Features I by I 24.09.16

Punk, priest, Stasi, spy: Meet the man who smuggled punk into East Berlin

In his years as a fixture on the Berlin underground, Manchester polymath Mark Reeder brought Joy Division to the city, managed and produced countless punk bands, rented his spare room to Nick Cave and launched one of the greatest trance labels of the 1990s. Less well known is how Reeder risked his freedom to smuggle Western bands into East Germany, putting on illegal shows in churches at a time when the Stasi was attempting to crush the country’s nascent punk scene. Joseph Delves tells the story of a persecuted punk whose clandestine activities offered a glimmer of freedom in a totalitarian state.

East Berlin didn’t attract many tourists in 1979, and certainly not many that looked like Mark Reeder. The Stasi following him didn’t know what to make of this strangely dressed figure, wandering happily among the strictly choreographed May Day crowds as they filed past the GDR leader, Erich Honecker. As Reeder lifted his camera to take a souvenir snap, the secret police decided to end his day trip. Bundled away, his interrogators were baffled by the presence of an English tourist in the Workers’ and Farmers’ State.

The previous year, a 20-year-old Reeder had quit Manchester and hitchhiked to West Berlin, at that time an island adrift in the zone of Soviet occupation. With the GDR’s anti-fascist barrier splitting the city in half, and with more than 150 km between the city and the Iron Curtain, West Berlin was a captive city, claustrophobic and strange. At the geographical centre of the Cold War, as the Soviets sought to squeeze the Western allies, so West Germany attempted to shore up their power, offering those prepared to live in the still-ruined city exemption from military service and generous financial grants. The city became a haven for transient artists, freaks and draft-dodgers who squatted alongside a population of aging trümmerfrau and Turkish gastarbeiter. Berlin was already the semi-mythical home of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and as a music obsessive and natural-born chancer, Reeder threw himself into the city’s nightlife, variously playing in and managing bands, representing his hometown’s Factory Records and providing voiceovers for pornographic films.

With its death strip, armed guards and landmines, the Wall penned in the West Berliners, but it also guaranteed their freedom. With a world of adult distractions for amusement, few of those whom Reeder met in the music scene troubled themselves with what was happening over the Wall in the “other” Berlin. Not that the GDR made it easy to travel to the East. The border was the most tightly controlled in the world and took hours to navigate. Staffed by petty, unsmiling guards, there was always the possibility of being pulled aside and grilled by the Stasi. Unperturbed by his first brush with them at the May Day parade, however, Reeder would make the crossing many times, heading East to discover the hidden half of Berlin’s music scene.

Photograph: Mark Reeder

“East Berlin was like the hardest club in the world to get into”

“Sometime in early 1981 I was in East Berlin and got chatting to this Jesus-looking guy in a bar who mentioned owning an electric guitar – which in the GDR were like rocking horse shit,” recalls Reeder. “Under some five-year plan they were supposed to be manufactured in Czechoslovakia, but they were almost impossible to find, let alone buy. Playing any music in the GDR was seen as potentially anti-state. If you officially wanted to play to the public, all lyrics had to be pre-approved. Anyone performing in public was vetted to assess their proficiency and political reliability. I wanted to know where this guy played his music, and he said he played in a church at something he called a ‘blues mass’.”

In East Germany, the church existed in passive opposition to the totalitarian state. Given its size and influence, the communist party was afraid to stamp it out, instead choosing to permit most of its activities while maintaining close surveillance. Consequently, churches provided some of the few spaces available for open political discussion. While joining the church afforded a degree of protection, doing so was seen as explicitly anti-state, and would cause difficulties at work or school. Churches were also one of the few places where people could hear music not sanctioned by the state. During extended services, so-called “blues masses”, members of the congregation would play songs by artists like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. An idea started to form in Reeder’s mind. “If he can play rock in a church, maybe my band, Die Unbekannten, could play there.”

Towards the end of the 1970s, East Berlin was developing a punk scene of its own, in part influenced by the music drifting over the wall on British Forces radio. The early ‘80s saw native bands like the nihilistically named Planlos (“aimless”) and Namenlos (“nameless”) form to play covert and illegal shows in private houses and rehearsal rooms. By 1981 the state estimated there to be a thousand punks in the GDR, enough for the Stasi to begin specifically targeting the movement.

“Around that time I’d met a girl in East Berlin who introduced me to her circle of friends. They were into similar music and keen on my church gig idea,” says Reeder. “Die Unbekannten were an electronic, synth-heavy band. There was no way of smuggling in all our equipment undetected, so I started putting all the synth and drum parts onto tapes. But in East Berlin, no one would lend me a cassette player. Everyone was terrified that if our gig got busted it’d be confiscated, which would have been the least of their worries. A cassette player was something holy – it was how people listened to illegally distributed music or recordings off the Allied Forces radio stations. So instead we decided that my friends Die Toten Hosen, a West German punk band, would play instead, as they would only need traditional instruments.”

Die Toten Hosen, 1988
Die Toten Hosen, 1988Photograph: Holm Friedrich

“When the gig was finished I was in tears. It felt like we’d done something historic”

Reeder approached the priest to ask if the band could perform at the church. “Slightly sceptical, he saw my enthusiasm and said yes, though insisting that it was a church service and not a gig, and we would have to pray and all the rest, to which we all agreed.” They decided to use Planlos, one of the punk bands from Reeder’s friend’s circle, as a cover. “They officially applied to perform at the church, because you couldn’t just turn up and start playing. It still had to be official, even within the confines of the church. The Stasi were therefore aware but wouldn’t be paying too close attention, and we were able to piggyback on their gig without arousing suspicion.”

