Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Five Songs About Cold War Eastern Europe

It is now 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. A great victory for freedom, capitalism ... and rock music.

Rock music? Well, sort of.

In the run up to that historic day rock concerts in the West Berlin had helped to stoke resentment against the Communist authorities in East Germany.

In 1987 police had to use truncheons and electric stun guns to stop east Berliners listening to gigs across the wall by David Bowie, The Eurythmics and Genesis. Despite this the Ossies still appeared to enjoy the music, but then they'd not heard the real Genesis with Peter Gabriel. In 1988 thousands of Stasi secret police were deployed to stop them enjoying Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson.

In an attempt to defuse the situation the authorities organised gigs in the east by Bob Dylan, Depeche Mode, Bryan Adams, Joe Cocker and Bruce Springsteen. The latter led to thousands of previously good communists singing "Born in the USA".

Then in August 1989 the Russians organised the Moscow Peace Festival. The Soviets clearly decided soft rock wasn't enough and instead booked a line up of the best Glam Metal acts in the world including Jon Bon Jovi, The Scorpions, Motley Crue and Ozzy Osborne.

All this meant that it seemed to people stuck in Eastern Europe that everyone in the West, and even the Russians, were having more fun than them. This set the scene for the events that shook the world. (Hmm, so maybe Greece wasn't the only place where rock music changed things) When the wall eventually fell many present described the atmosphere as "a rock-concert" buzz.

Eight months later another rock concert, by Pink Floyd, with ex-member Roger Waters as well, celebrated these events by playing an extended version of their Prog Rock album The Wall. But The Wall was never really about the Berlin Wall, at least not in a literal sense. In fact I'm not entirely sure what it is about, and I don't think Roger Waters is either.

So here is my list of the top five rock songs that really were inspired by the Iron Curtain that divided Europe for 44 years.

(Click the title to listen to the song)

1. Vienna by Ultravox (1981)


But Vienna wasn't in Eastern Europe, I hear you say.

Well, you're sort of right. However for five centuries, as the base of the Hapsburg Emperors and as the capital of first the Holy Roman Empire and then the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, it effectively ruled Eastern Europe.

Then in 1945 it was occupied jointly by the British, Americans, French and Russians whilst the Allies tried to figure out if the country of Hitler's birth was an occupied nation or Axis power. This the time in which Carol Reed's classic film of Graham Green's book The Third Man is set.

Ultravox pretty much remade the film to produce their seminal video for this song. Half of it was actually filmed in London, with the rest of it done on the cheap on a quick trip to the real Vienna.

The city continued to be occupied until 1955. Then the Russians left on condition that Austria didn't join NATO and all British, French and American forces left the country. This they all did, apart from my dad's unit of the Intelligence Corps which got left behind in Gratz, or that's what he tells me.

The Austrians then sat out the rest of the Cold War enjoying their grand palaces and entertaining the world with an annual New Year's Day concert played by a Nazi orchestra.

Child in Time by Deep Purple (1970)

Not many Deep Purple songs can claim to be about anything much. Indeed lyrics such as "Black night is not right, I don't feel too bright" are usually as meaningful as they get. There's Smoke on the Water, admittedly, which is about something that did actually happen, but apart from that there is ...errr.....Child in Time.

The song is probably more interesting for its layered composition which allows each member of the band to show off what they can do. Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord try to out do each other with extended guitar and keyboard solos, whilst Ian Gillan turns it up to eleven with banshee like screams. He can't hit those high notes now, so Steve Morse's guitar does the job in live concerts.

The lyrics though hint at a range of Cold War themes, including the Vietnam War that was then still on at the time. The song just sneaks into this list though thanks to "You'll see the line, The line that's drawn between good and bad".  Whether or not you believed this literally, this is how it always came across at the time.

The term Iron Curtain was first used for the barrier that came down across Europe by Winston Churchill in his Sinews of Peace speech in Fulton, Missouri. The symbolic barrier very rapidly became a physical one with mines, barbed wire and armed patrols. In the north the soldiers were on the eastern side, but in Greece it was the West that militarised the border.

Toxica by The Plastic People of the Universe (1974)

The story of rock music in Eastern Europe though isn't just about western bands.

