Rock Around the Bloc
A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union
by Timothy Ryback
In February 1987, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev personally received Yoko Ono in Moscow. In a surprising revelation, Raisa declared that she and her husband were fans of John Lennon. While Raisa sang lyrics from a Lennon song, the Soviet leader observed solemnly, "John should have been here."
It was a stunning declaration. After three decades of virulent anti-rock rhetoric, a Soviet leader had allied himself with the forces of rock & roll. In the era of glasnost and perestroika, rock & roll has provided, in a very real sense, the soundtrack to the Gorbachev revolution. This stunning policy shift has fueled the already burgeoning Soviet rock scene and has commanded intense media attention in the West.
But as Timothy W. Ryback demonstrates in this lively and revealing book, Western music, particularly rock & roll, is not new to the Soviet bloc. Indeed, as Mr. Ryback shows, rock music has effected one of the most significant transformations ever in Soviet bloc society. He traces the emergence of rock culture in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from 1954 to the present day, where it has become unquestionably the most pervasive form of mass cultural activity in Communist society.
Charting this process, "Rock Around the Bloc" looks at both sides of the thirty-year war between rock fans and Soviet bloc governments. It takes the reader into the Kremlin for special Central Committee meetings devoted to the "evil" of rock music; into the streets of beleaguered 1968 Prague and 1981 Poland where rock bands and their fans helped spearhead social and political reforms; and into the bedrooms of young people secretly tuning into rock broadcasts from the BBC and Radio Free Europe.
The reader comes to realize that in some ways, life in the Soviet bloc was surprisingly similar to life in the West. There was the Elvis craze in the late 1950s, Beatlemania in 1964, and the disturbing appearance of punks and skinheads on urban streets in the early 1980s. At the same time, these similarities make the differences all the more striking. Prague's mid-1960s drug cult relied on analgesics mixed with alcohol to ape western drugs. In 1969 young Moscow musicians seeking to convert their acoustic guitars into electric ones dismantled every public phone in Moscow to pilfer the electronic parts.
And Dean Reed, an expatriate American who became a genuine Soviet bloc superstar selling millions of records, died mysteriously shortly after expressing his desire to return to the United States.
Informed throughout by a deep knowledge and love for the music as well as an understanding of the Soviet bloc's political and social realities, "Rock Around the Bloc" tells a fascinating story on many levels: the liberalization of communist society, the traumas and triumphs of Soviet bloc youth culture, the spread of rock's influence in unlikely places, and the surprisingly rich variety of rock & roll in Eastern Europe that keeps its kinship to western music while forging a unique identity all its own.
Engagingly written and full of compelling detail, Ryback's definitive account will delight all rock fans and will fascinate people interested in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and modern social history.
Dean Reed: The Soviet-Bloc Superstar
No individual performer better exemplified the marriage between pop and politics in the Soviet bloc during the 1970s than the American expatriate Dean Reed. Reed, who began a successful singing career with Warner Brothers in the early 1960s, turned his back on the Western entertainment industry in 1973 and emigrated to the Soviet bloc. "The principles on which your society are built," Reed proclaimed in an open letter in the Soviet press in 1972, "are sane, pure and just, while the principles on which my country are built are cruel, selfish and unjust." In the decade and a half that followed, Reed, courted by Soviet-bloc governments and loved by tens of millions of fans, reigned as the undisputed superstar of Eastern Europe and Soviet pop music.
Reed led a privileged life. Married to the beautiful East German actress Renate Blume, his third wife, Reed settled in a spacious house on a lake outside East Berlin. Reed wrote and recorded songs, acted in and directed major motion pictures, and hobnobbed with Soviet-bloc leaders. He claimed to know personally East German head of state Erich Honecker, the Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husák, and Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. State honors showered down upon Reed. East Germany's Communist youth organization presented Reed with its gold medal. Czechoslovakia honored Reed with the Julius-Fučik-Medallion. Bulgaria awarded him its Dimitrov-Medallion. In the summer of 1979, the Soviet Union bestowed upon Reed the Komsomol Lenin Prize for Art and Literature. Reed boasted to the West German newspaper Die Zeit in 1983, "I am the only American with a Lenin Prize."
