New episodes every SUNDAY at 2PM (PST)

Friday, September 8, 2023

All Time is Now • Rock 'n' Roll Ends The Cold War!

Rock and Roll Ends the Cold War!!

This week the Cold War officially and symbolically ended on Sept 8th 1994. But many of you probably missed it, if you saw it at all. It was in an unlikely place, The MTV Video Music Awards of 1994. 

First some context… 
When one nation battles another (specifically the USA), we are told that we are fighting for the Hearts and Minds of the enemy. US President Lyndon Johnson used this turn of phrase numerous times in many speeches. And it was actually the official name of the strategy and public relations campaigns for both the war in Vietnam and the second Iraq war. 

President John Adams in 1818 gave it a much better context: "The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the people… This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution". 

So how does one go about doing this? Whatʼs the military strategy? How big is the budget where one can even achieve this? Who or what could actually win over the Hearts and Minds of the enemy? 

What was NOT officially sanctioned by any US President or British Prime Minister, was the good work done in the name of freedom by the unofficial Cultural Embassadors; Yes the Cool Rockinʼ Daddies and Hep-Cat Kitties of the Rock ʻnʼ Roll Revolution kick started in Memphis back in 1954. And you have the British and American Rock n Rollers to thank for that. The Right Honorable Rock n Rollers, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and The Beatles, & The Stones.

The Eastern Europe/Soviet communist experience with Rock ʻnʼ Roll and The Beatles in particular is unlike anything that anyone in the West could imagine. There is no lightning bolt moment of a Sunday night Ed Sullivan TV appearance to excite and unite. You couldnʼt see Elvis at the movie theaters in the Eastern Block. It was even rare to see any pictures. So itʼs not about hairstyles, shaking hips, matching suits, or psychedelic jackets. It is literally just about the music. 

The music was passed around on the black market often on old used X-Rays that could be used as flexi-discs. No picture sleeve, no liner notes, no credits and in many cases, no song title or artist even. “Got any bones?” The sound quality was awful but what came out was exhilarating, Little Richardʼs voice still cut through.  

— Soviet bootleg Rock 'n' Rolls on Bones / X-Ray cut platter —

Try and imagine the reverse, you live in the West and you hear, say some banned Iranian Folk tunes and it thrills you, or some Russia Balaklava music from 1959 and you would be willing to risk arrest and spend half a months wages just to hear it again (any of it) by any artist. And when you got your hands on some bootleg recordings, you didnʼt turn it up, no, you would have to listen quietly with your ear right next to the speaker rather than risk your neighbor overhearing and reporting you to the authorities. Such was the lengths of a music fan in the Eastern Block. 

The Soviet State got hip to this and started making fake “rib” bootlegs. You would get home with your contraband, flatten out your new purchase between some books, wait a while, put on the record, and there would be a few seconds of Rock ʻnʼ Roll music, then a voice (in Russian) came on… “So you thought youʼd hear the latest sounds? You would like to hear some American music?” also laced with some humiliating insults, then silence. 
Think they got any sleep that night?

Did I mention that, these music fans also donʼt understand the language? You could hear the rhythm of vowel sounds of a rhyming couplet, but what was the message, the meaning. You were told over and over again that this was the propaganda of the Western Imperialists. Eventually, some of the songs would be translated, as you wanted to know what the singer was singing about; they could hear that Russian composer Tchaikovsky was mentioned in Chuck Berryʼs “Roll Over Beethoven”, but why? Was it an anti U.S.S.R. song?

 “You know, my temperature's risin' 
and the jukebox blows a fuse 
 My heart's beatin' rhythm 
and my soul keeps on singin' the blues 
 Roll Over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news” 

The other banned songs were hipster tales of love and loss, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Rock Around The Clock”, “True Love Ways”, “And I Love Her”, “We Can Work It Out”, “Satisfaction”, “All You Need Is Love”… 
This was the propaganda message from the West the Sovietʼs were not supposed to hear?!? Learning the language of the West through the fun poetry of Rock ʻnʼ Roll humanized the West in a way no military could.

The Berlin Wall was first constructed in Aug of 1961 and came down in 1989. 
The Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin by the Wall, was the site where visiting US Presidents Kennedy and Reagan gave their memorable historical speeches; Kennedy spoke at the Berlin Wall just two years after it was erected, and gave his now famous speech… “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner! (I Am a Berliner!)” 

— President Reagan in Berlin - 1987 —

On June 12 1987, President Ronald Reagan with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on the dais to his right said, “We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall.” 

