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Rammstein: Sons of East German punk

Silke Wünsch eg
July 26, 2019

Till Lindemann and his five colleagues weren't inactive before founding their band Rammstein. They all grew up in the GDR's punk and underground scene — a subversive tradition that still influences them today.

Rammstein Görkwitz 1994
Image: flickr/Vortilogue

Noisy guitars, drums hitting like a machine gun, screaming instead of singing: It was dirty fun punk. Saddle Up was the name of the album and the band was called First Arsch (First ass). On the guitars: Richard Kruspe and Paul Landers. Till Lindemann was at the drums. That was in 1992. You can recognize the musical connection with Rammstein by listening to the fifth track of that album, "Crowded House": a wall of guitars and Lindemann's signature vocals, in English. It would, however, take three more years for the band Rammstein to officially be created.

Punk in East Germany

It all started in the 1970s, in the "most boring country in the world," as journalist and author Torsten Preuss described East Germany in his book, Wir wollen immer artig sein (We always want to be good), which details subculture in the GDR. The punk scene reached East Germany from the West, and for the bored youth, this anarchic music style felt like a supernova and so they started adopting it.

Punks in East Berlin in 1989
Punks in East Berlin in 1989Image: imago images/Seeliger

They had fun watching the reaction of state authorities to their brightly colored hair, their anarchist symbols and their studded leather wristbands. The punks had a "decadent appearance," it was claimed — and this encouraged teens to keep on celebrating their bold lifestyle. 

They would meet in squats and hidden cellars, clubs and barns, playing under impossible conditions. Sometimes they had a single microphone, and an assistant had to pass the mic around when several singers were on stage. They built their amplifiers themselves from old tube radios, and played cheap instruments from Russia and the Czech Republic. The cheaper the drums sounded, the more "punk" the sound was.

Symbolbild | Punk in der DDR
Squat cellars were turned into concert hallsImage: imago images

Illegal, decadent and influenced by Western ideology

Many of their concerts were illegal. The police and the Stasi, the secret state police, would regularly show up at the door. Punks were considered to be subversive elements, since they openly opposed the GDR regime. The Stasi wanted to set an example by arresting the musicians and imprisoning them. Three members of the band Namenlos (Nameless) were sentenced to 12 and 18 months of prison. Other punks were forced to leave the country.

People listened to punk music through Western radio; they shared their own music on cassettes since the official GDR label, Amiga, wouldn't touch anything of the genre.

The underground scene despised established bands like the Puhdys, Karat or City, who with their "conformed" GDR rock style were also allowed to play in the West, even though those bands also faced GDR censorship — which, of course, officially didn't exist. They managed to trick the censors by using metaphors that made it impossible for their songs to be forbidden. 

Symbolbild | Punk in der DDR
The Eimer was an underground club in a Berlin squat on Rosenthaler Strasse from 1990 to 2001Image: imago images/R. Zöllner

The underground remained non-conformist and provocative across the board. The songs talked about the dreary everyday lives of people living in their Plattenbau — prefabricated concrete tower blocks — or the destruction of the environment, Stasi spies, Nazi hate. The musicians faced repression, as the state had the clear goal to dismantle this subversive scene.

The Stasi had unofficial collaborators infiltrate the scene and managed to some extent to at least partially suppress it. However, the secret state police had underestimated the power of this exciting and free subculture, which kept attracting new people to join the movement.

Punk becomes socially acceptable

Finally, in the mid-1980s, East German authorities realized that they could no longer stop the underground scene from emerging. So the state suddenly decided to let go, allowing concerts and entire festivals to take place. Underground bands were played on the radio, for example on the youth channel DT 64, and the genre received an official name: "The other bands."

East German punk concert from 1985
A concert in a courtyard on Oderberger Strasse in 1985Image: imago images/F. Sorge

Among those "other bands" was the group Feeling B, founded in 1983. Their keyboardist was the 16-year-old Christian "Flake" Lorenz, while Paul Landers, then 18, played guitar. Feeling B was one of the first underground bands to be officially sanctioned by the state as an "amateur dance music formation," allowing them to make their music and give concerts. Their lyrics weren't particularly political; they rather embodied the Fun-Punk genre that celebrated drinking and partying — which was in itself another form of opposition to the GDR establishment.

Till Lindemann's band First Arsch was also among the accepted groups. The musicians from both bands met within the scene, partying together or appearing on stage at each other's concerts. They'd share instruments and even were roommates at some point.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the underground scene appeared to have lost its purpose. Feeling B disbanded. "Everything died in the years following Reunification. Through the system change, we no longer had an enemy; we were disorientated. We noticed that if we'd keep going with our funny little thing, no one in the West would be interested," Flake once told Spiegel magazine online. 

At that time, Till Lindemann happened to win a band competition with his new project, called Tempelprayers. The band included drummer Christoph Schneider and guitarist Richard Kruspe. They got the Feeling B members to join them and tried to find a way to "really make trouble," as Flake told Spiegel — something decidedly more brazen than their funny punk from the GDR days. That turned out to be Rammstein.

Rammstein Görkwitz 1994
No pyrotechnics yet: One of the first Rammstein concerts in Görkwitz in 1994Image: flickr/Vortilogue

In 1995, their first album, Herzeleid, came out and was an explosive hit. Already the name of the band felt hard: Rammstein was a reference to the to US Air Force base, infamous for its air show disaster in 1988, during which 70 people were killed. Lindemann's lyrics in the song "Rammstein – ein Mensch brennt" (Rammstein – a man is burning) were provocative. In the chorus of "Heirate mich" (Marry me), instead of "Hei! Hei! Hei!" people heard "Heil" — known as the Hitler salute.  

Flames, fire, death, inbreeding, violence, sex, necrophilia, perversion — these were all part of Lindemann's lyrics. He himself played the role of the child molester, the murderer or the psychopath. To top it off, the band had a militaristic style and Lindemann's singing made the German language sound more "German" than it actually is. Rammstein was quickly brandished as a far-right band. The band members regularly had to position themselves against the political right-wing to clarify that they did not associate with it.

There's always room for interpretation in Rammstein songs. The musicians learned that skill from their experience in the East German punk scene. "If you look at the lyrics of GDR bands, you notice how good some of them are, when they manage to address a topic indirectly. We're still strongly connected to this past," Christoph Schneider told Stern magazine in 2001.  

Rammstein, neues Album "Rammstein"
The cover of their latest album, "Rammstein"Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Unviersal Music/Jes Larsen

Rammstein has now been touring the world for nearly 25 years, staying true to their style and still managing to stir controversy. The most recent scandal came with their video "Deutschland," with a scene referring to the darkest chapter of German history, depicting a concentration camp execution scene with the band members dressed as inmates wearing the Yellow Star. The video includes other scenes referencing practically the entire history of the country. And while the word "Deutschland" is roared throughout the song, the following line is definitely not one for Nazis: "Deutschland: I cannot give you my love."

Rammstein remain as ambivalent as they've always been, with one difference: In unified Germany, they won't get arrested for criticizing the system.