A widespread misunderstanding
The history of rock music is full of half-truths, gaps, misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
This includes the widespread opinion that the GDR only opened up to white Western rock musicians shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the end of the 1980s, in order to present itself to dissatisfied young people as a cosmopolitan society.
In fact, however, at the beginning of the 1980s – when, in the shadow of the arms race, the signs were pointing towards confrontation between East and West – the Steve Gibbons Band was the first Western rock band from the English-speaking world to play in the GDR.
So it wasn’t musicians from the USA, but Brumis from Birmingham in Britain who took the lead.
Not a jump over the wall for one concert from one part of Berlin to the other, but a real tour through an unknown country
And unlike their American colleagues years later, they not only played a single concert as part of a half-day trip to East Berlin, only to be back at the bar of their hotel in West Berlin after midnight, but also had the opportunity to spend two weeks gaining an insight into everyday life in the GDR, even in the provinces.
Moreover, the first tour in 1981 was obviously such a great success that the group was invited again in 1982.
The Steve Gibbons Band 1981
The Steve Gibbons Band at the time of the first tour in 1981 consisted, apart from the mastermind Steve Gibbons as composer and singer, of
- Ex-Move guitarist Trevor Burton: solo guitar and vocals
- P. J. Wright, rhythm guitar and vocals
- „Dangerous“ Derek Wood, bass and vocals and
- Alan „Sticky“ Wickett, drums and vocals
In this line-up they had also recorded (together with studio musicians who mainly played keyboards and wind instruments) the then current album !Saints & Sinners“, which – after the end of the contract with Polydor – was the first (and only) album for RCA.
From the line-up that had recorded albums like „Down in the Bunker“ and „Caught in the Act“, only Trevor Burton was left. So the line-up was relatively new, but had already done a number of extensive tours and on November 3rd 1981, just before they went behind the wall for the first time, they played a Rockpalast concert in the Berlin Metropol.
Why was the band allowed (and wanted) to go to the GDR?
Why did the Steve Gibbons Band get the opportunity to perform in the GDR at that time ?
The importance of this question can only be understood if you understand the difficulties that the GDR (which in this respect also seemed more dogmatic than most other socialist states) had with rock music in general and especially those from the West.
Therefore, the situation in this respect shall be described here in more detail:
The difficult relationship of the GDR to rock and alternative music
Inviting Western artists to the GDR has always been a political matter. Quality alone was not enough to be invited behind the Iron Curtain.
Black blues proletarian, white rock decadent
The GDR did not have an easy relationship to alternative and modern forms of music. Black blues, and therefore blues rock, seemed unsuspicious. After all, it was a kind of folk music of the slaves oppressed by capitalism.
White rock and beat music, on the other hand, remained a bone of contention for a long time. It was fought at first. Then again, they tried to compete with rock ’n‘ roll by inventing the Lipsi,a „civilised“ dance of their own from the retort.
Later, the youth radio DT 64 was allowed to play beat music on a regular basis.
Beat ban was a matter for the boss
However, this thaw period was ended shortly afterwards by the ban on Western beat music at the XI. plenary session of the Central Committe of the socialist Party SED in 1965.
State Council Chairman Walter Ulbricht personally summed up the new attitude in the following words:
Is it really the case that we have to copy every filth that comes from the West?
I think, comrades, we should stop with the monotony of the yeah-yeah, and as it is called!
And Erich Honnecker, his later successor, also sounded the same horn at this party congress:
„For a long time, (the youth radio) „DT 64“ has one-sidedly propagated beat music in its music program. . . In addition, the Central Council of the Free German Youth had made an erroneous assessment of beat music. It was „discovered“ as the musical expression of the age of the technical revolution.
What was overlooked was that the opponent is exploiting this type of music to incite young people to excesses by exaggerating the beat rhythms. The harmful influence of such music on thinking, thoughts and actions of young people was grossly underestimated.
No one in our State has anything against cultivated beat music.
However, it cannot be regarded as the sole and main form of dance music. It must be fought resolutely and systematically against its decadent features, which have recently gained the upper hand in the West and have also found influence in our country. This has given rise to a hectic, stirring music that promotes the moral decomposition of youth.
