The Wire


Read an extract from Théo Lessour's Berlin Sampler

Read an extract on the Beat scene and Surf rock groups in East Berlin from Théo Lessour's Berlin Sampler, featured in this month's magazine.

Berlin Sampler is self-published by Théo Lessour. It covers the history of Berlin's music scenes from 1904 through to the present day. The following extract appears across ten pages of the book, and is taken from the chapter titled "U-Musik". Watch/listen to a YouTube playlist made for the chapter below.

“Keine Experimente” (“No experiment”) begged the Christian Democratic Union in the 1957 elections: whatever happens, let’s not change a thing! They argued that Germany’s economic miracle was still fragile and could be destroyed by the subversive ideas of the Social Democratic Party (leave NATO and, if possible, attempt a rapprochement with East Germany). The CDU obtained the best results in their history, with over 50% of the vote. The economy was doing well, and that was enough for the electorate. The Keine Experimente slogan was the most famous political marketing success in postwar Germany.

Once the initial hysteria over the Halbstarker (black leather jacket wearing gangs) passed (1956-58), a new stage began in which their ‘values’ were diluted: a process of trivialisation so that society could accept that their little darlings danced to rock ‘n’ roll each Saturday night. The Halbstarker had had a major influence on Germany’s teenagers – their rock ‘n’ roll rebel image challenged the young generation to ‘live life to the full’. But it’s a message that’s easily watered down. A code of unbridled hedonism, once it has been worked back into the normal social trajectory of the average salary man or executive, isn’t actually that far from the central capitalist aspiration of raising one’s standard of living.

In its battle with socialism, capitalism used weapons like seduction, consumption and instant gratification. It couldn’t be achieved without generating a certain amount of inter-generational friction (amusing in hindsight and ultimately without any lasting effects): “Dancing to the twist is just like holding cigarettes between your toes and using a towel to dry your rear to the music.”

The twist, the first rock ‘n’ roll dance, unleashed a torrent of moralism from priggish, prudish old Prussia... even though it was danced solo without any need for bodily contact. The dance’s hip movements proved scandalous... suggestive, shock-horror, of the sex act itself! Orthopaedists warned that knee injuries and even colonic damage could result from the dance...

The most popular twist songs were quickly covered in German (like Caterina Valente & Silvio Francesco’s excellent version of the "Peppermint Twist", a song that originated in the famous New York nightclub The Peppermint Lounge where the Duke of Windsor himself was rumoured to have danced the twist). The twist even hopped over the Wall with East German Manfred Krug’s release of "Twist in der Nacht" in 1963.

The momentum generated by twist music at the start of the 60s, right after the construction of the Berlin Wall, was soon carried on by beat music. At about the same time, the first mods and skinheads began appearing in England. All of a sudden, an avalanche of bands arrived: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Who, The Kinks... the dawn of a new era. Songs had to be sung in English now (besides, it was an easy way for teens to irritate their parents). Another helping of the Siegerkultur. The local music industry tried to combat this by promoting traditional values, with some success. Roy Black sold two and a half million copies of his "Ganz in Weiss" ("All in White"), a song on the wholesomeness of white weddings. But The Beatles and The Stones would easily win out.

The seminal group of the Beat movement came from Liverpool. Veterans of hundreds of concerts in a famous club in Hamburg, The Beatles took top spot in the charts with a cute little song "I Want To Hold Your Hand" (re-recorded by the band in German as "Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand").

The other main group of the movement, The Rolling Stones, were less sweet and more overtly sexual... ‘bad boys’... plebs (if only in appearance). Their "Satisfaction" came out at the same time – a song that would seriously deepen the possibilities offered by pop music. The contrast between these two songs revealed a turning point in the Zeitgeist. On one side stood a kind of all-inclusive pop music – finely chiselled melodies and precociously sophisticated arrangements allied to silly, lovelorn, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ style lyrics – a more refined descendant of the first rock songs. On the other, rock music that was all raw sexual energy and defiant disillusionment in a world of abundance:

“When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But, he can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me.”

"Satisfaction" was a clear sign of the mounting social criticism in the West and its gradual adoption by pop music. The Vietnam War was escalating out of all control, JFK was dead, and an economic crisis would soon hit Germany. Illusions about the American protector, the great victor of the Second World War, were being shattered. America was being eroded from within by its internal contradictions, its visceral anti-Communism, its racial segregation and a new civil rights movement. Pop music began to criticise consumer culture (a phenomenon which might seem contradictory but is entirely consistent in a song like "Satisfaction"), leading to a universal ‘neither one nor the other’ rejection of both East and West.

