Mark Reeder is a bit of a Zelig-type character in Berlin music history. He moved to Berlin from Manchester in the late ’70s and after a short stint doing promotion work for Factory Records bands like Joy Division, he started his own band, Die Unbekannten. The group performed at the infamous Festival Genialer Dilletanten, and firmly established Reeder as a member of the underground scene in the city. Reeder went on to set up secret gigs for Die Toten Hosen in East Berlin, help guide Paul Van Dyk’s early career and star in the gorefest NEKRomantik 2, so he clearly has stories for days, but we decided to get him to talk to him about one of the strangest: Recording the East Berlin band Die Vision in 1989. They obviously couldn’t have known it at the time, but the album would go down in history as the last record recorded in East Berlin before the Berlin Wall came down. As Reeder tells it, one of reasons that the East German authorities probably went for it was so that they could keep an eye on him.
How did you get in touch with Die Vision?
I had seen them play really early on when they were called Komakino, which was also the name of a Joy Division song. When I went to parties in East Berlin I would always run into Uwe Geyer, who was the singer. They were always seen as being the East German indie band, and one of the only bands in East Berlin that sang their songs in English. There was a real rigmarole to perform your music in front of an audience in East Germany. We take it for granted: You go to a shop, you buy a guitar, you form a band, find a gig, go on stage and play. Well, in East Germany it wasn’t like that at all. In most cases you had to perform in front of a group of old guys to test your proficiency so you could get a piece of paper that said you are capable of playing an electric guitar. And, with that piece of paper, you could go to a shop and buy a Czechslovakian guitar. (You couldn’t get a Fender obviously.)
Geyer, wanting Die Vision to be the East German Joy Division, thought that having me in – the guy who had been the representative for Factory Records in Berlin – might somehow rub off.
So this spurred a DIY ethic. I was doing research for an English TV show called The Tube in 1983 and I needed a young East Berlin band, and I couldn’t find anything. The show wanted a punk band, and I had to tell them it was absolutely impossible. “They don’t exist officially, and we’d never get permission to film them anyway.” Punk didn’t exist to the East Germans, because it represented unemployment and East Germany, being a country of workers didn’t have any unemployment, therefore punk didn’t exist. Anyway, I was looking out of a tram and saw this guy wearing drainpipe trousers and slightly spiky hair. He looked like a very clean, well-to-do punk. I leapt off and stopped him and I said, “You’re obviously in a band.” And he was like, “Yeah, we’re going to our practice now.” I went along with him and noticed that the keyboard player had made his own synthesizer and the guitarist had made his own guitar because they hadn’t done the proficiency test.
Getting that band, Jessica, on The Tube was a whole other story, but it meant that I had some experience with the East German authorities. I knew Die Vision privately and they knew my background a little bit. Geyer, wanting Die Vision to be the East German Joy Division, thought that having me in – the guy who had been the representative for Factory Records in Berlin – might somehow rub off.
Tell me about the beginning of the recording.
I was invited to the enormous building that used to be the Reichspräsidentenpalais. This is the place that Hermann Göring had his office. They had a tunnel in the cellar that they used to set fire to the Reichstag back in 1933. To get anywhere near it, you had to go through a police cordon because it was right up against the Wall. So I have to go from one control to the next and, when I finally get up to the building, I’m met by a woman who opens up this huge leatherette ledger and says, “OK, when do you want to start?” I said that I would probably need about six weeks and that I’d need total lockdown of the studio – so that I could come in whenever I wanted. She said, “No, no, no. You can come in at 7 AM on Monday until 1. On Tuesday, you can work from 1 to 6... This is socialism. We work in shifts.” So we started working in shifts at the studio on Brunnenstrasse, which was also right up against the Wall. It was like the East German version of Hansa. Quite a good studio. They had a Steinway piano, a Fender guitar. They had bought it all in the ’60s, so by that point it was all antiques, but they kept it in great shape.
Going back, why did the state-controlled record label, Amiga, sign them in the first place?
The success of the band was getting to the point where the authorities knew they could either ban them or try to control them. The success was partly because they were one of the only bands to sing in English.
It seems odd that a group in East Germany would sing in English.
Geyer was studying English at Humboldt-Universität, so he was allowed to. Most East Germans bands weren’t allowed, aside from maybe a cover song. That’s another reason they brought me in to produce the record – they needed someone who could understand English. A lot of the original versions of these songs were written in English-ese. A friend of mine, Dave Rimmer, sat down with Geyer and tried to put his English-ese into English so that he could sing it and have it mean something. We tried to put some subliminal things in the text so that those who could understand it would get it and the authorities wouldn’t veto it. “Doomsday” had all those elements I think. It was quite on the edge. When we began making this album, there started to be political changes in East Germany. It was already kind of falling apart. For these kids to get up and sing about “After the Sunset” on stage was very brave. It’s kind of hard to conceive, now, of a situation where a band would get their songs vetted by a committee of old men who were able to tell them, “These songs need to be changed to be more accessible to our youth.”
How did the recording go?
The atmosphere wasn’t fun, enjoyment and excitement. “Wow, we’re making an album!” It was a constant, “what’s going to happen next?” You’d hear every day that someone else had a friend that had found a way to escape to the West.
Over the years I’ve met so many people that know this album inside and out but have never owned a real copy.
The recording itself took ages. The drummer left the band after the second session. I went back to West Berlin and got a drum machine so we could record basic drum tracks. I spent a week with a friend programming them and, eventually, the guitarist’s brother came into record the drums. Also, the recording in shifts thing made it difficult. I noticed the older guys that came in and were recording classical and folk music really preferred to come in early. So I asked one of them if they wanted to swap a shift. He was so enthusiastic. “Do you have any more you want to swap?!” I ended up swapping all of my early shifts so that I could then work all the way through the night. Me and the engineer, Dieter, who lived off Cabinet cigarettes, Ersatzkaffee and the occasional Käsebrötchen. (I never saw him eat anything else.)
Dieter was a genius. He basically had built the studio himself. We had a 24-track tape recorder, which looked like an Otari because it was housed in the box, but was actually all sorts of different products mixed together. I remember there were these constant fluctuations of energy from the power supply. The lights would dim during the power surges. We would also have to be careful with the recorder because the tape recorder would go on and record on all channels, wiping everything we had done. That happened twice.
The cover is very distinctive. And so is the album title, Torture. Can you tell me a bit about how those things came to be?
Well, I chose that particular title for the album because it was how I felt while making it. We were all influenced in some way by the changing political situation and I thought the title reflected more or less what we were all going through. It was torture to make.
I wanted East Germans to look at that picture and understand what the meaning of the word torture could also be.
Not only having to deal with working in shifts, or the meddling of the authorities, but also with the difficulties within the band, such as the petty power struggle between the keyboarder and the band’s singer, which culminated with the keyboard player leaving before we finished the album. Or the constant fear the power might go off and wipe everything you had recorded. Or dealing with the five millisecond delay between the remote control unit which controlled the tape deck. There was also just the every day pressures of trying to get the album finished while this uncertain political situation was unfolding. The future was undoubtedly uncertain for everyone living in the GDR. The title just seemed fitting.
The cover art image was taken from a painting by an African American artist living in Berlin named Cynthia. After much persuasion she kindly let me use her painting of two people she had actually photographed while in Africa. They had once been sugar cane workers who had their hands chopped off for not reaching their quotas. This sad, striking image had affected her so much that she painted a series of pictures. It certainly impressed me.
I think it is a very stark work of art and so I chose one of her paintings for the album cover. I thought it would be quite controversial for the band to have two black people on the cover instead of the usual dreary band photo and it would be different and unexpected for their East German fans in general, who were not always confronted by such imagery. I also thought that East Germans were always moaning on about how difficult their lives are/were under the Communists, and how hard it was to get by, waiting ten years to buy a cardboard Trabi car. Well, there are people out there who have had their hands cut off because they didn’t harvest enough crops and they probably live in a mud hut with no electricity or running water either. Difficult? They really don’t know what that means. I wanted East Germans to look at that picture and understand what the meaning of the word torture could also be. The cover artwork and text I made together with Dave Rimmer, who had a computer.
When did you finish the recording?
We finished it on the 2nd of November. 1989. I decided we needed a break after the recording. I had planned a holiday with some friends throughout Eastern Europe. That’s another story. When we came back at the end of November, the whole world had changed. The Wall had come down.
What happened to the record then?
The engineers at the studio were thrilled at the opportunity. It was suddenly decreed that we would be producing the album in West Berlin. So I found a studio that had a Solid State mixing desk which of course impressed the East Germans.
Was it billed as the last album recorded in the East when it came out?
No one gave five minutes to that thought. We didn’t think about it until much later. We had something like 37,000 pre-orders from all these kids in the DDR anticipating the release of this LP. The A&R would come in daily to the studio and tell me he had more orders in and I was thinking, “37,000 orders? We haven’t even finished recording it!” These people had paid one East German mark to reserve their copy in the shop. Whatever happened to that money, I have no idea.
They made, I think, about 1,000 CDs and 2,000 vinyls when it eventually came out. At that point people didn’t really care. They wanted to buy Pink Floyd, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys. All the things that had been forbidden. It did well, though, considering the situation it was released under. It could have completely disappeared. A lot of people copied it onto cassette and passed it around. Over the years I’ve met so many people that know this album inside and out but have never owned a real copy. I think for a certain section of East German kids, this album meant a lot.