In 1977 Johnny Rotten spat the words "No future" on the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen," and he meant it: Great Britain was on the cusp of a hopeless season of political upheaval, unemployment, inflation, and garbage strikes leaving mountains of trash to rot on the streets. To many young people, the "Winter of Discontent" portended the end of capitalism—or at least its failure—and the only visible course was to tear it down. The Pistols (along with the Clash, the Slits, the Damned, and a legion of others) might not have changed the world, but they had certainly struck a chord, however discordant.
The London punks' message wasn't confined to the West. In Germany, illicit broadcasts and contraband cassettes carried the music over the Wall in to East Berlin, where the kids were also not alright. They stared at an opposite (if equally bleak) fate, a tyranny of sameness featuring state-prescribed courses of education, military service, and employment. They called it "too much future." Soon, a few brave proto-iconoclasts—sporting neon Mohawks and shredded clothes sutured together with safety pins—appeared in public parks, squares, and trains. They hid tapes and photographs in secret stashes, squatted in vacant, war-blasted apartments, and found an unlikely ally in the Lutheran Church, who granted bands with names like Namenlos, Feeling B, and Planlos space to play their illegal music. If the Clash and the Sex Pistols were considered rebels for infusing rock with jagged political commentary, imagine the guts it took to do it under the eye of the Stasi, the brutal and efficient East German secret police. Despite being harassed, abused, and imprisoned for their views (and the audacity to express them, even tacitly), these punks did change the world. Their stubborn perseverance inspired others while exposing the true limits of the police state, leading to the public revolt that pulled down the Wall after 28 years of national quarantine.
When Tim Mohr traveled to Germany in the early 1990s, he discovered the remnants of East Berlin's punk history, even as a new country arose from the rubble of the Wall. A DJ with a bit of a rebel streak himself, Mohr explored a netherworld of dank, dirty clubs in search of the malcontents and musicians who put their futures on the line in the '70s and '80s, when observable reality told them it would not end well. And despite the events of 1989, many still carry the trauma from their days as (sometimes fugitive) enemies of the state. While Please Kill Me and Under the Big Black Sun provided more-or-less definite accounts of the scenes in London, New York, and Los Angeles, Mohr's Burning Down the Haus adds an altogether unexpected and inspiring chapter to the story of rock and resistance, one which still resonates.
Last spring, Mohr joined us at Book Expo in New York to talk about the book and the unique challenges in writing it. Here's that interview, along with a few transcribed excerpts. Burning Down the Haus was a September 2018 pick for Amazon's Best Books of the Month in Nonfiction.
Photo credit: Stasi arrest, SUBstitut Archiv (Berlin)
Excerpts from our interview with Tim Mohr, Author of Burning Down the Haus
Punk Rock, Hamburgers, and Levi's
I'd grown up kind of force fed this American mythology about the end of the Cold War—it's become sort of an article of faith that some combination of Reagan's "tear down this wall" speech and Eastern kids desire for hamburgers and Levi's led to the fall the wall. And here were the people, I suddenly discovered, who'd actually fought the dictatorship with their bodies. They'd been harassed by the police, beaten by police. A lot them spent time Stasi prison for their activities, and they came out and kept fighting. And that was the key to the movement.
Freedom vs. "Too Much Future"
The interesting thing about what happened in the East is it very quickly became its own thing. The British punks to say "no future" because the socio-economic situations. In the East, those conditions didn't exist. There was no unemployment. There's no homelessness. There was no worries about basic needs, but your whole life was scripted out in advance. You had your your communist youth organizations. You had your apprenticeship, your mandatory military service, your job that you had very little role in choosing. And so they used to call it "too much future." What they were fighting for was a level of self-determination in the decision-making in their own lives.
It was super dangerous to be a punk, especially in the first half of the '80s. You don't hear anything about punk in the Eastern Bloc, and one of the reasons is because there's not that much of a record. People didn't want to be in pictures, because that just makes you more likely to be arrested. They were locked out of the recording studios—anything they did musically they had to do on their own on sort of a basement tape basis. They would have their places raided. Parents and siblings lose their jobs as a means to bring in pressure. A lot of them spent time in Stasi prison. Some of the people I interviewed are, to this day, unable to deal with with regular life because the Stasi was really good at what you call psychological terror, and some of the people still suffer from it 30 years later.
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- (Richard) Hell Hath Some Fury: 10 minutes with a punk rock icon
- Punk Rock Girl: Viv Albertine's Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.
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