In a nutshell (and at the risk of over-simplifying), the black leather-jacketed proles sided with The Rolling Stones and the middle classes with The Beatles. Germany, like the rest of Europe, welcomed both bands with open arms, but their adoption didn’t exactly lead to an explosion of unforgettable local bands.

Nonetheless, The Lords broke out in West Berlin (keeping an eye on The Rattles, their rivals from Hamburg) while in the East, The Sputniks entered into Soviet orbit.

The Lords

The Lords started their career as a skiffle band, playing songs with homemade instruments. They even won the 1959 Goldene Waschbrett (Golden Washboard), a prize for the best German skiffle group, beating out competition from two similar bands from Hamburg.

The Lords changed their style with the arrival of beat music, quickly becoming its most important German exponents. They toured with the Kinks and The Who before splitting up in 1971. While they were active, they had several German hits, mostly covers, including a respectable version of "Shakin’ All Over". They covered American and English bands as well as traditional gospel songs – a dash of The Beatles, a smidgen of The Shadows, a spot of the Beach Boys... sporting ridiculous Prince Valiant bowl haircuts all the while. They nonetheless showed a certain amount of savoir-faire in replicating their English big brothers (The Lords reformed recently, but their new work is to be avoided at all costs).

The Lords would be the biggest and last of the beat bands in Germany, before rock music became more critical and fragmented into various sub-genres (including the horrendously German ‘hard rock’). Two Lords songs I can recommend are "Shakin’ All Over" and "Glory Land" (spiritual, all-encompassing pop in the style of the Beach Boys).

On the other side of the wall, rock was enjoying its short-lived first (and last) springtime. The issue of entertainment was a problematic one in a society which claimed to have perfected happiness. Should rock be assimilated or banned? Should it be used as a propaganda tool or should this Western ‘decadence’ be nipped in the bud? Both policies would be tried alternately during the 40 years of the German Democratic Republic.

In 1958 the ‘60/40’ rule was passed, which lasted right up until the fall of the Wall. It meant 60% of music played by East German radio DJs had to come from Socialist countries, with Stasi security agents ensuring the quota was respected. Every playlist had to be submitted for approval before broadcast.

Despite this, the regime didn’t ban rock music. At first, it was even encouraged, becoming the subject of a heated political dispute between Erich Honecker and Walter Ulbricht at the heart of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD). In 1963, as Communism first came into contact with pop culture, the Politburo’s attitude could more or less be summed up as: “You can dance to your own beat, as long as you keep to our melody.” At the time, the East German state was getting along quite well with its long-haired, imported jeans-wearing, Americanised youngsters.

In 1963 the KPD’s newspaper, Neues Deutschland, even invited the entire population to come dancing, as a “legitimate way to sustain happiness and lust for life.” In 1964, at the height of liberalisation in East Germany, the KPD grudgingly allowed the Pfingsttage (Easter) celebrations to be held in East Berlin. Half a million Germans turned up, including 25,000 West Berliners. People even danced to The Beatles in the streets, and openly debated politics and society. First Secretary Walter Ulbricht was on board with this approach. He said unequivocally that in order to win the hearts of young people, the KPD had to accept their passions and interests. It seemed the days of fighting Western dance music were over. The event was broadcast live and uncensored on the DT64 radio station.

The station, founded that same year, was hugely popular. Every evening, the show Music For Recorders played extremely hard to find records from the West until midnight. Any East German bands they played became instant stars. DT64 would outlast the East German state itself, finally closing its doors in 1993. It remained one of the rare places of liberty in the East throughout its existence. Erich Honecker viewed the station, with reason, as the biggest propagator of the hated beat music in the Socialist republic:

“The advent of immorality and American decadence wasn’t
fought openly enough (...) DT64's musical programmers have been
propagating beat music for a long time.”

The state remained divided on the issue, and Ulbricht’s policy of openness faced trenchant opposition. Rock music was still the culture of the mass imperialists. For many in the Socialist regime it was yet another capitalist lure – one whose seductive power was wreaking havoc and which would have to be combated by properly educating and initiating the population into the Socialist Hochkultur (high culture). Youth or popular culture was considered insidiously dangerous and its practice and propagation was seen as a way of hijacking the class struggle. Groups of youths became ‘gangs’ or ‘packs’ of ‘shouting’ youths.

Honecker was right. The ranks of amateur bands were swelling. At the end of the 50s, there were about fifty bands in East Berlin; by 1965 there were 300. The Sputniks were no exception.

