Countercultures and Popular Music
East Berlin Rock
Chapter excerpt by Heiner Stahl; Edited by Sheila Whiteley, Jedediah Sklower
Even for music fans, academic authors and their books covering music can be a slog sometimes, filled with highbrow jargon and posturing. There are great exceptions though and one of them is Sheila Whiteley, a professor emeritus and the author of fascinating gender study/music books Women and Popular Music and Too Much Too Young.
Whiteley's latest book is Countercultures and Popular Music, co-edited with Jedediah Sklower, covering 20th century music rebels of all stripes. When reading through the text, the problem was finding a suitable excerpt because there were so many treasures to choose from there. We could have just as easily went with a defense and sympathetic explanation of Yoko Ono's singing, an in-depth analysis of the Grateful Dead's “Dark Star" (that also roped in Nietzsche), the evolution of Frank Zappa's satire, how “Helter Skelter" mostly lost its Manson connection, the Velvet Underground and the ‘trash aesthetic' and how Christian Contemporary Music has dealt with the lack of the rapture (not the band, mind you).
This particular excerpt from the book that we chose comes from Heiner Stahl, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Communications at the University of Erfurt, Germany. His communications studies have been the subject of numerous lectures and ongoing studies as well as the book Youth Radio Programmes in Cold War Berlin. Berlin as a soundscape of Pop (1962-1973), published by Landbeck, 2010. His chapter from the Countercultures book is “A Border-Crossing Soundscape of Pop: The Auditory Traces of Subculture Practices in 1960s Berlin." Many rock fans know about the grimy West German clubs that British bands like the Beatles cut their teeth on, playing for crowds of drunken sailors and how the same area would sprout what we know as Krautrock a few years later, but did you know that in East Germany, there was briefly a nascent rock scene? You will if you read this section of Stahl's chapter below.
You can (and should) get Countercultures and Popular Music at Ashgate Books.
FRAMING THE AUDIOTORY FIELD: THE BEAT AND SKIFFLE MUSIC SCENES IN EAST BERLIN
East Berlin's local heroes were the Telstars (who later became the notorious rock band, Phudys), Sputniks, Franke-Echo-Quintett and Diana Show-Band. The Beatlers, the Bottles, echo-team, the Brittles and Arkadia-Combo were from Berlin-Mitte, the Jokers, the Brightles, the Big Beats, the Five Stones, the Shouters and the Hot Five from Prenzlauer Berg, and the Cants (named after their school with philosopher Immanuel Kant's name though it's possible they made a reference to a vulgar swear word), Team 4, Atlantics and the Greenhorns played in the Köpenick and Treptow area. These bands preferred rough music created with self-made distortion and delay effects or with smuggled devices bought on the black market. Listening to live broadcasts on the German programme of the private station, Radio Luxemburg, or the allied military stations, American Forces Network and British Forces Network, the musicians in these bands transferred what they heard into unique cover versions. Having poor English language skills, the young amateur artists adapted the lyrics while reproducing a similar auditory space with their instruments. As a consequence, pop music heard at live concerts in 1960s East Berlin was a brilliant mixture of excellent musical talent, misunderstanding the original lyrics and inventing words that sounded very British or American without making any actual sense.
After the Berlin Wall was erected in August 1961, the somewhat uncontrolled growth of youth clubs escalated in East Berlin. This was well in line with the Socialist Party decree on youth policy published in January 1961. The borough councils and socialist civil society institutions allocated spaces to create a sort of educational arena where youths could benefit from self-learning in their leisure time. However, this did not work out at all as planned. The clubs were run by kids from the neighborhood who started to organize concerts, inviting different bands, and basically having alcohol-fuelled parties on the weekends. Youngsters had previously formed skiffle and guitar bands, and played whatever possible. East Berlin's pop-cultural sphere was thus a vibrating, noisy landscape of clubs where a distinct lack of repressive state control was evident.
The youth club, Freundschaft [Friendship], in Fredersdorferstrasse was located between East Berlin's main station and the tube station Marchelewskistrasse on Karl-Marx-Allee. It was one of a number of underground pop hotspots in socialist East Berlin. Another, named Twistkeller, could be found in the basement of the Treptow council culture centre in Puschkinallee (Rauhut 1993: 104). This venue provided space for amateur bands, concerts and parties, and was located just a few footsteps away from the Berlin Wall.
The kids running youth clubs like Ernst Knaack in Greifswalderstrasse, Kuba-Klub in Bötzowstrasse or Kosmos in the Helmholtzplatz park area were proficient when it came to increasing attendance at the clubs by organizing music events and making additional money by selling beer, wine and schnapps. As a consequence, the cultural branch of the Prenzlauer Berg borough became rather dissatisfied with the situation of the clubs. As five out of seven venues were managed by youths without any kind of control or regulation, in May 1965, the functionaries argued that the borough was displaying an example of best practice regarding integrating urban teenagers, and showing confidence both in their capacity to self-organize and in their willingness to be responsible in their leisure time activities. However, administrative bodies were not convinced because the youths did not spend their time voluntarily educating themselves and instead were simply organizing and promoting guitar-band shows so that theY could meet, chat, dance and drink large quantities of beer. Moreover the youths cared nothing for the laws aimed at protecting minors. Consequently, over the years, these venues and sub-culture places earned a bad reputation. Many of the young men, when very drunk, would soon start to throw chairs and tables around the rooms, urinating against the walls of neighboring buildings, or steal bicycles. From an administrative point of view, moldy walls, stale smoke from too many cigarettes, glue-repaired windows, broken chairs and mismatched tables, pop music from Western broadcasting stations and excessive noise did not contribute to creating the kind of environment needed to foster socialist morality and decency.
Taking an ideological stance on pop music and its sounds as cultural and political issues, the secretary of the Central Committee's office, Erich Honecker, cleverly positioned his argument. The capitalist evil of beat music and an insufficient focus on education provided by the Free German Youth, the Ministry of Culture and socialist media had opened the gates to ideological diversion from the West. The claim was supported by representatives of the regional Party bodies who could tell their own stories about juvenile deviance linked with concerts and venues. Honecker thus successfully slowed down the somewhat progressive spin on the current youth policy by Kurt Turba, a journalist who had been installed by the first secretary of the Socialist Party, Walter Ulbricht, in June 1963 (Schuster 1994; Kaiser 1997).
In this respect, socialist media- in particular, Berlin Radio and its youth programme- was heavily criticized. Jugendstudio DT 64 reported played too many dance and pop titles from the West and showed a rather uncritical, and therefore ‘decadent,' approach towards the issue. In a briefing to Honecker, the music expert in the cultural branch of the Central Committee confronted the Deputy Director of the State Broadcasting Committee and the propaganda branch of the Central Committee regarding not making enough efforts to influence their subordinates to change the sound of the youth broadcast. The ideological dimensions of beat and pop music had been underestimated and what were considered the ‘false practices of DT 64' had encouraged amateur bands to follow suit.
Rauhut, M. 1993. Beat in der Grauzone: DDR-Rock 1964 bis 1972- Politik und Alltag. Berlin: Basisdruck.
Schuster, U. 1994. ‘Die SED-Jugendkommuniqués von 1961 und 1963, Anmerkungen zur ostdeutschen Jugendpolitik vor und nach dem Mauerbau,' in Jahrbuch fü r zeitgeschichtliche Jugendforschung 1994/1995. Berlin: Metropol, 58-75.
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