Communist Rock & Roll

20 Oct

Communist Rock & Roll

By Bob Gersztyn

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About six months ago, my wife bought me a book at Dollar Tree, the discount product store where everything only cost’s a dollar, which reminded me of the Five and Ten Cent stores of my childhood back in the 1950’s. The book was “7 Events That Made America, America” by Larry Schweikart, published in 2010 by Sentinal. Chapter subjects ranged from the formation of political parties to the government attempting to control our diet. They were all interesting and eye opening, but the most fascinating chapter to me was titled, “A Steel Guitar Rocks The Iron Curtain.”

I’ve been aware of the impact that American music made on Communism and the collapse of the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European Bloc Satellite states, but up until now I didn’t have as much documentation as is now available, with the computer information age and more openness in those once completely closed nations. In 1990 Oxford published Timothy W. Ryback’s book “Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union,” which Schweikart used as a reference in his footnotes 14 times.


It seems that the youth rebellion in the Communist countries occurred at the same time and with the same music that it did in the United States, during the same time period, as if in a parallel universe. Rock & roll rails against the establishment, whatever establishment may exist. “The paradox is that rock and roll by its nature is both entertainment and social criticism, revolutionary yet extremely sympathetic to the very liberties that infuse the American capitalist and political system.”(1)

Rock & roll was born in the early 1950’s, when what is considered the first rock & roll record was released and played. There are two different records that vie for that position, from two sides of the spectrum. The first is “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, featuring Jackie Brenston on lead vocals, which was recorded on the Chess label on March 3 or 5, 1951.

The second is “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley and his Comets recorded on April 12, 1954 on the Decca label.

It doesn’t matter which one you accept, the point is, that until the electric guitar was perfected as an instrument, rock & roll couldn’t be born. After Leo Fender perfected and began to market the instrument so did the Gibson guitar company, with the help of Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford. The Gibson Les Paul is a standard among many rockers to this day, along with Fender Stratocasters and beyond. As a side note, Les Paul was a personal friend of arena rock star Steve Miller’s father, and tutored the young boy as a guitar teacher. So the Advent of the electric guitar was the driving force that merged Afro-American Blues, Jazz and Gospel, which by then was distilled into Rhythm & Blues along with White Country & Western, Bluegrass and Folk. Once that merger happened, rock & roll was born.

Elvis Presley was viewed as America’s secret weapon by the Communist Eastern German government when he was drafted into the army and stationed in West Germany. Ironically he was also viewed as a dangerous youth corrupter by the US government, but the army exploited his popularity with the youth of West Germany to its own end. Everything about rock & roll violated Communist ideals, because of the way that it glorified the individual instead of preferring the collective whole. The songs that bands played had a chorus where everybody sang and played together, and then there would be solo breaks, where an individual member would perform solo and outshine the collective whole and then come back together as a group. Rock & roll dancing was open, meaning that couples didn’t dance together, but as individuals, which was forbidden in East Germany. (2)

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Schweikart’s quote from page 133 sums it all up: “the power of Western music had already shot out of the West like alien transmissions from deep space, and it was headed straight for the Iron Curtain.” (3) Rock & roll arrived behind the “Iron Curtain” just like it did in the Western “Free World.” There were Hungarian and Polish rock bands doing covers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in the late 1950’s. The “Iron Curtain” had rock stars like Czeslaw Niemen, Wolf Biermann, Marta Kubisova and Karel Kryl along with their own bands like the Polish, “Reds and the Blacks” and the “Red Guitars,” the Hungarian, “Illes,” Bulgaria’s “Bundaratsite,” Czechoslovakia’s “Olympic,” and the “Little Mary’s” and the U.S.S.R.’s “Time Machine,” “Falcon,” “Guys” and the “Little Red Devils.”

One of the difference between American and British rock and their Communist counterparts behind the iron curtain was free market Capitalism and the availability of instruments. There were no stores behind the “Iron Curtain” that sold electric guitars or drum kits, that were needed for a rock band, because none were manufactured in the Soviet Bloc. The instruments had to be imported and were subject to regulation, since they were from the West. “When the first guitar shop opened in Moscow in 1966, the entire stock sold out in minutes.(4)

Despite obstacles that would make the ones encountered by rock & rollers in the United States seem trivial in comparison, rock bands formed and performed. Riots occurred on some occasions when the authorities pulled the plug or cancelled scheduled concerts. Soviet hippies were publically beaten and had their hair shorn. One example that Schweikart cites is an incident where a Czech singer had to convince Communist bureaucrats to stop insisting that he cut his long hair by explaining that it “was necessary to ‘sell’ good Communist music to the proletariat in the West.” (5) By the time that Bruce Springsteen performed “Born in the U.S.A.” in East Berlin, in July 1988, Eastern European Communism was on the verge of collapse. Proof of that can be seen in the video link below that captured that performance, with the East German audience singing the chorus, “Born In The U.S.A.,” as if they were. (accessed 20 October 2015)

Bruce Springsteen #5c

1. Schweikart, Larry: 7 Events That Made America, America.” Published in 2010 by Sentinal.

2. (accessed 10/18/15).

3. Schweikart, Larry: 7 Events That Made America, America.” Published in 2010 by Sentinal.

4. Page 69, “Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1954-1988,” published in 1990.

5. Page 140, Schweikart, Larry: 7 Events That Made America, America.” Published in 2010 by Sentinal.

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