Steve Drewett solo | Newtown Neurotics | The Indestructible Beat | Gigs | Lyrics | Social Media
Our first impressions
The answer my friend is blowing in the wind (Attila the Stockbroker relaxing)Even Attia's 'A' level German, which has stood us in good stead thus far is beginning to stutter. An eyebrow is raised by the West German guards when we announce that we're a band playing in the East and Attila disappears with the boarder patrol to try to explain the matter. At this point we're all playing safe (read cowardly); my Redskins T-shirt is covered by a jumper, Attila's Albanian football badges have been removed from his jacket and even the water pistol had been well hidden under the gear in the van
Finally we're waved on but we're still not through. The divide between the West and East border points looks much like a concrete runway several hundred yards long and we pull over half way along at passport control for a further dose of form-checking
Then we draw up to the East German border itself. A guard approaches with wagging finger: "One of you has taken a photo." Lumps in the throat time and I'm hastily pushing my camera down the back of the seat. The culprit however is driver Johnny M, who took a picture of the van while at passport control, this is verboten. The guard opens the camera, exposes the film and returns it. Our faces are all checked while the border guards play Mr. Nice and Mr. Nasty as to whether or not the van will be turned over like the rest of the vehicles in front of us. Mr. Nice wins the day (we are invited guests after all), we're waved past the queue in front and then we're actually through. It's taken an hour and a half to get across the border and Attila reckons he's lost half a stone in that time
Our entry into East Germany is, to the day, the exact 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall - an auspicious date. We pull over to the side of the road and 10 minutes later meet George Wolter who is to be our guide, host, translator, organiser and general dogsbody for the next 10 days.
George is a freelance translator in English and Spanish and has been working for the Political Song Festival for the last 10 years. Picture if you can a 32-year-old East German who looks like an ex-hippy and speaks English with an Irish accent (picked up from 3 years in the merchant navy) and you'll have a fair image of the man. It isn't long before we're all impersonating him.
With George joining us in the van we head towards our first destination, Dresden, passing through mainly small villages on the way. The first thing that strikes you are the slogans - on walls, placards by the roads, on large banners, everywhere - declaring "PEACE, UNITY FOR A SOCIALIST SOCIETY! and so on. The roads are in pretty poor condition (including the "motorways"), being mainly cobbled, which adds to the discomfort in the back; NOTHING will stay in place for longer than three seconds. We pass several broken-down cars, including one lying upside down
Half way to Dresden we pull over at a restaurant for our first East German meal, rump steak, chips and a range of veg, delivered promptly for a mere £2.
It sounds surreal and though we might crack Chernobyl style jokes about the peas glowing, it has to be said that the food is excellent
Walking back to the van we're accosted by the Topperwein family who spotted our foreign number plate and have been waiting two hours by their windows to meet us. We're invited in for autographs and drinks and spend the evening there, leaving with a bottle each of their finest home-made wine plus some Bulgarian champagne and a promise that they'll meet us again at Saturday's gig in Halle "You mustn't believe everything that you read about us," implores Mrs. Topperwein in passing. We're more than inclined to agree, after all, barely have we entered the country and we've just spent the evening in the generous hospitality of complete strangers.
Somehow West Germany is turning out to be quite different from our preconceptions. As Simon remarks, "I haven't seen anyone with horns or scales yet."
Colin: "and these are the people that the western press keep telling us want to invade our country and rape our children. Well if anyone back home gives me the old clichés about the East I'll thump 'em"
Indeed the depth of misrepresentation of the DDR by the western media is quite astounding. The myth that it is undemocratic is the first thing that needs to be blown away - elections are held every five years; you're eligible to vote at the age of 18 and the turnout at the last elections was some 96%. There are five political parties in the country - the Communist Socialist Unity Party (SED), the National Democratic Party, the Liberal Democratic, the Christian Democratic Union and the Farmers Party.
In addition there is the Communist youth organisation or FDJ (Free German Youth) of which a large proportion of the country's youth are members, and who are the organisers of our tour.
These parties form the equivalent of our Parliament, the Volkskammer (Peoples Chamber), which is the supreme organ of the state. The SED gets the largest number of votes at the polls and holds the post of "Prime Minister" or Head of state, Eric Honecker. Born in 1912, the son of a miner, Honecker spent 10 years in prison under the Nazis - admirable credentials if ever there were any
But there are also many ministers who come from the other parties, and as George points out, "Each party that represents a section of the population has a true say in governmental affairs up to the highest level.
