Steve Drewett solo | Newtown Neurotics | The Indestructible Beat | Gigs | Lyrics | Social Media
The next day, Friday, we suffer again the dubious pleasures of the Peoples roads on a two-hour drive to East Berlin for the next leg of the tour. We sort out the visa extensions and take charge of the rest of the money at the Artists Agency, then a few minutes walk away we take a look at Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall - or the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier as it's known on this side. The meeting point between East and West , the wall is portrayed in the west as the symbol of Eastern totalitarianism. History however paints a different picture of the reasons behind the walls existence.
The end of the Second World War saw Germanys economy in collapse but the Soviet - occupied Zone (later to become East Germany) was faced with much greater problems in it's rehabilitation. Traditionally the agricultural part of Germany, the East had been cut from its main pre-war ports and from the industrial areas and sources of raw materials in the west. The West had been deliberately spared from the worst of the air bombardment by the Americans (who knew that they would eventually be occupying that part of the country. The East however suffered extensive reparations and widespread bomb damage in its industrial towns.
George comments wryly, when it turned out that Hitler would be defeated the western allies knew that the Russians would get the eastern part of Germany and tried their best to wreck the economy by bombing its manufacturing plants. On top of that was the accord by the western allies of the Marshall plan, under which West Germany was not only relieved from paying reparations but had vast amounts of money pumped into it.
But in the East , the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the worse damage inflicted on anyone in World War Two - 20 million lives and many billions in expenses.
The two emergent Germanys had fundamentally different social objectives; the West advocated the free social market economy with private ownership of the means of production, i.e.: the same policy that Thatcher and Regan support, the kind of sickening moral standard that welcomes fascists with open arms. For instance Krupps, one of West Germanys most prosperous businesses, today manufacturing such goods as washing machines, was the company that made the gas chambers for Hitler during the war.
The East however planned a fully centralised command economy and set about the antifascist democratic revolution and the establishment of a more socialist system with a vengeance.
All the companies involved in war crimes such as Krupps were expropriated without compensation and the land redistributed more fairly. A school reform was carried out; every teacher who was a member of the Nazi party was sacked and free access provided to all forms of education for everybody, regardless of his or her social background .
The Nazi Party was declared illegal, each and every war criminal or concentration camp guard was tried, private industry was nationalised and new trade unions set up in all branches of industry.
This radical social reorganisation was not viewed upon with relish by those who wanted to preserve their private fortunes at the expense of others and the rapidly rising living standards of West Germany under the Marshall Plan meant hundreds of thousands of managers, doctors and so on, fleeing to the West. East Germany, faced with a potentially disastrous shortages of an economy already under severe strain, put up the Wall as the only practicable solution to the problem, albeit an extreme one.
The wall stands today not so much to hide any horrible goings-on but as a part of the obsessive state paranoia about keeping the filthier aspects of western culture out. In a similar manner the ridiculous restrictions on photographing anything 'official' like railway stations ( or as we found out, the border) is indicative of the state obsession with keeping itself to itself.
Of course the negative aspects of the wall are the restrictions on travel abroad and the division of families. As George points out, bringing down the wall would be better propaganda for the state than churning out long boring communiqués all the time. If the wall were to be opened, what would probably happen is that most of the population would flood out to see what the West is like and the vast majority would decide that they didn't like it and would rather be at home.
However one of the lesser-known facts about the country is that there is a channel whereby young people can apply to leave the DDR for good and last year 20,000 were allowed to do so.
It's a case of the other mans grass is always greener, indicates Steve Neurotic. Because they're not allowed to travel into the West it becomes an almost fanatical obsession to do it. But it is ludicrous that at the same time East Germany sets up a system whereby they can lose the cream of a generation through letting them go, they don't allow people over a certain age to leave
The area around the Wall is generally decaying grey buildings - hardly a welcoming view to those peering over from the west - but barely two blocks away the scene, is the totally different view of Unter Den Linden shopping precinct. Once again the sight of brightly dressed crowds milling nonchalantly about their shopping meets us.
Why aren't these people dressed in grey? Why aren't they all staring with longing expressions at the Wall?
Tonight's gig is the big one, the showcase of the whole tour and it's to be filmed by radio and TV. It's also another open-air gig with the main stage overlooking a large square surrounded by various side stages and stalls.
