No wonder then that one day some of them began to flee their cramped country into the cosmos. not literally, of course. Instead of Energia rockets and soyuz space capsules, their means of space travel were synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers. Out of those devices artists in the German Democratic Republic – post-war socialist East Germany – created dreamy, spacious electronic music that let musician and listener flee from the everyday realities of East Bloc life. Off into a swirling, nebulous fantasy landscape. Into strange, faraway galaxies. And sometimes straight into a pumping discotheque in a space station orbiting the Earth.
Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Jean-Michel Jarre, Ash Ra Tempel, Manuel Göttsching, and Vangelis were their conspirators in flight, along with Genesis, Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake and Palmer. The West Berlin band Tangerine Dream played a seminal concert on January 31, 1980, in East berlin’s Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic) – the first pop band from the West to play there. Many of the artists who would make up the Eastern electronic scene were in attendance, fascinated and inspired. By the time they were finally able to bring out their own albums in East Germany between 1981 and 1989, this style of music had already been successful in the West for almost a decade. The lag time was a result of how heavily the socialist state regulated pop music. There were licenses necessary to play live, and only state-sanctioned artists were allowed to put out albums on the one state owned record company, the Volkseigener Betrieb Deutsche Schallplatten Berlin DDR and its label, Amiga. The raw materials for manufacturing records were scarce, limiting the number of LPs being brought out.
But at some point in the early 1980s, the East German government leadership decided microcomputers were the future and gave the green light to the then futuristic sounding music made with them. Still, Eastern electronic musicians had the problem of getting hold of synthesizers and drum machines from Japan or the US and smuggling them into the GDR. None of them wanted to work with the few available home-produced music machines – they were considered too unreliable. In the beginning the musicians could only hear the bands that inspired them surreptitiously, listening illegally to Western radio. Cassette tapes of the West Berlin radio show “Steckdose” (plug), which billed its focus as “Computer Music/Music Computer,” were passed around among members of the Eastern scene. Only from 1986 on could they could listen legally via the East German youth radio station DT64 and its radio show “Electronics.” DT64 also organized several festivals for electronic music in the late 1980s. From the inception in the 1980s on, East German musicians began to produce their own versions of Western electronic music from the 1970s.
The amazing thing: in a land where engineers and cosmonauts were held up as heroes, nobody, it turned out, was allowed to release machine-like electronic music on the state-owned label. No influence of Kraftwerk, for instance, or industrial music can be found on the albums of the time. Instead, it was all about expansive jams that were so psychedelic it’s hard to imagine they were not fueled by drugs (though everyone involved claims they really weren’t). There were endless synth epics describing trips to distant galaxies. There were Balearic ambient sounds that made you daydream about the nude beaches along the Baltic Sea. There were disco tracks with guitar solos as heartbreakingly emotional as they were cheesy. There were Italo-Disco odysseys from artists who had never been anywhere near lake Garda. It was a series of daring ideas, virtuosic rip-offs, serendipitous screw-ups, and beautiful misunderstandings.
I was first intrigued by East German electronic music when I ran across an old album being used as a prop in a display at a well-known Swedish furniture chain. On the back of the sleeve was a photo of two men in identical overalls; on the front was a cyclone swirling above a computer-grid-like horizon. Across the top, written in digital alarm clock letters, was written Pond – Planetenwind. It was, the liner notes said, electronic music from the GDR! Having grown up in West Germany, I didn’t know such a thing existed. My first thought was to steal the record. instead I asked one of the employees at the furniture warehouse if I could have it. It had spent many years molding in the attic of one of his colleagues, and was now nothing more than decoration. Which was a real shame, as I would discover as soon as I listened to it at home. But where that had come from, there must be others. I began scouring flea markets in Eastern Germany, slowly assembling a collection. I sought out the original musicians, getting them to tell me their stories and to play me their vintage music. For all of them, the end of the GDR in 1989-1990 marked a stark break in their personal histories. What is preserved are twelve LPs of electronic music issued between 1981 and 1989. A forgotten branch on the evolutionary tree of electronic music, but one on which some delightful obscurities blossomed.
Compiled by Florian Sievers; texts and interviews by Florian Sievers
Released on LP/CD/digital by Permanent Vacation.