architecture & morality: a theme for great cities

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By the late sixties the drain of profitable industries away from the Cold War frontline left West Berlin’s ageing population feeling the economic pinch, the city’s future prospects looked bleak. Though nominally part of the Federal Republic, West Berlin was hampered by its proximity to the German Democratic Republic; the financial sector, along with the likes of automotive and electronics producers, had migrated westwards where the grass seemed greener, and many young West Berliners were following suit.

Stymied by the existence of ‘the Wall’ and struggling to compete economically with the technology-advanced Ruhr region, war-damaged West Berlin was in need of rejuvenation. And so to encourage enterprises and younger folk to relocate to the city, the FRG government implemented proactive new laws, including the scrapping of conscription for Berlin’s young and tax breaks for new businesses. Thus the authorities actively courted and promoted creativity and diversity which, in turn, sparked energy and tension borne out of subcultural activity, artistic expression and hedonism. By the mid seventies foreigners such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno were able to broaden their horizons as humans and artists away from domestic concerns on either side of the Atlantic through immersing themselves in the vibrant arts and nightlife scene.

Fetishised east

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Wall, East Berliners, many herded together in plattenbauten – high-rise residences constructed from prefabricated concrete slabs – faced daily economic hardship and travel restrictions, their lot compounded by unrelenting state interference in private affairs. Moreover, since occupation the Soviet military had maintained a garrison a short trip from Berlin, in Wűnsdorf, which during the eighties accounted for five-sixths of that town’s overall population of sixty thousand. (Shut off from the rest of Germany, this self-sufficient utopia nevertheless boasted a daily rail link with Moscow.)

Soviet-style tower blocks were erected all throughout Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Red Army’s march of 1945. Norman Davies explains the elitist approach of Poland’s Soviet puppet regime to its reconstruction of that country’s desolated capital: “The priorities in Warsaw’s reconstruction said much about the new ruling elite. The  restoration of the Old City, which was undertaken in loving detail at a time of great austerity,  was shrewdly designed to establish the patriotic credentials of the post-war order. And the provision of high-quality, stone-built, and spacious living quarters for official families was a standard feature of Soviet-style capitals from Moscow to Bucharest or East Berlin. But it contrasted sharply with the cramped and shoddy accommodation provided with much greater delay for the working class in low-grade multi-storey concrete blocks.”

In the West, a lack of credible information coming out of the Eastern Bloc and the resultant paucity of understanding of life under communism prompted a range of responses, including bemusement, indifference and stand-offishness. Even once Bowie, Pop and Eno had inspired all manner of foreign musicians to choose Berlin as a base to reflect, write, record and play, communism, while looming large, remained frustrating distanced intellectually.

The Eastern Bloc was, however, well within range to admire and/or fetishise; and just as Marx is often narrowly read as inherently pragmatic, so too the politics and culture of the communist East were more complex (particularly when fetishised) than the pervading stereotype: grey, cold, modern functionality. Rather, the region was able to inspire creativity in the West to accompany mere aesthetic Cold War fetishism, as foreign themes were easily bent back onto Western democracy and, in particular, Thatcher’s Britain.

Nowa Huta

Eastern Bloc high-rises were largely constructed along traditionalist (anti-modern) lines, but in some areas these structures were, from the fifties onwards, also supplemented with Western-influenced modernism. A case in point is Nowa Huta, which was established early that decade as a socialist utopia to contrast with nearby Krakow where the regime had met with Catholic middle-class resistance.

Projects of social manipulation like Nowa Huta took hold in 1949 when a centralised Soviet planning model was adopted in Poland. Home to the country’s largest steel mill (and never actually completed), Nowa Huta is a city dominated by huge blocks of flats built in Soviet renaissance style overlooking green space. The architecture may not all be modernist but it’s working class inhabitants place the city squarely in streets-in-the-sky territory.

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Steel production in Nowa Huta reached an annual seven million tonnes by the seventies, however by the eighties economic pressures had hit production hard, while pollution had also become a major issue in the city. Andrzej Wajda’s mid-seventies, Solidarity-themed film Man of Marble was set in Nowa Huta with a bricklayer as its protagonist. The communists’ working-class flagship was to become a stronghold of the Solidarity movement to the extent that when martial law was imposed in December 1981, the steelworks were placed under military control. (These days, visitors to Krakow can take an Ostalgic vodka and gherkin-fuelled guided tour of Nowa Huta aboard one of those four-wheeled symbols of communism, the East German Trabant.)

Warsawa

“The first signs of Ostalgia were visible even before the whole affair ended, in pop music, punk and post punk.” the Polish writer Agata Pyzik notes.