For any great speech to have any historical resonance, it not only depends on the charisma of the speaker, the wise words of wisdom spoken, but it lives or dies on who is listening. If it falls on deaf ears it hasnʼt moved the discussion an inch. It really depends on how the speech effects the actions of the listener afterwards. Who is listening? Reagan no doubt deserves some credit, for his inspiration and for this speech in helping eventually bring down the wall. But, the speech was actually not widely reported at the time. And can you imagine in another time Brezhnev hearing any of this?!? More important was Reaganʼs personal relationship with Gorbachev. That they genuinely liked each other and that Gorbachev was listening. It all combined to have an enormous effect. Some in the US give Reagan way too much credit, and Gorbachev not nearly enough. For it was also Gorbachevʼs reforms in Russia with Perestroika and the revolts in Eastern Europe that had an even bigger hand in the changes to come and the Wallʼs eventual collapse. 

— Concert for Berlin / The three day open-air festival —

A week prior to Reaganʼs speech in June of 1987 in front of the Reichstag, the very same place where both Kennedy and Reagan had given their speeches, West Berlin hosted a three-day "Concert for Berlin" on the cityʼs 750th anniversary. The three headliners of the open-air festival were (to an audience of 70,000 each night), David Bowie, The Eurythmics, and Genesis.

The producers of the event set up several speakers facing backwards out to the East to blast the forbidden Rock ʻnʼ Roll out over the wall. Halfway through the first nights show Bowie performs “Heroes”, a song recorded in West Berlin ten years earlier about two lovers kissing under the shadow of the Berlin Wall. Introducing the song, Bowie speaking in German to the crowd says, "We send our best wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the Wall." The song reverberating and echoing out over the buildings into the East never meant as much as it did that night...

“I, I can remember, 
Standing, by the wall 
And the guns shot above our heads 
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
And the shame was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever 
Then we could be Heroes, 
just for one day”  

A crowd of 2,000 East Berliners started to head to the wall and found the streets cordoned off. There was fighting in the streets and 200 people were arrested. There were clashes on the streets all three nights, with the East Berliners chanting, "The wall must fall!" and "Gorby get us out!"

— German TV footage of East Berlin music fans —

The next year in June 1988 the headliners were Pink Floyd, and Michael Jackson. Again a crowd gathered on the Eastern side of the wall to hear the music. Can you only imagine hearing the opening bassline to Billie Jean and the roar of the crowd reverberating and echoing down the East Berlin streets? And the mix of excitement and frustration of having never, ever been to a Rock Concert. The tensions escalated on the night of the Michael Jackson show into violent clashes with many East Berlin music fans beaten and arrested.

This was getting out of hand and embarrassing, even to the leaders of the German Democratic Republic. In the wake of the concerts, and aftermath, the GDR realized it had made a mistake. In an attempt to improve their image with the youth and people of East Germany, the GDR, led by Erich Honecker, invited Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band (who were on tour in Europe at the time) to play a month later in July. 

Erich Honecker, the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party since 1971, had been the prime organizer of the building of the wall back in 1961. And was a communist hard liner who tried to slow the progress and changes made by Gorbachev. The mere thought of a man like this reaching out to an American Rock musician to help him with the "image" of the 
GDR would have been better suited to a Roger Corman B-Movie or a 1970s underground comic. But it was really happening, and happening fast.

While Reagan had spoken to 45,000, Springsteenʼs afternoon gig was attended by 300,000 and broadcast on television (with a two minute delay) to millions.

About an hour into his set Springsteen, under a keyboard bed intro with a piece of paper in hand, spoke to the crowd in German, saying: "I'm not here for or against 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." Then the band went straight into Dylanʼs poetic, “Chimes Of Freedom”.

— Bruce Springsteen in East Berlin "Chimes of Freedom" —

It was a truly inspired moment. Bruce chose his words carefully. And yes, it was censored on the East Berlin television broadcast, but was heard loud and clear by everyone there at the show, and the short speech was broadcast on all the major West Berlin News Reports that night. 

While a short speech might be censored, the songs werenʼt. Along with Springsteenʼs originals, there were the covers, John Lee Hookerʼs “Boom Boom”, Edwin Starʼs “WAR”, Elvis Presleyʼs “Canʼt Help Falling In Love”, and finishing off the night with Arthur Conley/Otis Reddingʼs “Sweet Soul Music”, Sam Cookeʼs “Having a Party”, and The Isley Brothers/The Beatlesʼ “Twist and Shout”. The romantic themes in Springsteenʼs music cut right through to the heart and soul, the idea (and ideal) of a reunited Germany. The effect far and wide of these words and melodies being broadcast across the country uncensored cannot be overestimated. Thatʼs what inspired the locals. For most, not to run off and escape to America, but a yearning for the freedom that America represents and to make their home a better place.

While the GDR thought the concert would appease the people, the concert only fired them up. The East Germans wanted more Rock ‘n’ Roll and the freedom that it symbolizes. A few months after that concert, Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany, resigned. The protests only increased and a wave of refugees leaving East Germany for the West had increased and had found their way through Hungary via Czechoslovakia. Thousands were showing up at the border overwhelming the guards.

