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(Credit: Far Out / Peterhagen / Max van den Oetelaar / Danny Giebe)


Off the Beaten Track: Cold War Berlin - The Church, the Wall and the underground punks


The year is 1976, David Bowie and Iggy Pop are holed up in Berlin living out the stuff of sitcom fodder. Picture, if you will, two renegade junkies trying to purge their daemons in a desolate divided city ravaged by the echoing howls of history, failing in the search for sobriety, sizzling up cheap sausages in a Hinterhof by day and acquiescing to the horrors of addiction by night, tearing through the crumbling streets in Bowie’s car at breakneck speeds and feebly succumbing to the flirtation of a dive bar’s flickering neon winks. It is a twisted fantasy of folie, fuck-about and artistic zeniths akin to the mashed-up imaginings of Irving Welsh and William S. Burroughs directed by Danny Boyle and David Lynch in a surrealist collaboration. Welcome to Berlin.

Remarkably, aside from the stories of two lairy musical mavericks absconding from the glare of the gaudy mainstream to a city of beady-eyed spies and a debauched ever-growing demimonde, the overarching finale would take years to come to fruition. Whilst the final curve of the narrative would be the toppling of the Berlin Wall soundtracked by the insurmountable wave of euphoria that is ‘Heroes’ and the sanguine future that it represented for a united Germany and beyond, for a long while nothing happened at all. Or at the very least on the surface nothing happened. After all, nothing was supposed to happen. However, gestating underground was a seed that Bowie helped to sow, one that would blossom into the most perfect paradigm of punk that the world has ever seen, the rest is ancient history. 

“It just seemed like such a romantic, historically interesting place,” Bowie said of his decision to move there with Iggy. “The Christopher Isherwood thing and it being the gateway to Europe with all the artforms going in and out of there, and dada being there, and the Baader-Meinhof and all that. We felt conflict and tension in the air, and we thought, ‘God if we can’t write in this place, we can’t write anywhere!’ …And we’d get cleaned up.” This notion of the same career in a new town giving a refreshing twist to his work is nothing new. Studies by the Acoustical Society of America have found that even early man sought out caves with special acoustics for the worlds most primitive raves, likewise, the grandeur of gothic cathedrals rubbed off on the chanting of Benedictine monks and so on. In short, as this feature has always found, whether it be the engulfing desert and political unrest sounding off in Saharan Blues or beaches and independence bringing about Reggae, music is forever entwined with the society surrounding it. Naturally, in a bruised and brooding Berlin split into two, this effect was somewhat amplified. 

In a society so fervently fractured, in every which way, even the presence of Bowie, with his stardom and brilliance in tow, seemed to be muted. “I actually arrived in Berlin a few weeks after Bowie left,” Mark Reeder – aka Joy Divisions Man in Berlin, Nick Cave’s squatmate-come-landlord, Die Unbekannten musician, producer and STASI-defying heroic punk pariah who nurtured the scene on both sides of the wall like some daring musical missionary – tells me. “I only really went there in the hope of buying some records. I thought, if Bowie lives there now, surely Berlin can’t be that bad?” It was and it wasn’t, the ying and the yang existing almost in spite of each other. It was battered and bullet-holed but bohemian and buoyant. The times were tense and tumultuous but so was Thatcher’s Britain. Art was quashed and beset by authority, but the austere world only made it more ardent. 

(Joy Division, Credit: Mark Reeder / Hermann Vaske)

“As for Bowie living here,” Reeder continues, “it apparently didn’t make that much of an impact to the city at first, all that came later. He was embraced by the art, fashion and music circles though, but nothing much more. He was basically left alone and allowed to live a normal life, free from freaky followers, paparazzi and autograph hunters. His presence here was magnified only after he had left.”

As it happens, when Reeder arrived in Berlin, fate was just about thrusting punk upon it like a sonic glass slipper that seemed so befitting of the broken city. “When I arrived, I discovered the music scene in the Western part was mainly very American influenced. Punk was just starting to infiltrate the German music scene. There were two indie punk bands, PVC and Tempo,” Reeder recalls. 

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“There were many cafés that resembled American Diners though, lovingly promoting the American way of life, with the taste of freedom in the form of Hamburgers and Coca-Cola. Berlin was a mixture of Americana and the Continental. Fashion-wise, the majority of young men still wore mid-seventies flared jeans and had long hair and listened to progressive rock music like Deep Purple, Pink Floyd or Frank Zappa. It was still all very Atomkraft Nein Danke! Most of these guys I discovered, were draft dodgers, acclaimed pacifists, artistic types or shirkers, who would do anything to get out of doing their obligatory National Service in the Army in West Germany. It was cheap and easy to hang around in Berlin. In my search for new music, I went out every night, checking out my local clubs and discos. Places like Sound or the Metropol. I discovered there was one small Punk Club called Punkhaus, which I only visited once, then it was gone. At least, it had lit a spark of hope.”

On the other side of the wall, things were very different. Checkpoint Charlie may as well have been a sci-fi portal to an alternative universe. By 1980 in West Berlin, a new independent label, Monogam, had formed and bands like Mania and Einstuerzende Neubauten were coming to the fore with a mix of punk and industrialism. “In East Berlin, however, the Punk scene was just a handful of kids. It was very dangerous to be a Punk in East Germany. In fact, it was verboten! It meant you were watching Western TV, or listening to Western Radio, which was in itself, looked down upon and it smacked of treachery. To the staunchly conservative East German Communist government, Punk represented the failings of the Western Capitalist system. In their eyes, the mass unemployment, strikes and closure of UK industries, had helped to create Punk and Punk sang the song of rebellion and the overthrow of the system.”