“Think of the Human League recording The Dignity of Labour (1979), an album about the Soviet space programme, and then putting Yuri Gagarin on the sleeve; Subway Sect’s Vic Goddard painting his clothes in grey after a school trip to Russia; Scritti Politti’s debut single ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ (1978); Joy Division (who of course were originally called Warsaw); or David Bowie’s countless references to Cold War Europe in “Heroes” and Low, most obviously ‘Warszawa’ (1977).”

In 1973, Bowie’s attention was drawn to Warsaw after he passed through the city en route to Berlin via train. He, fellow erstwhile Berlin resident Eno and the esteemed producer Conny Plank served as both influences and collaborators for various disparate German groups whose experimental approach to sound was subsequently taken on and furthered by British industrial and synthpop/rock musicians.

Across his two 1977 albums, Low and Heroes, Bowie shed light on the alien, island world of divided Berlin and, in turn, the Eastern frontier; Low‘s cold, mostly instrumental track named Warsawa especially evoking the Eastern Bloc to eerie effect.

With its legacy of wartime atrocity and status as a city lost behind the Iron Curtain, Warsaw attained an increasing mythic meaning in the West during the Cold War years. Simon Reynolds describes a mysterious city which added to its World War II connotations “spartan tower-blocks, government ministries straight out of Orwell’s 1984, and disquietingly wide streets designed to allow Soviet tanks to roll down them should the need arise”.

Bowie’s Warsawa can be interpreted both as a requiem to the Warsaw’s dual uprisings of the mid forties and as a sonic representation of a world indefinitely bound by 1955’s Warsaw Pact of socialist unity signed by Soviet satellite states. Synths stand out and, as such, the track contributed heavily to the momentum behind electronic music that swept it to a broader audience.

Knowing little of the city as a living, breathing entity, Bowie produced his own mythical, wintery version of Warsaw and the Soviet-dominated ‘Second World’ region. Quoted in Reynolds, Bowie himself describes Warsawa as a response to “seeing the Eastern Bloc, how East Berlin survives in the midst of it, which was something that I couldn’t express in words. Rather it required textures.”

*****

Electronic punks

It was apparently during the recording of Ultravox!’s self-titled debut that producer Brian Eno received his first call to collaborate with Bowie, having been on hand as said group first experimented with synths on their track My Sex.

When in November 1977 they performed and recorded a session for John Peel in the BBC’s Maida Vale studio, Ultravox! were already tiring of the glam and punk sound which had brought their music to the attention of the influential DJ. That year the group released two records: the self-titled debut and its follow-up Ha!-Ha!-Ha!. With a few exceptions, both albums still drew on the English guitar rock of the musicians’ roots but a hint towards more cerebral ambitions could be found in the band name: the exclamation mark (later shed) was a direct reference to Cologne’s NEU!. Equally informative are the titles of the four BBC session tracks: alongside the distinctly punk-sounding Young Savage sat the more ambiguous My Sex, The Man Who Dies Every Day and Artificial Life.

Futurist tracks like these and the memorable I Want to Be a Machine were initially deployed sparingly, but by 1978 and third album Systems of Romance (recorded with the help of Conny Plank), guitarist Stevie Shears had been replaced by Robin Simon, synths had come more to the fore and a strong interest in all things European had taken hold.

“London was cold, hard, grey and dismal,” frontman John Foxx noted in an interview with Computer Music. “We decided to make music that reflected that… Meanwhile, we wanted out of England at the time. Punk had become senile and Europe was the promised land, as far as we were concerned. We were very interested in the scene around Conny Plank  especially NEU! and Michael Rother and Kraftwerk.”

Born as Dennis Leigh to a working class Lancashire family, Foxx first formed a band at school in Preston, but it was upon 1973’s relocation to London where he spent time at the at the Royal College of Art that he first experimented with electronic instruments. Within a year he formed Tiger Lily with guitarist Shears, bassist Chris Allen, drummer Warren Cann and keyboardist/violinist Billy Currie, a line-up which soon evolved into Ultravox!.

Foxx later recalled, “I felt total affinity with punk, but I was disappointed that it got so conservative so quickly – it really strangled itself. An old man before it was a youth. Born 1975 died 1977.”

Such dissatisfaction was becomingly increasingly common at the time. Another early purveyor of electronic music, Glasgow’s Thomas Leer, describes punk as a “short interruption” (within the sleeve notes to The Bridge, his 1979 joint album with Robert Rental).