The Leipzig „beat demonstrations“ against restrictions that same year further exacerbated the situation.
When Erich Honecker came to power in 1971, the attitude towards rock music changed once again under the sign of a newly proclaimed ‚consumer socialism‘. But than the direction changed once again: After the expatriation of singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann in 1976, the SED leadership finally banned alternative music styles for years.
However, the GDR was not completely unprepared for Western groups in 1981.
Michael Vonau, former A&R manager at a German record company and author of the liner notes for the concert recording of the SGB’s Rock Palast gig, finally released on DVD in 2011, comments:
Since 1964 Lippmann and Rau’s American Folk Blues Festival has been touring some of the big cities in East Germany. As music of descendants of exploited slaves, the blues enjoyed a special cultural status under socialism. Osibisa profited from this in the early seventies with her African rock and in 1980 the first white bluesman, Alexis Korner, whose singular appearance was even broadcast on East German television.
In addition to some West German pop stars, the Les Humphries Singers were also allowed to bring their English pop songs to working people in 1973. The West Berlin Krautrockers Tangerine Dream were also allowed to go over the Wall for a concert in 1980; their instrumental synth orgies without lyrics certainly did not pose a deeper ideological threat to the real existing socialism.
Music in the corset of regulations
So music was a highly political thing!
And making music was, like much in the GDR, regulated in detail and strictly controlled. For local groups this meant that they could not easily perform in public. According to the „Order No. 2 on the practice of dance and entertainment music„, one had rather to apply for a state „playing permit„. The prerequisite for this was that those who would like to play music in public had to prove their musical skills during an audition in front of an official commission.
Furthermore, the musicians had to guarantee that the contents of the songs did not contain any politically unpleasant things.
Restrictions for foreign songs for ideological and financial reasons
Also the number of foreign songs that could be played was limited. According to the „Arrangement on Musical Programms„, there was a 60/40 rule which prescribed that the repertoire of a group or performer could only contain 40% foreign songs.
These rules were handled with „a lot of imagination“. It happened, for example, that groups performed politically compliant pieces of music at the official auditions in Berlin, only to rock out with western rock standards at their concerts in the province.
With regard to the 60 – 40 rule, so-called „world folk material“ was not regarded as foreign material, but was counted towards the 60% that should actually have been local material.
Walther Geyer, member of Pro Arte, one of the major blues bands in the GDR, reports that blues rockers declared songs by Muddy Water, John Lee Hooker and others as traditionals in order to increase the share of current western pieces at their concerts. This is certainly just one example of how the „Arrangement on Musical Programms“ was the „most momentous, but also the most violated decree in East German pop music history“ (according to Michael Rauhut, Rock in the GDR 1964-1989, Bonn, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 2002, p. 15).
Incidentally, the limitation of foreign titles according to the preamble to this provision not only served the purpose of the above-mentioned beat criticism by Ulbricht and Honnecker
„to combat phenomena of decadence and decay and to promote the work of the authors of the German Democratic Republic“,
but also to avoid
„inappropriate foreign exchange obligations“.
In other words, it should be avoided that money for composer and author royalties flowed abroad.
An „ideological purity law“ and the promotion and protection of the own economy thus formed an alliance when it came to curbing the corrupting Western musical influence.
Even greater hurdles for live performances by foreign performers
For similar reasons, there were also special regulations and procedures for guest performances of foreign, mainly Western, artists in the GDR.
The so-called artists‘ agency had a monopoly for the arrangement of such performances, as well as for performances abroad by musicians, theatres, ballet ensembles, choirs and artists from the GDR.
For guest performances by artists, especially from Western countries, a whole series of requirements had to be met.
For one thing, the guest performance had to fit into the „general political weather situation“.
And on the other hand the financing had to be clarified. This was a tricky point, as most Western artists insisted on payment in foreign currency.
Performances by foreign artists in the GDR were therefore associated with a great deal of administrative work. On the other hand, however, there seem to have been cases in which the authorities proceeded relatively flexibly and invited foreign artists on the basis of word of mouth or personal recommendations.
The role of the artists‘ agency
The Künstleragentur (artists`agency) was the central organ for performances by Western artists in the GDR. However, it did not decide alone whether foreign artists were invited.
