by Harry Vee
this article originally appeared on Ugly Things #16 (courtesy of Mike Stax and Harry Vee)
A fter the Beatles scored big in the UK charts for
the first time in 1963, it didn't take more than a few weeks until they
did the same in Germany. Since the early-60s and the Star Club scene, and
what evolved out of it, the Krauts loved these straightahead kind of rhythms,
and all the newly-formed beat bands could run straight through the open
door of Germany. We needed it, we wanted it and finally we bought it!
Many people from the Eastem part of Germany (those sections which were occupied by Russians after the second World War) went to Berlin to buy the records that were, in those days, only available in big cities: stuff by Gene Vincent,Bill Haley,Jerry Lee Lewis and others. The local GDR scene had their few imitators, but no releases.
East German stores were not allowed to carry "capitalistic" music or even imports. This might sound strange,but it's true!
After 1963, when the famous Berlin Wall was raised the poor East German folks had nothing except their "illegal" westem FM radios. After 1963, an East German kid couldn't buy a Rolling Stones or whatever record anymore - it was not available and not even legal. That kind of music was forbid- den because it was said to undermine the faith of the Social Non-Capitalistic Fart!
After the Wall came,the Eeast German people when entering a "record & bookstore" had the choice of nine and a half schmaltzy, cheesy domestic schlager productions on 45 but --even if it sounds unreal to you - NOTHNG BUT THAT! Any stores in the former East sectors were run by the state, and back in those days that uptight/upright citizen government didn't allow any western imports at all! This never changed. Westem pressings of AOR music still sold for $100 on the black market in the 1980s.
After 1963, all those folks digging rock'n'roll had to turn up their radio in a way their neighbors . couldn't hear it. Rock'n'roll was a secret and forbid- den thing in the GDR until the Beatles came. Their fame and pressure was so big, even in these coun- tries, that the one and only GDR label "Amiga" was forced to release two Beatles 45s (as a licence) and later on an entire album of the Fab Four.
The resportse of the Eastern kids was so over- I whelming that the system couldn't fight back the new youth culture of the "mopheads" (exact trans- J. lation of what they were called); bands were formed, the beat battles started and new clubs with typical socialist names opened their doors. A bunch of newly-formed bands entered the stages all over the towns of the German Democratic Republic in early 1965. Most of the group names sounded a little strange or very "commie" to our nowadays stand- ards; some bands (just like many others all over the globe) chose names out of the birds and bees section and some just created some nice English-Deutsch mixs group names.
Still,bands were so few that some of the better groups had to play at two ditterent venues the same night - sometimes 60 miles away from each other - very important for the few fa- mous live bands in those days. Most of the groups never released a record but played all night, adhering to the many injunctions demanded by the State: not to phy Pretty Things or other dirty stuff; not more than 40 percent cover versions; a smart stage outfit was requested; and many more stupid restrictions like that. The gigs took place under the surveillance of at least one Secret Policeman, who would write down memos and comments about every song and give these notes to a kind ot a "cultural department for inner affairs." These were rough days tor musi- cians, folks! A guy like Mike Stax (with his hairmt) would have been simply banned i off stage and put into jail, and Phil May would have been executed, I am sure, as all musi- cians had to wear short hair and a decent suit and tie, and have cute and polite stage manners, too. (Does anybody think I am still kidding? You're wrong! )
All these explanations, I think, are necessary first to make you understand that this story, far from being a romantic winter fairytale, takes place in a scciety where very little was available and people were short of almost everything.Under these circumstances, however,the 1965 GDR beat bands created incredible and extravagant music.
It was at first their aim to copy their Ameriw and English forerunners as well as they could. In doing so they started to create a style of instrumen-. tal rock'n'roll that is now called "Big Beat." That was aho the name of the first two album conpilations, both released in 1965, featuring local and domestic bands only (with the exception of one Czechoslovakian band each volume). The GDR bands included the Sputniks,Franke-Eco Quintet,Die Butlers,Theo Schumann and others.The way they played,especially the hysterical variations of Ventures or Shadows riffs or their frantic covers ot Bulgarian or Ukranian folk melodies, is fairly tnique compared to the many lousy and unexceptional bands we had in West Germany (though we had some good ones, too). The first two Big Beat albums carried a great variety of instru- mentals, mostly penned after famous westen R&R pattens. To me though, these Eastern bands with their almost plagiaristic fake versions of famous hooklines were the winners;these little chord changes really make it! With their self-hand- cratted instruments and amps (one of the bands built a guitar with not just two but THREE necks!!!), they sounded at least as good as any Joe Meek-styled bands trom the UK. The editor of this mag might support me with that statement.
The biggest bands in these days were surely the Sputniks, (who just released a few 45s, but were also used tor backing various schlager stars), the Franke-Echo Quintett (named after their unique homemade reverb system), and most of all the band ot former jazz keyboardist Theo Schumarn (1928-1990). Schtmarn later claimed he was more or less forced to play this kind of music, or was at least pushed in that direction, and that he'd have preferred to continue with his pseudo-intellectual bullshit. Anyway, he made two of the only com- plete albums by an East German beat band in those days as well as releasing a load (not tons) of 45s. Many of these 45 tracks were just the mixes from the current album,but the winners are the non-LP ones like "Und sie hat gelacht," which is not unlike Sir Douglas' "She's About A Mover."
