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Book Review: Rock Around the Bloc


Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union
by Timothy W. Ryback (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990) 272 pp., $21.95.

My own taste in music runs along classical lines: Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi and Haydn. And in 20th-century music, I prefer the “Cotton Club” rhythm of Duke Ellington and the sound of the Big Band Swing Era. But the fact remains that the most profoundly influential music of our time has been rock ‘n’ roll. Whereas other music has often been generational, rock ‘n’ roll is a sound that more than two generations now share and enjoy in common. And its impact has been revolutionary.

Its introduction, both in the East and the West, was met with shock and anger by the powers-that-be. In America of the 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll was the music of the devil. Elvis’ pelvis could not be shown on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show. And, as “every right thinking person” knew, rock ‘n’ roll was all part of the world communist conspiracy to destroy the values and morality of Western youth.

In the East, the clandestine arrival of rock ‘n’ roll was met with the same concerns and fears. However, for the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, it was crystal clear that rock music was a capitalist plot, a bourgeois subversion of the grand socialist dream to make a “new collectivist man.” Rock music was another weed in the garden of decadent individualism.

Timothy Ryback’s book, Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastem Europe and the Soviet Union, is an account of the influence and impact of this individualist “weed” behind the old Iron Curtain.

After reluctantly reconciling themselves to American jazz music of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Communist governments of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union found themselves confronted with a new cultural invasion from the West: rock ‘n’ roll. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” took the East by storm. In the eyes of the state authorities, it was a threat to civilization itself to have the youth of the socialist republics gyrating to “ape” music.

As the 1960s arrived, it only became worse for the communists. Said a Soviet newspaper in Lithuania in 1962: “These ‘pearls’ of western culture are part of an imperialist state policy corrupting the masses, promoting low animal instincts, dulling the mind.” In 1961, an East German government newspaper declared that it could demonstrate that Chubby Checker’s “twist” was “being used as an instrument of the imperialists in West Germany in order to prepare young people for war.”

And to counter these capitalist “threats,” Mr. Ryback relates that the East Germans invented a counter-rock dance called “the Lipsi” that “assured continuous body contact, but gave the dancer a sensation reminiscent of the jitterbug.” Alas, only good, young communists at state-sponsored social clubs would swing to it on the dance floor.

Rock ‘n’ roll had just too much appeal to the youth of the East. As Mr. Ryback explains, it was a window to American and Western culture — to the image of all that from which their own governments were protecting them. It was a link to the rest of the world and a freedom from the cultural oppression of their planned societies. Furthermore, it was an avenue for political and cultural revolt against the communist system. The sound, lyrics and dance movements all served as ways to inform the authorities that Soviet youth wanted no part of any “new Soviet man” nor the world in which he was to reside. Indeed, rock music stated their contempt, anger and hatred for the “worker’s paradise.”

The communists tried to break up rock bands. Clandestine rock concerts were raided by the police. Some rock groups were bribed and co-opted by the state through the lure of government record contracts and access to forbidden Western goods.

But the musical forces of the decadent West were just too strong. Black markets in musical instruments, tape recordings of Western and domestic rock bands and “secret” rock concerts were irrepressible. The communist authorities were constantly forced to give ground and allow certain forms of rock to be openly played and recorded.

But it would invariably to “too far.” A crackdown would be instituted, followed by a new wave of black-market activity and a new attempt by the authorities to find a “middle ground.” However, the cycle would merely repeat itself. Rock music as a vehicle for the voice of freedom and personal difference was just too strong, even for the mighty socialist state.

As Mr. Ryback explains, “In a very real sense, the triumph of rock and roll in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has been the realization of a democratic process. Three generations of Soviet-bloc youths have compelled governments to accept outgrowth of Western capitalism. In the course of thirty years, rock bands have stormed every bastion of official resistance and forced party and government to accept rock-and-roll music as part of life in the Marxist-Leninest state.”

But the rock music movement in the East has done more than merely force the state’s acquiescence. It has been one of the spontaneous institutions of the social order that has brought down the collectivist experiment. Certainly a more worthy contribution for any form of music could hardly be imagined at the end of the 20th century.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).