There were also cases in which the management of the Künstleragentur spoke out against guest performances by foreign musicians that were desired by politicians.
The most prominent example of this is the attempt by the general director of the Künstleragentur, Hermann Falk, in 1983 to prevent the planned appearance of Udo Lindenberg in the GDR. This was documented, among other things, in a memorandum of the State Security:
Berlin, October 27, 1983
In a personal conversation with the undersigned, Comrade Falk, the general director of the GDR artists‘ agency, expressed his annoyance at the fact that the rock singer from the FRG, Udo Lindenberg, was given the opportunity to perform in Berlin, the capital of the GDR. Comrade Falk seriously asked himself whether this „soft wave“ towards such subjects as Lindenberg could be official cultural policy. This „chaos“, Falk went on to explain, was at best sufficient to mobilise and activate the negative forces among the youth. For him, Lindenberg is the epitome of a decadent cultural movement that we must reject in every respect, if one can speak of culture at all. Falk considers it politically irresponsible if Lindenberg would be able to tour the GDR in 1984. He doesn’t even dare to think about the consequences.
Even if comrade Falk’s opinion is contrary to our policy, he considers the presence and appearance of such a person here in the GDR to be an insult to other committed artists.
SGB manager dead, former GDR officials won’t talk
For this background it would be interesting to know the exact reasons for the invitation of the Steve Gibbons Band in December 1981. In particular, it would be interesting to know whether the GDR had invited the band or – vice versa – the band’s management had initiated the invitation.
When we asked Steve Gibbons about the background of the invitation at that time, the first thing that came to mind was the German word „Künstleragentur“, which he still remembers today, 35 years later. He can’t say anything about the details, however, because the tours in 1981 and 1982 were „arranged“ by Pete Fontaine, who was also the manager of The Who and died a few years ago.
Therefore, the next source that could provide information would be the artists‘ agency. Unfortunately, however, there are no documents in the Federal Archive on this matter. Either they do not exist or they have not yet been recorded in the archive.
Which is why the only remaining possibility is to interview those who worked for the Künstleragentur. Most of the tour managers from that time who could still be located were very willing to provide information. However, they only had to do with the organisation and execution of the concerts on site.
Circumstances of time actually spoke against a tour
It is particularly surprising that the circumstances of the time tended to speak against inviting Western musicians.
For example, Wikipedia states that in 1981
„the cold war .. .regained rhetorical edge.“
And Willi Winkler writes in his biography „Bob Dylan – A Life“:
„1981 … was an apocalyptic year. The debate on deploying additional atomic weapons lay heavy on the land“.
So it was not exactly obvious to invite a western rock musician to the GDR and let him travel through the country for two weeks with his band and the technicians!
SGB albums were imported illegally, but still played publicly on the radio
Apart from that, there were quite a few reasons to invite the Steve Gibbons Band if you wanted to let a western band into the country.
- For example, the people in charge in the GDR could be sure that the band would deliver thrilling concerts due to the reputation that preceded SGB as a live formation.
- Regular listeners of DT 64 knew the songs from his albums „Down in the Bunker“ and „Saints & Sinners“ and were therefore familiar with the band.
Olaf Zimmermann, who today sends ambient and electro sounds into the airwaves at Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg in the programme „Elektro Beats“, regularly played SGB on the GDR youth radio DT 64. The LPs had been smuggled in by an English friend.
However, this „dark origin“ did not prevent them from being played publicly. The forms for paying the copyright levies to the AWA (Anstalt zur Wahrung der Aufführungs- und Vervielfältigungsrechte auf dem Gebiet der Musik), the East German GEMA, were also duly completed.
Working Class Hero
Another reason might be, according to the then drummer, Alan Wickett, in the lyrics of Steve Gibbons:
„I suppose one reason was because his lyrics were about the working class. His background as a working man certainly had something to do with the invitation. „
The short stories of British working class life wrapped up in songs fit politically well with the concept of a workers and peasants state. This explains, at least in part, why the band could become a door opener for world stars like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Carlos Santana.
