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Jul 09

My Very First Visit to Berlin

It was winter of 1985 and I was in a band on the road in Europe. I was the youngest in the band by ten years, being just over a month away from my 19th birthday, and had no say whatsoever in the direction we were going, either musically or geographically. This was my first year with the band and we had toured the UK already since leaving the Isle of Wight and my first summer season. The run up to Christmas involved short burst tours of Wales, which I loved and the Midlands, including an enormous venue at the Jaguar car plant in Coventry. We had played in Sheffield, the North East and even taken in a club at the Mars Bar factory in Slough, a wonderful smell permeated the air there which was great for an hour but after that began to make you feel a little sickly.  Workingmens clubs had had their day and audiences were dwindling as wine bars started to appear and night clubs popped up in each town, leaving only the older generations to drink and socialise in the clubs. Of course industry itself was dying off and the normal hubs around the various steel works and mines clung on not knowing how it was all going to end.  As a consequence the entertainment agencies were looking further afield for work for everyone and we ended up on a 16 day stint that started on the ferry from Harwrich.

The band was now in Germany touring the NAAFI venues at the British and US army bases along with a female singer and a speciality act, which was in this case the hypnotist Tony Sands

Wayne, Jimmy and Hypnotist Tony Shields

Jimmy and Hypnotist Tony Sands followed by Wayne

 

For the benefit of anybody too young to know and in a hugely simplified format,  Berlin was captured at the end of the second world war and shared between the allied forces.  The Brits and the Americans taking it from the west and the Soviets from the east.  When all died down, the eastern side came under the control of the soviets and the Western allies took on the west.  With parts of Germany also under soviet control a border was established and the city of  Berlin was not only divided but the western part left stranded like an island, under the control of the UK, and the US but sitting in what was to be named “East Germany”  Routes in to Berlin were heavily restricted and patrolled by both soviet and East German troops and police. We were about to enter a main route in by road – The Berlin Corridor.

We had arrived at a small venue and important military base at the beginning of the Berlin Corridor called Helmstadt.  Here we prepared for the trip through the corridor by the NAAFI entertainments boss, a small Irish guy called Jimmy who would accompany us through the process and into Berlin. The old Transit van had to be washed and basic mechanics checked and all our paperwork was processed and put in order. Our first stop would be checkpoint Bravo and all the personnel at Helmstadt were military police and security staff from the allied forces who manned it. They were pretty impressed with us as a band as the average age of us at that time was about the same as the staff based at the small base. Our blend of light rock and pop tunes of the day was perfect for them and as the night wore on we ventured into heavier material but it never got to even mildly hectic as the MP’s and security staff were on an important base doing very important work and none of us could break down the hard shell in which they had learned to operate.

 

The following day we set off through the corridor towards Berlin, and now it was slightly more serious. We passed through the British checkpoint without a hitch and drove gingerly through the system towards a Russian gatehouse. We had been instructed to sit upright and facing forwards and to put our hands on our knees where they could be seen while a designated person, in our case Wayne, the leader of the band, was to get out, salute and hand over all our travel documents to a very young looking Russian soldier. Wayne and the soldier disappeared into a nearby office and our van was surrounded by other young soldiers in thick great coats, their young close shaven faces reddening in the freezing but sunny morning. One of them inspected the bottom of the van with a mirror on a stick, blowing out snorts of condensing breath, and another checked the inside of the van from the passenger window.

He had spotted a carton of Marlboro cigarettes on the dashboard and seemed to be waiting to be offered some. Steve, the bass player was sat on the passenger side near the window and in one movement he cracked open the window and passed out a couple of packs of 20 from the carton. The soldier caught them and quickly pocketed them and without any expression on his face reached up and removed his cap badge and passed it through the window to Steve.