In a rare consensus of opinion, Reed enjoyed as much popularity among the people of the Soviet bloc as he did among their rulers. Dean Reed, handsome, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, Colorado-born and -bred, was, for the East European, the epitome of the all-American boy. He displayed an American flag in his home; he did fifty push-ups a day; he tore through the neighborhood on his 250-MZ dirt bike. Reed combined good-natured naïveté with relentless political engagement. He also traveled the world, advancing the cause of socialism. In Lebanon, Reed met Yasser Arafat and posed with machine-gun-toting PLO warriors. In October 1978, while promoting one of his films at the University of Minnesota, Reed participated in a demonstration against a U.S. energy company. Police broke up the protest, arresting twenty demonstraters, including Dean Reed. Hundreds of letters and telegrams poured into the U.S. from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union demanding Reed's release. Three weeks later, having survived a hunger strike, Reed was found "not guilty" and released. Within days, the "political prisoner" returned to East Berlin, where he received a hero's welcome.
During the 1970s, millions of Soviet-bloc fans bought Dean Reed records, packed Dean Reed concerts, and attended Dean Reed films. Reed's motion picture "Sing, Cowboy, Sing" became a regular feature in Soviet-bloc cinemas. The 150 letters that reportedly arrived daily attested to Reed's popularity in the mid-1070s. Hundreds more poured into the East German DEFA film studios which released Reed's motion pictures. A poll taken in 1976 found that Reed was the best-known American among Soviets, preceded only by President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger.
A decade before Soviet-bloc leaders began exploiting Dean Reed's talent, Hollywood film and record producers had their eye on the young singer. In 1958, Reed hitchhiked to Hollywood, hoping to launch a career as an actor or singer. Before long, Reed signed with Warner Brothers and came under the tutelage of acting instructor Paton Price. In 1961, Dean Reed's first hit, "Our Summer Romance," climbed onto U.S. song charts.
That same year, Reed undertook a concert tour of South America and discovered an entire continent of wildly enthusiastic fans. In December 1961, a poll taken among young South Americans indicated that Reed's popularity outstripped that of Elvis Presley, Paul Anka, and Neil Sedaka. Lured by mass adulation, Reed remained south of the border where he became known as the Magnificent Gringo. Reed also became a proclaimed Marxist, taking up the causes of the oppressed masses.
In 1966, political unrest in South America forced Reed to leave Argentina. Divorced from his first wife, Reed moved to Italy, where he appeared in numerous spaghetti Westerns, inclucing a film with Yul Brynner, as well as in an Italian remake of the Zorro legend. In autumn 1971, while attending a documentary film festival in Leipzig, Reed met an East German schoolteacher named Wiebke. Two years later, in the summer of 1973, he married her and took up residence in East Germany. Although Reed moved to East Germany, he later made it clear that he felt at home throughout the Soviet bloc. "Had Wiebke been a Pole, a Russian or a Bulgarian," he insisted in one interview, "I would have stayed in Warsaw or Moscow, Sofia or Budapest." In any case, Reed retained his U.S. passport and with it, his right to travel in the West whenever he wished.
In the 1970s, Reed toured Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union extensively. His concert repertoire consisted of rock-and-roll numbers, country-and-western hits and American protest songs. Among Reed's most popular numbers was his spirited composition, "We Are the Revulutionaries," which he dedicated to the political struggles in Latin America. He also recast the American anthem "Glory Hallelujah" into a proletarian battle hymn. "Mine eyes," sang Reed, "have seen the glory of the victory of man."
During the 1970s, Dean Reed filled the largest concert venues in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. At a concert in Hungary in June 1979, over seventy thousand fans packed Budapest's Népstadion to watch him perform. Following a Moscow concert in March 1972, Reed was mobbed by hysterical fans. As he emerged from the theater, a crowd of fans broke through a cordon of twenty security officers and set upon the star, screaming wildly and tearing at his clothing. As Reed escaped into a waiting car, fans swarmed around the vehicle, calling for him and rocking the car. Observing the frenzy, a reporter for Newsweek magazine overheard a Russian fan ask an American standing nearby, "Does this happen to him in America?"
"I don't know," the American reportedly answered. "I never heard of him."
Although Dean Reed remained virtually unknown in the United States, accounts of his phenomenal Soviet-bloc popularity surfaced occasionally in the American media. On November 28, 1966, the New York Times reported on the twenty-eight-year-old singer's first Soviet-bloc appearance. "Dean Reed, a young singer," the New York Times observed, "was cheered and applauded for 25 minutes this afternoon in Moscow's Variety Theater after a spirited performance in which the audience joined in to sing and clap to rock 'n' roll musc." Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, newspapers and weekly magazines contiued to report on Reed as a bit of international curio.