What is certain, however, is that the invitation to the GDR was issued at relatively short notice. The contact was made by telephone from the artist agency to the band’s manager, Pete Fountain. Alan Wickett, the drummer, remembers:
„I can confirm that the decision for the first GDR tour was made quite quickly when we were on a tour through West Germany“.
From 1-5 December 1981 the band was on tour between Hanover and Regensburg. From there they immediately set off via Hof to leave the Iron Curtain behind. In a cinema in Plauen the first of more than 10 concerts of the 1981 GDR tour took place.
Fear for the fee
According to the memory of all participants, there were no big discussions in the band before, whether they should dare to jump over the Iron Curtain. The biggest concern was probably whether the organizers in the GDR would actually pay the agreed fee. Since the fee was agreed in Ostmark, however, financial considerations were rather secondary.
On the other hand, a great deal of curiosity seems to have been involved.
New market as motive?
Before the second tour, manager Pete Fountain also talked about negotiating with the state-owned record company AMIGA about an official release of records by Steve Gibbons Band in the GDR.
However, this hope was not fulfilled. While LPs or at least cassettes by Alexis Korner, Tangerine Dream, Roger Chapman and Helen Schneider came onto the market as AMIGA editions, people waited in vain for SGB records made in GDR. (Nevertheless, there were „socialist“ SGB records that were released in Yugoslavia, where the system had always been more undogmatic.).
One reason why the negotiations did not lead to success could be that the band had no record contract for the Western countries for almost five years after the RCA album „Saints and Sinners“ in 1981. Therefore, there was probably no interested contact person at the former record companies of the band, which owned the rights to the previously released records.
Tour life beyond the Iron Curtain
A revelation for both sides
The tour itself was, as Steve recalls, „a revelation for both sides“. So the PA system of the band in the GDR made a big impression. And the fact that in addition to the sound engineer they had their own guitar and drum technician with them.
Moreover, the driver of that time has vivid memories of a significant difference between East and West bands. Walter Geyer, himself GDR bluesman of the band Pro Art and jam partner on the harmonica:
„Steve was clearly the star. Such a hierarchy within bands was unknown in GDR bands.“
The band had a lot of insights into the life in the former GDR. There the members felt very comfortable most of the time, even if some unpleasant details, from air quality to food to toilet paper, are still vividly remembered.
„Meet & Greet“ with officials, Christmas carols in the hotel room
Even today, P.J. Wright still remembers the (East) German word „Freundschaftszimmer“. This was the name of the rooms in the local event center where, surrounded by all kinds of socialist kitsch, artists had to meet and greet party officials in a kind of meet & greet. At some of these events functionaries arrived in a Mercedes Benz, which was then parked behind the building or in the inner courtyard.
The band also got a even closer insight in socialist customs during a festive dinner in a restaurant where Fidel Castro had already eaten.
Other encounters were less formal. Steve Gibbons recalls:
„In Dresden we were approached in the hotel by a group of young people because of our guitar cases. They asked whether we also also musicians. They were a choir. The evening ended with us singing Christmas carols together in one of the hotel rooms until the early morning.“
At least Steve wasn’t afraid of being taken in by a Stasi twist. „It seemed totally innocent to me“, he recalled during a conversation at his house in the Birmingham.
Mixed feelings in Dresden
Christmas music after the concerts was an exception, which was limited to Dresden. On the other hand, this was also the only city on the whole tour, where in some situations one had the feeling that being English was not welcome.
The reason for this may have been the bombing of the city by British bomber fleets during the Second World War. So the shadow of the Nazi era was also over this tour. P.J., on the other hand, lived at the time in Coventry, which had been razed to the ground by Nazi bombers, a twin city of Dresden, as he now discovered. At home he had never heard of this twinning of the bombed cities.
German is also spoken by band members.
In the GDR province, on the other hand, one dealt more relaxed with musicians from capitalist foreign countries. On one occasion the band was even invited to the weekend home of the family of an GDR road manager, where a spontaneous east-western blues session took place.
It was helpful that some of the road managers of the artist agency were musicians themselves. Walter Geyer had been playing in his band Pro Art since 1973 and Thomas Schlimper is currently president of the musicians association Chemnitz (Musikbund Chemnitz).
By the way, language problems do not seem to have been insurmountable.