Reeder adds regarding the renegade East: “Punk was a musical force that had a fearless political attitude and the potential to cause disruption and it was an attitude they didn’t like the look of. Being a Punk in East Berlin meant you were taunting their political system. The underground meant the political underground.” Continuing: “Still, the thrill of breaking the rules and flaunting your appreciation of Punk music in front of authority was very Punk in its attitude. These Eastie kids religiously taped John Peel’s radio shows on their rare and coveted Cassette recorders and, in turn, they would share the tracks for others to copy. You could be arrested for being a Punk on the streets of East Berlin, just for wearing spiky hair and a dog collar, you could be thrown into prison, or forced to inform on your friends for the STASI. That is why I believe that the real Punks were actually in East Germany.”

He poignantly adds: “These Eastie kids put their lives and futures on the line simply for being a Punk. Maybe we lit the fuse in the UK and it detonated a musical trend in the West, but the explosion happened in the East. The desire to buy the music played on Western radio stations also fuelled the desire which would eventually come to overthrow the Eastern communist system or escape to the West.” Just as the FBI – an organisation that has seen more well-manicured arseholes in its time than every one of the late Hugh Hefner’s pool parties– had helped to radicalise rock ‘n’ roll when they investigated ‘Louie Louie’ for two years looking for subversive messages, the STASI, in a way, had helped to ensure that punk was firmly planted in the underground of the East and ready to break through the decrepit cracks like a flowering weed. 

In the East, there was one state-controlled record label, AMIGA, which released music from government-approved bands recorded in a studio besieged by power outages. Otherwise, to be allowed to buy and own an electric guitar, write or play music in front of an audience, you had to have official permission. Thus, as Reeder explains, “lurking in the cellars, were a clandestine clan of Punks, who secretly played for themselves and their handful of trusted friends.” However, with one daring stunt and the unlikely helping hand of the church, all of that was about to change, if only for a night.

One fateful evening Reeder – who by this point was akin to an insurgent cultural convoy sneaking between both sides of the wall like a lost plainclothes man from Manchester feigning to be blissfully unaware of the reality that you were never more than ten feet away from a STASI informer like some madcap Coen brothers film – was unassumingly sat in an East Berlin bar. “A hippy-looking guy was sitting at the end of our table, looking morose, drinking and smoking whilst listening in to our conversation.” At one point he discovered Reeder was English, “He told me he loved Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix and the blues and boasted that he even had an electric guitar.”

“I asked him about playing and he said he had no permission to own an electric guitar let alone play it, then he told me about the Blues Mass that his local church in Rummelsburg put on once a month. A Blues Mass? What’s that? He told me he could play Bob Dylan songs there, as the church offered a sanctuary of sorts. It was a silent protest against the communist government. I instantly had the idea to go there and ask the priest if I could play at a Blues Mass with my band Die Unbekannten.”

Reeder spoke to his Eastern punk friends and weighed up the idea. The consequences of such a show would be dire. This wasn’t far off from fucking gulag territory. “We decided it would have to be very top secret, and I suggested we should only invite 30 trusted friends. I wanted it to be like the legendary Sex Pistols gig in Manchester. I went to the church and asked the priest if I could play a gig there at the next Blues Mass. He was a bit sceptical and said, it’s not a gig! It’s a religious service, with prayers. I told him I would pray if I had to.”

(Mark Reeder – Credit: Mark Reeder / Yuji Kimura)

As it happens, smuggling synthesisers and amps into the musically Amish uber-oppressive East was a task too tough for an outlaw from Manchester’s Factory Records and his coterie of dissidents disguised in drab clothes. Howver, The gig had to go ahead for some unknown spiritual reason like a thirst that had to be quenched. Reeder figured that a traditional punk band like Die Toten Hosen might be easier. “I was their live sound engineer and I knew I could convince them to do it. I realised it made much more sense. They not only had a traditional set-up, they were a Punk band that sang in German, and my Eastie friends were familiar with their music from a tape that I had smuggled over.”

Imagine, if you will, that fateful evening as 30 punks crept around under the ever-watchful eye of the STASI dressed in their stately Sunday best to attend the most snarling, adrenalised, church service that the world has ever seen. Smuggling instruments in via altar lecterns and any other means. Reeder recalls: “All through the gig, I held my breath. I kept imagining the STASI kicking the door in and arresting us all, at any moment.” It was one of the greatest nights of everyone’s life. That night there was a church backed mutiny against the tight grip of the Iron Fist.

“After the word started to spread around East Germany about what we had done, it invigorated other Eastie Punks. Suddenly all the churches were filling with Punk bands and doing their own Blues Masses. It gave the Punks a place to play and a place to meet. The priests were happy too because young people were coming back to the church,” Reeder proudly informs me. Ultimately it was subversive acts like this that helped to illuminate a way to slide songs out from under the oppression and spawn a scene that rattled the foundations of the wall. 

The concrete division came down to a chorus of ‘Heroes’ and the East and West coalesced in a unified swathe of creativity. “The poignant wall-themed song sparked the imagination. Other artists wanted to come to Berlin and record in the Hansa Studios.” The seed that Bowie had sowed finally came to fruition in Europe’s most bombastic art scene, but only thanks to the likes of Reeder and his fellow punks who had helped to fertilise the brooding growth whilst it remained subterranean for no agenda other than sheltering some hope. Even when the scene emerged it never basked too long in the gaudy mainstream, still the same “draft dodgers and misfits of society” prefer to savour their creation in the decadent debauchery of dive bars, as will always be the case in this mad city. Welcome to Berlin.    

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