get such treatment, surprisingly given the polarizing effect they tended to have, were The Beatles. I’d have thought that Herman’s Hermits would’ve been more up Walter Ulbricht’s alley . . . Anyway, in 1964 Amiga brought out a single of the group’s version of “Ain’t She Sweet” b/w “Cry for a Shadow” and followed this up with a full length compilation and several other singles the following year.
As was always the case in the GDR, politics had a direct impact on cultural policy and in 1965 three major events helped to once again recalibrate authorities’ attitudes towards rock ‘n roll. First, 1965 saw the GDR’s patron state took a hard turn towards more a more conservative cultural policy under the new Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Then in September of that same year, a Rolling Stones’ concert at West Berlin’s Waldbühne descended into a riot which caused considerable damage and took authorities more than four hours to bring under control. East German authorities’ were greatly alarmed by this event and their attitudes towards “Beatmusik” changed dramatically in its wake with a new hard line implemented almost immediately. In the city of Leipzig, cultural functionaries quickly withdrew performance permits for the city’s beat groups stating that their “the appearance and performance . . . stand in opposition to our moral and ethical principles”. When this decision was made known, local youth rioted, a event which only served to harden the Party’s position on Beat.
In December 1965, this change in attitude and practice was formalized at the 11th Plenum of the Socialist Unity Party’s Central Committee held in December 1965. Here Erich Honecker (who would go on to succeed then Party leader Walter Ulbricht in 1971) led the charge, denouncing the “sceptical, nihilistic and pornographic” influence of Western culture on the country’s creative class and its youth. The effects of this shift in policy were dramatic and would be felt in East German cultural life right through to the Wende in 1989.
The new course did not mean an outright ban of all “Beatmusik” in the GDR, however, but did make cultural gatekeepers very careful about what they let through. In 1966, Amiga released several singles by Team 4, a Berlin outfit which sang Beat-influenced tunes but with innocuous German-language lyrics, an approach which helped distance them from British Invasion and American acts of the time. The group was later forced to drop its English name during a campaign to diminish Western influence on East German culture and became Thomas Natschinski und seine Gruppe (Thomas N. and his Group – catchy, huh?). The band’s repertoire was also trimmed to fit the Party line as indicated its 1967 version of the Party agitprop tune “Tell Me Where You Stand” (sample lyric: “Tell me where you stand and which road you are taking/We have the right to know who you are/Nodding heads don’t do us any good/I want to call you by the right name/So show me your real face”). The B-side of “‘Coz They Teach the Children” doesn’t contain the promise of much anti-authoritarian spirit either . . .
Capitulation and “A Collection of Beatles Oldies”
I believe we all know how this story played out. Eventually authorities capitulated to the overwhelming and undeniable popularity of Western pop music. This meant adopting a strategy of measured retreat that included approving a number of GDR pop acts whose music didn’t contain much in the way of explicit political content and allowing a small group of Western acts to be released on Amiga for mass consumption.
As part of this process, Amiga brought out a number of further Beatles records in the 70s and 80s. In 1974, it released “A Collection of Beatles Oldies”, a compilation of early to mid-period Beatles’ recordings originally released in the West after the group’s break-up. I picked up my copy in Leipzig in 1999 and was pleased to find it includes what I will call a “justification essay” on its back cover. Here H.P. Hofmann, a GDR expert on “Beatmusik”, offers a quick career overview which acknowledges the group’s “originality and ability to capture the spirt of the age” before then turning to an analysis of the group offered by “The Daily Worker” – the paper of England’s Communist Party and the “go-to” source for all things related to U.K. youth culture. The Beatles, the Worker argued, were to be understood as “a revolutionary protest, the voice of the thirty thousand unemployed and eighty thousand decaying apartments to be found in Liverpool.” (And I thought they were just “Four lads from Liverpool”. Is it possible that the truth lies somewhere between?)
Hofmann concedes that, “while not all of the Beatles’ songs were as explicitly oppositional and socially critical as much of the protest and folk music of the 1960s, the majority of their works reflect the lives of working peoples. . . . Many songs present heroes of everyday life . . . and thereby make clear in whose interests these “Oldies” were written and who they were addressed to.”
Hofmann points to the lyrics of “Can’t Buy Me Love” (“Tell me that you want the kind of things that money just can’t buy”) as being reflective of the “morality of the working class”. I myself am not so sure. After parsing other titles for their ideological soundness (“Help!” is read as a call for social solidarity, “A Hard Day’s Night” is seen as an honest portrayal of working class life), Hofmann then puts on his musicologist’s hat to praise the Beatles’ “breaking through traditional harmonic structures and song forms.” This quasi-academic approach was often present in GDR cultural criticism and a reflection of the state’s supposed orientation to an “objective, scientific, socialist” ideology.