They didn't storm the gates, this was the "Peaceful Revolution". On Nov 8th, to try and deal with the sheer number of refugees willing to leave, the politburo decided to allow border crossings between East and West Germany. The new regulations were to take effect the next day. And on Nov 9th the Berlin Wall came down.

No bloodshed, no tanks, no bombs.
What got under their skin?
Was it a political agenda?
A religious fundamentalism?
By the barrel of a gun?

The military has its role to defend, to serve and protect (we hope) the people and its borders. But it can only do so much. Rock ʻnʼ Roll doesnʼt threaten anyone with eternal damnation, or intimidation of physical violence. Everyone is welcome, come on along, have you heard the news? Thereʼs Good Rockinʼ tonight! And the kids wanna rock.

In the rocumentary, “How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin”. A Russian music fan says about The Beatles music... "You hear it, and you want to be a part of it."

Rock 'n' Roll had shown the way and the Russians and Eastern Europeans felt an unshakable loss of belief in their own system. It was undeniable.

The spirit of revolution?
The spirit of revolution was a Western promise of freedom and expression. A Culture of Revolution. A sacred revolution of the heart.

The seeds were sown by Elvis and Little Richard in the fifties, and it took root and blossomed with The Beatles in the sixties and beyond. There was thirty years of Rock ʻnʼ Roll lighting a fire and sliding through the cracks. With all the changes happening to Germany and the Soviet Union, Springsteen was up at bat with the bases loaded, with Bowie on third, Pink Floyd on second, and Michael Jackson on first. They had set the stage from the West. But Bruce was there on the other side of the Wall, at the right time and the right place to knock it right out of the park.

Winning over their Hearts and Minds and their Hips and their Feet as well.

Rock ʻnʼ Roll Music inspired, excited and subverted, hitting deep, physically, mentally, and spiritually, where no bullets can ever go.

In 1989 the borders had come down, the Wall came down. And the time was right for dancing in the street.

Which brings us back to that infamous moment, five years later and thirty years ago this week. Strip away the spectacle of what looks on the surface to be just another American Pop ʻnʼ Roll Award Show with some cringe worthy hairstyles, and you will find in actuality, a no more symbolic moment of the Cold Warʼs end than the MTV Video Music Awards of 1994. Thatʼs right.

The MTV VMAʼs traditionally like to open with a big surprise like the memorable opening in 1991 with Pee Wee Herman at the height of his controversy asking, “Heard Any Good Jokes Lately?”
And then they like to end the show with a big (they hope) show-stopping moment; a climatic confetti spewing huge shebang with alternately, a large balloon drop, dancing dwarfs, and/or Axl Rose running around out of breath, etc. etc.

The MTV VMAʼs of ʻ94 were hosted by Rosanne Barr at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. It was broadcast around the world and was seen by 250 million people in over 100 countries world-wide.

The broadcast opened with the surprise of Michael Jackson hand-in-hand with his new “bride” Lisa Marie Presley welcoming everyone to the show. Resembling a sort of over-blown Pop Royal Wedding reception, he kissed his new bride and they walked off. And then the show got underway.

The show ended with the Leningrad Cowboys with the Alexandrov Red Army Ensemble. The Leningrad Cowboys are actually Finnish and were put together (much like The Monkees) for the popular Indie film, “The Leningrad Cowboys Go America”. This time they were out promoting a sequel, “The Leningrad Cowboys meet Moses”. They form quite a striking profile with their painted red stripe suits, foot tall pompadours and extra foot long pointy shoes.

But, in all the goofy pompadour and circumstance of the MTV broadcast, it was maybe too hard to see what was really happening... yes the Leningrad Cowboys are from Finland, but behind them actually was the Russian Red Army Choir (not a stage name) made up of Soviet soldiers or to give them their proper title, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation under the leadership of President Boris Yeltsin. It might have looked like a staged novelty goof off to anyone watching in the West, but there they were, the Russian Red Army Choir and Ensemble singing an American song, a Southern American Rock song at that, Lynyrd Skynyrd's, “Sweet Home Alabama.”

— MTV Video Music Awards of 1994 —

To put it another way… there is no more symbolic a moment, that the war has finally ended than bringing the enemy Army into their enemyʼs Capital City, putting them up on a stage and broadcasting live, for all the whole world to see, here was the enemy singing their enemyʼs song.

They were not coerced, they were not forced at the point of a gun, they were not tortured into submission, and this wasnʼt a condition of their release.

The war was over and you know what, the Russians were only too glad to be there, singing at the top of their lungs, and you know why? 

Because they LOVE ROCK ʻnʼ ROLL!!!

But after all is said and done, 
It's only Rock 'n' Roll. 


All Time is Now with DJ Shark
Heard 'round the World
For your listening pleasure, 
and to share with your friends,
additional episodes can be found at…