Monthly Archives: June 2014

“West of the Wall”—May It Rise Again

[NOTE: At the end of this article, there is a link to a YouTube video of the song discussed.]

When I had earned a little money selling my mathematical essay “Understanding Imaginaries Through Hidden Numbers” online, I wanted to use it for something extra special. Then I saw that a website specializing in rare, old, and out-of-print books was offering the sheet music for an all-but-forgotten song that greatly interested me. I quickly placed an order, and soon the envelope arrived from Australia.


Cover and inside (music reduced for copyright reasons).

The song, “West of the Wall,” written by Wayne Shanklin, had intrigued me ever since I first heard it several years ago on an oldies radio station. Listening to such broadcasts, I often rediscovered records I had totally forgotten about; but I could not recall ever having heard this one. I liked what I heard, however, and the record (sung by Shanklin’s wife Toni Fisher) intrigued me for non-musical reasons as well.

For such a short-term and relatively obscure hit, it’s quite amazing how many people are still fascinated by “West of the Wall.” … Australian rock historian Glenn A. Baker declared it one of those rare, hard-to-find gems (it has since become available on the 1995 Ace compilation Early Girls, Volume 1: Popsicles and Icicles).

—”Treated to Wall of Protest and Flawed by a Door,” Canberra Times, January 10, 2004.

Here is what I heard coming out of the radio that first time:

(Female singer:)

WEST OF THE WALL I’ll wait for you;

WEST OF THE WALL our dreams can all come true.

Tho’ we’re apart a little while,

My heart will wait until we both can smile.

That wall built of our sorrow

We know must have an end.

‘Til then, dream of tomorrow

When we meet again

WEST OF THE WALL—where hearts are free.

WEST OF THE WALL your heart can come to me.

And in my arms that hold you tight

You will forget the darkness of the night.

The world knows of our sadness, and we are not alone!

WEST OF THE WALL,

That soon will fall,

And you’ll come home.

 

(Male chorus:)

Wall built upon sorrow,

One day you will end.

Hearts true to each other

Will not break, they will not bend.

In our hour of sadness

How clearly we can see

Tomorrow’s gladness—

Free, free, free W(free)EST OF

THE WALL, where hearts are free.

WEST OF THE WALL your heart can come to me.

And in my arms that hold you tight

You will forget the darkness of the night.

The world knows of our sadness, and we are not alone!

WEST OF THE WALL,

That soon will fall,

And you’ll come home—come ho(west)o(of)o(the)o(wall!)ome!

Sung in a tone of breathless sympathy, love, and encouragement, with a hint of maternal consolation, it nevertheless took a defiant, uncompromising, and optimistic stance in opposition to the Wall—much like the attitude of Kira in We the Living toward her enslaved environment. Knowing what I knew about the appeasement and toleration, and even the promotion, of Soviet communist dictatorship during that period, I found it hard to believe such a song could have been written, published, recorded, released, and broadcast. Later, I learned that it had even made a respectable showing on the charts. For example, here were the Canadian hit parade rankings:

June 25, 1962

19. West of the Wall

July 2, 1962

19. West of the Wall

July 9, 1962

17. West of the Wall

July 30, 1962

29. West of the Wall

August 6, 1962

48. West of the Wall

The record did even better in Australia, hitting No. 1. According to the Canberra Times (January 10, 2004),

“West of the Wall” became the 101st Australian No. 1 when it outgunned Gene Pitney’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” on July 7, 1962. It lasted one week on top … . “West of the Wall” did not chart in Britain, but made No. 37 in the US.

Of course, the lyric’s confident prediction “THE WALL / That soon will fall” went unfulfilled; the Wall only came down in 1989. Moreover, “The world knows of our sadness, and we are not alone” was an overgenerous assessment of the cultural atmosphere of the time. Read what a contemporary (anonymous) Time Magazine writer had to say about “West of the Wall” (with particular attention to the phrases I have boldfaced) in relation to a news event:

Few people can look at Berlin’s ugly Wall without wanting to tear it down. Last week someone finally tried. At four isolated spots, mysterious explosions blew gaping holes through the barrier, but East German Volkspolizei quickly sealed each one off before any East Berliners could flee to freedom. The Reds blamed the West for the blasts; Western observers, however, said the explosions seemed to come from the east side of the Wall, hinted at an organized anti-Communist resistance ring.

Whatever the cause of the blasts, they found echoes in the U.S. In its unique way, Tin Pan Alley was joining in the protest against the Wall. Listed by Billboard as one of the “Hot 100” was a rock ‘n’ roll ditty titled “West of the Wall” (Big Top Records). Sample lyrics: [Song quoted more or less accurately up to “the darkness of the night.”]

