Rocking the Wall: East German Rock and Pop in the 1970s and 1980s
The influence of popular culture was viewed as dangerous and potentially subversive in communist Eastern Europe (as previously discussed on The View East here). Consequently, the regimes in power attempted to monitor and control the music scene. Musicians were faced with high levels of censorship, while those who were unwilling to conform to state restrictions frequently became targets for harassment and repression. This article, by guest author James Shingler, considers the impact of popular music in the GDR during the 1970s and 1980s. By exploring the changing relationship between state authorities, musicians and music fans in the GDR during the latter decades of communist rule, James suggests that by the end of the 1980s the music scene had become an important platform for promoting reform and resistance.
Rocking the Wall: East German Rock and Pop in the 1970s and 1980s
By James Shingler.
Throughout the forty years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) viewed the impact of popular music on East German youth culture with a mixture of suspicion, distain and hostility. The official view promoted by the SED was that popular music was nothing more than a dangerous American cultural weapon designed to corrupt its young people, turning them away from socialist ideals. The cultural, economic and political freedoms expressed through Western popular music were of great concern to the Party, so as the Cold War developed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the SED increasingly took a hard line towards popular music. However, the early 1970s saw a relaxation of the hard line policies that the SED had implemented in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than outright repression, the official policy became one of attempted cooperation between the Party, musicians and fans. The accession of Eric Honecker as General Secretary in 1971, combined with a period of détente in the Cold War, led to some liberalization of popular music in the early 1970s.
The early 1970s saw the official release of records by a number of Western artists in the GDR, including The Beatles and Bob Dylan as well as home grown rock bands such as The Klaus Renft Combo and The Puhdys on the state record label AMIGA. East German rock music developed its own distinctive style and grew rapidly throughout the 1970s. The SED actively encouraged musicians, so long as they were prepared to comply with the Party line, something which was policed by the requirement for a state-issued Auftrittserserlaubnis (performance permission) to allow groups to play publicly. Political controls over the media, such as the 60/40 clause (which stated that 60% of all music broadcast or performed had to come from the GDR or other Socialist States); the fact that Western bands were not permitted to play in East Germany and the state monopoly over the production and distribution of records meant that ‘approved’ East German rock bands were essentially ‘protected’ against foreign competition.
However, state policy remained restrictive and was frustrating to those artists who expressed themselves in a way that the SED disapproved of. Song lyrics would be examined by officials before artists were permitted to release their records on AMIGA. Failure to comply with official guidelines had far reaching consequences as illustrated by the case of the Klaus Renft Combo who were banned in 1975. On 22 September 1975, the band were summoned to the Ministry of Culture to perform in order to have their Auftrittserserlaubnis renewed. On arrival however, the band were told by a member of the committee that ‘we are here to inform you today, that you don’t exist anymore’. The committee told the band that their lyrics ‘had absolutely nothing to do with socialist reality… the working class is insulted and the state and defence organisations are defamed’. In the aftermath of the hearing the band discovered that not only were they unable to perform concerts, but that the Ministry of Culture had reprinted the entire AMIGA catalogue so they could leave the band out. As Renft acknowledged ‘we simply did not exist anymore … just like in Orwell’ (Klaus Renft speaking to Anna Funder, Stasiland, Granta: 2004). Shortly after the hearing Renft defected to West Germany where he found employment as a radio DJ. Two of his colleagues in the band, Gerulf Pannach and Christian Kunert, were less fortunate and were imprisoned until 1977 when West Germany bought their freedom.
The Klaus Renft Combo, a successful East German rock band who were banned by the authorities in 1975:
The early 1980s marked a high point for indigenous popular music in the GDR with bands such as The Puhdys, City, Karat and Silly achieving widespread popularity. These bands wrote their own music and sang in German, in stark contrast to earlier groups who had largely replicated songs by Anglo-American artists, and held relatively privileged positions in the GDR music scene, as reisefähige (travel-capable) bands. This led to limited musical exchange between East and West Germany, with The Puhdys, City and Karat permitted to tour inWest Germany, while the SED also allowed a limited number of Western artists to play in the GDR.
