Life & Style

25 years after Berlin Wall tumbled, East bands rock on

They have been rocking arenas nearly as long as the Rolling Stones but unlike Mick and Keith, they're from a country that no longer exists.

Meet the Puhdys, East Germany's most successful band, who are still performing to capacity crowds 25 years after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

With their headbanger hair, black leather jackets and motorcycle boots, the look of the kings of "Ostrock" hasn't changed much although the core members are 70 and over.

And with more than 20 million records sold over their 45-year-long career, neither has their sound, which taps a rich vein of "Ostalgie", nostalgia for East Germany, a country which only managed to see its 41st birthday.

"We were constantly on tour and on television and so we were always in people's sitting rooms — we probably seem like family," lead guitarist Dieter Hertrampf told AFP.

But their act is now drawing younger fans, many of whom have hardly any memory of the Wall.

"They're icons," said Christian Conrad, a 34-year-old ambulance driver from the town of Neubrandenburg.

"What Route 66 is to America, that's what the Puhdys are to us east Germans."

In an interview ahead of a sold-out show at Berlin's O2 arena, a 17,000-capacity venue big enough to host superstars like Beyonce and Lady Gaga, the band said this was their last hurrah before retirement next year.

They are going out with a bang, touring throughout the former East Germany in a show complete with fog machines, fireworks and flame-throwers, and linking up with two other huge acts under communism, City and Karat.

"We Ossis never really learned competition — that's why we get along so well," Puhdys keyboardist Peter Meyer said, using slang for easterners.

– 'Scissors in our heads' –

The Puhdys got their start in 1969 in the Saxon town of Freiberg, with their name derived from their first names' initials.

Demand for rock music had mounted to such an extent among East Germany's disaffected youth by the late 1960s that the authorities could no longer just ban it — they needed to co-opt it.

So the Puhdys and other stars of the so-called German Democratic Republic (GDR) had to perform a high-wire act — making music that would get past the all-seeing, all-hearing Stasi secret police and the official censors while still ringing true to the country's citizens.

"We had scissors in our own heads so we knew what we needed to cut out," said lead singer Dieter Birr, who goes by the nickname "Machine" and whose scratchy bass vocals are the band's trademark.

"There were subjects that were taboo like environmentalism or the Wall — and we had a song about gays. But all the Ostrock bands found ways of singing between the lines.

"The word 'flying', for example, was a synonym for freedom."

Simply a mention of "Deutschland" (Germany) raised red flags due to the country's division, keeping one Puhdys song off GDR television and the radio.

With hits like "Ikarus", "Alt wie ein Baum" (Old as a Tree) and "Geh zu ihr" (Go to Her) from the cult 1973 movie "The Legend of Paul and Paula" — which Chancellor Angela Merkel has called her favourite film, the Puhdys in their heyday captured the zeitgeist.

Their mix of guitar-hero rock and sing-along pop also translated across borders and the group won permission to perform in West Germany and even the United States, making them one of East Germany's few successful exports.

Juergen Juergens, a radio disc jockey in West Berlin who promoted Ostrock, told AFP the Puhdys were one of the first bands to write rock songs in German.

He said the bonds among musicians and with their fans were so strong because they were forged in hardship.

"They all had to help each other because the equipment was so bad — they borrowed amps from each other when theirs were broken," he said.

– 'Didn't toe the line' –

Loyal listeners say that after so much in the east was simply subsumed by the west with unification, the Puhdys' concerts feel like a homecoming.

"We didn't have a lot of rock groups in the east so it was exciting for us young people when they came on the scene," said Edeltraud Arndt, 56, at the Berlin concert.

"After reunification, it wasn't easy for them so we stuck with them and now people my age still love them."

The fall of the Berlin Wall was disastrous for many eastern bands, with fans, finally given a choice, running out to buy albums from acts like Genesis, Tina Turner, and the Stones.

"After the Wall fell, I played in small clubs to just a few people. But then after a few years, people remembered us and thought 'yeah, they were pretty good'," Birr said.

Later the Puhdys managed to put out relevant songs in the post-Wall years too, such as the anthem "Was bleibt" (What's Left) and "Frei wie die Geier" (As Free as the Vultures), which critiqued greed in capitalist society.

Birr said the band is still beloved — it even has a stone monument in its honour in Freiberg — because it trod a path familiar to so many east Germans.

"We were never revolutionaries in the GDR, but we didn't toe the line either," Birr said.

"We're just normal musicians who've had a lot of fun."

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