Popular Music in the GDR - Between Repression and Liberalisation

Although the SED repeatedly tried to prevent the influence of Western music culture in the GDR, there were hardly any limits to the creativity of young people. In this blog post, we delve into the tense relationship between the state and youth. by Charlotte Lenger (30 Nov 2023)

A look at the sounds of the 1980s is also a look at the convulsive attempt by the SED state to maintain its sovereignty of values, power and repression. However, the ingenuity of young people in disseminating Western and system-critical music knew no bounds and no wall could be built against the reception of Western media. The cultural bureaucracy was eroding, as was the young people's identification with the GDR state. In the subculture, bulging Stasi files, arrests and departure proceedings of non-conformist young people were not uncommon. Nevertheless, spaces opened up in which the youth could develop. Liberalisation tendencies no longer led young people to stand behind the political-ideological system of the SED. The fall of the Wall also finally meant unrestricted access to international popular culture.

Restriction and the Longing Look to the West

Although the generation of those who experienced their youth in 1980s East Germany grew up in an increasingly modern and de-ideologised everyday life within families since the 1970s, the official GDR was the opposite. This disparity was due to the GDR’s institutions, such as media and propaganda, which still relied on old rituals like appeals, agitations and awards in everyday school life.

While the masses basically came to terms with these political rituals and tolerated them without taking them seriously, unlike the previous generation, the demarcation from the Federal Republic and youth and cultural policy in particular were questioned and rejected. The cultural and leisure programmes were constantly the subject of the state's political power grab. By the end of the 1980s, only 60% of young people aged 14 to 16 still felt connected to the GDR. The younger they were, the greater their distance from the state and its policies.

Those born after 1960 were to form a large proportion of those who travelled to the West in 1988 and 1989. They oriented themselves primarily towards Western culture, which was accessible via radio and television. The Intershops, the number of which had increased massively since the end of the 1970s, were veritable shop windows that provided a glimpse into the Western consumer world—a longing gaze that often characterised the everyday lives of young people.

In this respect, music was a political issue of the first order. Bans and a lack of access to recordings by internationally renowned artists, combined with the ability to listen to Western music on Western radio, created ongoing tensions surrounding cultural supremacy. Particularly concerning various trends in rock music, efforts were made to prevent the influence of ‘Western decadence’ on young East Germans.

The Music Industry and Record Production in the GDR

From the state's perspective, young people's longing for the West should be rendered unnecessary through state-owned music productions. In the 1970s, these were still very popular among the youth, although Western music had always found its way to the East. GDR rock and pop bands such as the Puhdys, Karat, City and Silly enjoyed great success, even beyond the state borders and in West Germany, among other places. The song ‘Am Fenster’ (1977) by the band City is an example of this. The huge successes made it possible for licences to be granted to Western record companies, and subsequently, the bands were permitted to perform in the West.

The strategy that seemed to work in the music industry in the 1970s of countering the West with a musical alternative that led to great popularity among young people increasingly reached its limits in the 1980s. It was possible at times to help the songs of these artists, such as ‘Der blaue Planet’ (1982) by Karat, which were seen as conforming to the state and the party or at least not hostile to the state, to gain widespread publicity. Pop artists such as Inka Bause, Wolfgang Ziegler and Ralf Bursy also celebrated their breakthroughs. Ultimately, however, it is not the political leadership that decides what is popular with young people in the long term, but the youth themselves. What was popular was also that which did not conform to the state, especially if it came from the West.

Amiga record by the band Karat with the title »Der blaue Planet«

Image: Amiga record »Der blaue Planet« by the band Karat from 1982

The aspiration of the state and party leadership to have and maintain control over processes in the cultural sector increasingly ended in a legitimacy crisis in the 1980s. The bands that were able to travel founded their own private studios, bought new instruments in the West and temporarily left the studio and equipment to the up-and-coming bands in the GDR. The twelve studios in the mid-1980s, as well as the novel profession of manager, which emerged due to the high level of media coordination, were not subject to any political influences - it was practically a grey area. And so, of course, music spread not only through the official, state-tolerated channels.

