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The Final Gig

The Neurotics, Billy Bragg and Attila take over the Disco

Those of us awake by lunch time the following day drift about the lobby trying to find out the German for aspirin while Colin is sick again, In the afternoon Billy and I go wandering about the Leipzig bookstores. Billy is seeking out work by Yeugeni Yeutushenko and Frans Masereel (the German artist whose work inspires the 'Brewing Up' LP cover) and I chat with him about his impressions of the tour: 

Billy: "Well it's been a bit rock 'n' roll this tour, it's reasonably large gigs and all that sort of shit. The other one was a lot more political, a lot more contact and debating with members of the FDJ which can be quite interesting. But some-times you come up against ones who're starry-eyed ideologues who tell you how fabulous life is here and in the Soviet Union and all that crap, and other times you're up against ones who're quite willing to admit that there are difficulties.
Last time we were playing in factories, we played a light bulb factory in Berlin and visited Saxenhausen concentration camp. I got a lot more idea about what was happening then. This is quite an amazing tour for them, putting on people like me and Attila so it's been a bit of an experiment for them and I hope that they're a bit annoyed that we didn't stay on that fucking mountain in Suhl but they can't expect to treat us like kids.

What was the biggest eye-opener for you when you first came over here?

Billy: "The biggest shock to me was finding that people who come to our gigs have much more knowledge about what's happening musically and culturally to young people in the West than I thought - because they can see West German television. That was a big surprise to me.
The other thing is that the state has it's finger in so many pies, to say that it cramps peoples style is a bit of an understatement. It stops the flow of creativity that we take for granted.

"What about the fact that the state is at least aimed at providing the necessities for its people.Do you see any saving graces?

Billy: Yeah, I do. The amount of money they spend on education over here is incredible. But that education doesn't encourage people to be individuals. That's the great failure I see. But I think people are happy here and there's a lot of similarities with Britain - the post industrial state. 

"How have you found the reaction of people who've come up after the gigs. What questions have they got to ask?

Billy: "Well, all them punks last night, the question they took the most opportunity to ask, what obviously weighed very heavily on their minds, was "Why is your country fucked up, why is our country fucked up, and more importantly, why did The Buzzcocks split up?" (Laughter). Also someone asked me last night if I knew Paul McCartney!

How do you feel the reaction's been from the party officials?

Billy: "I think the establishment liked the 'Between the Wars' line. The peace industry in this country is really big. The only way that people in the DDR and in Britain are ever going to come close to an understanding of social co-operation is to break away from the two superpower blocks but I don't think they want to get that idea across too much.
We have to take the opportunity to make comments between the songs to make them more accessible, instead of just going "This is a song about peace and peace means more Russian soldiers on the streets of Germany. You have to say no that's not what peace means, it's not about leaders, it's about people and human beings."

There's a line in 'Between the Wars' - "Theirs is the land with a wall around it." Are you surprised that it wasn't vetted?

Billy: "I was surprised at first, yeah. It wasn't actually written about the Berlin Wall, it's one of those double-edgedlines."
"I was surprised that it wasn't picked out but not only have they decided that song's the big hit, it seems to have been taken over by the officials and translated everywhere. So they seem quite relaxed about that.
I think we're over-paranoid that they're going to tell us what we can play. It's what our motives are for playing I think they worry about. Do we come here to express our fraternal friendship for our comrades in the DDR, and if we do, are our comrades the party hacks and the FDJ or are they the people who're living in that little gap between the state and the absolute?"

"The music that we make in England is anti-establishment music 'cos the establishment want to keep the status quo, and because we're anti-Thatcher, when we come here we can be seen in the light of pro-establishment in this country. We have to be really aware that we're not being used for propaganda purposes."

Do you think you have been used for propaganda purposes?

Billy: "Well I've appeared on TV programmes and at concerts singing about peace and all that sort of thing.
It depends whether you think that's propaganda or not. But leaders are leaders the world over, politics is a dirty business and you shouldn't trust many of 'em more than you can throw 'em - ours or theirs.
In the end you can't come here unless you work with 'em. You have to be aware that there's a dividing line. I think there's signals that have to be sent to the audience that you're not just coming here to say what a great place it is, that when we talk about there being Peace in Europe it's not down to the leaders, it's down to talking to people."

When we return to the to the hotel everyone's packed up to leave for our final gig, the third time at East Berlin, again at the university youth club. With the van parked opposite the Albanian embassy (yes they do exist) we book in at a hostel and after tea crowd round the radio to hear some of the recordings from the first Berlin concert (oddly enough, all cover versions). The Neurotics performing 'Living With Unemployment', Billy covering 'A Change is Gonna Come' and everyone on 'Garageland.'
Ah, chance would be a fine thing it THAT lot ever got played on Radio One in England (strangely enough these days its not THAT unlikely, umm - Steve)

Tonight's gig is a fitting end to the tour, with the fraternal character of the club providing a suitably cosy setting for the lunatic antics of the performers. Billy and Pinky join Attila for a rousing 'Green Fields of France' and The Neurotics 'Africa' goes down tremendously with the ANC crowd present.
It's a refreshing change to the large-scale venues that Bragg normally plays but when the atmosphere threatens to get too relaxed Billy goes out to the audience, leaping from tabletop to tabletop. Everyone is scratching their heads for songs to play and Billy includes 'Twisting the Night Away' (with Simon on drums) and 'Wilson Picket's 'Land of a Thousand Dances', which gets couples waltzing down the front!

