The key to being a good DJ is being someone who not only knows how to push buttons on the floor, moving between frenzied moments where the pace reaches its peak, but also able to instil and soundtrack those deep, reflective and insular moments that make the dancefloor journey complete. The way to do this properly is by having a knowledge that stretches way beyond the bangers and simply put, this is what we ask of them – for our experiences to be as educational as they are euphoric. This is something that Norman Nodge has done here in the club several times over but he’s stepped up to delivering such a lesson on a new level in this Crate Diggin’ feature where he provides a detailed story of the music played on the German radio that soundtracked his youth.
Before we settle in and let Nodge take the reins, there might be a bit of background might be needed, so… in the sake of brevity, the GDR was the German equivalent of the BBC, in that it was a state run radio outlet. Berlin, as a city, will always very much has its own story. It’s one that we’ll never really be able to understand fully, looking in at its history from the outside, but it still seems all too recent that the wall that divided East and West Berlin came down – and before that time there was segregation and oppression for the residents. Here in London we’re lucky to have always been free to move around and spend time with who we wish and as such Nodge’s song by song story offers quite the unique perspective on the towering techno city…
Norman Nodge's Sounds from East Germany
My musical socialisation is strongly influenced by the fact that I was born and raised in East Germany before the wall came down in 1989. As a smart-arse teenager living in a close enough distance to West-Berlin, I was able to receive and listen to Western radio. Not surprisingly, we found much more interesting and attractive the music that we heard there than we considered to be of relevance the records that were on official sale in record stores in East Germany and that reached the people via GDR radio transmission. This attitude of rejecting everything that came from socialist music studios unfortunately made my ears go deaf to some true gems of these days of the past! One of the positive consequences of the German reunification is that we can now be open enough to listen to these sounds without too much prejudice. And, most obviously, my 40 year old ears perceive these sounds in ways that are different from the experience of a 16 year-old teenager. Furthermore these sounds, through some of these weird pop-historical loops and more direct temporal and local connections, have influenced other, younger artists and in the late 1980s there were productions emerging from this shared knowledge and musical pedigree that we refer to as “underground” today. These rhythms also appealed to us young lads at the very time and it was cool to listen to them on our stereos. So here we go:
1) City – Unter der Haut
City was a big player among East-German bands and they were also very successful in the West. Particularly well received was their ground-breaking 7 minute single Am Fenster (At The Window) that featured a stunning violin, relentless rhythms and lyrics that no one actually understood – not even native German speakers (Well, this may not include professional German-teachers and others who are specialized in trying to explain in easy words what poets say).
City are still around playing concerts and they have released several titles which make you want to switch off the stereo immediately. Unter der Haut (Under the Skin) was released in 1983. The track features sensual words and an expressive use of synthesizers. It made a strong impression on me as a part of the score to Heiner Carow’s movie Coming Out from 1989, the only GDR-produced film that focused on homosexuality and questioned ways in which society and individuals were dealing with it, bringing practices of social and sexual discrimination into public consciousness. What a coincidence it was that the movie premiered on 9th November 1989, the day the wall came down, opening up new opportunities for a more tolerant society – developments that also resonated in the soon to be emerging techno scene.
2) Karat – Der Blaue Planet
Karat was another big player in East-German music biz, having released several albums on the GDR-label Amiga. This is the example par excellence of a band you would not listen to as a young guy because it was just uncool. But damn, just listen to this piece of music! Even if you don’t understand a word of the lyrics – they are concerned with the fear of a nuclear war during the period of Wettrüsten (arms race) during the cold war, referring to the Blue Planet in the title. It’s catchy as hell without being too tacky, it has strong melodies and a driving beat. This is just good pop-music with a message.
3) Juckreiz – FKK
In the beginning of the 1980's in West Germany the so called Neue Deutsche Welle emerged and not only West German music producers tried to get their piece of the cake and formed trivial commercial bands – no, I will not write down any names! Also some East German bands jumped onto the bandwagon. The chorus of the song means "Yeah yeah, we take the bus to the nudist beach". At least this tune was good enough for some holiday camp discos during my teenage years, even if we did not get any alcohol there.