Additionally, people, and especially the youth, have always been inventive when it comes to adopting the latest hits and trendiest fads. Those who had relatives or friends in the West could have the coveted West package of records sent over or smuggle them into the East after a family visit. In addition to recordings on tapes and cassettes of live concerts by performers who didn't even have the benefit of studio recordings, radio was a particularly important institution that gave young adults the opportunity to listen to the music of their favourite artists, dance to it, party to it, record it against the restrictions of the state and distribute it illegally.

If it was being played in teenagers' bedrooms anyway, the music could also be officially distributed by the record label AMIGA, the label for extremely popular rock and pop music among young people. In the 1980s, record labels in the GDR increasingly drew up licence agreements that made it possible to release more Western music, as the state could not escape the fact that the music was being listened to and distributed - whether legally or not. Of course, only licences that were considered politically unobjectionable were purchased. Thus, under Erich Honecker, the state attempted to meet the pop cultural needs of young people and to pacify the population, thereby retaining control and preventing or at least reducing criticism of the SED or the government. Music lovers were thus able to legally enjoy bands such as the Rolling Stones, Queen, Deep Purple, Udo Lindenberg and the like. However, the LPs rarely appeared true to the album, as they did in the West. Individual albums were often a mix of several of the bands' original albums. The records could be purchased for 4.60 marks (singles) and 16.10 marks (LPs).

Radio in the GDR

In the early 1980s, GDR radio stations were still very important for the dissemination of state-compliant music as, unlike in West Germany, they were also production centres. Because of this, they also had to follow the guidelines of the Broadcasting Council. However, no wall could be built against the reception of Western media.

The first radio station founded explicitly for young people, DT 64 (DeutschlandTreffen64), initially supplied young people with international music from 1964 as a Berlin radio programme, and from 1986 the then-independent station provided them with charts from Germany as well as the USA and Great Britain. The programme Duett - Musik für den Rekorder (Duet - Music for the Recorder) was particularly popular with young adults, making it possible to record some of the current albums played by the station in full length. The radio programme Parocktikum took on the task of explicitly playing music by “other bands.” In other words, Parocktikum played music by those who, unlike the GDR rock bands previously heard in public, also had subversive titles in their repertoire that openly or covertly criticised the system. Stylistically, these bands belonged to different musical genres. Feeling B, Die Firma, Schleimkeim, Blackout and Die Vision were representatives of the so-called “other bands” of the East. It was the radio stations that played these and also the popular sounds of new wave, indie rock, heavy metal, electro, punk and the first hip hop artists from the West. Particularly popular Western artists at this time were Duran Duran, Alphaville, Depeche Mode, Sex Pistols, Kool and the Gang and many more.

grey cassette recorder skr 700

Image: Stereo cassette recorder skr 700

Subcultures in the GDR

The numerous subcultures that developed not only in the West, but also in the GDR under difficult conditions, show how closely one's own musical preferences were also linked to membership of a sometimes more, sometimes less politically-oriented movement. The diversity, development and spread of these system-critical movements were supposed to be contained by the state political surveillance with the help of state security. However, the Stasi's attempts to categorise the individual youth cultures and classify them in terms of their political views and hostility to the state failed. These cultures included teds, tramper, skins, heavys, goths, new romantics, poppers and the punks, who were defamed by the Stasi as decadent and anti-social. What they all had in common was their non-conformity, exemplified by unusual clothing, wild hairstyles and a taste in music that was less likely to be catered to by official GDR music productions.

Due to the uncertainty and disorientation within the power apparatus of the GDR, the cultural bureaucracy and state security lost more and more authority and control from the mid-1980s onwards. The classification tests that were necessary to obtain an official playing licence, known as the “Pappe,” were based on criteria from the 1960s, which no longer applied to the evolving music scene. Personnel factors and local differences made a standardised system of categorisation impossible. While many punk bands often insisted on their illegal status, some, such as the band Wutanfall, decided to undergo such a classification test for fun, only to be denied their playing licence in the end. Other bands pitted restrictive jurisdictions against liberal ones. As part of the categorisation process, a band leader, i.e. one of the band members, had to be appointed as the leader. The place of residence of this person determined the administrative area that was responsible for issuing the playing licence. Following a refusal of a playing licence in a more restrictive area, the band leader was passed on to another band member living in the next administrative area, so that there was another opportunity to obtain a playing licence in another more liberal area and, as in the case of the band Airtramp, to obtain it.