“We got to London as it was beginning to die out and already we were getting into the electronic thing,” Leer writes. “We had always been into German music and that tape loop stuff.”

Meanwhile, with his act The The (formed the week of Thatcher’s election), Londoner Matt Johnson sought to marry acoustic instruments with technology, having started in heavy metal and punk groups from a young age.

‘I was working in a studio making tape loops and tape collages, very extreme stuff, so I approached electronic music from this angle, not the conventional one,” he told Melody Maker in 1982. “My background is in experimentation and I think that’s what given my music an edge.

“I hate all these people who come on all poe faced about technology – you know the android bit, pasty faces and robot suits. Technology’s there to be used. When they invented the electric guitar, they didn’t dress up as robots did they? I don’t want any limitations, no formal line up or instrumentation.”

Although post-1980 synthpop bears the obvious influence of Kraftwerk and Klaus Schulze’s electronic sound, it’s just as largely informed by the experimental rock music of NEU!, Cluster and Harmonia, as successfully run through the synthpop/rock of Ultravox!, Simple Minds, Japan and Gary Numan. For these, as well as well-known dedicated synth acts like Depeche Mode, OMD and Soft Cell, Germany appealed not only for its Cold War connotations but also its musical blossoming during the seventies.

Foxx describes Germany as having “a living scene with a real mission”. “German youth had to reinvent itself after that horrific war,” he says. “There was a renaissance in panting, filmmaking, music and all the arts. We benefited immensely from all the energy.”

Much of the music that appealed to Anglo-American sensibilities was borne out of strong internal dissatisfaction with German society; national identity merely being a nineteenth-century phenomenon promoted to serve the cause of nation-building. The Federal German Republic and its allies had sought to draw a line at 1945 and replace Nazi-era nationhood with a new West German federation. However, by the late 1960s much of the nation’s younger generation were railing against the post-war capitalist state presenting itself as shiny and untainted rather than attempting to confront the past.

 

Kraftwerk’s Wolfgang Flur describes the early seventies in Germany as “the tail-end of a global revolution for young people, a generation conflict that could only begin to grow after the Second World War, a nightmare which brought incomprehensible suffering to the nations around us and to our own, provoked by the dreadful mass stupidity and repulsive military fanaticism of a generation submissive to orders”. He wonders: “What did we young people have to be glad about when we thought about our country and about our parents, who had caused it all, participated in it or had at least looked away as cowards?”

Notwithstanding the numerous minimal/new wave outfits active across continental Europe in the first half of the eighties (e.g. Stereo, ADN Ckrystall, Linear Movement and Autumn), there were a plethora of lesser-known UK acts who enjoyed varying degrees of success and longevity.

Naked Lunch, Solid Space, The Fast Set, Neu Electrikk, Circuit 7, Oppenheimer Analysis, Anne Clark, Das Kabinette, Sudeten Creche, The Red Fetish, Passion Polka, Clockwork Orange, Passion Polka, Kym Amps, SS-Say, V-Sor, X, Perfect Vision and Cultural Amnesia – these names remain obscure, while the likes of Camera Obscura, The Loved One, B Movie and Turquoise Days are hardly household.

Meanwhile, North American acts like Rational Youth, Berlin, Futurisk, Mick Milk, Ceramic Halo, Combined Minds, Psychic Youth, Experimental Products and League of Nations ploughed similar territory.

So too the likes of Flowers/Icehouse, Informatics, Systematics, Whirlywirld, Hugo Klang, Metronomes, SPK, Primitive Calculators and Severed Heads in Australia.

***

Showcasing the merging of modernist influences with guitar rock on such gems as Slow MotionQuiet MenJust For A Moment and DislocationUltravox!’s 1978 release Systems of Romance nevertheless failed to strike a chord with the record-buying public. In the fall-out they were dumped from their record label before reappearing, Foxx-less, in 1980. Unsurprisingly, time has seen this incarnation of the group viewed much more favourably. For instance, in 1999 The NME paid wholesome tribute to the Foxx era: “Synthesising late-’70s English pop’s two most important strands – punk rock and the ‘cold wave’ electronics of Bowie’s Low – the original Ultravox evoked an apocalyptic Eurocentric sci-fi world that veered between the hallucinatory and the monochrome.”

Meanwhile, after soundtracking urban dystopianism on his startling debut solo effort, Foxx embraced broader and more traditional instrumentation for his more pastoral follow up The Garden (1981) while returning to his fascination with Europe; vying for top billing with Systems of Romance (the track), this album’s lead single Europe After the Rain is an aural yearning for a continent past if ever there was one.

© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2012/2015.

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