Rockin 'n' rolling in the 'world's most boring country'

The Haus der Junger Talent is full: Four floors are jammed with disco music, arts and crafts, and dubious-looking snacks. But the crowd of teen-agers is thickest and loudest on the fourth floor.

"Pankow, Pankow," they chant rhythmically.

Andre Herzberg, wearing his trademark nightshirt, jumps into the stage. The crowd is delighted.

"Paule Panke!" they cry.

Paule Panke is a young machine-shop worker who struggles through a boring workday, from coffee break to endless factory Communist Party meeting to a lonely late-night walk. He is fictional, the subject of a rock opera written by Wolfgang Herzberg and sung by his brother Andre, the leader of Pankow.

East German rock music has come of age. An estimated 5,000 rock and pop musicans go on the road (in East Germany, a three-hour drive at most) and appear on television.

East European rock music began to boom in the mid-1970s, when lyrics appeared in the countries' native languages. In East Germany, the all-powerful Agency for Entertainment founded a schol for performers and began to promote such slick pop groups as Karat and the Puhdys, who are are big in West Germany as in the East.

Pankow is named after a grim working-class district in East Berlin. The five members of the group sing about the daily realities of a generation that has grown up under Comunist Party chairman Erich Honecker's gray tutelage: the housing project "discotheque," commuting in the predawn rain, the impoverished dreams of "some place warm."

"East Germany is the most boring country in the world," says Andre, "so I try to bring in a little humor." His parodies of officious masters of ceremony, teen-age girls, and Western rock 'n' roll idols delight the crowd.

Andre's career started at age 18 with a performance of the mid-'60s four-chord hit "Wild Thing" at a flower festival. The son of Jewish refugees who lived in England during the Nazi era and then returned, Andre studied music at the performers' school. When he graduated two years ago, he was approached by the four members of Veronika Fischer's backup band.

Ms. Fischer had made the transition to stardom in both East and West. Then her citizenship was taken away by East German authorities while she ws on an extended trip in the West.

"We wanted to do something a little more down to earth," Andre says, referring to the overblown, vague poeticism that is standard in most East German rock-music lyrics. Pankow's approach has been relatively successful. Andre earns about 3,000 East Germany marks a month, enough to support an unpretentious apartment, a family, and a small car.

Pankow plays 15 times a month. The Agency for Entertainment randomly assigns them to women's clubs or youth center festivals. This "surprise package" system results in startling mismatches: The socially critical folk singer Barbara Thalheim recently appeared at a gala for retired officers.

The Agency for Entertainment is stingy with the two plums of East German musical life -- television exposure and trips abroad. Although Pankow does appear on television, it is clear there is little official "wind" behind them. The group has not been allowed to accept invitations to play in Milan and West Berlin.

"They don't make a practice of giving explanations," Andre says with resignation. "We all have families; we're no defection risks."

Pankow's future rests on their new saga "Lucky Hans." It is a reinterpretation of a story by the Brothers Grimm in which a feckless young handworker trades in his lump of gold for first a runaway horse, then a disobedient cow, then a useless pig, until he is left with absolutely nothing. In Pankow's version, however,, the worker trades in a career-ensuring diploma for various life styles -- businessman, professor, happy-go-lucky craftsman -- until he ends in ruin. The worker later rises above his troubles.

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