Unfolded GDR playing licence of a musician (cardboard)

Image: Playing licence (colloquially also called cardboard) from 1988

The Protestant church also played an important role in the development of the subculture. Due to its position as the only institution in the GDR that was independent of the state, the support of liberal pastors such as Walter Schilling and Rainer Eppelmann and its ‘open work’ approach developed since the 1970s, oppositional young people from the peace movement, hitchhikers, punks and all those who were affected by state subsidisation found a space for debate and cohesion. Church services were not subject to compulsory state registration, but many young people could not relate to traditional church work. Therefore, the compromise was blues and punk concerts featuring sermons and prayers of a somewhat different kind: music, biblical texts, sketches and poems. Attempts by the state leadership to prohibit such events were also averted with reference to the pastor and the parish church council as the only decision-making bodies in the planning and organisation of church services.

Between 1979 and 1987, the so-called “blues masses” were organised under the roof of the Protestant church, attracting first 250 and later thousands of young people. In 1981, the first official punk concert in Thuringia was organised with the cantor Wolfgang Musigmann as patron, at which the Madmans and Schleimkeim were allowed to perform their music. When the Protestant church invited people to the “Jugend 86” meeting in 1986, hundreds of young people from different movements turned up. Hitchhikers, critical songwriters, punks alike - no one was to be marginalised here.

Collage of three posters announcing blues fairs

Image: Collage of three posters from various blues fairs in Senftenberg, Weißwasser, Lübbenau and Prenzlau

The FDJ and Rock Music

In order to counter the danger of disaffected young people who, despite increasing liberalisation, did not have easy access to all popular music, the FDJ tried to win their trust in the 1980s with organised political concerts and concert series such as “Rock for Peace.” This concert series was organised in the Palace of the Republic from 1982 to 1987 and covered pop, rock, hard rock and blues with bands from the GDR. With 65 bands playing in 1987, the popular event was one of the largest music events in the GDR. The record label AMIGA had also been releasing live recordings of the events since 1982. Additionally, it became the occasion for band projects such as the “AMIGA Blues Band” (1983) and the “Gitarreros” (1986). Political stage decorations were used here in an attempt to appeal to the widespread environmental and peace movements and win them over in the political and ideological sense of the SED. However, events of this kind could not completely appease the young people. The “Concert for Berlin” organised at Whitsun 1987, which took place on the West Berlin side in front of the Reichstag building to celebrate Berlin's 750th anniversary, also attracted hundreds of East Berlin youths to the Brandenburg Gate to listen to the sounds of David Bowie, the Eurythmics and Genesis. The crowd of young people chanting in protest for the fall of the Wall turned into a confrontation that was unprecedented in East Berlin and ended in riots in which 187 of the protesters were arrested. In order to prevent further riots, the SED endeavoured to satisfy the young people's need for western rock concerts. As early as July 1987, a concert by Barclay James Harvest was organised on the “Treptower Festwiese.” Two months later, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers also played there at the FDJ peace concert. Music remained a political issue to an extraordinary degree, and the concerts near the Wall on the West Berlin side continued, first with Pink Floyd and then with Michael Jackson in 1988. While the pop and rock stars in West Berlin tried to provide their fans in the East with live music beyond the Wall, the SED and FDJ now increasingly organised concerts, such as the“Peace Week of Berlin Youth,” which included Western artists such as James Brown, The Wailers, Bryan Adams and Big Country, despite the high costs for the economically weak GDR, in order to convince the youth of their new, more cosmopolitan policy. In July 1988, the legendary Bruce Springsteen concert took place at the Weißensee racecourse. Planned as a “concert for Nicaragua,” but without consulting Springsteen himself, the manager had the banners put up by the FDJ taken down and the singer claimed during the concert that he was playing there to perform rock and roll for East Berliners - in the hope that the barriers would be broken down in the future. Homemade US flags were waved in the audience. 16 months later, on 12 November 1989, three days after the fall of the Wall, performers such as Udo Lindenberg, BAP, Melissa Etheridge, Silly, Die Toten Hosen, Nina Hagen and many more welcomed East Berliners to the West with the “Concert for Berlin” - the first unified German rock concert.

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