A Note to Readers: The Acton Institute is presenting a special screening of the film Rockin’ the Wall on November 20 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The event features a talk by Larry Schweikart, who worked closely with the film’s producers and is featured prominently throughout the documentary. To register, click here.
Back in my college days, my friends and I debated the merits of military spending by the then-current administration. As this was the 1980s, featuring two terms of President Ronald Reagan, we took somewhat opposing views on whether the United States could outspend the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until it – and its odious ideology – collapsed into the dustbin of history. This argument – believe it or not – was adopted by my friend Ron. My friend John – coincidentally named after the president on whose inaugural he was born, John Kennedy – argued that the revolution would come from within the Iron Curtain rather than without. Eastern Europe and the Soviet states wanted Calvin Klein jeans, jazz and rock and roll music, he asserted, and he was convinced that comrades of the Soviet states and its satellites would tear down oppressive regimes to attain artifacts of Western culture.
As for myself, I vacillated between the two poles. Because I believed music possessed tremendous unifying capabilities and could not fathom a world devoid of its easy access, I could imagine a massive rebellion with an amazing soundtrack. Besides, I grew up watching televised public service announcements for Radio Free Europe, and thought it an admirable enterprise. That is, once I got over my disbelief RFE was the only means by which some people would ever be exposed to The Drifters’ “On Broadway.”But I was also sympathetic to Ron’s persuasive efforts to convince John and me that President Reagan had a clearly defined endgame. It wasn’t until after the Berlin Wall was torn down at decade’s end that the Vatican’s efforts – spearheaded by Pope John Paul II – were recognized by many.
I remembered those long-ago conversations during the recent celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demolition. As it turns out, it was combined political, spiritual, cultural, economic and social pressures that opened the divide separating the East and the West. Of course, there were powerful internal forces and witnesses for freedom (See the 2008 Acton Commentary, “Solzhenitsyn and His Critics” by John Couretas).
But I never stopped believing the spirit of freedom embodied in the best popular music of the West was a major contributor to the liberation of millions of oppressed individuals. Apparently, I’m not alone in that belief as evidenced by Larry Schweikart and Mark Leif’s Rockin’ the Wall, a film that captures music’s ability to inspire freedoms both spiritual and physical.
As if tailor-made for my old friends Ron and John, Rockin’ the Wall presents both JFK proclaiming, “Ich bin ein Berliner” and Reagan demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” More important, however, is the seldom-told and little-known story of how rock music served as a wrecking bar for the destruction of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall. For cultural warriors and pop music aficionados, it’s a compelling oral history accompanied by sinewy electric guitar solos, thundering bass lines, keyboard fills and oppression-busting drums.
A formidable historian tenured at the University of Dayton, Schweikart once upon a time was a rock drummer. His band, in fact, served as opening act for such groups as Steppenwolf, Vanilla Fudge and Mother’s Finest. Rockin’ the Wall includes interviews with members of the latter two, as well as original music composed and performed by the artists specifically for the film. Other musicians appearing in the documentary include Doors’ guitarist Robbie Krieger, George Francis “Shadow” Morton (the songwriter behind such hits as “Walking in the Sand” and “Leader of the Pack”), Yellowjackets’ bassist Jimmy Haslip and Toto keyboardist David Paich.
“It’s about freedom,” Krieger of the artistic form that made his first professional band a radio and dormitory room staple early on in Rockin’ the Wall. The filmmakers draw a line of liberty between American car culture and pop music – albeit avoiding the more libertine elements associated with both. Cars, as anyone recalling their own personal American Graffiti will attest, were often an adolescent gateway to freedom from school and parents. Equipping those cars with radios was the cherry on top. Later, cars were the delivery mechanism for tunes emanating from eight-track and cassette tapes. Friday night cruising my hometown’s main drag while Led Zeppelin and the Who blasted from the speakers was, for this writer, the epitome of freedom from weekday drudgery.
For some of us, there really wasn’t anything to rebel against, but the music was no less important as a marker of freedom and independence. For others, however, rock music was sheer rebellion whether derived from modulated radio frequencies, on a slab of vinyl, a sliver of ferromagnetic tape or polycarbonate disc – especially for those living under totalitarian rule. Life in Eastern Europe is described by the artists in Rockin’ the Wall in quite the same manner as Anne Applebaum in her magnificent book Iron Curtain: gray. The only colors witnessed by those behind the Berlin Wall were those imagined via the synesthesia of rock and roll and jazz. Therein lies the greatest pleasure for this viewer of the documentary: the joy described by former East Berliners upon first hearing Radio Free Europe broadcasts or bootlegged copies of the Beatles and Bob Dylan – and how that music inspired them to buck the system, escape or simply survive the mundane life devoid of culture.
As noted by essayist Stephen Klugewicz on The Imaginative Conservative website this past weekend:
As East German youth began to clamor for more freedom, the communist government became nervous. Rock concerts in West Berlin within earshot of those on the east side had nearly sparked riots in 1987 and early 1988, compelling East German police to use clubs and stun guns to keep the crowds away from the Wall. Soon afterwards, the East German government decided to allow a request by rocker Bruce Springsteen, who had achieved worldwide superstardom with the release of his album Born in the U.S.A. in 1984, to perform in the city. Unlike other bands who had asked for money, Mr. Springsteen offered to play without compensation.
Thus Mr. Springsteen and his E Street Band traveled to East Berlin in July 1988 to play a concert for Germans trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The East German government issued 160,000 tickets for the outdoor event, held in the middle of East Berlin, a safe distance from the Wall. But the crowds swarmed the park where the concert was held, and East German police were forced to allow everyone past the barricades. Estimates of the size of the audience for the concert range from 300,000 to half a million people. East German punk rocker Ronald Galenza, who attended the concert, recalled: “It was really unbelievable. He came onto the stage and for us really it was a shock…some people really cried because they were there and listening to him.”
[Springsteen] then launched into a cover of Bob Dylan’s song, “Chimes of Freedom,” which explicitly calls for hope in the face of oppression…
Springsteen was but one performer in a long line of rock stars who helped inspire the people of East Berlin. His predecessors might’ve remained unsung if not for their collaboration with the producers of Rockin’ the Wall. This writer encourages his readers to, by all means and employing every means necessary, witness for themselves by seeing this truly inspiring film.