Nostalgia revives E. German rock
DRESDEN, GERMANY — The two guitarists strummed furiously to keep up with the frenzied keyboardist. Two wailing drummers and a high-speed light show punctuated the whirlwind of symphonic sound that had been Stern-Combo Meissen's trademark in 1970s and '80s East Germany.
The crowd of 1,000-plus was loving every minute, erupting with enthusiasm when the group launched into classic hits.
It was a crowning evening for the band at the Kulturbrauerei, a concert hall in the former east Berlin's Prenzlauerberg district.
They were joined by fellow groups Lift and Elektra. For all three, the Jan. 30 reunion concert affirmed comebacks that had been preceded by a period of ruin induced by the upheaval of German reunification.
For their mostly east German fans, it was a chance to recall memories and sing the lyrics of their youth.
"They have great lyrics, great songs. These are things that one never forgets," says fan Steffi Busch. Her friend, Renate Siegler chimes in, "That was our life then, and we were somehow happy and had fun. It's definitely a bit of nostalgia, too."
Rarely heard outside the old East bloc, bands like Stern-Combo Meissen were chart-toppers before reunification, enjoying their stardom. But when East Germany disappeared, so did state-run support in the form of concert halls and recording contracts. Fans defected en masse.
"People wanted to buy records they couldn't buy for years," recalls Tony Krahl, lead singer of City, another east German band, known for frequent run-ins with Communist authorities. "That's normal. When I went over for the first time, I didn't buy a Karat record [another popular East German band], but Led Zeppelin."
The collapse of the eastern German music industry forced hundreds of musicians to give up performing to make ends meet.
Gaby Rckert, who brought fans to their feet with her Doris Day-like musical style, took up nursing. Werther Lthse, Lift's lead singer, rented out vans and trucks. Thomas Schmitt, who founded the comic folk group MTS, became an animator of children's television programs.
Rekindled memories, coupled with a resentment of what many perceive as west Germany's colonization of their society, now have easterners swarming back. It is part of a larger trend known here as "ostalgia," a selective longing for the positive aspects of the East German experience.
Uwe Beyer, owner of Media Boutique, an east Berlin record store that is perhaps Germany's biggest retail carrier of east German pop and rock music, has observed the trend. When he opened the store in 1991, hardly anybody bought eastern groups. But today, the 450 eastern titles Mr. Beyer carries account for one-third of his annual turnover. This includes customers outside Germany who order CDs through his catalogue.
Memories are one reason east German music is back in demand. The other "is that hardly any eastern music receives [radio] play," says Beyer, adding that "[west Germany's] culture was imposed on us, and we were forced to accept it whether we wanted to or not. That provoked a sort of resistance."
The turnaround is breathing new life into the careers of many eastern musicians.
City's 1987 album "Casablanca," which among other themes explored living in a divided Berlin, and was banned by the then-East German education minister, went platinum in both Germany and Greece in 1997. Lift, Elektra, and other bands have been selling enough "best of" albums to send the bands back into studios to record new material.
WHILE calendars are again packed with tour dates, almost all the stops are in the east - indicating that the comebacks largely end where the former border once stood. With rare exception, eastern bands have yet to find resonance in west Germany. Most performers attribute this to simply being ignored by western record companies and media.
"Every media head in radio and television comes from the west, and that's the biggest problem for all the artists that come from the east," says Mr. Krahl. "When all the big western companies came over, they came looking for a new market, but not new artists."
Despite western Germany's obliviousness to eastern artists, some still aspire to the big break that will broaden their success. Stern-Combo Meissen will play in New York and San Francisco in May. In August, Ms. Rckert will open in Berlin for Roland Kaiser, considered the German equivalent to Tom Jones. Rckert describes it as the most important concert since her comeback, noting, "This will be the deciding year for me."
Others are just happy to be playing again. Although he does hope for entry into the west German market, Mr. Schmitt of MTS says, "We play because ... it's fun, not just for the people, but for us too. And the hope is that it stays that way."