In 1985, a documentary on Reed, American Rebel, premiered in the United States, playing to students at several colleges in the Midwest. Within a year, Mike Wallace of the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes arrived in East Berlin to interview Reed. The 60 Minutes segment, which aired on April 20, 1986, presented Reed "living in capitalist-style comfort." Reed asserted his belief in communism, espousing much of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine typical of orthodox party members. Reed alternately praised the benefits of socialism and condemned the foreign policy of the United States. In the course of the interview, he also alluded to his interest in returning to the United States, whimsically suggesting that he might replace Gary Hart as the governor of Colorado.
In fact, by the time the 60 Minutes segment aired, Reed was seriously considering a return to the United States. An expatriate for nearly a quarter century, the forty-eight-year-old American felt the need to return to his homeland. It is likely that more than homesickness motivated him. In the early 1980s, Reed's Soviet-bloc popularity flagged. The generation that embraced him as a rock-and-roll "superstar" in the early 1970s now viewed the singer as an embarrassing reminder of their musical naïveté. With eighteen motion pictures and fourteen long-playing albums to his credit, Reed seemed to have exhausted his audiences. At the same time, he felt that having commanded an audience of tens of millions in the Soviet bloc, he could duplicate his success in the United States.
In the spring of 1986, with a Colorado high-school friend, Dixie Schnebly acting as his U.S. manager, Reed charted a publicity campaign for the U.S. market. "Let's not put the Country lable on me," Reed wrote Schebly on February 28, 1986. The singer suspected conservative forces in Nashville would not put their heart into making an avowed Marxist into a star. Reed thought American colleges, where he hoped to find "13 million potential fans, friends and fellow progressives," would provide an initial foothold in the American music scene. He planned a tour of American campuses for 1987.
Western media fueled Reed's hopes of breaking into the U.S. market. Following the 60 Minutes segment, which elicited tremendous viewer response (overwhelmingly negative), Reed found the Western media increasingly fascinated with him. On May 29, 1986, CBS contacted him in East Berlin and asked if they could send a film crew with him to the Soviet Union, where he was working on his latest film. Encouraged by the CBS inquiry, Reed wrote to Schnebly that he anticipated the coverage would have a snowball effect: "I believe that probably the other networks will also show up for the filming along with the New York Times, Time and Newsweek."
In June 1986, Reed snagged the attention of the British media as well. A reporter for the Times in London arrived in Berlin for an arranged interview with Reed. When the reporter called him at his home, Renate Blume answered the phone ans informed him that Reed was not available. According to Blume, Reed was in the hospital with a lung infection. The reporter was told to call back the following week. The interview never took place. On Tuesday, June 17, 1986, Dean Reed was found dead in a lake ten miles from his home. The police report gave "accidental drowning" as the cause of his death. Reed had never been in the hospital.
Reed's relatives in the United States demanded the U.S. government investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death. Schnebly claimed Reed had called her the week before his drowning, insisting that "something strange was happening." Support for his Soviet film project had been inexplicably withdrawn. According to Schnebly, he had called her two days later and had said that he feared for his life.
Within the week, Dean Reed was dead. According to the East German police report, Reed had left his home around 10:30 on the evening of June 12, 1986, after taking a sleeping tablet. While driving, Reed had lost control of his car and had crashed into a tree. Reconstructing the events, the police claimed that he had left the car and had walked to a nearby lake in order to wash his face. As he leaned over, he had lost his equilibrium, had fallen into the water, and had drowned. He was found five days later. The East German autopsy found the partially dissolved sleeping tablet still in his stomach. Although Reed's body was cremated before a U.S. examiner arrived to corroborate the East German report, the U.S. embassy in East Berlin found no improprieties in the East German procedure and closed the case.
Various rumors regarding Reed's death circulated in East Germany. The most common claimed that, with the marriage between Dean Reed and Renate Blume deteriorating, Reed, though he had survived the breakup of two previous marriages, had killed himself in despair. Another rumor held that the East German government, offended by Reed's desire to return to the United States, had done away with the singer. Neues Deutschland offered no explanation. In a prominent obituary in its June 18, 1986, edition, the party paper simply reported Reed's death as "a tragic accident." The orbituary praised Reed's contributions to the socialist cause and world peace. "Dean Reed was a friend and comrade who was on our side," the paper eulogized, "and we will always hold him in high esteem."
East Germany: Puhdys, Renft, ans "Heated Rhythms"
Dean Reed arrived in East Germany in 1973 amidst a cultural thaw. Erich Honecker, the former Communist youth-league head who had replaced the Stalinist leader Walter Ulbricht as party head in the spring of 1971, aligned cultural policy with the needs of East Germany's young people. [...]