Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beyond catchy - from a Berlin bloc party to an And One song

Sometimes musicians do their job all too well, assembling a jingle that's so catchy that the average listener ignores the rest of the song.

In the United States, one of the most famous examples of this is "Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen. As originally recorded, the chorus is one of those catchy moments that causes you to wave the flag and stand at attention in patriotic fervor. Forget about the story of a man whose country has failed him. In a sense, Springsteen could only blame himself when Ronald Reagan tried to appropriate the song.

Well, I ran across another example recently as I continued to sing a catchy chorus in my head:

Life isn't easy in Germany

The song is from And One, and it's been in my playlist for over four months now. But I didn't get around to reading the complete lyrics until recently. Here's how the song begins:

The way it was
It used to be
Well it had to change
As we all could see
We're twice as big
And Yet so small
Now we have to share
Here in Germany
When skins broke up
As Lenin broke down
Driving fast
Through united towns
Clubs being closed
And fights ahead
Now we have to share
So the Chancellor said

To fully understand the song, you have to look at the historical context. Let's go back to 1989:

After weeks of discussion about a new travel law, the leader of East Berlin's communist party (SED), Günter Schabowski, said on November 9, 1989 at about 7 p.m. in somewhat unclear words that the border would be opened for "private trips abroad". Little later, an onrush of East Berliner's towards West Berlin began, and there were celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate and at the Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin. On November 10, demolition works began with the aim of creating new border crossings. On November 12, a checkpoint at the Potsdamer Platz was opened, and on December 22, a checkpoint for pedestrians was opened at the Brandenburg Gate. So-called "wall woodpeckers" hammered pieces out of the wall, many of which were sold as souvenirs. A few larger segments were officially donated or sold.

Peter Jennings subsequently described the euphoria:

By the time the And One song was released, in 1993, the euphoria had subsided somewhat as the integration of the two countries proceeded apace. Problems were emerging:

As economic unification proceeded, issues that had been recognized but inadequately understood in advance began to surface. There was massive confusion about property rights. As wave after wave of Nazi, Soviet, and later GDR expropriations had taken place between 1933 and 1989, there was often little knowledge of the actual ownership of property. More than 2 million claims on properties in the territory of the former GDR were filed by the December 31, 1992, deadline. As more claimants emerged, with many winning cases in the courts, potential investors were often scared off.

Another problem was that East German production costs had been very high. The conversion rates of East German marks to deutsche marks often kept those costs high, as did the early wage negotiations, which resulted in wages far above the productivity level. Western German firms found it easier and cheaper to serve their new eastern German markets by expanding production in western facilities.

A third problem was that the inadequate infrastructure also became a problem for many potential investors. Telephone service was improved only very slowly. Many investors also complained about energy shortages, as many East German power stations were shut down for safety and other reasons. Roads and railroads had to be virtually rebuilt because they had been so badly maintained.

And in times of bad economic conditions, people respond in all sorts of ways:

The violence that erupted in Germany over the past several years brought to public attention the neo-Nazi Skinheads, a group previously regarded as only a fringe segment of the youth scene. Operating as lossely knit gangs of juvenile thugs, their menacing presence has been noted in communities throughout the recently united country. They have swelled the ranks of right-wing street demonstrators, acted as security guards for neo-Nazi meetings and served as a ready reservoir for extremist agitators to tap for attacks on so-called aliens in German society....

September 17, 1991 - Skinheads armed with clubs, rocks and Molotiv cocktails attacked a building in Hoyerswerda, an eastern city that housed about 150 foreigners, mostly from Vietnam and Mozambique. Hundreds of local residents gathered to cheer the Skinheads and resist attempts by police to quell the rampage. The assault and public demonstrations of support continued for days, ultimately ending on September 23, with the evacuation of the besieged housing unit.

August 22-28, 1992 - Rostock, in eastern Germany, was the scene of several nights of Skinhead violence against a hostel housing 200 asylum seekers (mainly Gypsies) and 150 Vietnamese guest workers. The hostel was partially destroyed by the 150 attacking Skinheads, who were openly encouraged by at least 500 cheering residents. Authorities evacuated the asylum seekers on August 24, and the guest workers fled as the building was being torched. Once again, violence rewarded the Skinheads with victory; the Interior Minister of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the state in which Rostock is located, was subsequently dismissed for having failed to immediately order the police to quell the riot.

November 13, 1992 - Two Skinheads in Wuppertal (in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia) kicked and burned to death a man they mistakenly thought was Jewish, after the owner of the bar in which the victim and perpetrators were drinking shouted, "Jew! You must go to Auschwitz. Auschwitz must reopen! Jews must burn!" The Skinheads kicked the victim until he lost consciousness, poured schnapps on him and set him on fire. He died of internal injuries while the Skinheads drove to the Netherlands in the victim's car, where they dumped the body....

November 23, 1992 - Two Skinheads, aged 19 and 25, firebombed two houses in Moelln, Schleswig-Holstein, killing a Turkish woman, her 10-year-old granddaughter, and 14-year-old niece. Several others were severely injured. The perpetrators telephoned the police station and announced, "There's a fire in the Ratzeburger Strasse. Heil Hitler!" They made an identical call to the fire brigade regarding the second address....

The collapse of the Communist regime in East Germany significantly affected the Skinhead situation. The emergence of the eastern Skins radicalized the Skinhead scene in both numbers and militancy. The aforementioned annual reports of the German intelligence services placed the total number of militant right-wing extremists (the majority of them Skinheads) at 6,400 in 1992 (2,600 in the west, 3,800 in the new eastern states) and 5,600 in 1993 (3,000 in the west and 2,600 in the east). Taking population figures into account, these estimates show a disproportionately high Skinhead presence in the new states.

So think of all of this when you listen to this song. Or just dance to it.

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