The boss arrived back in the van with all our documents and a handful of cheaply printed propaganda telling us of the benefits of joining the Russian military and how to go about defecting and signing up. I remember the quality of the photography was actually very high but let down by some cheap or early colour printing process. We drove out as the barriers were raised and onto the next checkpoint which I assumed to be East German. This was almost identical in terms of how we were processed but there was definitely an increase in tension. As we cleared all of the gates and pulled on to the corridor itself, a 160km stretch of autobahn which was strictly controlled from within by the East German police in filthy and colourless Ladas or some other cheap East German version.

We would be timed through the checkpoints and fined if we did it too quickly and in serious trouble if we dawdled through as this would be seen as spying and the consequences not insignificant for this. We had been given a sheet of cardboard that we had to hide and only produce if we broke down. It read, in German, something along the lines of, and I’m paraphrasing here as I don’t recall every word – “I am a western citizen and do not recognise governments of the Eastern bloc, I request to be taken to a western consulate”

We passed through the corridor without incident, though a couple of sights were notable. We watched two policemen, parked up behind a billboard on the other carriage way covering their car with tree branches, hoping to hide and pounce unexpectedly on someone. Also notable was the way western cars stood out against the myriad drab and featureless eastern cars, chugging out black smoke behind them. Who knows what went through their minds as they were overtaken effortlessly by the shiny Porsches and Mercedes heading in both directions. There was also quite a bit of military traffic and just as we were approaching the next checkpoint, up on the right hand side was a tank, half buried and left where it had been stopped by whatever missile had hit it, and just behind that, as if for effect, a chain gang of prisoners being led by two armed guards either end. Their destination unknown, we pulled into a lane that funnelled us towards the next set of gate houses, where the security procedures were identical but reversed, Russian to East German and eventually on to checkpoint Alpha.

Berlin was just fizzing and crackling with something. I want to call it tension, but it was less intense than that. There was certainly a sense of urgency, the city was frantic with commuters and traffic. We were staying at an old hotel in Potsdam and each given separate rooms. It was a winters afternoon and by three it was almost dark as thick black clouds descended over the city. In my room I unpacked a few bits and washed some others in the bottom of the shower tray in the terrifically powered jets while I showered and got ready for dinner. With my clothes all steaming on the massive radiators I made coffee and sat on the bed. In the corner of the room, under a window, was an old radiogram. It had two large knobs and a massive tuning dial. I flicked it on and it lit up. Two fluorescent lines appeared in a small window, spreading towards each other as the valves warmed up. Eventually they merged into a single line and the volume rose. The radio was tuned to a German station so I flicked the dial around. It was fascinating catching the various stations through the static. One of them was an american accent speaking in English but spouting much negative propaganda about the west and equally outrageously positive of the East. Here I was, in a dim lamp-lit room in the center of Berlin listening to this insanity coming from the radio, with the sight and sound of a busy city just inches away from me. I closed my eyes and it was easy to imagine being thrown back to the mid 1940’s when it would have been really charged out there.

After dinner, a lovely warming soup and some meat and dumplings, and loads of tea, we headed for the first of sixteen consecutive gigs. During the tour we played on three different stories of the BFBS building for Sergeants, Corporals and Junior Ranks, or “Squaddies” as they were known. The Squaddies were generally well behaved and even if something got out of hand, strict military rule would quickly bring everything back in order. I remember someone had the bright idea of a social evening to bring the Welsh Guards and the Scottish Guards closer together. In light of some recent tensions between the two, this didn’t seem like a good idea to me and so it proved as the only dancers all night were two of the biggest hulks from each squadron circling each other in front of us for a few songs until the first punch was thrown. All hell broke loose as the guitarists unplugged their instruments and ran off while the drummer and I tried to free ourselves from our head mics and follow.

