The German girls featured so far on Ready steady girls! tell only half the story, because when we say ‘German’ we actually mean ‘West German’. Back in the 1960s there was, of course, a second Germany, the GDR (or DDR, to German speakers), which had its own musical culture. Here, in the first of a two-part special, Jens Keller pulls back the Iron Curtain of pop to give you an introduction to the girl singers of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.
As all industry in East Germany was government controlled, there was just one record label, AMIGA, plus its minor sub-labels for classical and spoken-word records. The GDR didn’t have sales charts like the West, which explains its slightly different approach to record distribution – besides the usual
one-artist 45s, there were many double A-sided split singles with a different artist on each side. AMIGA also released new material on its compilation LP series. LPs with just one artist were rare during the 1960s and very few girls were given the chance to record a full album of their own.
This was the time of the Cold War and, like the rest of the eastern bloc, East Germany’s government was suspicious of cultural influences from the West infiltrating its borders. In the 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll conquered both German states, which caused Eastern government officials to sit down and try to invent their own dance craze, the Lipsi. Singer Helga Brauer was chosen to promote the new dance and soon songs such as Heute tanzen alle jungen Leute im Lipsi Schritt (Tonight, all young folks are dancing the Lipsi step) were heard on the airwaves. Needless to say, the youth of the day was less than impressed with a government-created dance and the whole idea was quickly abandoned.
When the beat wave swept across Europe, AMIGA reluctantly released two compilation LPs with local beat bands, both named Big Beat, in 1964. After being tolerated at first, beat music was then officially banned in 1965 after a riot at a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin, which meant that most of the local groups ceased to exist.
It also meant that fewer Western records were licensed for release. The only AMIGA Beatles LP was issued shortly before the ban. After that, Western music was scarcely issued in the East – there was the odd Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day or jazz LP, but that was about it. Still, even though it was not allowed, East Germans were able to keep up with Western music via the radio.
The beat ban itself had less effect on female recording artists in East Germany. Girls were associated with harmless Schlager ditties, rather than riot-inducing rock music. It would be unfair to say that this was only the result of political censorship – most female pop of the 1960s in West Germany (or in the rest of the world for that matter) was just as innocuous. In general, female 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.
Even though East Germany already had several firmly established Schlagersängerinnen, such as Bärbel Wachholz and Helga Brauer, its first true female icon for teenagers was Ruth Brandin.
A former nurse, Ruth began her singing career as part of the vocal group Die Kolibris and did
back-up vocals on many AMIGA productions. Her first solo record was released in 1961 and by the mid-1960s Ruth had become the Queen of the Twist.
Two of her finest moments were created in a recording session in 1964 with beat band Die Sputniks (who became a casualty of the ban a year later). The two songs they made together were released on one single and Mich hat noch keiner beim Twist geküsst and Münchhausen are fine examples that pop music in East Germany was not as dire as the West assumed.
Ruth remains the sole East German girl to bring out an album before the crackdown on beat music, and her LP Teenager-Party mit Ruth is now a sought-after collectors’ item. After 1965, Anglicisms such as ‘Teenager’ and ‘Party’ simply disappeared from the East German dictionary.
Her career continued steadily, with many singles and appearances on AMIGA compilation LPs until the end of the decade, when – at the age of 30 – she tired of being the eternal teenager. She refused to collaborate with the infamous Stasi (the East German intelligence network) to spy on her colleagues and in 1974 she quit music altogether to pursue a career in gastronomy.
In the mid-1980s, Ruth moved to West Berlin, where she still lives today.
The finest 1960s East German girl pop comes, arguably, from Ina Martell. Born Dorothea Polzin, she first worked as a laboratory assistant, before her boyfriend introduced her to lyricist Dieter Schneider, who immediately spotted her potential.
To launch her, AMIGA released not one, but two, very successful singles simultaneously in 1965 – one was a German cover of Petula Clark’s Downtown, the other contained the catchy Zwei Küsse beim Nachhausegeh’n.
Tall, blonde and very attractive, Ina soon became a fixture on national TV, where she starred in some light-hearted musicals. It’s no coincidence that she was chosen to cover West German Marion’s Er ist wieder da for the Eastern airwaves – both singers had similar approaches: sad yet sexy, simple yet dramatic.
We don’t have space to list all of Ina’s recordings, so let’s focus on some of her better moments on vinyl.
In 1966 she was accompanied by perhaps the finest East German pop group, the Theo Schuman Combo, for her single Wenn du Hochzeit hast/Helle Nächte und Küsse. (The latter track was co-written by Fräulein Martell herself.) A year later, Ina appeared on a split single with another influential act, Thomas Natschinski & seine Gruppe. One of the very few beat bands that had not had its licence revoked (Thomas was the son of one of the country’s most prestigious composers, Gerd Natschinski). The band was originally called Team 4, but when the beat ban came along, Natschinski compromised with the officials to change the Anglicism ‘Team’ to ‘Gruppe’ and was allowed to continue. Soon the ‘Gruppe’ became the Ost-Beatles and are still considered a major force in modernising music in the GDR. Ina’s track on the single was the poptastic Dann kamst du mir entgegen.
When her popularity diminished in the early 1970s, she made a rather unusual change of career and became a funeral director. Now retired, she embraces religion and still sings at her local church.
Britt Kersten was another fêted star in the GDR. Like Ina Martell, Britt was an attractive blonde, but her material was decisively more lightweight and upbeat than the former. Her career almost ended after her first single, Santa Lucia Twist, in 1964, when she had a serious car accident that left her in a coma for over 20 days.
Fortunately, she made a full recovery and continued to release a string of successful recordings for AMIGA. 1967’s sassy Blond wird groß geschrieben and 1969’s über-catchy Tanz an einem Frühlingsabend were two of her better releases. Yet her biggest hit came in the following decade – Männer müssen Männer sein, from 1972, has a stomping glam rock feel and remains her signature tune.
Britt retired from show business in 1977 and now lives with her second husband in Berlin.
When West Germany successfully coupled two of its biggest stars, Rex Gildo and Danish songbird Gitte, to create the ultimate singing Traumpaar (dream couple), East Germany tried a similar stunt by matching singer Chris Doerk with established star Frank Schöbel. Chris had recorded some
semi-successful solo material earlier, but her duets with Schöbel propelled her to the A-list of the East German Schlager scene.
While the supposed romance of the West German couple was only a clever marketing device (Rex Gildo was actually gay), Chris and Frank also hit it off privately and got married in 1966. Together they starred in the film musical Heisser Sommer, which became a box office hit in 1967, with the accompanying soundtrack LP doing equally well. A carefree teenage movie with bikini beauties frolicking on the seaside of the Baltic Sea was a novelty at the time and the film remained so popular that it was revived for a stage version in 2005.
Chris also presented several music programmes on TV, which helped to establish her as one of the GDR’s biggest celebrities. During her time as a duet partner for Schöbel, she continued to release a string of successful solo 45s and LPs, such as the energetic Für mich bist du passé, from 1967, ...Und dann bist du nicht mehr allein (1968) and Schwindelei’n (1969).
When the marriage ended in 1974, Chris’s star began to fade, but she continued to tour and record for AMIGA until 1977, when she became a freelance photographer and painter.
In 2008, Chris came out of retirement briefly to accompany her ex-husband on a tour to celebrate his 45th showbiz-jubilee.
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