The band’s debut gig took place in front of over 200 sweaty people who were crammed into the tiny Treptow Twistkeller to watch a selection of groups from East Berlin. The crowd included executives from the record label Amiga, who were inspired to sign a young band called The Telstars (the bill also included other bands like the Franke Echo Quintett). The Telstars were lead by Henry Kotowski, a self-taught musician not even twenty years old who had learned to play by listening to his favourite bands on the Allied radio stations. He knew the reverb-heavy ‘twang’ guitar sound inside out through the rock tunes of Duane Eddy and the Everly Brothers, and the surf guitars of The Ventures and The Shadows. The Telstars had been playing together since 1962 and had already grown popular through tiny gigs in backyards, using their cobbled together instruments to play pure Californian music.

Amiga’s executives decided to offer them a single on the express condition that they change their name. For one simple reason: the first American space satellite was called the Telstar! They proposed that the band should apply true Socialist values and change their name to The Sputniks – the Soviet Union having sent up their first satellite in 1957, before the Brother Enemy. The Sputnik satellite was already a pop object (and almost a musical one), thanks to its weird proto-spaceship appearance and the 'beep-beep' signal it gave off, which many people picked up on their ham radios each night. Its implications were terrifying (war in space, missiles which could target any area on Earth) but also undeniably appealing. The Sputnik represented a true victory for the Communist Bloc over the West.

Not that The Telstars/Sputniks cared one way or the other. They just wanted to release a record, politics be damned, and so they agreed to the compromise. Their debut single "Gitarrentwist" was recorded live during another concert at the Twistkeller. The record has a sharp sound, with simplistic minimalistic arrangements and a brand of optimism typical of the time; it became an instant hit. The raw concert sound lent the band an authenticity which others lacked, their music rendered antiseptic by unadventurous production techniques. Any minor technical mistakes are easily forgiven in the face of The Sputniks’ full-force brute energy. "Nordlicht" followed that same year to an identical reception. The Sputniks’ songs may not have been Socialist-Realist in any way, but at least they didn’t contain any social criticism either: "Mich Hat Noch Keiner Beim Twist Geküßt" ("I’ve Never Been Kissed To The Twist", 1964) or "Beim Hully-Gully Bin Ich König" ("I’m The King Of The Hully-Gully", 1965).

Songs in English weren’t particularly welcomed by the authorities, so The Sputniks didn’t bother; instead playing a lot of California guitar-style instrumentals ("Sputnik Thema" being one marvellous example). Their nickname ‘The Beatles of the East’ stuck, even if they sounded more like The Shadows, or a European take on surf-rock. Girls screamed when they played, their concerts were always sold out; they flitted from one party to the next...‘Sputnik-mania’. It culminated in a concert at the Friedrichstadt-Palast which was recorded for television.

Amiga kept up the momentum, releasing two sampler compilations in 1965 that would become legendary, Big Beat 1&2. The compilations brought together all the singles released by Amiga during this short but blessed period of freedom for rock ‘n’ roll; featuring The Sputniks of course, but also the Theo Schuman Combo, the Franke Echo Quintett, The Butlers and Manfred Krug (with the catchy "Twist In Der Nacht"). In April, Amiga released The Beatles’ debut album. The Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth, FDJ) launched a competition to promote new bands and many more groups were being formed all the time.

The beat scene was becoming a mass phenomenon, with 10,000 fans in Berlin alone. That kind of success could not go unnoticed.

Violent clashes between beat teens and the police became more common, as in the West. Many public authorities were also getting nervous, while the FDJ didn’t appreciate other groups sticking their noses in its business. And then the whole movement was stabbed in the back – the knife driven home by the treacherous Halbstarker and Gammler (their hippie successors from the West). On the 15th September 1965, The Rolling Stones played a concert at the Waldbühne, but clashes between the audience and the forces of order forced the band to cut their concert short after just 30 minutes. It left the crowd incensed and seats flew through the air.

The worst violence occurred at the exits, when 21,000 spectators attacked the few hundred policemen. The next morning in West Berlin, the Axel Springer press group blamed the ‘longhairs’ and the fringe elements of society for the disaster – ironically boosting the Gammlers’ media profile to new heights. In the East, the government took things into their own hands. Beat music was pushed off the stage into the dock. It was simply out of the question that subversive roots could be allowed to take hold in the Socialist garden. Honecker would have his revenge.