When we eventually ventured out of the dressing room it was silent. All of the guys were stood to attention around the perimeter of the room while a very stern looking Sgt Major, in red tunic and silver tipped pace stick under his arm paced the room and occasionally barked something at one of the bloodied faces amongst the ranks. Not five minutes before the room had been a total bar brawl, but unlike the wild-west, there were no broken wooden chairs, just a tangled mess of bent metal chairs and tables that had been trampled and used as weapons. We packed down our gear and the disc jockey took over, playing the most inappropriate slushy ballads that bored the Squaddies that were left into leaving. We were brought a crate of beer after the van was packed and three of us got stuck into them before heading back to the hotel and bed. We slept like logs in Berlin, the beds were covered in these enormous feather filled quilts, wrapped in crisp starched white covers and matching pillows. At eight in the morning each day there was a sharp knock on the door. A stern looking dinner lady stood with a pot of fresh coffee and cream and informed me that breakfast finished in one hour. I showered and dressed and headed down for nourishment. An array of ham, cheese and various shapes of bread lay set out along with eggs, boiled and fried, bacon, many sausages and jams and juices. We always ate a big breakfast. One day after such a feast, we headed out to the van. We we’re going on a small tour of the City, accompanied by a DJ from one of the gigs who had offered to show us around.

It was ten in the morning and the thick, black clouds had prevailed, pressing down and exerting even more pressure on the city. The streets were frosty and all the parked cars covered in thick ice.  The noisy traffic on the move were splashing filthy water and slush out towards the pavement.  Street lights were on and it was permanently dusk, all day it seemed to me, but photos of the time show it was not as dark as my memory remembers it.  We headed towards Checkpoint Charlie, a famous border post that sat close to East Germany overlooked by towers on the Eastern side. I thought it would be nice to photograph my foot over the dividing line and actually managed it before I was pulled back.  It was pointed out to me the posture of the guards on the other side looking at me. The “wall” was all around, graffiti’ed and ominous.

 

 

 

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

The Reichstag building was as imposing as the large square court yard in front of it. Echoes of some of the great speeches made to the massed troops that had stood to attention in the square, could easily be conjured up as we stared up at the buildings columns which were still pock marked with bullet holes.

Reichstag

Reichstag

 

We moved on to the Brandenburg gates, also covered in bullet holes and inaccessible to both the East and West, although I seem to recall a few people milling around at the bottom of it, possibly military.  The Gates were also noble and overwhelming, a beautiful structure stranded to the West and one of 18 gates that stood guard over the City of the late 1700’s.

Brandenburg Gates

Brandenburg Gates

We eventually headed towards Spandau where the famous prison there still held the infamous Rudolph Hess. As we drove by, snapping illegally out of the windows and making an equally illegal u-turn in the busy afternoon traffic the feeling came over me that we were very much in a war zone here, hidden under the daily mechanics of a bustling city. Spandau prison gates were as monumental as any war time prisons gates could be. In the busy traffic it had stood guard to seven old men imprisoned there since 1947 after the Nuremberg trials. Just one of them remained and he would die just two years later, completing the life sentence he was given.

Spandau Prison

Spandau Prison

As we neared the end of our 16 day stint and prepared for Frankfurt and then Münich I was reflecting on my time in the City, the bright lights of the center, our passing easily onto military bases and freedom of movement.  The sights and colours were not evident in any view we’d had of the Eastern side, and  I felt a little uneasy that such a dank and depressing city mirrored this one just a few Km away.  Everything over the other side appeared to me almost in monochrome, and I still can’t imagine it in colour unless I think of that cheap printing process on the Russian propaganda back at the checkpoint we had come from.  My own photographs from that trip are not by any means fantastic, it was a point and shoot camera I had at that time and half the time I was too scared to point it in any direction for fear of a gun being trained on me.  But while they are not of the highest standard or quality, they speak of a time and are very personal to me.  Nervous and grainy snapshots of of a world that no longer exists.  I was so fortunate to be able to go there at that time, to witness history and happily unaware of the changes that the city and indeed the whole country of Germany was to go through just a few short years later.  I had a wonderful time and would love to go back one day.  People I know who have been back since say it’s just as exciting and vibrant and with the German Parliament now back and governing from the Reichstag, it truly is one of Europe’s great cities.

 

Read about how I got to play for the troops in the Gulf War 1991

 

 

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