Schumam's albums were about 60 percent in- strumental (declared as "dance music for the young generation") and 40 percent vocal, the latter being a nice kind of German beat with irnocent lyrics and good riffs. With his third album, Guten Moryen, Carolina, he finally drifted into the schlager mud released a final, totally instrumental album in the mid-'70s,which showed more early '70s inflences, but is not bad at all.
In late 1965, after the Rolling Stones' Wald- buhne appearance disaster, the GDR govemment began an offensive against their local beat scene. They made a cut! The existence of all bands - including those already mentioned in this article -was no longer legal. Reunions under new names (Deutsch only, please) were necessary, and many musicians simply lost their permission to be a semiprofessional musician (the "permission" was a document which looked like a passport). The irustrumental Big Beat scene, in fact, was dead!
Not so Theo Schumann. He was maybe politicially correct enough to be the new (dictated) pop star of the GDR. So, one of the worst vocal tracks from his second album was chosen for a single and it became one of the hugest GDR hits of the '60s, "Es war ein Lacheln vor Dir," one of his worst ones ever.
All new recordings (1966-69) were controlled and checked by a special "art control department" before they were released - screams or dirty words would not be found on any piece of vinyl ever pressed in the GDR.
Some of the recordings of that time though, were still very influenced by the Western Beat Culture and its heroes.Thomas Natschinski, leader of the Team Four, was the kind ot guy who got himself a quick arrangement under the new rules. Helpful in that case must have been his last name - Gerd Natschinski (probably his dad) was a famous producer and arranger of early '60s GDR schlager, maybe a Ray Conniff kind of guy.
Team Four's only album, Die Strasse, was re- leased in a very difficult time (late '65) and was withdrawn after three weeks, due to the use of the English word "Team." Surprisingly though,it was re-release after some time under the name "T. Natschinski & Cruppe" and became a big seller in the GDR. The gang from the Amiga label were allowed to leave the original mix only the cover had to be changed com- pletely. Thank God, folks, they made that re-release... An original edition of the uncensored ver- sion is 10,000 times rarer and a lot more expensive that the "motherfuckers" MC5 album. Actu- ally, there are NO COPIES known at all!!! One ot my spies told me that even in 1965 it was not to be found in any Amiga stores.
Die Strasse tea- tures a couple of real stinky folk tunes (sung by a girl) (Editor's note: Actually these aren't so bad, they remind me a little of early Nico) - MS) but then you hear those beautiful and and so-innocent hymns to a girl, in a Beatle/Byrds style not unlike some tracks of the second Byrds album. "Ich hab lhr ins Gesicht ge- sehn" (also the first Team Four 45) tells the story ot a guy who's trying to check out a gal (which never worked - all the boys never had a chance, etc), then suddenly the way she looks at him changes com- pletely and for a moment the boy thinks, "She's mine" - wow. Isn't that nice? This song somehow became an anthem for the GDR youth. It's one of six excellent tracks featured on the album. Their har- mony-vocals were excellent and as soon as new gui- tar strings arrived in town their rhythm guitars were even sounding exactly like those of the Beau Brum- mels' Ron Elliot. A lot of great jingle and jangle! After a while, however, they tuned into an useless pop group as well. They had to!
Another great group (which will definitely be featured on the upcoming second volume of PIane- tary Pebbles) are The Satelliten from Gera. A bunch of young, talented and inexperienced guys won an amateur competition and with this the chance to record two songs at Amiga studios. And that was it! There was 45 release, but surprisingly one year later these two tracks were found on art Orchestral compi- lation (no, it's not a bachelor pad record...). That would be no big deal either, if not for the song "Unheimliche Nacht" ("Scary Night"). Similar to Mac Rebenack's "Storm warning" or Dave Myer's Hangin '20 Del-Fi album. An incredibly fast stomping surf rhythm gets penetrated by a more than aggres- sive sax! What a great band. They probably were not allowed to record more, as they might have been too good!
Anyway, in those days after 1965, the good bands became rarer and rarer, due to the strict laws, and it almost seemed the youth in the GDR would have to get used to fake pop or schmaltz. Almost! Thank God they had their Iron Curtain neighbors...
The neighboring commie countries put less pres- sure on their artists back in the '60s, which explains the existence of some great Czechoslovakian record- ings like the early Matadors or the Olympics. Al- though full censorship was the destiny of the late GDR '60s, surprisingly enough many of these neigh- bor-country bands got stage permissions for gigs in East Germany. They used to play the late '60s GDR stages, and they were still allowed to sing in the English language, too (although sometimes you couldn't understand a word!). The memory of their own breed was already gone, all the GDR artists' recordings were deleted by the goverrment label so nobody could identify himself with nasty slogans like "take it easy baby" anymore.
After the opening of the frontiers in 1989, some thing really unbelievable happened: Everybody wanted to get rid of his GDR collectibles; only west- ern products were "good." Maybe hundreds of thounsands of old Amiga 45s and Lps were simply thrown away.
Two years later, German collectors discovered the Big Beat. In the early '90s, BMG bought the entire Amiga label, including its unreleased radio broad- casts. The first compilation CD was released in early 1993 by BMG,and suddenly the strangee oldl pieces items.After that release, the domestic beat collec- tors jut started to understand what kind of great recordings were released in the mid-60s. The Sputniks even reformed and recorded a new 45. Also a couple of gigs were scheduled for Ger- many - these should have taken place by the time you read this. Stay tuned for more Big Beat!
Listen Surf Beat behind the Iron Curtain Part2 (AIP CD1063)