We're up drinking till the early hours at the hostel (surprise, surprise) and I nab a few more words from a worn-out Bragg (which brings me to the point where this tour report began): 

The million dollar question Bill - do you feel this tour's served a purpose?

Billy: "I think so. Even if Colin does have a Hank William's type death wish to die young on German lager, I think definitely the tour has gone along way forward to achieving that. I've never seen anyone so desperate to spend the money. It's been like one of them competitions where you have to spend a million pounds in a week and then you inherit 70 million. Remember that film 'Brewsters Millions'?"
"Seriously, I think the process of cultural exchange - if we cam be so grandiose to call what we do culture - that is necessary to go down between the youth of the DDR and the youth of Britain is not necessarily served well by only folk artists coming over here to play.
It's important that more bands that work in the rock area or whatever you wanna call what we play come over.
But that's going to be a real slow process and there's got to be a lot of exchanges so that it slowly moves to a situation where It's not so abnormal that an English band comes over. At the moment the situation between us all is abnormal and this tour I hope is one of the first stumbling in the darkness steps to try and find each other. I'd like to think so anyway."

Do you reckon you've made sufficient contacts or progress to take it one step further?

Billy: "I don't know. I think we over estimate the power of popular music and we under estimate the monolith of the state. We think that by being a nuisance we're getting somewhere. I don't think that's true. Audiences jumping up and down and going crazy will no more change the world than it does in England when they go crazy at a punk rock gig. We've only just scratched the surface. You've got to be realistic when you look at it. We're working in popular music which is an international language so in some ways we're crossing borders but whether or not we're making it even worse, maybe by coming over here we're suggesting to them that life in general in the West is really groovy. So maybe we're doing them a disservice" 

Presumably you'll be back here?

Billy: "If I'm invited, yeah I'll definitely come back again."

So what then would be your reasons for that...apart from a free holiday?

Billy: "Yeah apart from doing gigs, which I like doing and meeting people that I like to meet, to come once and never come again is a waste of time. We have to keep working away at it."

Do you see any changes for the better here?

Billy: "Yeah I do culturally. The very fact that we're here is a sign that culturally they're easing up a little bit, and a lot of that is a follow on from what's happen in the Soviet Union. When I was here last February it was the 25th Party Conference of the CPSU and they were hoping for a lot of good things from it, because what happens in the Soviet Union permeates pretty quickly down here.
"Definitely the Writers Guild in the Soviet Union has been cleared out. been They've got rid of the git who was Culture Minister. They've gotten rid of the old dead heads and put in a load of new bods, and they've rehabilitating people like Boris Pasternak who's been out of favour for 25 years for writing Doctor Zhivago' and who now - though he's dead - is being called a great Soviet writer. So culturally - although not in popular culture yet - there's a change of emphasis."

;"You can definitely see there's progressive people here, even working in the FDJ which is the ideologically sound boy scouts. I don't particularly think they're the business and I don't think the locals think they're much cop either - but there are people there who are trying very hard to work within the system, rather than just disappearing out of it like Mario. So I think there is change going to come."
"I think out of all Eastern Europe, East Germany's got the best chance of understanding of what we're doing and be able to assimilate it more into their culture and sell it back to us. East Germany's probably one of the most closed in Europe, apart from Albania and the Soviet Union. But here we are battering away.... Did you see the Thought Police?" "Would you say this is a Police State?" " Didn't see soldiers everywhere - only a few here and there, but did you see anyone with a gun?" "You see coppers with guns all the time back in the West."  

"I think you can spend a few weeks here and be objective about it - it's not a black picture but it's not a white picture either. It's a picture where we have to admit fuck ups but also admire the things they are striving for and even the things they haven't quite attained yet, but at least they're striving for them idealistically. " "This ain't Communism, this is a transitional period between Capitalism and Communism and in that context... it's good."

In the morning we make teary farewells with Billy and crew, who depart from the airport bound for America. We still have one more day in the DDR however, which we use for last minute sightseeing at the Alexanderplatz before leaving for Magdeburg, polishing off a bottle of rum on the way. Despite even Colin's efforts, only about half the money has been spent and being valueless outside the DDR, what remains is left with George to help finance gigs and so on.

The Neurotics are characteristically philosophical about the amount of capital that's been passing through their hands these last ten days:

Simon: "Bragg has the experience of that kind of wealth every day of his life. I enjoyed it thoroughly for these weeks, having that kind of money, but to be honest if I had that for every day of my life it would change me and I don't think I'd like it.
Steve: "It's got a sour after-taste to it and if I was that rich all the time I'd begin to worry a little bit. I suppose if we did have that kind of money we could make ourselves more useful by actually donating to things that really need it, but that's been impossible in this short time. We didn't really have the chance to plan what we were going to do with it. What will happen the next time we go over, if we have more money than we need, then we're going to suss out places for it to go and put something back.

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