The Lieder Sommer Festival has in fact been in progress for over a week now, with acts from as far afield as Chile and Spain, and from the west (apart from us) The Dubliners and Dick Gaughan have already done their stints.
Billy Bragg appears at the soundcheck wearing an atrocious pair of shorts that are well in keeping with the rest of his dress sense and with Atilla and myself also in shorts we looked like some overgrown rejects from the Boy Scouts. Following the soundcheck we hurry to the hotel to dump the gear and what is to be standard procedure for the rest of the tour, i.e.: a frantic rush, sets in. George is tearing his hair out and we return to the venue barely in time for Attila to be shooed brusquely on-stage by the local FDJ. The square is packed solidly with 6,000 people and one group of punks erupt into a pogoing frenzy when Attila starts up 'Spanish bombs' and a very slow 'Garageland' on the mandola. This is a rare treat for them but the best is yet to come.
The Neurotics rock out hard through a boisterous set of 'Wake Up' 'Never Hold Your Tongue', 'Fighting Times', 'Valerie', 'This Fragile Life', 'Sects' and 'Strike Action.' Choosing to go straight for the jugular they hurtle through each song without introduction, pausing only for the occasional sharply delivered explanation of the songs to the crowd. Their cover of Ben E. King's 'Stand By Me' is no mere rehash of an old soul classic, Steve's slight yet deft lyrical dexterity converts just one line and widens the whole message into: "As husbands and wives stand firm on the picket line, Darling won't you come and stand by me".
It's the middle of this song I realise that I am witnessing something special. The audience bellows their approval, waving sparklers about and clapping their hands over their heads like a Queen video. The atmosphere is so charged you feel you could scoop a slice and bottle it. Both in terms of performance and audience response this is undeniably The Neurotics best EVER performance. For a people fed a nation-wide diet of blandola radio pap with very restricted access to any alternative subculture there is no doubt that the seeds have been sown for a mass of converts. As Attila remarks backstage, "I think there's going to be LOADS of Neurotics fans when we leave."
Or as Colin puts it, "We're going to be bigger in East Germany than we are in the fucking UK!"
Following a lengthy introduction by a German speaker and with about 500 lenses trained on him, Billy Bragg raises the atmosphere even further. The audience know every word of every single off by heart and Billy lets them carry the chorus of 'New England' with a gleam of delight on his face before throwing more carefully-worded messages at the crowd: 'In the 20's and 30's people voted for peace but your leaders and our leaders were arming for war. And if we don't learn from the mistakes made then, we're going to repeat them. 'Levi Stubbs Tears' is not a song about the Four Tops but about the concept of them. Music should move peoples feelings and emotions and to me, soul music does that. And if you can picture me crying to a Four Tops tape you'll realise that I'm nothing more than a short-haired hippy.
A small baby held aloft at the front of the stage is punching the air in time to the music and joins in with his toy trumpet at exactly the right point in 'Levi Stubbs Tears.' For all his derogatory remarks about ol' Brucie, Bragg's forte as a performer is in his increasingly Springsteen-esque rapport with his audience; few others could elevate the feeling of a pub gig to stadium rock proportions without losing that vital air of intimacy.
The rain begins half way through Billy's set: not a trickle nor even a lot, but a TORRENT gushing straight downwards. Within minutes everyone is drenched yet nobody will budge an inch.
Billy, Wiggy, Attila and the Neurotics all join for the encore of 'Garageland' which nearly doesn't get underway when Attila starts playing 'Smoke On The Water'; everyone over 30 starts cheering, thinking he's serious. This is followed by an impromptu 'Police and Thieves' possibly the worst ever version in the history of music (it comes to light afterwards that no one knew how to play it and everyone was merely keeping time with the others).For the second time 'Living With Unemployment' gets an airing, complete with over-the-top solos from everybody while Billy "does a Bono" and runs out onto the parapet at the front of the stage, throwing flowers into the audience. By this stage everyone is totally saturated with rain, which is even seeping profusely through the tarpaulin over the stage. And still the audience stand as one body rooted to the spot, screaming for ANOTHER encore. Phenomenal! This is to remain for me the highlight gig of the whole tour and a further optimistic note is raised when it is revealed that on the strength of tonight's show Attila and the Neurotics have been invited to return for the Political Song Festival the following February.
