Sunday, 14 May 2017

song by song - Checkpoint Charlie

Imagined as the soundtrack of a dark and bleak unmade cold war spy film, Checkpoint Charlie crunched and kicked its way to be the opening track of the bonus CD of the Everything Changes LP. The Berlin Wall lurked in the background of my childhood, through the teenage years and half of my 20's. It was a stark symbol of the the ever present threat of nuclear winter and of course a physical
barrier and a significant cultural reference point, through the writing of Len Deighton (and the Michale Caine films) plus Quiller, John Le Carre and the binary appearance of 'western' freedom with David Bowie and Iggy Pop creating art and expression, while just over the border an average of one in any six people was a Stasi informant, while the cities of opposites competed with each other to be best; if one built a TV tower the other built a taller one with a restaurant in it; if one had a zoo the other had to have more spectacular animals in theirs.
An insular self-contained city deep inside a separate country, divided into four different administrative zones and split from itself by a wall would be the stuff off science fiction if it wasn't real.

The first EP was released in September 1989, and one of the first places it was broadcast was on Kentucky Fried Royalty alternative radio in Berlin, just before the wall came down on 9th November. The following month the Romanian regime collapsed and the Soviet Bloc was crumbling, and with it the cold war. There was a sense that the world had come to it's senses and nuclear war receded into the background... little did we know.
The former site of Checkpoint Charlie - the transit point between the US Zone and East Berlin - now has a recreation of the border crossing booth and a MacDonalds, it is a Grade One listed tourist trap. If you are ever in Berlin try Checkpoint Charlie in the late evening, when the tourists have all gone and the streets are deserted, there is at least a whiff
of the atmosphere of menace as you walk across the street that was an open tract of land between the East and West checkpoints of the wall.

The tune for Checkpoint Charlie was born on a visit to Berlin in 2012, I met up with Lord Litter (the DJ who had played us there 23 years earlier) did an extended interview for his show on Radio Marabu and left a guitar riff on his hard drive. We both recorded very different versions (you can hear them on Soundcloud), mine became the demo-version for the recording for Everything Changes. It evolved and the final LP version has Lord Litter provided the voice of an East German border guard on the introduction, speaking the phrases he had heard so many times before as a native Berlin resident, sometimes while he was smuggling
East German bands master-tapes into the west... I can't think of anyone better qualified to have on the recording.
The closing moments of the album version of Checkpoint Charlie are JFK addressing the people of Berlin and the world's media on 26 June '63, many thanks to the Miller Centre University Of Virginia for providing and allowing use of the audio. Ich bin ein Berliner.

Checkpoint Charlie also appears on this Detour Records compilation album 

If you want to know more about life in former East Berlin try Anna Funder's Stasiland


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