Rock Around the Wall

East Berlin's Ike and the Capers on what it was like playing rockabilly behind the Iron Curtain.

The next time you find yourself complaining about the state of the local music scene, consider the plight of Axel Praefcke, guitarist for rockabilly practitioners Ike and the Capers. Praefcke and his bandmates (vocalist/rhythm guitarist Ike Stoye, stand-up bassist Maurice Hagler and drummer Tina Hohne) hail from East Berlin, a community that was once among the most restrictive musical environments on the planet. The obstacles they endured prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall should cause stateside peers to break into a chorus of "America the Beautiful."

Consider, for instance, the difficulties Praefcke encountered en route to becoming a booster of Elvis Presley. On an outing to a town carnival during a government-sponsored trip with his classmates, a then-twelve-year-old Axel did so well shooting pistols at an arcade that he won a picture. "I didn't know who it was," Praefcke says in crisp English that gives few clues to his origins, "but I just loved what he looked like. It was from 1956, and the sideburns tell the story. I went home and my father said, 'Oh, Elvis Presley,' and he told me some things about him, because it was his music when he was young. So I got interested, and I got a guitar from a classmate of mine."

A friend of the family later showed Praefcke a few chords on the instrument. But the burgeoning guitarist lacked a sample of Presley's music. "Just to find records was quite hard," he notes. "It was like a criminal market. And if somebody had a record, he would copy it for someone, and the other guy would have to pay a lot of money for it. Nobody could afford a record because it was so expensive. And we didn't have any books or anything. We had some dictionaries about music, but rockabilly was just a small part of the books. And we only had some radio stations that were for the American soldiers. They would play a lot of rock and roll, and we would tune to that and eat it up. We recorded something even if it was just the last verse of a song."

In an effort to remedy the situation, Praefcke's father dug up what he thought was an old Elvis recording. But after doing his best to emulate the sound on it, Praefcke discovered that he was still in the dark about Presley. As he tells it, "One day, the DJ on the radio said, 'Here he comes, Elvis Presley,' but it was a completely different voice, a completely different sound and everything. I was confused. But I trusted in the man in the radio that this was Elvis, so I started to try and find out what was reality. I asked everybody I could, and I found out that it wasn't Elvis I had been listening to; it was Bill Haley."

This revelation, oddly enough, only strengthened Praefcke's affection for the King. "We all decided to love Elvis Presley," he divulges. "It was his sound and the way that he did it; it wasn't that polished. It's a big difference if you listen to 'Rock Around the Clock' and then 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' by Elvis. The guitars, the solos, everything is different. Then we tried to find out about the other musicians, so we were reading about Billy Lee Riley and all that."

Careful study allowed Praefcke to finally master the art of rockabilly. But he soon discovered that he had more hurdles to clear. "They had something like judges, and if you decided to make up a band, you were forced to play in front of these guys," Praefcke reveals. "If they said, 'Yeah, that's good,' then you could play for an audience. But if they damned it, then you had to quit. This is the reality that happened to us. Everything that was American and had to do with capitalism and big money, they tried to dump it because it was not the way they wanted to be. We had to almost fight for our music. It was exactly the same as in America in the Fifties, when the older guys tried to dump rock and roll."

Fortunately for Praefcke, the 1990 reunification of Germany brought an end to these oppressive conditions. Five years later, Ike and the Capers were formed, and since then, the bandmembers have become rising stars on the European rockabilly circuit, with appearances at numerous venues and festivals in Germany, Sweden, Norway and England. Their latest long-player, Loud and Silent, issued by Germany's PART Records, shows why. The disc roars with primal urgency from start to finish, conjuring up images of moonshine-addled rockers pissed that they weren't discovered in 1954. Recorded in glorious mono on a Seventies-vintage Telefunken tape machine, the slapback-drenched platter is stunning in its lo-fi authenticity and reckless abandon. Equally genuine is the combo's astounding command of the musical lingo of the Fifties. From the opening salvo of "You All'd See Grammaw Rock" (the spelling is one of the few clues that these cats aren't from the U.S.), the band burns. Frontman Stoye's vocals howl and growl, Praefcke's guitar squalls and stings, and Hohne and Hagler pound the rhythm into shape with nimble intensity. Best of all, the band's original compositions hold their own against a handful of well-chosen covers. Many of them suggest unheard B-sides from the likes of Carl Perkins, the Rock and Roll Trio and, of course, Elvis circa the Sun sessions.

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