Masses of sodden but unshrinking autograph hunters invade the stage and badges, records and fanzines are passed out to eager hands. "punk rock?" queries a youngster with hope in his eyes as Billy signs an album. "Absolutely" grins the Barking Bard.
The hardest conversational problem for me is trying to explain what 'Wake up' actually is - denied access to photocopiers or means of producing un-official literature of any sort, the very concept of a fanzine seems alien to many. Conversation with a local reveals that 'Think Again' was not actually written by Dick Gaughan but by the Russian poet Yeugeni Yeutushenko - and not a lot of people know that.
Gaining refuge from the rain in the backstage tent I discover the young pretender himself, Melody Maker scribe Andy 'Will' Smith, who has arrived smuggled in as a "sound engineer" ("Journalist" on a passport would not be conducive to entry).
Back at the hotel 'Dallas' and the Ramones are on TV. WHAAAAT??? As we discover, western media (i.e.: West German TV and radio) is freely available throughout the DDR, except Dresden which is in a hollow called the Valley of the innocent because it cannot pick up western TV.
Another excellent meal and strong beer puts everyone in even cheerier mood and Billy introduces me to Mario, who he met on his last visit here and who has had hassle from the police over attempts to set up local gigs. Mario's burning ambition at the moment is to defect. Intrigued to hear the view of a dissenter we're up till 4.00 in the morning in Attila's room listening to Mario's complaints. Billy wanders in at the end and after Mario has left, the post-mortem is heated and verbose:
Billy: "What Mario tried to do was no more than putting on gigs. He went through official channels, he asked the police, he paid his 50-M and what did he get? He got his gig broken up by police. Ask him what the chances of turning out a fanzine over here. Even if people had access to photocopiers would anyone be allowed to sell 'em at gigs? So does that make this country a totalitarian state, a monolith?
I don't think it does, I think it makes it 'a country that is a bit paranoid. It's a really old argument that I can't quite agree with anymore.
Attila: The general impression I get from most people is that on the whole they like to live in the DDR, they like the socialist society, the health system, the education system and all those things which are obviously very, very good. At the same time they see these western programmes on the TV and they wonder what it's like. What I say to them basically is that one of the worst aspects of your government not allowing you to travel to the west is that all you see is the idealised view that comes across in the adverts and programmes like Dallas. You don't see the squalor, the unemployment, the poverty the enormous difference in status and standing between people from different social backgrounds.
One of the best ways to take away some of your illusions would be for you to come over and see for yourselves. Mario said that he can't stand it here, that the people are peasants and just happy to lead grey boring lives and he wants to come to the glamorous West 'cos that's where he thinks his future would be. And basically he said an awful lot of things that were very reminiscent of editorials in the Daily Mail and such like. Other people I've met are just as aware as Mario of the problems in the DDR but they don't choose to be like Mario and say "Fuck it, I just want to leave" but work within the system to make the improvements which ultimately means that we're given the right to travel here and perform for them in the first place.
If people like Mario and George work together to broaden things, to make the system more flexible then precisely those things which Mario is complaining about will have far more chance of being changed than if everyone just opts out and comes to the West.
There are situations where I can totally sympathise with the people wanting to leave East Germany. Anybody who felt that their desire to see the world was so great that they just could not stand to be limited by this ridiculous system which keeps them in their own country with the chance only to go to Czechoslovakia without a Visa, then as a citizen of the world it is absolutely their right to do so and I'll totally support them. But Mario not being able to organise rock gigs and feeling a bit pissed off 'cos he can't buy fashionable clothes, I don't really think that that is sufficient reason for him to give up everything and move to the West. I mean, you or I might not like what Thatcher is doing to Britain but that doesn't mean that we want to emigrate.
This reminds me of the anecdote about Uncle Joe Stalin, who in 1939, upon finding no cure for the lice in his hair desperately sought the advice of Party member Radek. "Simple," said Radek "Collectivise one louse and all the others will run away!"
Before we retire, Billy relates the story of how he met manager Peter Jenner (the man responsible for elevating his career to it's current level): He came to one of my gigs while I was on stage playing and asked the first person he saw what she thought of me. She said I was the best thing since sliced bread. So he signed me up. He didn't know but the person he asked was my girlfriend! From small acorns, etc.
Continue the saga here | Return to homepage