Was rock and roll America’s secret weapon in the global conflict with Soviet Russia?
Well, that may be a stretch, but it was definitely factor. In fact, it was enough of a factor that Russia seemed to genuinely fear its power. Western music was the dangerous sound of freedom.
A few months ago, we explored the fascinating story of Russian bootleggers from the ’60s, who used discarded x-rays to render contraband rock music.
For this story, we’ll have to fast-forward to 1985. This was the year that Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to Russian leadership. It was also the year the Kremlin doubled down on its efforts to purge the Soviet Union of Western music.
As an aspiring young politico in the 1940s, Gorbachev had once served as head of Komsomol–the Youth Wing of the Communist Party. Komsomol is also responsible for the list of artists seen here, all banned behind the Iron Curtain in 1985:
As the Cold War entered a final and exceptionally active phase, Komsomol ratcheted up its efforts to protect Russian ears from revolutionary dissidents like Tina Turner, Donna Summer, and the B-52s.
Banned In the U.S.S.R.
In Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, author Alexei Yurchenko’ writes that communist party officials were furnished with this “approximate list of foreign musical groups and artists whose repertoires contain ideologically harmful compositions.”
Officials were told to observe and intervene in instances where radio DJs and club promoters proliferated this harmful content. According to SPIN, enforcers were instructed to use “these findings to more strongly control what happens in discoteks.”
The list proclaims an intent to suppress the themes of sex, violence, eroticism, and “homo-sexualism” that were rampant in Western music. Restrictions on personal freedoms are no laughing matter. This list, on the other hand, is hilarious.
The Offending Artists
- Alice Cooper, KISS and Iron Maiden make the list for perpetuating violence. The Sex Pistols, Ramones, and “Klesh” make the list for perpetuating “punk.”
- Black Sabbath is charged with “religious obscuritanism,” or the practice of religion, which is kind of exactly the opposite of the thing that got them banned from radio stations in the U.S.
- Scottish hard-rock band Nazareth, most famous for their aching cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Love Hurts,” are accused of sadism.
- The Komsomol accuses the Village People of violence. I’ll just suggest that if you thought “In the Navy” was a military recruitment jingle, you obviously missed the point of that song.
- The list also accuses Van Halen of Anti-Soviet propaganda, Judas Priest of Anticommunism, and Julio Iglesias, obviously, of Neofascism.
- The Talking Heads are accused of perpetuating the “myth of Soviet military danger,” which is like condemning Isaac Newton for perpetuating the myth of gravity.
- As for Pink Floyd? They are literally accused of directly “interfering in the foreign policy of the USSR” vis-à-vis Afghanistan which, if true, is almost as impressive an achievement as syncing Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz.
The list also includes possible made up artists like Kenet Hit and the allegedly “erotic” Manish Machine.
The Western Threat
Granted, it’s fun to imagine just exactly how the unique brand of Neofascism practiced by Julio Iglesias threatened the stability of the Soviet Union.
Chas Smash, from the pioneering British two-tone band Madness, has his own theories. Madness makes the list for its deadly combination of “punk” and “violence.” Smash once suggested that the band’s song “Baggy Trousers” was really about “a scheme to smuggle out of the U.S.S.R. as many dissidents as possible hidden in the trousers of sympathetic Cossacks.’”
But here’s the thing—putting aside the embarrassing sexual repression, arbitrariness, and the desperately uncool misreadings of Western pop music—the Soviets actually had a point. Western music was absolutely a threat. The blacklist was published in 1985. The Berlin Wall would come tumbling down just four years later.
So what’s the connection?
Rock Music vs. The Russian Bear
Western music was proving increasingly incendiary among those living behind the Iron Curtain, and particularly in East Berlin. In 1987, West Germany staged a David Bowie concert. The concert was, quite intentionally, held within shouting distance of the Berlin Wall. Speakers were aimed over the barrier, inviting young East Berliners to hear the tantalizing sounds of Ziggy Stardust.
As thousands clamored to get closer to the wall, they were beaten back by police. Ultimately a riot erupted and the Bowie fans were subdued with clubs and stun guns.
This scene was repeated when the Eurythmics played the same venue. And again, believe it or not, when Phil Collins played. You’d have to live under the thumb of a totalitarian dictatorship to truly understand how jacked up these kids got over “Sussudio.”
These incidents highlighted mounting tensions between East German youths and a Soviet Era power spiraling toward its own demise. Communist governments were toppling left and right. Facing deep economic crisis, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a transformation of the Soviet Union. His glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform) movements undermined the repressive nature of the whole Soviet Empire. The government of East Berlin was halfway between denial and terror.
Tensions flamed higher when Michael Jackson performed on the lawn of the Reichstag in West Germany a year later. Thousands of soldiers descended on the Berlin Wall to prevent East Berliners from hearing the King of Pop. Again, riots, beatings and arrests ensued on both sides of the wall.
The East German youth resistance movement was intensifying. Feeling the heat, their government capitulated. On July 19th, 1988, authorities agreed to hold a single rock concert on East Berlin concrete. Presumably, the idea was to diffuse the desire for freedom rippling through its captive society.
Remarkably, they invited Bruce Springsteen. This proved a critical miscalculation.
Born to Bring Down the Wall
Firsthand accounts of Springsteen’s performance (and there were at least 300,000 revelers in attendance) recall this as the moment that changed everything. Any chance of temporarily quenching the thirst for freedom was shattered by the triumphant strains of the E-Street Band, by Springsteen’s herculean four-hour set, by the sight of East Berliners shouting the chorus to “Born in the U.S.A.” and…get this…waving American flags!
If the government of East Berlin didn’t know it was over by then, they needed only to ask around.
A book out in 2021, Eric Kirschbaum’s comprehensive recounting of the Springsteen performance, quotes a 27-year old scientist who attended the concert. He told Kirschbaum that “there was this underlying sentiment in the crowd that night that people didn’t want to live behind a wall anymore.”
Springsteen consciously fueled that sentiment, mastering two German sentences for the occasion: “I’m not here for any government. I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”
He followed with a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.”
Some argue that it was only after the arrival of Bruce Springsteen in East Berlin that there was truly no turning back. Just the taste of it would be enough to open Pandora’s Box. The total collapse of the Soviet Union transpired in less than two year’s time.
Of course, some other stuff happened. Rapid economic decline, military over-extension, diplomatic isolation…but I’d like to think it was Springsteen.
Looking for Freedom
In November of 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. As you probably already guessed, David Hasselhoff‘s “Looking for Freedom” topped the West German Billboard charts a month later.
Indeed, the Hoff himself would stand athwart the crumbling wall that New Year’s Eve to perform his hit before a throng of reunified Germans. He donned a sweater with numerous flashing light bulbs and a piano-key scarf. Thank God for YouTube.
But (and I add this with a grain of salt the size of your head) Hasselhoff was a symbol of the freedom represented in Western music. Only a capitalist society could create a David Hasselhoff.
For more on the fascinating entanglement of rock music and history, check out The 25 Most Important Protest Songs in History.