At a Politbüro meeting (while Walter Ulbricht was on holiday) a statement was made on the growing hooliganism (Rowdytum) of some of Germany’s youth, setting in motion the criminalisation of rock music. The first attack was vicious, coming from the financial branch of government (the Staatlichen Finanzorgane) who attempted to prove some bands had been engaged in fiscal evasion and fraudulent concealment with the aim of stripping them of their licences to make music. In Leipzig the new laws were applied to the letter, with 44 bands (about half of the local music scene) banned overnight, including the hugely popular Butlers. The press was mobilised to support the attack, as is clear from this extract from the Leipziger Volkzeitung: “By listening to their base instincts, by eliminating rational thought, they have opened up the possibility of a new Kristallnacht.”

Rock music and Communism could no longer co-exist. Their brief love affair had proven nothing more than a youthful indiscretion. Musicians were labelled financial fraudsters, degenerates, hooligans, Nazis even. The forces of order came down hard on anybody who disobeyed the ban.

Leipzig’s young people took it badly. Simple, earnest leaflets were hastily typed up and passed around: “Friends of beat music, we will meet this Sunday the 31st October 1965 at 10h at the Leuschnerplatz for a protest march.”

According to the police, one thousand people showed up at the appointed time and place. Witnesses (including The Butlers and writer Erich Loest) put the figure at twice that. Either way, it was the biggest protest in East Germany since the workers’ riots of 1953; and it would remain the largest until... 1989.

The reaction was plain and predictable. The Stasi infiltrated the groups behind the march and incited the most deviant elements to cause trouble. Despite this, the march itself was peaceful. It wouldn’t have lasted very long or even been that eventful had it not been for the actions of the authorities. According to Klaus Renft of The Butlers, a police car drove up to the march, its loudspeakers blaring: “Citizens, this meeting is illegal; you are requested to leave the street immediately.”

The demonstrators remained disciplined and moved onto the pavement, crushed together like sardines. Suddenly, water cannons were deployed to clean the streets of any stragglers, and a wave of arrests ensued. Every person at the protest was meticulously documented and grouped by age. 107 people were arrested and sent straight to the coal mines for “re-education” without so much as a change of clothes.

The 11th Plenary Session of the Central Committee, December 1965

The revolt for the right to beat was over. The 11th Plenary Session of the SED Central Committee, who oversaw cultural affairs, would build on the process of undermining started by Honecker. These events forced Ulbricht to change tack. Two days after the protest in Leipzig he sent a circular to all districts in the GDR, promising to fight the “ideological dislocation” caused by the beat generation and the Gammler. “Organising a competition for beat groups through the FDJ, thinking that beat music and Western music wouldn’t infect us, was wrong.” It was a mea culpa in true Communist tradition. A crackdown would follow soon after: “Comrades, I think that we should be done with this monotonous ‘yeah yeah yeah’ music, or whatever it’s called, after all.”

Horst Schumann (the First Secretary of the FDJ in Leipzig) had always supported beat music, but he too was forced to own up to his errors, especially for having thought that beat music wasn’t naturally opposed to the “Socialist joie de vivre.” The 11th Plenary Session realised many glorious accomplishments for East Germany...

Rock music was not the only culture officially banned in the name of the struggle against imperialism. Every other sector of society was reeled in, with a new emphasis put on returning to the strict tenets of Socialist-realism. The Plenary Session was nicknamed the ‘Kahlschlag-Diskussion’ (the culling talks). Artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians like Wolf Biermann, Manfred Bieler, Werner Bräunig, Peter Hacks, Günter Kunert, Heiner Müller, Volker Braun and Stefan Heym were all condemned.

The SED declared the “modernist, anarchist, nihilist, liberal, pornographic” elements in literature, film and East German youth culture to be ‘enemies of the State’. Plays were banned, authors and artists were threatened. Only established ethics like decency and tradition should reign in an upstanding state like the GDR. It was Western imperialism that was pulling the strings of beat music, laying down the “sonic groundwork for a war against the GDR.”

East German musicians were forced to break up their bands. Some turned to traditional Schlager music, others turned to jazz, which was still acceptable in the GDR. The Sputniks were officially banned in 1966.

In the end, both halves of Berlin dealt in their own way with the growing resistance of the counter-culture and its marriage to pop music: sickening attacks from the press on one side, state-sponsored repression on the other. The East would eventually allow rock music again in 1969 (even permitting it to be shown on television) but in a tightly controlled manner. Some bands like Karat, City and The Puhdys would have some success in the Eastern Bloc and even further afield, but we will skip over their stories. It was in the West that the great hippie adventure and the birth of Berlin’s alternative culture would be played out, with the East only taking a more active role in the 80s.