So mawkishly does the cornball song, with its vaguely Kurt Weillish
tune, exploit the pathos of divided Berlin that the Voice of America has refused to play it, and West German record firms are “apprehensive” about releasing it. Hollywood Songwriter Wayne Shanklin maintains that the record was inspired by a news picture of Bobby Kennedy looking at the barrier. “The Wall offends the dignity of the human being,” he straightfaces. “I want to shape the world a little. I can’t fight with a gun, so I have to use the only weapons at my command.”

—”East& West of the Wall,” Time, June 1, 1962. Boldface added.

Immediately one might look askance at an implication of a merely aesthetic reason for wanting to bring the Wall down—because it is “ugly”—and the equal credibility granted the Communist and the Western explanations for the explosion. These points are debatable, of course, but notice the unmistakable scorn in the other phrases I have highlighted. The reference to Kurt Weill is surely not positive with that adjective “vaguely” and the insinuation of non-originality; the word “exploit” connotes venality; and “pathos” in reference to the tragedy and horror visited on the Wall’s victims is not a word a freedom-lover is apt to choose.

I suspect a further attempt to belittle the song in the reason stated for the Voice of America not playing it: because it was “so mawkish.” Frankly, I do not believe the writer knew this motive for a fact; and no source is cited. The writer goes on to indicate that West German record firms did not release the West Berlin version (titled “Dort in Berlin” [“Here in Berlin”] with lyrics by Hermann Lüth) because they were afraid to do so. This motive is more plausible for the VoA also. But note the doubt thrown on even the German firms’ motives by the skeptical quotation marks around apprehensive.

The most unsettling touch in this article is that word “straightfaces.” Did the writer really wonder how someone could make the statement “The Wall offends the dignity of the human being” without suppressing laughter?

That was then. Things are not much better now. Here is a summary on a website called CONELRAD, describing their CD compilation Atomic Platters: Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security, which includes “West of the Wall”: “An overly emotional track with a defiant tone about a couple whose love is separated by the Berlin Wall, an indelible symbol of the Cold War that, oddly, is rarely mentioned in this genre of songs” (www.atomicplatters.com/more.php?id=108_0_1_0_M9). Is it possible to be “overly emotional” about the destruction of human relationships, of hope, of life itself? (But by the CD’s subtitle alone, one may accurately guess CONELRAD’s attitude to all manifestations of defense against collectivism.)

Despite the record’s moderate chart success in 1962, it was no doubt hampered by the factors I’ve suggested: fear, cowardice, reluctance to criticize the “noble experiment” of Communism, and misgivings about the song’s directness of expression. One can’t discount, too, the usual myopia and sheep mentality in any society that would have inhibited many persons in a position to promote such a pro-freedom statement.

A Proposal

Now, after the unification of Germany, some might see the song as quite dated—merely, as is said above, “an indelible symbol of the Cold War.” But considering that the world remains chock-full of the desperate victims and prisoners of dictatorship, I think “West of the Wall” is still very relevant to our time, and merits some form of resurrection.

Though it is not, in my view, a “great” song—the melody lacks the sort of complexity that most impresses me, and the lyric might be more inventive—it is certainly a good one. I had liked the tune to begin with, but I found the actual sheet music even more interesting. For those who know music theory: (1) The chords turned out to be much more sophisticated than I had supposed. (2) Unusually for a pop song, the key relationship between the verse and the chorus is quite distant (A flat to D). (3) There is a very atypical ending: while the melody ends in D major, the final chord never gets there, but moves rapidly to G major sixth, which suddenly becomes the end tonality. When I first heard the record, I even thought the ending had been cut off, because it sounded inconclusive. But in subsequent hearings this ending seemed fine and added to the song’s impact.

The tune is amenable to a variety of styles besides the one used on the Toni Fisher record. For example, performed slowly it would make a fine ballad or art song, and the unusual ending works even better.

To Shape the World a Little

The sheet music of “West of the Wall” may have been rushed to publication: there are several mistakes in the notation and the chord symbols, neither dynamics nor tempo are indicated, and the lyric uses the spelling “nite.” These glitches might have something to do with Wayne Shanklin’s anxiousness to get the music out into the world, as was intimated in his words quoted earlier:

The Wall offends the dignity of the human being. I want to shape the world a little. I can’t fight with a gun, so I have to use the only weapons at my command.

Shanklin’s noble attempt deserves more recognition than it got then and now. It should not be relegated to the status of a historical curio. I invite Objectivist musicians, or others involved in art and entertainment, to look into “West of the Wall” as a work that has something to say in our time.

••••

Just after typing the above words, I checked YouTube and saw that the first-ever video containing the song was posted only yesterday [this article was written April 7, 2008]. Here is the link:

Click to hear “West of the Wall”

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