So how is the standard of living under this system? Cop this: THERE IS NO UNEMPLOYMENT WHATSOEVER in the country. It is the state's duty to provide a job for every single person. The average wage for workers and farmers is 850m (about £300) a month. The lowest wage is 400m (£140) for unskilled workers. That may not sound much but the difference in wages between the richest and poorest averages out at only 30%..
Compare that to the UK where pensioners die from eating cardboard while Royalty blow £10,000 on a party. Rent, food, and all the basic essentials for life in the DDR are dirt cheap. A 3lb. loaf of bread for instance will cost you about 1m (30p). Health care is also incredibly cheap. Up to 600M a month salary you pay a tenth of that (i.e.: up to 60m) for social insurance. Beyond 600m you still pay no more than the limit of 60M
The health and social security system covers everything from every kind of medical, dental and ophthalmic treatment, to sick pay, cures in health spas and so on. There are no prescription charges to be paid by anyone and fully paid maternity leave is given for three months on either side of the birth. Does this sound like a totalitarian regime?
"You really feel safe health wise in this country," says George. "People keep telling us that the citizens of the DDR have the highest living standards of any socialist country. I guess it is not comparable with the west yet but one thing is for sure, that all the basic - foodstuffs, housing, education, medical care, old age pensions, care for the wee ones, all the things that you just can't do without, these are readily available and dead cheap.
It's 4 o'clock in the morning by the time we reach Hotel Dresden and culture shock no.2 greets us. The hotel lobby is playing Springsteen's 'Born in the USA'. East German radio you might imagine would be full of dreary folk extolling the glorious virtues of the latest production levels of the peoples' tractor factories. In fact most of the records played are western, i.e.: Radio One fare of synth pop with the occasional home-grown version of the same.
At this stage George drops the bombshell of the amount of money we're going to be paid for the tour. There's lots of it. Lots and lots. Thousands. Several thousands. And to remove the hassle of carting it around, George parts with half of the money immediately to Attila. This is going from one extreme to another; Colin and Simon entered the DDR totally skint, now suddenly we're rolling in more money than we'll be able to get rid of.
Our rooms are on the 13th floor and are comparable with any 5 star western hotel you could name. There are only two quibbles: My shaver won't fit the plug hole and the toilet paper is rough. And I don't mean hard as in the tracing paper you get in public loos in the UK; I mean ROUGH, as in sandpaper. Billy Bragg is to comment later, "It's to make sure that even every arsehole is red."
It's getting light now, producing that peculiar disjointed feeling when you haven't slept the night. In the streets below shift workers and trams are already beginning to move about. We decide not to sleep but to carry on drinking till breakfast opens at 6.00am.
East German hotels have two separate rates, one for tourists and another cheaper rate for DDR citizens, With the result that there is a large proportion of ordinary workers and their families staying at the hotels. Looking around the dining room it is impossible to distinguish class or cultural differences between them.
Steve and Simon choose Caviar for breakfast and conclude that "the egg's all right but the frog spawn in the middle is shit." However, with champagne and Caviar being downed with vigour there are ebullient cries from all of, "If this is socialism give us more! A weary George, who has had no sleep, goes straight off to pick up Bragg at Berlin airport. We finally crawl to bed by 7.00 am but the rooms are so hot and stuffy that sleep is well nigh impossible and by 12 o'clock we're up again to a bright and sunny day.
Attila has by now completely abandoned his diet and tucks in with relish into a lunch of veal in batter, spuds and mushrooms - again excellent and again barely half the price of what it would be in the UK.
In the afternoon we go for a walk in the nearby shopping precinct. One glance at the crowds milling busily about their shopping dispels forever all visions of people in grey raincoats shuffling miserably, heads bowed, down rain soaked alleys being trailed by men in dark cars. It is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that we could be walking along Oxford Street in London or any large western shopping centre. There is absolutely no difference in the peoples clothing or appearance and the department stores themselves could be Marks and Spencer or even Harrods. The whole scene is so similar to Britain that the enormity of just how misinformed we are of life in East Germany has difficulty sinking in. The only real difference is the price of what is termed luxury goods. A pocket calculator would set you back about £50, a "hi-fi" system (crude by western standards) about £300 and a colour TV a staggering £3,000. But remember - this is the price that is paid for a system that provides adequate housing, employment, education and welfare for the whole of its population. Given a choice between that or a nation split into two halves of stinking poverty and idle wealth, I think the East Germans have made the right choice.
Apart from lignite (brown coal), the country is severely lacking in raw materials; the shortage of hi-fi's, cars, Walkmans or whatever is because they're forced to spend more on imports to keep the economy running efficiently.
