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Music

Charting punk from East Berlin to Moscow

The Eastern Bloc punk scene represents a blind spot even for many punk fans. But the musical avant-garde at work behind the Iron Curtain provides a wealth of inspiration stretching back to the late 70s.

Western punk has fascinated fans, critics and musicologists for years, and the subcultures built around it continue to invite attention today. But in some respects, only half of the iconoclastic genre's story has been told.

That's reflected in the catalogues of punk music available. "With a label like Soul Jazz Records in the UK, you can buy Brazilian post-punk, but nothing from Belgrade or Ljubljana," says Alexander Pehlemann. Based in Leipzig, Pehlemann has edited the cultural almanac "Zonic" since 1993, a magazine focusing on pop culture topics that are largely unknown to those not well-versed in Eastern Bloc culture.

Topics covered in the current, German-language issue include the Polish underground scene of the 1980s, the first Eastern European punk bands, spies from Budapest, anti-hero of Yugoslavian punk Satan Panonski and musical-literary phenomena in Ukraine.

"In many media, journalists have experienced a kind of Western pop socialization," says Pehlemann, "And the brief period of curiosity they had for the East at the start of the 90s didn't last long."

The band Kraftklub on stage

More mainstream than their parents? Rockers Kraftklub on stage

Karl Marx City/Chemnitz

For some time now, Chemnitz - known between 1953 and 1990 as Karl-Marx-Stadt (Karl Marx City) - has churned out a surprising number of German pop music acts. The track "Ich will nicht nach Berlin" (I Don’t Want to Go to Berlin) from electroclash band Kraftklub became a radio and indie disco hit nationwide after its 2011 release, yet few people are aware of the band's connections to the East German avant-garde scene of the 1980s.

Kraftklub's lead singer Felix Kummer is joined in the band by his brother, bass player Till. They are the sons of Ina and Jan Kummer, who co-founded experimental group AG Geige, a band profiled over several pages in the current issue of "Zonic." Today, Kraftklub release on major label Universal, while some members of the former AG Geige now run the internationally respected electro label, Rasternoton.

Their success forms a sharp contrast with the decades up until the end of the 1980s, when underground bands in the East were largely ignored by the national pop scene.

The band AG Geige performing

One of the few alternative bands in East Germany: AG Geige

Alternative sounds in those days circulated on cassettes, which were often copied and re-copied but seldom sold. It was only in the middle of the current decade that mainstream radio began making room for music from East Germany. And it wasn't until shortly before the country collapsed in 1989 that bands like AG Geige were eyed by the sole state-owned record label Amiga. Up until that point, Amiga tended to concentrate on politically neutral, middle-of-the-road bands such as Puhdys, who first shot to fame after an appearance in the enduring cinema classic "Die Legende von Paul und Paula" (The Legend of Paul and Paula) - a movie which Chancellor Angela Merkel cites as her favorite.

Warsaw/Gdansk

The Polish punk and reggae scene began to emerge in the 1970s and 80s and differed significantly from the sounds to which East Germans were accustomed. The trade union federation Solidarnosc was spearheading a broad-based opposition movement, but the country was still under the strict control of the ruling Communist Party. The alternative music scene of the day largely tried to distance itself from both movements.

Ostpunk

The Polish avant-garde band Absurd, pictured in 1987

The bands performing at the time saw themselves as an aesthetic alternative to the Catholic nationalism of Solidarnosc, on the one hand, and the oppressive state regime on the other.

"There were bands who managed to get their music released in the West," says Alexander Pehlemann, "Bands like Kryzys or Deadlock brought out records in France."

However, in contrast to the situation in East Germany, the first Polish underground bands began appearing on the state-owned record label as early as 1982, with the release of Brigade Kyzys and Republik's first albums.

"From the mid-80s, there was a veritable tidal wave of such releases," adds Pehlemann.

Moscow/Leningrad

As part of the Glasnost and Perestroika reforms in the late 80s, many Soviet punk bands managed to get their music officially released, but there was still a very active underground exchange of cassette tapes and sometimes even of music recorded on reel to reel tape.

In contrast to the East German and Polish punk scenes, Soviet underground music did manage to attain a degree of recognition in the West towards the end of the 1980s.

In 2000, the Russian-German writer Wladimir Kaminer released the best-seller "Russendisko" (Russian Disco), which brought this type of music to a broader audience - albeit in a slightly different guise; it was seen primarily as documenting a new Russian pop culture in the now reunified Germany.

Pussy Riot

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Backlash from East Berlin

It's clear that many within the punk and underground scenes in the former Eastern Bloc also dealt with backlash. While up until the mid-1980s, the East German authorities still imprisoned those who publicly expressed dissident views, the Polish and Hungarian authorities took a more clever approach. They gave underground bands more freedom and officially released their work to give young people a creative outlet.

Such leniency represented a last grasp attempt at tolerance and understanding, but it couldn't stop the wave of political unrest that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and, ultimately, the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Despite the years that have passed, many traces of the punk movement behind the Iron Curtain remain buried or have vanished entirely.

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