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The 'Unofficial' Berlin Gig

Image of The Neurotics, Billy Bragg, Wiggy and Attila playing a gig in an East Berlin disco

Inciting East German Students to dance AND think at an illegal gig,
Billy Bragg with the Neurotics and Attila.

The menu is serving something like 'cobblers' but we elect to pass on that. As usual though, the meal we do get is first rate. Debunking the fable that East Germans exist on a diet of potatoes and water, the only food shortages that the DDR suffers are certain vegetables in winter and fresh milk which is scarce throughout the year (though children are given a litre and a half free each day).
With no gigs planned tonight, we're officially booked into the hotel for two days. This is not an un-tempting prospect with the scenery to admire but we decide to flout the official plans and make our way instead back to East Berlin for an unscheduled performance at the university youth club.
A tape of Billy's new album gets a loud airing on the way, together with a tape Mario's given us of East German punk bands. Garage isn't the word for it - these bands are far below garage status. Not so much primitive as primeval, they make Crass sound like the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
We're pulled over by the fuzz again, though we're definitely not speeding, and fined another 120M. On the approach to Berlin we're pulled over again by the Police, who check the passengers inside against our passports before allowing us to go on.
These are the first genuinely worrying moments for myself because my visa officially runs out at midnight tonight and George's efforts to sort things out with the authorities have met with indefinite results. Will Smith is in the same boat and time is running out by the hour.

The venue is our first indoor gig and ranking little larger than the 100 club, promises a more intimate atmosphere than our previous settings.
George returns from frantic phone calls to announce that he hasn't been able to arrange visa extensions for Will and myself so all we can do is go over the wall into West Berlin, wait till after midnight, then come back into the East with 24hr passes, giving George more time to try to sort things out. That's the theory at any rate.
In practice we don't know whether we'll be able to get back in at all, which will leave us stuck in an unknown city at midnight.  

So it is, that at 11.30 that evening Will and I are back at Checkpoint Charlie. Across an Iron gate there's a short walk along a concrete footpath (painfully aware that TV cameras are watching your every step), then through a couple of doors, a baggage check and then the most vexing part - waiting while a guard disappears for several minutes with our passports.
Then we're through; another walk up a footpath and across the roadblock and we're in West Berlin, a city whose position must make it possibly the oddest in the world.

In 1945 following the end of the war, Germany was divided into four zones, which was garrisoned and administered by one of the four powers - the British, French, Americans and Russians, with Greater Berlin (completely surrounded by the Soviet zone) placed under joint four-power administration.

By late '49 two separate national states had appeared, with Berlin effectively two separate cities. In 1958 Soviet proposals for a free demilitarised city of Berlin to make it ready to be the capital of a united Germany, were rejected by the Western powers who did not want to have their positions dislodged, and in '61 the Soviet Government sealed off the Western sectors of Berlin with the wall.

The situation was eased a few years later when the Soviet Union and the DDR signed a treaty regarding West Berlin as an "independent political unit". And that's the situation that is more or less accepted today by both sides, West Berlin being an 'island' 200km from its mainland, completely surrounded by East Germany.

All Will and I have to do is kill time for half an hour or so and get hold of 30DM each in order to be able to get back in. We try to get a coffee in four or five bars but none of them will take UK cash. We find out from one of the British guards at the Wall that the nearest money exchange is a 45-minute walk away. Neither of us have any West German currency so we can't get a taxi and back on the other side of the wall, Pete Jenner and Detlef are only going to wait for us for an hour, after which they'll assume we're not returning. So now we're stuck.

The only time during the whole trip that I felt at all tense was oddly enough during these moments in the West. It is difficult to describe the atmosphere of East German streets late at night save to say that they actually FEEL safe; the streets are clean, there is no litter, no vagrants; mugging, assault, rape and so on are virtually unknown in the DDR. West Berlin by contrast has a reputation as one of the most violent cities in the world. Standing in the silent, darkened streets, I can understand some of the reasons behind the Wall's existence.

Finally however, some spivs from one of the bars offer us 30DM for £30 (a real rip off of £20 pounds each) but they know they've got us over a barrel and we can't refuse. Then it's back to Checkpoint Charlie and through the same ritual in reverse order and we're back in the East on one-day passes confining us to East Berlin. At least its back to security.

Returning to the club we're greeted with a round of applause. The gig itself has by now finished and judging by all accounts I've missed a night to rival even last Friday's.
With no PA the "total rock 'n' roll gross-out" as Colin puts it, included Attila covering 'Green Fields of France' with Bragg on backing vocals; Steve covering 'Baby Don't you Grieve' on a disco mike; Billy roaming about the audience as he was playing and embarrassing the girls by serenading them with love songs before clambering on top of the tables, soon to be joined there by all three Neurotics for backing vocals on 'Tracks of My Tears' and 'People Get Ready'; the audience and Neurotics banging metal trays together as percussion; Steve introducing "Attila the Stockbroker and his lovely assistant Billy Bragg" who got Attila to headbutt the trays (with a drum roll from Simon for each one) ; Billy and Wiggy playing 'Twisting the Night Away' and 'Johnny B. Goode' plus an accapella cover of 'Garageland' and finally everybody doing the wingless fly on their backs in the floor!

The ANC have an official delegation in East Berlin (evidence of the country's support for the cause of Internationalism). We spend several more hours drinking and talking to members of the ANC, one of whom - Pinky - pulls up his trouser leg to reveal a bomb scar received c/o the South African armed forces. "I've been all over the world, "declares Pinky, "and the only place I feel safe is here in the DDR." I know how he feels.

We doss the night in bunks at the university digs nearby and over a hearty breakfast everyone compares their turds - nobody appears to have had a solid crap since they got here. Colin appears looking especially weary and reveals that he's been out all night 'clubbing' with Pinky, an activity which involved being refused by half a dozen bars for wearing jeans, spending about £200 in taxi fares and finally only getting two pints all night long. Yes sirree, we certainly know how to boogie.

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