The East German road manager report that their English got better day by day. And, as with the Beatles, two of the band members of the Steve Gibbons Band had learned German at school.
With the Fab Four they were George Harrison and Paul McCartney. The latter still complains today, most recently at his concert in Düsseldorf, that he only learned sentences like „Jacob was the cheekiest of all birds I’ve ever seen“, but they didn’t help him much in life.
On this point the Steve Gibbons Band was clearly superior to the Beatles! P.J. spoke a quite passable German and Alan Wickett even was able to communicate fluently.
… and drinks Russian
P.J. Wright was also very communicative beyond that. In the Erfurt ’nightclub‘ he talked to a Russian soldier about the current political situation in Great Britain.
„We were very drunk and exchanged curse words in English and Russian and banknotes. „I remember that the Russian word „Gavno“ means ’sh..‘. I still have my ruble note today. He accepted my invitation to bring his Kalashnikov to London and try it on Maggie Thatcher. „Which, as you know, was never to come off.“
Of course, there were also non-alcoholic beverages on the tour. One of the most memorable of these was „Prick-Cola“, whose name had a disreputable aftertaste to native English speakers.
Money: That`s what I want – But what to buy for it?
So the evenings were well filled with concerts and meetings. One gig-free evening in Weimar was also used to go to the theatre and opera.
During the day, the tour companions took extensive trips to the second-hand shops of the concert venues to look for possibilities to find something of value for the non-convertible Mark of the GDR which they received as a fee. (Because of their low purchasing power, the inhabitants of the GDR called their own currency „Alu-Chips“ = chips made of aluminium).
In this way they acquired leather jackets and coats, golden pocket watches and also solid, handmade saxophones.
The roadie Roxy bought one of the GDR SLR cameras of the brand „Praktika“, which were popular in the West at that time.
Roger Chapman, who after Steve Gibbons went on tour in 1982 for the first time in the GDR, is rumoured to have received a sailing boat as his fee.
Despite considerable efforts, it was not possible to spend the whole fee. Since they obviously didn’t want to keep the remaining money in an account in the GDR, they gave it to the Hungarian road crew, who were responsible for the technical equipment. They could use the money, because a tire had burst near Magdeburg and they had to look for a replacement for expensive money.
The performance locations were scattered all over the GDR. This made extensive journeys through the country necessary, which also had some positive surprises in store. Among other things, the band members remember picturesque villages and towns in the flat country where time seemed to have stood still.
Because of his knowledge of German, P.J, remembers the name of a historic small village in Saxony-Anhalt, particularly well:
„We were travelling with Thomas and we passed by the village called „Hundeluft“ (dog`s air). We had a great laugh about it.“
The concerts: Genuine rock and longing for freedom
The concerts are vividly remembered by all participants, especially an afternoon concert in the canteen of the Cottbus rail vehicle factory, which was probably particularly hot.
They played the repertoire that had been played a few weeks earlier during the recording of the Rockpalast concert in the West Berlin ‚Metropol‘ on the other side of the wall. This included songs like
- No Spitting On The Bus,
- Down In The Bunker,
- The Rugged Rock,
- Gave His Life For R’n’R,
- Get it,
- Social Dance and
- A to Z.
In addition, depending on the evening, they played further original compositions and cover versions.
One of them remained in special memory of the band members: When they sang Bob Dylan’s „I Shall be released“, which is about the hope for liberation from captivity, they were not sure if the „officials“ present would possibly understand this as criticism of the system.
Surprisingly, there was no reaction at all. Either the critical political message was deliberately ignored by the GDR officials – or they simply did not understand the text.
In any case, the band`s fears that concert audiences in the East might be lethargic and unenthusiastic were not confirmed. And also the contact with uniformed people was sometimes much more relaxed than expected. At one of the concerts one of the guards was given a Steve Gibbons Band sticker on his uniform, which he let happen with a smile.
We have found no extensive reviews in the press about the concerts of the first tour, but a longer review of the follow-up tour in 1982 in the GDR music magazine POP.
The already mentioned Olaf Zimmermann, at that time radio presenter for DT-64, was impressed:
„pure, genuine Rock ’n‘ Roll and Rhythm and Blues, performed with great power and intensity“
„powerful cover versions full of intensity and dynamics“.