4) Mimmelitt, das Stadtkaninchen – Die dicke Tante Litfaß
A few records from the GDR era are known by almost everybody of my age: I am referring to records produced for children that were to be found in almost every household and in schools and kindergartens or nurseries as well. Besides Geschichtenlieder and Der Traumzauberbaum it is the record of Mimmelitt, das Stadtkaninchen that was the most popular. Mimmelitt, the city rabbit and the other albums I mentioned were produced by Reinhard Lakomy who was also a pioneer in the area of East German electronic music. His approach to music that was not for children but for adults is comparable to Klaus Schulze/Tangerine Dream, Vangelis and Tomita. I find very remarkable his ability to step away from making music for kids with some primitive “Lalala“-touch, without becoming too demanding, always keeping in mind the audience that he is producing the music for. If you forget that the song mentioned above is from a record for children and don’t pay too much attention to the meaning and message of the rap, you will probably find that it is an electro-track at it’s best.
5) Gerhard Gundermann – Linda
A singer/songwriter who really lived his passion. Working as an excavator operator in surface mining during daytime in the GDR and later to the mid 90's as well, he was moonlighting as a musician and devoted himself to his art by night. Adopting a firm artistic stance, he did not make any compromises and refused to produce and release music that was more politically “aligned” and thus more likely to be supported by the official East German music industry. Singing critically and in a very personal way about political, ecological and social matters, he was not willing to make any concessions neither during the GDR times nor later on in the music biz in reunited Germany. I honestly find his attitude and story more appealing then the musical quality of his whole oeuvre, but this song is really touching. This guy had absolutely devoted fans and they are still out there today. Tragically he died young in 1998, aged only 43.
6) Pankow – Langeweile
For me this song, released in 1988, works first and foremost through the lyrics about that feeling when nothing seems to happen and you seem to be lost somewhere. Under the title Boredom the group is singing about apparently useless acts of running around and about, without ever achieving much. By the way, the group’s name “Pankow” originally is the name of the city district of Berlin where I live. You won’t be surprised, this quarter is situated in the East of the city.
7) Manfred Krug – Sonntag
You, on the other side of the iron curtain, had Tom Jones, we had Manfred Krug. Okay, that lasted only until 1977, when he moved to West-Berlin and became a persona non grata in the East. But hey, this man’s got voice! And, by the way, he was an excellent actor as well.
8) Feeling B - Tschaka
Released in 1989 I heard it first during a school trip from a classmate’s cassette. It caught me in the very first moment, I still love this song. And no, the lyrics are not in German, at least I would think so. A few former members of “Feeling B“ are now part of Rammstein. If you know this band it’s fine, if not, no worries.
9) Sandow – Er ist anders
A band from Cottbus, a not so small town in the middle of nowhere in East Germany. Sandow are named after an urban district in their hometown. The group refer to an outsider who, according to the name of the song, is “different from all the others”, and they name and address really early the Berlin hype – that we still experience today, albeit ever more globally and internationally: “In Berlin, in Berlin – da ist die Scene“ (“In Berlin, in Berlin – there is the scene”).
10) Electric Beat Crew – Here we come
Breakdance and Hip Hop became big in the East Germany at the latest after “Beat Street“ was shown in cinemas. So it was just a question of time until the first East German rap music appeared on the public stage. We went mad when we heard it! Although, admittedly, from today’s perspective it sounds a bit like DJ Bobo. For those who don’t know the last name that was mentioned, do yourself a favour and don’t Google it.
On this note I would wrap up, hoping that I have brought to your attention some tracks of tradition from the GDR and Germany that might excite you in some way or that will make you listen differently and more attentively to some later productions, shedding some additional light on the many intricate interrelations, loops, and international connections of the music we appreciate.
Norman Nodge is DJing in Room Two with Terry Francis and Alan Fitzpatrick.
For tickets and more info head here.