Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hi Ho Stasi and Away!: East German Country Music

East German Music Festival Poster

Much of my life has been lived along borders.  Just a stone’s throw from a border that divided one country from the other and one culture from another. Though an American born in India the real national divide I experienced was not that between the States and India but between India and our mysterious, hated enemy Pakistan.   In the 1960s TIME magazine carried full page ads for Pakistan International Airlines which boasted of its flights to Peking and Shanghai.  This was incredible to me.  India’s other big enemy was China and relations were in the deep freeze throughout the 60s. But here was Pakistan flying into the most isolated country of all! As I did my business on the toilet my fancy would sail wildly across the Himalayas and try to imagine what life was like in Peking.  Did they see movies? What sort of music did they listen to?

 As an adult I’ve lived in a tent along the Iraqi border with Iran, worked on the borders of Afghanistan and Ethiopia.  I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in DPRK (North Korea) and Albania, two of the most isolated nations in the world, and those tantalizing thoughts I had about 1960s China have not disappeared.  Once upon a time Iran had a lively rock scene but in the 1980s you could be arrested for listening to Pink Floyd.  I had a friend in Albania who was arrested for a couple of days because he had a Beatles tape.  We all know what the Taliban think of music, and shudder at the thought of their re-capture of Afghanistan.

Of course, no country is completely isolated.  Kim Jung Un was educated in Switzerland and his dad loved Hollywood movies.  Enver Xhoxa, the Albanian Communist supremo, sent his kids to Sweden and holidayed in the south of France, while he locked the doors of the country to his fellow citizens.  My friends still managed to listen and even dance all night to Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel at the height of Khomeini’s rule.  As Leonard Cohen says, “There is a crack in everything, where the light gets in”.

And so I suppose I should not have been surprised to discover that there was an audience for American country and western music in East Germany in the 1980s! But surprised I was. 

The Amiga imprint was the record label of the state and its (as yet unwritten) history is surely as significant as Anna Funder’s work on the Stasi or any on the hundreds of books which have explored the counterculture of the DDR, be it political or social. Amiga vinyl itself is a wonder to handle, seeming dust-resistant and impervious to scratching. Lps and singles picked up secondhand over the years still play ‘as new’, where the sleeves demonstrate the ravages of time and the owner’s insistence in playing them post-pub to captive audiences, where cds would’ve perhaps been the more sensible option.
Amiga, was established in 1947 by Ernst Busch, a life long party member who fought in Spain with the International Brigades. Prior to fleeing Germany in 1933, Busch was a well-known actor and singer and he was later a frequent contributor to Radio Madrid, recording two very hard to get albums of Civil War songs. His performance of Peat Bog Soldiers is particularly haunting. The song, covered by the Dubliners on ‘Revolution’ (1970), was written by Nazi political prisoners in the Bögermoor concentration camp and first performed there in 1933. Busch obtained the permission of the Soviet occupation authorities to establish a label to provide music for the masses, however, it took a decade or so before the label realised that the masses were getting tired of an anaemic diet of Brecht, Hans Eisler, bad jazz and Kindermusik. They were now tuning their dials to the American Forces Network stations not subject to the jamming and interference inflicted on Radio Free Europe, the broadcasts of which were unequivocally political. Thus began the golden age of East German pop. (

Country Roads is a collection of American country classics released by Amiga Records in 1985.  With covers of John Denver, Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings (often with night-club perfect impersonation of said artists voices) this record is a happy clappy paean to Top 40 Country ca. the mid-70s.  The playing is competent and the singing robust in that communist propaganda film sort of way. 

The cracks in the German Democratic Republic system had obviously widened somewhat to allow such a record to be issued.  In a creepy sort of way this is Stasi-approved country music!  Weird thought. But exactly the sort of thing I used to think about staring at those PIA ads way back decades ago.

For an interesting article on the East German pop scene circa 1968, click here

Enjoy this slice of commie country, comrades!

            Track Listing:
01 Thank God I'm A Country Boy [Achim Wilk]
02 Ring Of Fire [Peter Tschernig]
03 Rocky Mountain Music [Harald Wilk]
04 Foggy Mountain Breakdown
05 Back Home Again [Achim Wilk]
06 Apple Jack [Linda Feller]
07 If You're Gonna Play In Texas [M. Jones Band]
08 Take Me Home, Country Roads [Achim Wilk, Viola Kirsten]
09 Detroit City [Harald Wilk]
10 Broken Down Cowboy [M. Jones Band]
11 Good Hearted Woman [Peter Tschernig]
12 Orange Blossom Special [Various]
13 Waiting For A Train [Harald Wilk]
14 Medley: Wabash Cannon Ball, etc. [Achim Wilk, Harald Wilk]

No comments: