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Klaus Renft

'Bad boy of East German rock'n'roll'

Klaus Jentzsch (Klaus Renft), rock musician: born Jena, Germany 30 June 1942; married (two sons, two daughters); died Löhma, Germany 9 October 2006.

The East German rock scene spawned many beat and rock acts whose very livelihoods depended on concert income, rather than making records. The Klaus Renft Combo and Renft count among the finest that the GDR (German Democratic Republic) ever produced. Klaus Renft's chequered history and repeated brushes with GDR officialdom made him a perfect witness for Stasiland (2003), Anna Funder's examination of life under the Stasi (secret police) regime.

Funder called Renft "the bad boy of East German rock'n'roll" and the Klaus Renft Combo "the wildest and most popular rock band in the GDR". The Puhdys rank as the GDR's most successful band commercially and City, Pankow and Silly had their moments and high jinks, but when it came to flouting rules Renft was in a league of his own. He courted disaster and official censorship rather assiduously. Accordingly, the state took revenge, as it did against any elements deemed malcontent, decadent, long-haired. Yet, as the Berliner Zeitung summarised so succinctly, "If there ever was a rock legend made in the GDR, then it was Renft."

Born Klaus Jentzsch in Jena, Thuringia, he borrowed his mother's maiden name for his stage name. "Renft" also means "bread crust" in the dialect of Saxony. Somehow he managed to earn his crust playing beat and rock music. He made his first appearance aged 16 in the Leipzig-based Klaus Renft Combo in 1958.

By 1962 they had fallen foul of the authorities - so easy in so many ways in the GDR's era of multiple prohibition. So in 1964 he founded the Butlers, a name as redolently English in Leipzig as the Beefeaters was for the pre-Byrds in Los Angeles. The Stasi duly opened a file code-named "Wanderer".

In 1965 the Butlers were banned from performing. GDR jargon created several variations on Auftrittsverbot (stage ban) and it is unclear which one the Butlers were subject to, but the authorities did not lift the ban until 1967. The new Klaus Renft Combo worked on creating original material, sometimes, as with "Cäsers Blues", setting lyrics to jams. Throughout Rendt's career he remained partial to covering, amongst others, the Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. He once said he thought he would be reprimanded for playing the Stones' "Tell Me"; instead a rebuke was given for the length of his hair.

The group learned this decadent Western filth phonetically, taping Rias (Radio in the American Sector) broadcasts, since Russian was the second language on the GDR school curriculum. Of "Satisfaction", Renft told Funder, "We didn't know what it meant." Coded Renft staples like "Wer die Rose ehrt" ("He Who Honours the Rose") and "Der Apfeltraum" ("The Apple Dream") were heavily scrutinised by fans and state watchdogs alike. Their "Autostop" ("Hitchhiking") not only bottled the Zeitgeist but provided the theme song for a generation thumbing to Erfurt, Prague or Krakow.

The lyricist Gerulf Pannach's arrival in 1969 took the group in a more political, socially critical direction. (Later, in 1986, Pannach appeared as a dissident GDR folksinger in Ken Loach's Fatherland.) The politicking ushered in divisions and divisiveness. In his autobiography Zwischen Liebe und Zorn ("Between Love and Anger", 1997), Renft said,

At the end we Renfts were six musicians with seven opinions, never a homogenous troupe, very often arguing, constantly searching . . . Only on stage were we a group. Sometimes I believe if we hadn't been banned back then, we'd have soon broken ourselves up.

The state record company Amiga was not just the only game in town, but the only game in the nation. Lyrics always came under the burning magnifying glass of argus-eyed apparatchiks. Götz Hintze's Rocklexikon der DDR ("Rock Lexicon of the GDR", 2000) describes the next débâcle. On 22 September 1975, the group were called before the authorities to be told that they didn't exist any longer. Renft had had enough foreign currency to buy a cassette recorder and he taped the interview. He later let on that the incriminating tape was in West Berlin. Overnight, gigs stopped and Renft vanished from the Amiga catalogue. Although some group members stayed, a splinter group, Karussell, became the state-sanctioned shadows of their former selves.

Renft reached West Berlin in 1975, finding employment with the radio station Rias. He later toured, revisited old material and recorded new material. But the title of his 1999 album, Als ob nichts gewesen wär ("As If Nothing Had Happened"), could be taken as a cry of frustration.

Renft's place in the annals of cult European rock music is assured. As the photographer Harald Hausmann wrote in Bye Bye Lübben City: Bluesfreaks, Tramps und Hippies in der DDR (2004), one of the definitive texts about the GDR rock scene,

Music was the bridge. If Renft played [Deep Purple's] "Child in Time", I felt myself freer for the rest of the week. Then I travelled in my thoughts around the globe, became part of the universe.

Ken Hunt