The Shuffle Demons emerged on the Canadian music scene in the mid-1980s and immediately made a name for themselves as a sax-focused jazz quintet whose high energy performances married hard bop rap with fun. The group is best known for its track “Spadina Bus” and a video for the song, a paean to a bus route in their hometown of Toronto, turned a lot of heads and helped establish the band as a fixture on the Canadian jazz scene.
Between 1985 and 1997, the band toured Europe a remarkable fifteen times and during the early years, they busked their way across the continent, picking up the occasional gig on the way. During 1985, the band traveled to the island of West Berlin to try their luck on the streets there and then decided to head eastwards and see what the side of the city behind the wall had to offer. I saw an interview with the band after this trip in which they made mention of their adventures in East Berlin and was reminded of this after encountering the band at a music festival here in Toronto recently. Interest piqued, I contacted the band through their website and was thrilled when one of the band’s founders, Richard Underhill, agreed to meet with me to reminisce about their East Berlin experience.
Happy Wall Fall everyone! On this day 24 years ago, the Berlin Wall was breached after East German authorities buckled to the pressure caused by a wave of emigration and let their citizens travel West upon demand. Anyone old enough to have been aware of the event seems to have a story about where they were when the Wall fell and here is mine . . .
Soup, Sandwich with Some History on the Side
On November 9th, 1989, I was a twenty-one year old record store employee pursuing German language studies part-time at the University of Saskatchewan. That same year I’d spent three months in Germany immersing myself in a language course in West Berlin and then travelling around the Federal Republic for a few weeks. As the situation in the GDR came to a head that fall, I followed events through reports on PBS’ McNeil Lehrer Newshour which typically featured clandestinely shot footage of street protests, demonstrations and/or arrests being carried out by People’s Police officers. These grainy videos were all bathed in the distinctive orange and yellow glow cast by the East German street lights, an effect that has imposed itself on most of my memories of that tumultuous time.
When one travels Germany by rail, the areas directly adjacent to the tracks when one enters and leaves towns and cities are often filled by allotment gardens. Another way Europeans make use of the limited space at their disposal, these gardens are often well tended and incorporate glorified garden sheds (often with tv satellite dishes) which indicate that the plot serves as the owner’s version of a country cottage. Trains I’ve been on have passed close enough to such gardens that I could see owners working away only feet from our carriage or families relaxing around a picnic table seemingly oblivious to the cacophony as we raced by. I soon learned that these plots are cherished sites of recreation for many German urban dwellers whose living arrangements don’t offer them access to any sort of green space.
The situation was no different in East Germany where such gardens were highly coveted for several reasons. First, having one meant you could produce fruit and vegetables to augment the often meagre selection available in the state shops. This harvest would either end up on gardeners’ own plates or was sold to generate a bit of additional income. Second, allotment gardens were desirable as a refuge from the demands placed on one by by the state and the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and they serve as an example of the fiercely guarded private space which East Germans carved out for themselves and their families, a practice which led some observers to label the GDR a “niche society”.
I’m going to start this post marking the 52nd anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961 (what do you get a Wall that has ceased to exist?!) by referring to Lloyd Cole, one of my favourite signers. The lead single off his latest record (the very fine Standards) is a tune called ‘Period Piece’ which is written from the point of view of the Berlin Wall. In it Cole sings, “It was my austere demeanour defined the age”. Anyone who experienced the Wall while in Berlin will know that Lloyd is not exaggerating: the Wall served to make manifest the tensions of the Cold War in way that nothing else ever did. Something for which we can be grateful.
For those of you in need of a tutorial on this event, a clip below from the Discovery Channel gives a decent overview of the Wall’s construction, even if it does, bizarrely, date the event as August 20th?!
Wall Chasing in Winnipeg
Perhaps it’s the Wall’s era-defining quality that explains my motivation for spending part of my recent western Canadian vacation tracking down one of its many pieces which have been strewn around the globe in the past 20+ years. Read More
To understand the lay of the land in footballing terms in the “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic”, it is helpful – appropriately enough – to take a dialectical approach. On the one end of spectrum, you had Berlin Football Club “Dynamo” (BFC), the country’s most successful, and despised, team thanks in large part its “sponsorship” by the state’s security organs including the notorious secret police the Stasi. (For an overview on BFC, see my earlier post on the club and its history here.) BFC’s opposite, in every sense, was 1. FC Union Berlin, a team with strong, genuine working class roots and a level of fan support unparalleled in the East.
Perhaps the souvenir of a visit to Berlin during the 1990s was a piece of the Wall purchased from a vendor operating from a folding table somewhere between the Brandenburg Gate and the Potsdamer Platz construction site. Those fortunate enough to have been in the city in the months right after the Wall’s opening might have been able to chip away a piece of their own by renting a hammer and chisel from some entrepreneurial soul.
While I was in Berlin in the summer of 1990, I declined to either purchase a piece or knock one out myself (though I was staying with friends in the Lichtenrade district) whose backyard ran directly adjacent to the structure. No historical consciousness? Perhaps, but more likely no real understanding of the transitory nature of the situation. At any rate, I spent much of my time on that trip lining up at the Lichtenberg train station in the eastern part of town, trying to get my hands on one of the dirt cheap tickets for an East German train to Prague. Time which would’ve been well-spent had I succeeded . . .
At any rate, over the intervening years, I have received gifts of Wall fragments from people who no longer knew what to do with theirs.
In the early 2000s, I received this set of 12 miniature (9 cm X 7 cm) black and white photos of scenes of the Berlin Wall after a relative found it at a university book sale. Based on the images in the set, it appears that this was produced in the 1960s. The photos come packaged in a glossy envelope bearing the title Die Mauer Durch Berlin (“The Wall Through Berlin”) and includes captions in German, English and French on the back of each photo. This item was produced by the Berlin company Kunst und Bild (Art and Photo) as a souvenir item for tourists.
The pictures are of very high quality and I’ve included each of them, with their original captions, below.
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