The Beatles, Beat Music and East Germany – DW – 23/10/2023

When what was then called “beat music” reached East Germany, Wolfgang Martin, born in 1952, was a young teenager. He was fascinated by this new sound that four young men were particularly responsible for sending out into the world – and not just the Western world.

In the early 1960s, the Iron Curtain still divided Europe into East and West. There were two Germanys: the West-aligned Federal Republic of Germany and the Soviet-aligned German Democratic Republic, or GDR. In 1961, the GDR built a wall that separated the two German states not only politically, but also physically.

These divisions inevitably lead to growing cultural differences, especially with regard to youth culture. In the West, rock and roll heralded a change that the older generation found sinister and shocking, but which could no longer be stopped. Then came an increasingly “hard” form of music — beat music. And the Iron Curtain could not contain this giant.

“Folk Singers”

The Beatles, who had already captivated the entire Western world, electrified not only the teenagers in East Germany, but also many musicians there who were inspired to imitate their music. Wolfgang Martin witnessed it all: the beginning of the Beatles’ career, as well as the many beat music groups formed in the GDR. Martin was crazy about music. He listened to Western radio stations and collected records of beat and guitar groups from the East and West.

The East German regime initially tolerated these gangs, adjusting to the younger generation being literally walled off. So they made sure kids got the music they wanted.

East German state record label Amiga released three Beatles singles with rather idiosyncratic coversImage: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa/picture alliance

In 1964, a favorable article in the East German magazine The magazine stated: “The Beatles are a group of folk singers between the ages of 20 and 24 who play electric guitars and drums and, while rhythmically spinning up and down, blast their ‘beat’ music into a mechanical amplifier with cheerful persistence,” wrote a London correspondent in the popular culture newspaper. “The exuberant, unbridled, youthful exuberance of what they do goes out into the audience, grabbing and infecting young and old,” he continues. And so the Beatles’ records were indeed spinning on the decks – the GDR’s record company Amiga actually released several of their records.

A social threat

But this friendly relationship did not last very long. The music, the bands, the fans and their hairstyles are getting out of control from the perspective of the GDR leadership. He used the riots at a Rolling Stones concert in Berlin in September 1965 as an opportunity to declare beat music a social menace. The authorities were instructed to “take strict action against such excesses during and after dance events (…) as well as against this ‘Hottentot music’ in general.”

Screaming girls, unruly crowds: The behavior of beat music fans upset the authoritiesImage: Glasshouse Images/photo alliance

The head of state of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht, formulated his distaste as follows: “Do we really have to copy every filth that comes from the West? Surely we need to end the monotony of “you, you”. , you or whatever it’s called.”

Passion for music

This now classic quote inspired the title of Wolfgang Martin’s book. In it, he describes not only his own path to music discovery, but also how East Germany was gripped by Beatlemania and how strong the Beatles’ influence was on East German musicians. And he tells of the blow to bands and fans when the GDR leadership decided to ban beat music in the fall of 1965.

Walter Ulbricht, head of state and party of the GDR from 1950-1971Image: Leon Schmidtke/ddrbildarchiv.de

In Leipzig alone, 44 beat and guitar groups were affected by the ban. Martin also tells the stories of these musicians in his book. He talked to many East German music stars, including Veronika Fischer, Frank Schöbel and Dieter Beer from the band Puhdys.

They tell of their passion for music and also of their perseverance during the years when their favorite music was not allowed to be played – until the GDR leadership in the early 1970s, at that time under the leadership of Erich Honecker, again relaxed the ban and years later even allowed Western artists such as Bruce Springsteen or Udo Lindenberg to perform. The bands that came after – including those who also gained fame in the West, such as Silly, Karat and the Puhdys – consider their musical roots to be with The Beatles, even though they didn’t form until after The Beatles broke up.

The Puhdys were the first East German rock band to be allowed to play in West GermanyImage: Heidtmann/dpa/picture-alliance

Wolfgang Martin dives deep into the East German music scene as well as everyday life there, illustrating it all with wonderful photos of album covers, band photos and newspaper clippings from those years. Some of it may seem oddly amusing to modern eyes, but it was deadly serious to the people involved back then.

Done with all the Yeah Yeah Yeah? (“Is that enough yes, yes, yes?”) is a piece of modern history — German history and of course pop music history — written by a music fan who has lovingly and carefully collected all the photos and interviews. Wolfgang Martin turned his passion into his profession: he was a radio host (including at the legendary East German youth radio station DT64) and was music director at various radio stations.

This article was originally written in German.

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