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Back in the DDR
This piece was written in 1986 following the tour of the then East- Germany by Billy Bragg, the Neurotics and Attila the Stockbroker. Ten years later, when The Neurotics' Steve Drewett told me he wanted to put on to the Internet, I was both pleased and slightly hesitant. I considered re-writing parts of it but then decided to leave the whole thing exactly as it was. This was an honest account of our experiences in the DDR. It was a time when nobody, not even those in the highest echelons of power, could have had any inclination of the extraordinary changed that were to change the face of Eastern Europe over the next few years. The time we spent in the DDR was the most fantastic experience and it changed my perception of the world in a way that has remained with me to this day.
The band stand poised at the West German boarder
before plunging drunkenly into the Iron Curtain and pulling it off it's rail.
It's easy to write things with hindsight but this piece is as much a historical document of a certain period in time as anything else. The society we encountered has now vanished. The only comment I would care to make in the light of what has happened since, is that I'm sure the majority of the ex-East German people would today choose to go back to that society (with all its faults) if they could - only with the wall built somewhat higher.
Dave T, Editor, Wake Up Fanzine
The saga begins...
"To actually start to scrape away at the surface and to begin to make a bit of a cultural exchange because they won't let their lot come and play with us - but to start a cultural dialogue shall we say, we have to keep working away at it. It's like chopping down a tree."
A bleary eyed Billy Bragg lies slumped over my hotel table looking, as he has done for the greater part of the last week, exceedingly knackered - the cumulative effect of 10 days virtually solid gigging across East Germany.
Tonight, in Berlin, he's just finished the final date of that tour, Billy's second visit here and my first - and one which for me has been as eye-opening as it has been frantic.
The scenario sounds simple: Having taken part in the 16th Political Song Festival in East Berlin the preceding winter, Billy went down so well that barely 6 months later he's been invited back to tour the country as part of the Lieder Sommer Festival. And his chosen support The Neurotics have made history as the first western rock band EVER to officially play in East Germany.
The story begins two weeks beforehand with a phone call from Attila who's at the East German embassy in London, confirming that my Visa application has been ok'ed, thereby ending several weeks of speculation as to whether I'm going to get into the country at all. All I have to do is nip down to the embassy myself the following day to get my passport stamped.
The consulate of the German Democratic Republic is inconspicuously tucked away in a basement flat off Belgrade Square and unlike the other countries' embassies in the area it is not exactly bristling with large queues.
There are only two people in front of me and one of those wants to go to West Germany. She is politely but brusquely informed of the correct address. In fact the first five people in England that I asked which was East Germany and which west - the Federal Republic or the Democratic Republic - all decided without hesitation that the Democratic Republic must be west. It's a glaring error and blatant evidence or just how bad our knowledge and misrepresentation of the Eastern Bloc countries' really is.
Two small forms to fill in, a few minutes wait and my passport is returned duly stamped. Simple enough it seems, back home I notice that the dates on the stamp are from the 8th August to the 18th, I want the 13th to the 23rd . A phone call to the embassy reveals that I can enter the country between the dates stamped and can obtain an exit visa once inside the country.
Hah! I'm getting paranoid. I hang up relieved. This is to have consequences later on... Two days later - a Monday afternoon in Harlow and the Neurotics - Steve, Colin and Simon - are busy loading and un-loading the van in an attempt to obtain some sort of coherent stacking of the musical gear, while Attila sorts out the customs forms. The scheme is for Attila and the Neurotics to drive across Europe into East Germany and rendezvous there with the Bragg entourage who are flying in separately.
The van loaded and we're off, under the reliable care of driver Johnny Mortimer on a two hour drive to Dover where we immediately locate the nearest pub and begin what for the next few days is to be a state of virtually permanent inebriation.
11.30pm, the ferry is off and a steady stream of Lowenbrau compensates for the unfortunate lack of Stella aboard. For all those of you yearning for a sordid account of drunken debauchery. Try this: Attila (who's struggling to begin a diet) has one vodka and tonic and promptly falls asleep.
Tuesday morning dawns over Zeebrugge and we drive through the early hours to Le Hage, about 30 miles from Hannover, where we spend several hours at a café continuing with the drinking.
Colin announces that he's going to get pissed, which prompts worried glances at the café window - previous Neurotics' excursions abroad have resulted in a plastered Colin relieving himself over the front windows of several cafes ( in full view of those inside the establishment trying to eat their meals).
Fortunately our proprietor's property remains unstained by the time we leave, heading through Belguim to the West German boarder. Hands up those who reckon that life on the road is a pretty attractive proposition. Allow me to shatter a few illusions; With no ventilation in the back, the heat becomes unbearable and the van smells cumulatively of sweat, smoke, farts and feet. You spend hours twisting about to find a comfortable position to lie in and then just as you've found it, a guitar case, amplifier or other musical instrument will come flying through the air with pinpoint accuracy on the top of your head.
Simon however, having blagged the most comfortable spot, has an ability to sleep through it all, stirring only occasionally to yell out things like "Rock and Roll - yeah!" before collapsing back into his trance.
By early evening we've hit Hannover, where the plan is to stay the night at a cheap hotel. But by this stage Colin and Simon have completely run out of their dole money and an argument begins as to who sleeps in the van. Attila steps in with the socialist solution and pays for everyone. Once checked in, the night is spent sampling a variety of bars around the town. Attila captures Simon and Colin in their hotel room with his pump-action machine gun water pistol ( which can reach about 20 feet ). The Neurotics take revenge in the morning by springing an Entebbe-style raid and returning the compliment. Attila discovers that his rucksack has borne the brunt of the squash in the van and has toothpaste and shaving foam splattered over everything.
Hangovers in Hannover don't spoil a hearty continental breakfast and then we're off to Helmstedt and the border, which as we discover is not exactly prominently sign posted.
" I can't see the Iron Curtain at all", remarks Steve. "They must have drawn it back."
Frankly, none of us know what to expect and the border guards don't quell any misgivings; one of them casually brandishes a machine gun at every vehicle passing through. This is the nerve-racking part of the journey as none of us are totally confident that we're going to be allowed through.
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