A recent blogpost elswhere about “Krautrock” (classic rock music from Germany) got me thinking about a post I had wanted a certain music critic friend to write. He never got around to it so I guess I’ll have to write it myself.
Because: there was a genre of rock music coming out of German-speaking lands which was far superior to the Schlager tripe being fed to television audiences in the BRD (West Germany), and had more heart and soul than the Elektropop that groups like Kraftwerk were playing. And that was Ostrock, the stuff being generated behind the Berlin Wall. Of special interest is the story of the band Renft, which enjoyed a few short years of real success within the country, before inevitably getting in trouble with the government. The following is from “Stasiland: Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall” by Anna Funder.
Renft may have started off with borrowed western rock songs, but there were so many lies that singing the truth guaranteed them both hero and criminal status. By the end of the mid-seventies the band embodied a lethal combination of rock, anti-establishment message and mass adoration. They were shaggy men with bellbottoms and attitude, they were hot, they were rich by GDR standards, and they were way too explosive for the regime.
Performers needed a license to work. In September 1975 Renft were called to play for the Ministry of Culture in Leipzig to have theirs renewed.
‘I had some western money,’ [ Renft said] ‘so before the licensing hearing I bought a small cassette recorder from an Intershop.’ … While they were setting up to play he turned the cassette recorder on and hid it (behind) his guitar…
But they didn’t get to play. [Ruth Oelschlägel, committee chairperson] asked them to approach the desk. She said the committee would not be listening to ‘musical version of what you have seen fit to put to us in writing because ‘the lyrics have absolutely nothing to do with our socialist reality…the working class is insulted and the state and defense organizations are defamed.”
…”And then she said to us, ‘We are here to inform you today, that you don’t exist anymore.'”
There was silence. One of the band members signaled to a roadie to stop setting up. [Lead singer Christian Kunert] asked, “Does that mean we’re banned?”
“We didn’t say you were banned”, Comrade Oelschlägel said. “We said you don’t exist.”
…[Klaus Renft:] Then I said, ‘But…we’re…still…here.” She looked at me straight in the face. “As a combo,” she said, “You no longer exist.”
Renft records disappeared from the shops overnight. The band ceased to be written about or played on the radio. The recording company AMIGA reprinted its entire catalogue so it could leave them out. “In the end it was as they had said: we simply did not exist anymore” [Renft] said, “just like in Orwell.”
Rumors were put out by the state that the band had split up, that it was in diffulties. It was: it couldn’t play. Some members wanted to stay in the GDR, others knew they had to leave. [Lyricist Gerulf] Pannach and Kunert were arrested and imprisoned until August 1977 where they were bought free by the west.
The band members managed to reconvene and enjoy a few more years of retro-success after the wall fell, although without their poet Pannach, who died in 1999. One by one the original members, their lives shortened by a lifetime of political suppression, alcohol and cigarettes (and possibly the effects of radiation used by the Stasi on political inmates at the Hohenschönhausen prison), died off until there is now only one or two left. Klaus Renft himself passed away in 2006, but the band, now with almost all new members, still plays now and then in venues throughout the “former east”.
Here is one of the last songs they wrote (lyrics by Pannach) before the hammer came down back then.