Under totalitarian regimes where even listening to music was difficult, forming your own band was never going to be easy, but some people managed it. Perhaps the most influential group on the far side of the Iron Curtain was Czechoslovakia's Plastic People of the Universe.

The band was formed in the immediate aftermath of the Prague spring, when Soviet tanks crushed a reforming government. The name of the band came from a track by Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention but their main influences was the New York psychedelic scene of the late sixties, in particular The Velvet Underground.

They lasted about a year before their musician's license was revoked, after which concerts were clandestine. In 1976 they were arrested and charged with "organized disturbance of the peace". Band members received between eight to eighteen months in prison. however this didn't stop them and despite regular interrogations and beatings from the police the band continued.

Like the rest of Eastern Europe they were stuck in a bit of a time warp and still sounded like a Woodstock support act when the Iron Curtain came down. Their influence though has been huge and the peaceful revolution that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia became know as the Velvet Revolution after the band that had inspired them.

Budapest by Jethro Tull (1987)

By the 1980s though the Cold War was starting to thaw and rock music became a bit more acceptable in the east. With local talent having been suppressed it was up to western bands too old or unfashionable to play the big venues in the West to cross the Iron Curtain. Jethro Tull were one such group.

Whilst touring Hungary the band, by then all comfortably in The Middle Age, were startled by an attractive young woman serving drinks back stage without her trousers, inspiring this song which appeared on their next album, Crest of a Knave.

Hungary has a special place in the story of Eastern Europe. Twelve years before they crushed the Prague Spring, Russian tanks put down another revolt in Hungary. In Budapest, the majestic second capital of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, they met fierce opposition and the parliament building still showed the damage when I visited in 1993.

By the late 1980s though Hungary was ahead of the rest of the Eastern Bloc in adopting mild progressive reforms. However not all the anti-communists in Hungary were nice social democrats. Hungary's right wing government had allied with the Axis powers in the Second World War and following the Credit Crunch the country has taken an increasingly conservative direction, with Jews, Roma and homosexuals getting the blame.

Rather like the Ukrainian fascists helping the democratically elected government fight the current Russian invasion this a reminder that your enemy's enemy is not necessarily your friend.

Born to Die in Berlin by The Ramones (1995)

I could easily have done a Top Twenty just about Berlin, or even a Top Five of Marlene Dietrich songs about Berlin.

The divided city came to symbolise the entire Cold War, but Berlin has always been a bit of an anomaly.

Hitler couldn't stand the place and spent as much time as he could elsewhere.

The Communist didn't seem to like the place much more. Their arrival in 1945 was heralded by the slaughter and mass rape of civilians, a crime made all the worse for the victims because the world thought they deserved it.

To many outside of Germany Berlin was a defiant two fingers (or whatever the German equivalent is) to Communism. However to Germans Berlin was a strange demi-monde (or whatever the German expression is) that was neither in the German Democratic Republic, nor properly part of the Federal Republic. It was where a young person could get out of National Service and divide his time equally between radical politics and wild partying.

The most influential Berlin band was Ton Steine Scherben. They played in squats to crowds of New Left students in the sixties, and to anarchists and Red Army terrorists in the seventies. To radicals like Ton Steine Scherben the problem with the GDR was that it wasn't socialist enough.

It's no surprise then that the Ramones felt at home in the city. In the end they survived several visits to the place, although all the original members have now expired in different parts of the world. However they are remembered in the city by the only Ramones museum in the world.

The legacy of Berlin's radical culture is rather harder to find. Although Ton Steine Scherben wound up in 1985, their radical fans were in the vanguard in pulling the wall down. Their dream was a united Germany combining Western freedoms with Eastern socialism.

It never happened.

Freedom they got, but also a form of Capitalism not only more ruthless than the Social Democracy which had won the Cold War, but also less sustainable. Germany, it's true, isn't doing too badly, but across the rest of Europe Capitalism now seems as broken as the Berlin Wall.

Since the credit crunch the number of billionaires in the world has doubled whilst unemployment in some parts of the EU is running at 40% and millions are surviving on food banks. The Cold War may have ended, but many people are still wondering when we will really be free.

Anti-Capitalism demonstration, Berlin, October 2011

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