I was 15 when “the wall” came down and I couldn’t have been mentally more distant, looking at Berlin from my hometown in Western Germany. But Rock’n’Roll music, the number one cultural US-American import at the time, was as close to me, as Westphalian baked potatoes. Rock’n’Roll, to me, translated into rebellion and youth, future and freedom. It meant freedom from the “establishment”, the conservative parents, the partially reactionary West-German society of the 1980s.
In retrospect, it does not surprise me at all, that I spent twelve years of my life in New York City and that the US will always be more of a spiritual home to me than Germany ought to be – even after being raised here. Rock’n’Roll, the music of the (aging) rebels, requires an environment where it can evolve. And where it can’t, it will forge ahead anyway. The documentary FREE TO ROCK tells that story. It talks about that sensational feeling, which descends on you when you hear the riff of an electric guitar for the first time. The fast beats of a drum set, chiming in, the angry or defiant lyrics of an intense song, which inspires youth and often connects generations. Worldwide.
Rock’nRoll as a form of therapy. “Rocking out” “clearing your head”, resolving emotional blockages. All of these were positive side-effects of a culture that fostered personal freedom, sometimes promoted an alternative lifestyle, but also, as probably every trend, it standardized “cool”. Rock’n’Roll, by definition, used to be “somewhat left” to the baby boomer generation and somewhat progressive. This is no longer the case, necessarily. Those who joined this youth culture in the 60s, 70s and 80s brought forward, in the eyes of many, the then (Western) society. Those who didn’t join, missed out. The generation of their parents, on the other hand, watched the hustle and bustle of the “long-haired” at least suspiciously.
In spite of all this, as an international phenomenon, Rock’n’Roll often becomes the smallest common denominator between different cultures and ideally, entire nations. How the “Rock’n’Roll fever” caused young people behind the iron curtain sleepless nights, US-American director Jim Brown and the producers Doug Yeager, Nick Binkley and legendary Russian Rock musician Stas Namin have managed to captivate in their documentary.
Ten years of meticulous research, voice capturing and the collection of film material helped creating a document, that so impressively demonstrates, how little can be done to stop the exchange of cultures by man-made borders. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) knew of that phenomenon and named it “cultural diplomacy”. The mediation of US values around the world became a successful and controversial instrument of US foreign policy. Also in the Soviet Union and the GDR.
On October 1, 1958 the first rock star of music history, Elvis Presley, landed in Friedberg, West-Germany. He had turned Rock’n’Roll ambassador, a style of music that was initially viewed critically also in the US. In particular by anxious (white) parents who feared the moral decay of their teenagers. So, they tried to ban Rock’n’Roll from radio stations. In addition, the new music had African-American roots and was thus automatically viewed negatively by many. This, of course, did not diminish popularity at all, because “forbidden fruit” and all of that.
How much the former East German ideologues feared the freedom of the rock culture and the loss of control over their youth, demonstrates the fact that since the mid-fifties Rock’n’Roll had been regarded as “soulless” music in East Germany, supposedly turning youth into “young degenerates”. The East German paper “Junge Welt” (Young World) describes Elvis Presley with the following words: “His singing was like his face: stupid, obtuse and brutal.” Of course, this assessment is not just as simplistic as it is hostile, but also for the fact that Presley had Native American roots, equally as racist. In this regard, the party functionaries behind the Iron Curtain did not differ significantly from the partially anxious, slightly reactionary, mostly white parents in the USA or West-Germany. Obviously, the parents in the West were not in a position to prohibit this culture by law, the same way the functionaries of the totalitarian German Democratic Republic were.
Finally, the one-party state declares Presley to be the “Number One Enemy of the State”. Rock’n’Roll becomes part of the cultural Cold War for the SED, the one and only East German party. Elvis Presley’s secretary at the time was the young Jewish woman Trudi Forsher, an escapee from National Socialist Vienna. Ultimately the East German government didn’t succeed to stop the influence of Western music shaping their youngsters. Rock music penetrates the wall through radio waves, spreading explosively. The sought-after songs are then secretly and illegally recorded on tape recorders via Western stations, such as Radio Luxemburg, AFN, RIAS or SFBeat and disseminated among like-minded rockers.
In the meantime, the SED party leadership determines in January of 1958, that 60 per cent of all publicly broadcast music must originate from East German composers, or composers living in “socialist countries abroad”. Beyond that, the government founds party-line rock bands, which exemplify a taste of youth-culture, that matches the East German government’s conformist vision.
The forced-upon communist tastes, the prevention of personal freedom, none of it stopped youth, either in East Germany or the Soviet Union, from trying to obtain the forbidden music. Whether by illegally procuring “records” with the music of the Beatles on actual X-rays, or by building electric guitars. By organizing illegal rock concerts, stitching together hastily hippy clothing at night, or performing the forbidden tunes.
Rock music even became a substitute for religion, as God was also illegal. “FREE TO ROCK” impressively portrays youth rebellion in Eastern Europe, initiated by a new musical genre that revolutionized thinking and provided self-confidence where state oppression was on the daily agenda. A role that culture and music still plays in the world. Whether we try to control it, or not.
The documentary “Free To Rock” will be on the German-French channel arte in November. The film was brought on an extensive tour to Germany, by the Schoepflin Stiftung in Loerrach, South Germany. The link to the trailer