Our first gig of the tour is about 10 minutes drive from the Hotel in an out door amphitheatre and, come early evening the Neurotics are set up and soundchecking with a fervour. And lo! Who should that silhouette creeping up from the back of the stage be but none other than Stephen William Bragg Esquire, evidently in cheery mood having just flown in from Japan, while Wiggy and Bill's manager Peter Jenner have flown in from Blighty.
Commie weather is at least accommodating to an open air gig and as the audience fills up the sunshine gives way to a mild evening air. The turnout of a couple of thousand consists of a fairly wide range of ages, with a few hippies and punks scattered about. As with the rest of the tour, Attila has the honour of opening the night's entertainment.
For someone who is pictured predominately as a poet, Attila's communicating to an audience whose second language is not English but Russian might at first thought appear to be the most difficult. In fact, armed with electric mandola and violin, he simply drops the rants and presents a set of songs. Explaining each one beforehand in German, Attila belts through his best material, from the finely crafted ballads of 'Airstrip One' and 'World War Three' to the silliness of 'Libyan Students From Hell' (the sarcastic wit of which does not appear to be lost on the East Germans). The solitary spoken number is 'Radio Rap' and his dedication of that to East German radio receives loud cheers. Best of the lot though is the epic 'Sawdust and Empire'. delivered in German which not surprisingly goes down a storm.
The Neurotics kick off with 'Wake up', itself, a gem of a song that sets the pace for the rest of their energetic set. Using George as translator between each number, Steve carefully explains their songs', the chronicling of Britain under Thatcher, be it seen through the eyes of the aged ('This Fragile Life') or a miners' wife ('The Mind Of Valerie'). Instruments are dropped save one guitar for the Bragg-esque 'Africa' ("dedicated to Bob Geldof to show him that there is more than one Africa") and ' Fighting Times' hammers home The Neurotics fervent social concern. The Flamin' Groovies' 'Shake Some Action is rekindled into the battle cry of 'Take Some Action' and they encore with 'Living With Unemployment' to the thunderous applause.
Totally unknown in the DDR until tonight, there is no doubt judging from the audience's reaction that The Neurotics are going to leave A LOT of converts. And it sounds so refreshing to actually hear them through a decent PA for a change.
I have some inclination of what the response to Bragg will be but the depth of it is staggering. Greeting the audience with "Danke schon" (yep - he speaks German in a cockney accent), Ol' Big Nose hammers through a non-stop series of set faves, again with the help of George to expound each song. 'Save the Youth of America' was inspired "when I saw this Ku Klux Klan poster saying ' help save the youth of America by stopping them playing Negro music.' And I think the youth of America should be saved - from their parents!
With 'Which Side Are You On' Billy marks a response to his criticisms of "sexist bastard" by switching from his Pete Seeger cover back to Florence Ree's original, dropping the "boys" from the chorus. Smart move.
I get the slightly incongruous sight of an East German sat next to me screaming "New England"! Yeah!" and slamming his fist enthusiastically into the air. Bragg however uses his introduction to pass a veiled missive to the audience: "The chorus 'I don't want to change the world' might sound strange coming from a so-called political songwriter. What it means is that ideology is very important but what's more important is people and peoples happiness."
And with 'The World Turned Upside Down' he outlines himself further: "The Diggers didn't like what happened after the revolution 'cos their leaders burned down their houses and their crops...Sometimes revolutions don't turn out how they should."
Love of-course is the thing that transcends all boundaries of colour, creed and nationality and it's with his love songs that Billy speaks a universal language. 'Love Gets Dangerous' is "about waiting at a railway station for the woman you love most in the world and then her husband turns up - I'm sure you know that feeling." Indeed we do Bill. But the real depth and feeling that that tuneless foghorn of a voice has somehow injected into his latter material comes to the foremost cogently with 'Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto' - the most effectively emotive lyric he's taken up since 'Levi Stubb's Tears,'
The ' International' was originally planned as an encore but is dropped as being too much of a cliché and in its place, Wiggy, Attila and the Neurotics all join Bragg for a thunderous 'Garageland' - a fitting end to a gig that has by all accounts been a joyously promising start to the tour and fine testament to just how well all three acts work together on stage.
The comparisons to Bragg that both The Neurotics and Attila have garnered are well founded; both in their own way chart a socialist perspective of the world around them with some truly finely crafted tunes and a compelling personal refrain.
The crowds gather with autograph requests and a barrage of questions and considering that interest in Western culture is something that is not officially encouraged It's surprising just how many of the youth are conversant in English. Back at the hotel Bragg's entourage disappear for food and sleep (rock and rollers eh?) while we drink for a while more before retiring.
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