The relationship of East German young people to Western popular culture, in particular pop music, is an aspect of GDR history that often comes up in work exploring this era. I’ve written about this a few times on this blog, but while reading Peter Wensierski’s The Unbearable Lightness of Revolution (my translation, sadly available in German only), his book examining anti-state youth culture in late 80’s Leipzig, I came across a passage which opened a window onto the logistics of acquiring one of the relatively hard-to-come by East German releases by Western acts. That it referred to a music shop that in 1999 still sat down the street from my Leipzig flat, largely unchanged from the old days (see photo above), was an nice bonus. Read More
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. Read More
The GDR’s leaders were very sensitive about how their country was perceived internationally. Seen by many as a rump state and proxy of the Soviet Union, East German leaders took great pains to assert their legitimacy whenever and however they could. These efforts increased in 1971 with the ascension of Erich Honecker to the positions of First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and Chair of State Council. Under Honecker, East Germany pursued international recognition through a variety of means including diplomacy (e.g. supplying aid to Third World countries, applying for and receiving member status at the United Nations (1973), signing the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe at Helsinki (1975)) and sport (by pouring huge amounts of money (and anabolic steroids) into the country’s Olympic programs to support the country’s “diplomats in training suits”). Another way the GDR attempted to massage its international image was by hosting the 10th iteration of the World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin in the summer of 1973, an event that has come to be known by some as the “Red Woodstock”.
Perry Friedman was a folksinger from western Canada who emigrated to the GDR in the late 1950s and went on to play an important role in the East German cultural scene by introducing the country to a number of folk music traditions – including their own.
I first came across Friedman’s name when I stumbled on his obituary in the German newspaper taz in the spring of 1995. The mention of a Canadian banjo player and young Communist who had settled in East Germany in the late 1950s struck me as too bizarre to be true. (To the tune of Sting’s “Englishman in New York”: I’m Canadian, a Communist Canadian, Playing banjo in East Berlin!)
Intrigued, I began pursuing the story with an eye to writing a piece for publication in Canada. After some digging, I was able to track down some of his family and associates and I ended up speaking with his sister-in-law, Sylvia Friedman, a colleague from the CBC in the 1970s, Lorne Tulk, and exchanged letters with a relative of his mother’s second husband. These filled in some of the blanks, but Read More
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.
The Amiga pressing of Bruce Springsteen‘s Born in the U.S.A. album appeared in 1986 and was one of the prime examples of the socialist regime’s attempts to court East German youth. Given Springsteen’s working class roots and image, it might seem that it would not have been a huge stretch for GDR authorities to approve him for presentation their impressionable youth. However, the context of this decision is remarkable for, at that time, Springsteen represented for many – rightly or wrongly – a nostalgic, apolitical image of the United States and its values.
Given this, it is not surprising to read the essay found on the back of the Amiga pressing. Read More
Pink Floyd‘s 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon received a licensed reissue through Amiga in 1979. The Amiga release is a stereo album, but it was pressed from the quadraphonic masters. Like many other massively popular Western rock bands, Floyd was well known and liked in East Germany. I picked up this copy at the used record store in Leipzig in 1999.
As with many other Western reissues, this LP featured a short essay on the back sleeve contextualizing the group and its music and explaining its relevance to a socialist society. Read More