The Puhdys, an indigenous East German rock band, were widely tolerated by the authorities:
Regardless of the privileged positions that these bands held, they still were subjected to a lyrical tightrope between expression and censorship, which meant that any critical sentiments had to be concealed. According to Toni Krahl, the guitarist and singer of City‘every line was weighed and politically sounded out… not only by the censors, but also by the audience’. Maas and Hartmut state that ‘the poetry of GDR-rock was highly developed and the audience became use to reading between the lines’ (Maas, Georg and Reszel, Hartmut, ‘Whatever Happened to…: The Decline and Renaissance of Rock in the Former GDR’, Popular Music, 17/3 (1988), pp. 267-278). Despite the popularity of these bands they received criticism from punk and dance fans who suspected that established rock musicians were too close to the powerful. The biggest GDR musicians thus found themselves stuck in the middle of conflict between the Party and young people. As Olaf Leitner states ‘the leadership [the SED] demanded conformity, the fans opposition’ (Olaf Leitner, ‘Rock Music in the GDR: An Epitaph’, in Ramet, S.P (ed.), Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia, Westview Press: 1994).
While more mainstream artists enjoyed relative success and freedom, the early 1980s also saw the emergence of a distinctive GDR punk rock scene, which was quickly dismissed by the SED and the FDJ as subversive and a dangerous phenomenon. The East German punk scene differed from Western punk; according to Patricia Simpson in Britain and the United States punk was seen as a response to ‘unemployment, to middle-class lifestyles, ethics, and privilege, and to cultural boredom’. Punk bands such as The Sex Pistols and The Clash in the UK and The Ramones and The Dead Kennedys in the US ‘adopted forms of an ideology that was anti-ideological and behaviour that mocked approved social customs and manners by inverting gestures of the socially acceptable’. Conversely, punk in the GDR adapted the sound and fashion of Western punk to the political, social and cultural environment that existed in East Germany at the time. Simpson argues that, ‘with no official unemployment to complain about, for example, GDR punk instead negated the prevailing work ethic, whose purpose was to maintain freedom or strengthen socialism’. In the West, punk was viewed as a nihilistic movement where as in the GDR, punk was fuelled by optimism and an aspiration to revolutionise society (Patricia Simpson, ‘Germany and Its Discontents: Die Skeptiker’s Punk Corrective’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 34/3 (2000), pp. 129–140).
East German punks remained on the outskirts of mainstream society; a Stasi report from 1981 estimated that there were around 1,000 punks and 10,000 sympathisers in the GDR (Mike Dennis, The Stasi: Myth and Reality, Pearson: 2003). Punk was primarily an underground movement; many bands performed concerts in their own garages and recorded and distributed their music on self made cassettes. However, as the movement grew, Stasi agents were increasingly able to infiltrate the punk scene. As with jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and beat music fans in the 1950s and 1960s, punks were subjected to a campaign of repression from 1981 onwards, involving the usual Stasi tactics of arrests, interrogations and prison sentences. The SED associated punks with degeneracy, especially in their appearance, believing that their scruffy clothes and dyed hair portrayed an aggressive, provocative manner. A Mohican hairstyle was often sufficient for a punk to be hauled into custody by the police. The Stasi banned punk bands viewed as hostile toward the GDR. In August 1983, members of the East Berlin punk group Namenlos were arrested and sentenced to between 12 and 18 months in prison for ‘disparaging the state’. Members of the punk scene were also routinely recruited by the Stasi as Inoffizieller Mitarbeiters (Unofficial Collaborators) to report on other punks. In the mid 1980s Frank Zappe, bass player in Leipzig based band Wutanfall was recruited by the Stasi as an Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter after a period of sustained pressure. Zappe talks about his experiences with the Stasi in the video below:
The Stasi were so successful in infiltrating the punk scene that one punk band in Jena consisted entirely of Inoffizieller Mitarbeiters! The late 1980s saw a shift in Party policy in relation to punk as certain groups, such as Die Skeptiker were professionalised by the State. Just as it had done with rock groups in the 1970s and early 1980s the Party offered support to punk bands in the form of recognition, record contracts, and sponsorship of the FDJ, in return for their compliance.
The Beginning of the End
By the late 1980s, there were a number of different musical styles that were fashionable within the East German music scene. There were around 400 professional groups in the GDR ranging from mainstream rock groups such as The Puhdys and Silly to the punk rock and heavy metal of Feeling B and Prinzip. However, East German music fans also had a healthy appetite for Western popular music. A small section of records by Western artists deemed acceptable by the SED including Phil Collins, Michael Jackson and Santana were released on AMIGA throughout the 1980s. However, these records were only released in small numbers and were difficult to get hold of. Most music fans simply resorted to taping their favorite song directly off West German radio stations and exchanging them with their friends and other music fans.