It goes on to say:
the musicians‘ joy of playing was transferred to the audience within a very short time. These were not the kind of concerts where you just let yourself be carried away… no, these were Rock ’n‘ Roll concerts par excellence, where they sang along, rocked, clapped and of course danced.
Anyone who has experienced Steve Gibbons in concert will agree with me: what comes off the stage, full of vitality and dynamics, is pure rock ’n‘ roll, without compromise. In the middle of the action frontman and singer Steve Gibbons, with great instrumental skills on guitar and harmonica, enormous charisma and a powerful vocal timbre.
What did the Stasi know?
Most of the band members at that time also wanted to know what the Stasi had researched about them and gave the authors of this article in the magazine power of attorney to inspect the Stasi archive.
Surprisingly, there is nothing there about the GDR-tours of the Steve Gibbons Band. But this is probably not because the band was not under surveillance. Especially when you know how meticulously the short appearances of Udo Lindenberg and Harry Bellafonte in East Berlin were monitored two years later, it would be more than astonishing if a handful of British rock musicians were allowed to roam the GDR for two weeks without being observed.
Steve Gibbons tells us that he had expected surveillance at that time. But he only really understood how perfectly-perfect the system was when he happened to watch „The Lives of Others“ on the BBC in 2015. He says that literally:
„This film opened my eyes, even though I suspected at the time that we were probably being watched. But the extent of this surveillance strategy surprised me.“
And PJ Wright recalls surreal situations reminiscent of scenes from relevant Cold War espionage classics.
We noticed three or four men in hotel lobbies taking turns at work. „They were reading newspapers, but rarely turned the pages.“
It is therefore probable that the files relating to this were either destroyed or are still among the millions of pages of archival material still to be discovered. So there is still some hope that such information will turn up.
What remains after more than nearly 40 years?
The 1981 tour must have been a great success for the band and organizers. This is already confirmed by the invitation for another tour in the following year.
Changed line-up of the SGB
On the other hand, this second GDR tour also triggered a change in the line-up of the band, which is still effective today. Trevor Burton, the lead guitarist at that time, informed the band just before leaving for the second tour in 1982 that he did not want to come back to the GDR and therefore left the band.
Therefore the former rhythm guitarist, P.J. Wright, had to change to the solo guitar at short notice. For Steve himself there was also a profound change: While he, who started playing the guitar late in life, could only rarely played the rhythm guitar during concerts, he now had to take this position constantly to keep up the line-up with two guitars.
When you talk to the people involved at the time about the tours behind the Iron Curtain, you get the impression that they were something special for both sides. Talking with the musicians, the organizers and the audience you notices that despite life situations that could not be more different, a very good personal contact had developed in a very short time.
The jont love for rock and blues music probably played a big role in this. It overcame all ideological boundaries. In the course of researching an article that appeared in the German music magazine „Good Times“ (see below at the end of the article) Steve Gibbons even remembered the full names of some of the tour companions without much thought. He met one of them again 33 years after his last encounter on the fringes of a concert in Suhl.
Door opener for others
Even if the exact background of the invitation at that time and its effects on the GDR cultural bureaucracies are still in the dark, it can be said that the first tour of the Steve Gibbons Band to the GDR in 1981 obviously also broke the ice for other Western rock bands.
Already in 1982 Roger Chapman played with his Short List beyond the wall and Helen Schneider was allowed to perform as the first western artist in the Palast der Republik in the same year.
From 1987 on, big names like Dylan, Springsteen, Santana and Cocker followed.
The concerts of these world-famous artists naturally attracted much more attention. But the Steve Gibbons Band has come closer to the country and its people because it was touring through the country and did not only play single concerts in the capital East Berlin.
Here the Steve Gibbons Story continues. This time a former Beatle will play a important part.
Note: About the GDR tours of the Steve Gibbons Band in 1981 and 192, an extensive article entitled „Steve Gibbons: Türöffner Ost – aus Birmingham“, co-authored by the author of this website and Michael Vonau, was published in the magazine 2 „GoodTimes – Music from the 60s to the 80s“ No. 5/2016 October/November 2016.