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We're three weeks into January, and New Year's resolutions are already dropping faster than a lapsed gym membership. If you're reading this blog, it's safe to guess that "learn a musical instrument" has appeared somewhere on your list in the last 20 years or so. Worry not, CHIRP listeners: this is the year you finally pick up that guitar/trumpet/mountain dulcimer, and we've got the inspiration to help. Five kinds, actually, all provided by musicians associated with Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. It may take more than a year to catch up to John Prine, but with this list, you'll be equipped to power through.
Chicagoans survived their latest brush with winter weather last week, waiting out Polar Vortex Jr. without dipping into their customary winter emergency kits (for me, a fifth of Old Granddad and a VHS copy of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles). However, most of them did it without the aid of seasonal music; while Christmas carols demand a large share of the popular songbook, songs about general wintertime are significantly harder to come by. To stave off cabin fever, I compiled this list of my five favorites. You probably won't find carolers singing them on street corners any time soon, but they make welcome additions to playlists from here until March.
Before she escaped to Laurel Canyon and started gallivanting around with Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell spent years weathering Canadian winters around Alberta and Saskachewan. That kind of cold sticks with you, even when you leave it. Despite its title, "Urge For Going" doesn't celebrate the kind of California escape that MItchell eventually found; although she eulogizes the death of both a romance and the summer that contained it, she also remains determined to see the cold months out without flinching. "Urge For Going" gained most of its fame by coming out of other people's mouths; the song was a hit for country singer George Hamilton IV in 1967. However, the best rendition comes from picaresque crooner Lee Hazelwood, whose version appeared on his Sweden-only 1973 album I'll Be Your Baby Tonight. Recorded during Hazlewood's stint in Scandinavia, the song takes on an extra layer of yearning; Hazlewood's not only in for a long, dark winter, but also one spent very far from home.
This Sunday marks 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a watershed moment that marked the physical end to a divided city and a symbolic end to the Cold War. Instead of celebrating with yet another spin of David Bowie's Low, I decided to take my headphones to the source. The result? A nearly double-stuffed Top Five of East German bands that helped shape (and reshape) the country during its 41-year existence.
City: East Berlin
Sound Like: Olivia Newton-John being kidnapped and forced to write a Eurovision song
East German Fact: When you're trying to keep the West at bay, start with the language. According to Europopmusic, the band started their life as Familie Silly after East German officials denied their attempt to use an English word for their name.
2) Wolf Biermann
City: East Berlin
Sound Like: The guitar of early Dylan, the populism of Woody Guthrie, the mustache of Sonny Bono
East German Fact: As awareness of Biermann's burgeoning life as a dissident increased in Western folk circles, the singer-songwriter came under close scrutiny from East German officials; according to a 1997 article in German-language publication Cicero, Biermann's declassified Stasi files contained a 20-point plan to smear and discredit his growing reputation.
Sound Like: A Sweet album run through Google Translate
East German Fact: Given the country's tenuous position on the world stage (and artists' troubling predisposition toward getting disappeared by unsmiling men in fur-lined overcoats), the East German government was rightly concerned about defection by its popular artists. The leaders made an exception for Puhdys, which, in 1974, became one of a select few bands from East Germany granted permission to tour in Western Europe. They're still around, too.
City: East Berlin
Sound Like: The opening theme to an unmade John Cusack comedy about being an exchange student
East German Fact: Buoyed by the success of their 1982 record Der Blaue Planet and follow-up Die sieben Wunder der Welt, Karat was awarded the National Prize of East Germany in 1984. They became just the second pop band awarded the honor (after Puhdys in 1982).
5) Klaus Renft Combo
Sound Like: The German Doobie Brothers
East German Fact: The first banned band on the list, the Klaus Renft Combo was unofficially-officially dissolved by the Stasi after their swamp-rock sound made all the kids start growing out their CCR mustaches. Never fear, though; the band reunited in 1990 after the fall of the GDR.
Sounds Like: The punk band that practices in the apartment below you after one too many viewings of The Lives of Others
East German Fact: One of the earliest punk bands in Leipzig, Wutanfall was basically the Minor Threat to L'Attentat's Fugazi. Their repression by Stasi forces had the opposite of the desired effect, drawing attention to the punk cause in the GDR. In English, their name means Tantrum.
Sounds Like: A Sex Pistols album taped off of a Soviet radio
East German Fact: Turns out all of those rumors about Stasi members infiltrating punk bands were totally true. At least, that's the case with L'Attentat (or The Assassination), the band formed from the ashes of Wutanfall's breakup. In addition to turning out some capable punk tunes, L'Attentat fell victim to the authorities with the imprisonment of vocalist Bernd Stracke. The person who ratted on him? Guitarist Imad-Abdul Majid, a veteran of the Leipzig punk scene and paid Stasi informant.
8) Feeling B
City: East Berlin
Sounds Like: An unholy marriage between NOFX and the Scorpions
East German Fact: The East German punk scene would go on to influence Western music in unexpected places. For instance: before scoring their crossover hit with 1997's "Du Hast," Rammstein members Paul Landers, Christoph Schneider, and Christoph Lorenz formed the core of Feeling B, a popular outsider band fronted by the much older Aljosha Rompe. Rammstein singer Till Lindemann was also active in the scene, serving as drummer for the Schwerin-based punk band First Arsch.
9) Herbst In Peking
City: East Berlin
Sounds Like: Billy Idol, if Billy Idol cared about democracy and not just hot ladies
East German Fact: Herbst In Peking became one of the final victims of the GDR's government bans, earning one after lead singer Rex Joswig's protest of the Tiananmen Square Massacre at a concert in Brandenburg in 1989. Working in secret (and occasionally on the run), they recorded their biggest hit, "Bakschischrepublik", just before the wall fell. Heard on radios in both halves of German as the nations swept towards reunification, it represented the work and sacrifice of dissident artists throughout the GDR. Also, there's a sax solo.