One of the pitfalls inherent in writing about the admittedly few positive aspects of life in the DDR is the sad fact that you leave yourself wide open to allegations of ‘Ostalgie’, nostalgia for life in the former East Germany. A whole industry has grown up around this in recent years where it’s now possible on the web to buy anything from branded sweets to stockcubes, a bizarre post facto celebration of the limited choice available to the average consumer prior to the arrival of what has passed for democracy. Indeed, hip German pop pickers will probably recognise the name Ostzonensuppenwürfelmachenkrebs (Eastern block stock cubes give you cancer), a now defunct indie band of the ‘90s.
Strangely enough, it’s only in the past year or so that the musical output of the DDR has been considered seriously and not as part of some ironic construct. The Amiga imprint was the record label of the state and its (as yet unwritten) history is surely as significant as Anna Funder’s work on the Stasi or any on the hundreds of books which have explored the counterculture of the DDR, be it political or social. Amiga vinyl itself is a wonder to handle, seeming dust-resistant and impervious to scratching. Lps and singles picked up secondhand over the years still play ‘as new’, where the sleeves demonstrate the ravages of time and the owner’s insistence in playing them post-pub to captive audiences, where cds would’ve perhaps been the more sensible option.
Amiga was established in 1947 by Ernst Busch, a life long party member who fought in Spain with the International Brigades. Prior to fleeing Germany in 1933, Busch was a well-known actor and singer and he was later a frequent contributor to Radio Madrid, recording two very hard to get albums of Civil War songs. His performance of Peat Bog Soldiers is particularly haunting. The song, covered by the Dubliners on ‘Revolution’ (1970), was written by Nazi political prisoners in the Bögermoor concentration camp and first performed there in 1933. Busch obtained the permission of the Soviet occupation authorities to establish a label to provide music for the masses, however, it took a decade or so before the label realised that the masses were getting tired of an anaemic diet of Brecht, Hans Eisler, bad jazz and Kindermusik. They were now tuning their dials to the American Forces Network stations not subject to the jamming and interference inflicted on Radio Free Europe, the broadcasts of which were unequivocally political. Thus began the golden age of East German pop and thanks to Youtube, one can now appreciate one of its effervescent stars of the ‘60s, the truly great Ina Martell.
Born Dorothea Polzin in Berlin in 1944, Ina worked as a laboratory assistant before being spotted by lyricist and arranger Dieter Schneider. She quickly hung up the labcoat and in ’65 recorded a cover of Petula Clarke’s Downtown which was followed quickly by Zwei Küsse beim Nachhausegeh’n, the opening bars of which will probably be familiar. There were no charts as such in the DDR, however both songs received extensive airplay and sold by the bucketful. Ina, not surprisingly, received further exposure on TV and the availability her music on Youtube appears to be a function of the insatiable hunger for this sort of bad Ostblock TV on the part of the German public.
Ina wasn’t just a solo artist and she cut several recordings with beat groups such as the Theo Schuman Combo and Thomas Natschinski & seine Gruppe. The beat group phenomenon was effectively stamped out in the DDR after a 1965 Berlin gig by the Stones which resulted in a minor riot. Indeed, terms such as teenager and party (no, not that one) were apparently erased in the state-controlled media, to the extent that a 1964 recording by Ina’s stable-mate Ruth Brandin ‘Teenager Party’ is possibly the most expensive lp on the German secondhand market. Natschinski was the son of Gerd Natschinski, possibly the country’s best known post-war classical composer and the continuation of Natschinski junior’s career in showbiz fell on his changing the name of the combo from Team 4 to the obviously less seditious ‘Gruppe’.
As an aside (and again available today thanks to Youtube), an earlier salvo by the state in the war against rock’n’roll was somewhat less successful than its proscription of the beat groups. In an intervention that might possibly have been approved by John Charles McQuaid, the state ‘invented’ a dance, the Lipsi Schritt — named after Leipzig, apparently a hipper spot in 1956 than the rather drab Berlin. If jiving is beyond today’s yoof, this state-approved combination of the rhumba, boogie and cha cha cha will appeal only to the most athletically extrovert and a revival is not expected soon.
One website dedicated to the genre has observed that ‘in general German singers reflected the Teutonic ideals of the time: not as overtly sexy as the French mademoiselles, but more wholesome, prim and proper, like the quintessential German hausfrau’. It’s perhaps apposite to consider the type on indigenous music making the Irish charts during this period; given the choice between Kathleen Watkins and Fraulein Martell, I myself would’ve been straight down to the IWP, the party sub in my sweaty paws.
Ina cut several more singles for Amiga in the late ‘60s, all of which to my ears at least stand up to anything recorded in the European west. The tunes are good, the arrangements fantastic and the less said about the lyrics the better. It’s interesting though that despite the dominance of AFN on the eastern airwaves, soul music, the girl groups and solo artistes of Tamla Motown were not as obvious an influence here as they were in West Germany, where, as we all know, disco was invented in Munich. Was it the case that the DDR was unwilling to tolerate black music in any of its obvious guises?
Ina’s star was on the wane by the early ‘70s and bowing to the inevitable, Amiga began to licence western labels on cassette although they maintained a local rota. As was the case with many indigenous industries, the label was bought out by BMG in 1994 and is now part of the Sony group. Amiga nonetheless put out over 2000 lps and about 5000 singles over the years with in excess of 30,000 titles, a few of which are also posted here for fans of erratic dancing. Something of a compilations re-release schedule began last year, however most of Ina’s output remains unavailable, with her one cd now deleted. Unfortunately an Amiga hunt in any German secondhand shop these days will only result in the purchase of recordings by The Puhdys, a band even I wouldn’t inflict on readers of the blog.
Where label-mate Ruth Brandin famously refused to sup with the Stasi and was forced out of the business in 1974, there’ve yet to appear any revelations concerning Ina. I wonder so if there’s a similar story to tell here? In an interesting change of direction, she left the music industry by 1974, becoming a funeral director in a small town in Saxony. Ina’s still around however and she sings every Sunday with the local church choir. If I ever get married again, I’ll certainly have Der schönste Tag on the playlist at the afters.
Zwei Küsse beim Nachhausegeh’n
Ich war allein
Liebe kann man nicht erzwingen
Der schönste Tag
And purely for comparison purposes…
Oh, and the Lipsi Schritt: