Klaus Renft, one of the very few rock stars to make an impact in the old communist East Germany, has died of cancer at the age of 64.
Renft defied the country’s authorities to follow in the footsteps of such rock ‘n’ roll heroes as Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, The Animals, The Beatles, and
East German authorities wavered between tolerating rock music and condemning it as Western and therefore corrupting, which meant Renft’s various bands would occasionally get censored and have their shows canceled.
Official pressure intensified after the Stones played on the other side of the wall in West Berlin in 1965. The East German leaders didn’t feel such bands helped to promote a “socialist youth culture,” not least because so many of the country’s youngsters were imitating the artists’ fondness for having long hair.
After several bands, including Renft’s, were banned, there were violent protests in Leipzig.
By the beginning of the ’70s, the situation had started to ease as the authorities realised some kind of youth culture had to be tolerated.
During this period, the Klaus Renft Combo achieved its greatest success and began writing more and more of its own material.
It was the lyrics to that material, including songs like “Die Ketten Werden Knapper (The Chains Are Getting Tighter), which once again brought the band to the attention of the East German authorities.
One song called “Rockballade Vom Kleinen Otto” (The Rock Ballad of Little Otto), with lyrics by Gerulf Pannach, had references to such sensitive subjects as compulsory military service and escape to the West.
Worried that Renft’s popularity and Pannach’s lyrics might be a dangerous combination, the authorities tried to make them split. They refused.
In 1975, when the band was summoned to Leipzig to have its performance license renewed by the Ministry of Culture, it didn’t even get to perform.
In recent magazine interviews, Renft described the meeting and said the comrade in charge said the act’s lyrics “have absolutely nothing to do with our socialist reality” and that “the working class is insulted.”
She ended the meeting by saying, “We are here today to inform you that you don’t exist any more.”
Renft had taped the meeting and tried to convince the authorities that he had smuggled a copy to a radio station in West Berlin. But by 1976 he had succumbed to the pressure and moved to West Berlin, where he lived in obscurity working as a sound technician for a theatre.
Pannach was accused of “anti-state agitation,” imprisoned for several months and then “bought free” by West Germany, which paid the German Democratic Republic to allow them both to emigrate.
Renft’s own recordings were no longer issued because the state-run recording company simply wrote him out of their catalogs, which led to the band becoming cult figures of the underground.
One Berlin newspaper described him as “the absent idol of East German youth.”
After the collapse of East Germany in 1989, Renft was able to return and get a second career, although there wasn’t so much to protest about and the lyrics lost their bite in a peacefully reunified Germany.
Some critics felt his 1999 album Als Ob Nichts Gewesen Wäre (As If Nothing Had Been) had something of a frustrated ring to it, as he was beginning to become dogged by the ill health that ended his life.
He is survived by his partner, Heike Stephan, two sons and two daughters.
– John Gammon