Punk: a rally call for revolution, candid emotion, and often a violent expression of anger and frustration. This is the face of punk, and it has been often and understandably met with fear and bewilderment. When the punk scene emerged in the late 1970s, it exploded throughout western culture and punk bands like the Sex Pistols achieved wild popularity in West Germany. But even communist East Germany felt the waves of the punk movement, and punk culture took on a special meaning for its disillusioned youth. By the time of Germany’s reunification, punk had made an impact that still endures today, more than 30 years later. Germany still celebrates punk culture in many concerts and festivals held throughout the year, including the annual Punk & Disorderly Festival.
Although the punk scene has come in slightly different forms over time and across geography, a common theme of rebellion, against an authority seen as oppressive or corrupt, has persisted. This is apparent in lyrics from punk-rock band across the board that criticize war, materialism, and political oppression in sometimes metaphoric and often explicit terms.
“Forces have been looting
Curfews have been curbing
The end of liberty”
-“This is Radio Clash” by The Clash
In 1979 in East Germany, young, teen-aged punks began to sprout up across the state with their pierced faces and ripped jeans, inspired by the Sex Pistols and their anger with their oppressive state. It was different there, in the East; to be punk was to face the real danger of a truly oppressive government with spies and stiff jail-time penalties or even exile for rebels. And the tone was a little different, too; as Jane Paulick put it in Deutsche Welle, “Broadly dismissed in the west as nihilistic, punk in the GDR (The German Democratic Republic, or just East Germany) was fueled by optimism and a desire to change society.” Under a regime that required musicians to apply for permission and audition for the state to perform, punk bands naturally refused to comply. And as the movement grew out of control, “punks in the GDR were no longer seen as disaffected teenagers — they were denounced as enemies of the state.”
Michael Böhlke (aka Pankow), who in 1979 began his punk-music endeavors in East Germany, has vivid memories of the GDR punk scene. “Punk was a cross-cultural phenomenon in the east,” Pankow said, “The ‘tristesse’ of the GDR unleashed a huge creative potential, and the minute you were on the margins of society you tapped into a network of other artistic activity.” In 2005, Pankow sought to memorialize the phenomenon in a first-of-its-kind exhibition of punk in the GDR. The show featured paintings, collages, photography, and rare pop-culture memorabilia that paints a fascinating picture of punk culture in East Germany.
If you are interested in reading more about the early German punk movement, read this fascinating piece from Der Spiegel, written in 1978 in the midst of its beginnings.