The summer of 1987 saw West Berlin host a series of open air concerts close to the Berlin Wall. Artists including David Bowie, The Eurythmics and Genesis appeared to large crowds in front of the Reichstag. On the other side of the Wall, thousands of East German fans tried to get as close to the Wall as possible to hear the music coming from the West. They were met with heavy resistance from the guards policing the border, which led to clashes between border guards and young East Germans. Realising that suppressing popular music in the aftermath of the riot would only inflame tensions, the SED attempted to win back the support of East German youths. The following year a series of concerts were organised in East Berlin, designed to counter performances from Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd that were taking place close to the Wall in the West. In East Berlin, Western stars, such as Big Country, Bryan Adams and Marillion performed alongside East German bands like City. On 19 July 1988, Bruce Springsteen performed the biggest rock concert in the history of the GDR in front of 160,000 people. During the concert Springsteen told the crowd ‘It’s nice to be in East Berlin. I’m not for or against a government. I came to play rock ‘n’ roll for you, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down’. Springsteen’s words reflected the mood of young people in the crowd, sparking wild cheering and celebrations.
Bruce Springsteen performing to large crowds in East Berlin in July 1988:
In September 1989 the new opposition movement Neues Forum (New Forum) issued a declaration known as Aufbruch 89 (Initiative 89) which called for ‘democratic dialogue’ and ‘a political platform for the whole of the GDR that should enable people from all professions, trades, social circles, parties and groups to discuss and work out society’s vital problems’.
In the same month, singer-songwriters Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel drafted a document dubbed the Rocker Resolution which was signed by a number of well known artists including Toni Krahl and Tamara Danz, lead singer of Silly. The Rocker Resolution became an important part of the reform movement within the GDR. The state controlled media refused to publish the Resolution, so bands and artists were encouraged to read the declaration out at concerts and other public events to spread the message across the country. The widespread distribution of the Rocker Resolution lead to an extraordinary meeting of the SED’s Committee for Entertainment in October 1989, which resulted in ‘the first official acknowledgement of and reaction to the worsening political situation in East Germany’ (Schulz, Hiltrud, Ear to the Wall:Rock in Late 1980s East Germany, 2008). According to Toni Krahl the aim of the Resolution was ‘not to open borders or to unify Germany, but to democratise the GDR’.
The fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the beginning of the end for the GDR and symbolized the start of the re-unification process that was completed on 3 October 1990. On 21 July 1990, Pink Floyd performed their album The Wall at Potsdamer Platz, among the ruins of the Berlin Wall, with guest appearances from artists including Van Morrison, The Band, and Bryan Adams. The concert was attended by an estimated 500,000 people, from both Western and Eastern Germany.
About the Author:
James Shingler has just completed his BA (Hons) in Modern History and International Relations at Swansea University, UK. During his final year of study James researched and wrote his history dissertation about the influence of Western popular music on youth culture in the GDR between 1949 and 1990. James is now planning to study for a MA in History at Swansea.
For more information on this topic see:
Dennis, Mike, The Stasi: Myth and Reality, London: Pearson Education Limited, 2003.
Fenemore, Mark, Sex, Thugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll, New York: Berghahn Books, 2007.
Funder, Anna, Stasiland, London: Granta Books, 2003.
Leitner, Olaf, ‘Rock Music in the GDR: An Epitaph’, in Ramet, S.P (ed.), Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia, Oxford: Westview Press, 1994.
Maas, Georg and Reszel, Hartmut, ‘Whatever Happened to…: The Decline and Renaissance of Rock in the Former GDR’, Popular Music, 17:3 (1988), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 267 – 278.
Poiger, Uta, Jazz, Rock and Rebels, California: University of California Press, 2000.
Schulz, Hiltrud, Ear to the Wall:Rock in Late 1980s East Germany, DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Simpson, Patricia Anne, ‘Germanyand Its Discontents: Die Skeptiker’s Punk Corrective’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 34/3 (2000), Michigan: Michigan State University pp. 129–140.