Soviet-Bloc Rock

IT sounds like a joke. The austere Oxford University Press lightens up its repertoire, publishing a tome on rock music by a Harvard lecturer on history and literature. Surprise. ``Rock Around the Bloc'' turns out to be a serious, thought-provoking book. Tim Ryback is no sedentary academic secluded in an ivory tower. With gusto, he has plunged into the world of Soviet-bloc adolescents, describing how rock music has shaken up communist societies.

``Western rock culture has debunked Marxist-Leninist assumptions about the state's ability to control its citizens,'' he writes in his introduction. ``Across more than eight thousand miles of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, from the cusp of the Berlin Wall to the dockyards of Vladivostok, three generations of young socialists, who should have been bonded by the liturgy of Marx and Lenin, have instead found common ground in the music of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.''

What follows is a crisp, colorful narrative of the battles between rockers and ideologists, youngsters and police. It begins back in the immediate postwar era, explaining how communism hoped to triumph over capitalism, and how, to these Marxist ideologues, popular music epitomized capitalism. Even at this early point, Ryback points out, the ``fallout from American film, fashion, and music caused panic throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.''

From this departure, the book moves chronologically through the various stages of emerging East-bloc popular musical expression - and its ever-present confrontation with political repression. A particularly good chapter is devoted to the Beatles. Strict communist regimes tried to ban the music, only to find their restrictions swept away under the tide of Beatlemania.

Soviet-bloc rock groups eventually emerged with names like the ``Plastic People of the Universe,'' singing songs about people exasperated by shortages of food and household goods, people despairing of the notion that hard work pays in the end. Police kept trying to ban such subversive groups only to find new ones springing up.

The largest, most lasting outpouring of ``Lennonism'' surfaced in Czechoslovakia, Ryback notes. Young fans turned a wall near the French embassy in Prague into a monument covered with drawings and lyrics honoring the dead star, with calls for peace, love, and revolution. Police came and erased the fans' graffiti, only to find the youngsters sneaking back to repaint them. The ``Lennon Wall'' soon became a sacred place of pilgrimage for young Czechs. Each year on the anniversary of John Lennon's death, hundreds of youth gather at the shrine and march through central Prague chanting ``freedom'' and ``democracy.''

With the advent of glasnost, staid communist cultural organizations suddenly began sponsoring rock concerts. Former East German leader Walter Ulbricht once labeled rock music as ``ape culture.'' But the East German government now organizes its own official break-dance contests and, in the summer of 1988, it even permitted American rocker Bruce Springsteen to play in East Berlin.

Some 160,000 people showed up at the bicycle racetrack in Berlin-Weissensee - the largest concert ever in East Europe. They flew American flags and held up banners reading, ``Berlin Greets the Boss.'' When Springsteen played ``Born in the USA,'' tens of thousands of young people, many wearing the blue shirts of communist youth members, raised clenched fists and thundered, ``Born in the USA! I was born in the USA!''

By the time of the Springsteen concert, the rock revolution had shattered the Iron Curtain. Strange as it may sound, Ryback's book helps us understand how the dramatic changes rocking the region today stem in large part from rock music.

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