Reeder and Die Toten Hosen travelled across the border in groups of three on different trains. “East Berlin was like the hardest club in the world to get into. If we went in as a group they’d be suspicious,” he says. “I went last to check everyone got through. We met up in Rummelsburg, at the apartment of a couple who were helping us put on the gig. We sat there watching a West German TV feature about the difference between an established German rock band called BAP and a new punk band, Die Toten Hosen – who were all sitting in their living room drinking ersatz coffee and eating homemade cheesecake. They couldn’t believe it, the band were actually there in their flat and on West German telly.”

They told only the few East German punks they knew about the gig – the more people they invited, the more chance the authorities would find out. “About forty people came. There were no photos, no evidence. At any moment the Stasi could have kicked in the door and arrested everyone. I was incredibly aware that if the gig was raided I would probably only serve a minimum of time in prison, if any, before being deported, but these kids would have had to live with the consequences. Their lives could be really shit from that point on, their chances of getting a job or going to university could be fucked.

“I made sure they understood, because it was their lives that were at risk. I wasn’t going to get shot or disappeared. They all knew it was totally illegal to have a western punk band playing unofficially in East Berlin. They’d seen bands like Boney M come over and play big sanctioned concerts on TV, but nothing like this. Although we didn’t realise then, it was actually the very first time a band from West Berlin had played an illegal gig there. I wanted to bring them this music because there was no question of them being allowed to leave to watch a gig in West Berlin. When it was finished I was in tears. It felt like we’d done something historic.”

Die Toten Hosen’s gig galvanised East Berlin’s fledgling punk scene. Brave and principled though it was, the church movement was seen at the time as decidedly uncool, despite the blues masses. After the gig, however, local punks came to understand the church as a shield from increasing Stasi persecution.

“It was a potentially dangerous and volatile situation for the church, but although the priests absolutely loathed the music they were incredibly supportive,” says Reeder. They understood about freedom and wanted to show that the church was about doing something good.”

By this time, Reeder’s frequent trips to East Berlin were generating reams of files at the Stasi HQ near Frankfurter Allee. On an earlier visit, Reeder had seen a young man on the subway with spiky cropped hair and lilac drainpipes. Sensing an ally, Reeder chased after him and asked if he knew of any underground gigs happening. “He said no, that sort of thing is all forbidden – but foolishly I’d given him my address,” recalls Reeder. “He turned out to be an informal collaborator and a Stasi informer.”

Yet rather than block Reeder’s visits, the Stasi allowed him to travel unhindered in order to find out which East Germans were associating with him. To the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), punk was a decadent western response to unemployment and the failure of the capitalist system. In the Worker and Farmer’s state there was no such thing as unemployment, so officially there could be no punks. In Alexanderplatz, East Berlin’s tightly controlled showpiece and one of the few areas frequented by westerners, getting caught in too-tight trousers or sporting the wrong haircut was enough to get you thrown into the back of a van.

The state’s increased persecution only spurred the church to try and shelter the punks, forging an unlikely alliance which had a politicising effect on the scene. In 1983, Planlos and Namenlos played large shows at a Berlin church and immediately faced a major crackdown from the authorities, who harassed and interrogated the punks. Members of Planlos were forced into the army, while Namenlos were arrested and imprisoned for two years; upon their release, the band quickly reunited and founded a weekly church group for likeminded fans. Despite the efforts of the Stasi, the scene continued to grow.

By 1986, Poland and Hungary had relaxed state controls on music in line with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist glasnost policy. East Germans began pushing for similar freedoms, and the situation came to a head in 1987 when the three-day Concert For Berlin was held at the Reichstag, a location that would allow fans to listen in from the other side of the Wall. As David Bowie played “Heroes”, thousands of East Berliners gathered, refusing the authority’s demands to disperse. (For reasons of romanticism, the fact that an equal number came to listen to Genesis is best ignored.) The next day, hundreds were arrested and attacked with water cannons – but the mood was shifting.

Die Toten Hosen, 1988
Die Toten Hosen, 1988Photograph: Holm Friedrich

“The Stasi were always trying to control me and the music”

In 1988, a year before the Wall came down, Reeder and his friends planned a second Die Toten Hosen gig in East Berlin. To give them a cover, local band Die Vision registered to play a benefit concert for Romanian orphans at a church in Pankow.

“When we arrived at the church there were 600 people and the police were sitting outside,” says Reeder. “The priest was told by the authorities that Die Toten Hosen were forbidden to play, so he was forced to announce that the band had been cancelled.” Knowing that the Stasi wouldn’t be able to identify Die Toten Hosen’s members, the band asked the priest to announce that a new group from Dresden would play in their place. “Almost every other punk was a potential Stasi informer, but none of them wanted to miss the gig. The band played for 45 minutes before someone informed the police that it was actually Die Toten Hosen. After the gig we all expected to be arrested – but nothing happened. We all left and had a meal together.” The gig wasn’t free of consequences – some attendees did get the Stasi on their doorstep afterwards, pressuring them to inform – but the authorities’ subdued reaction was in keeping a general loosening of control over music in the GDR.

By 1987, with western music widely available through radio stations broadcasting into the East, the SED decided to relax the restrictions on the state-owned record label, Amiga. Artists like The Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode and Bruce Springsteen were allowed to perform in the country for the first time, and even Die Toten Hosen gained distribution on the other side of the Wall. Incredibly, Reeder himself was tasked to produce the first East German new wave record sung entirely in English – the debut album by Die Vision, the band who had provided cover for Die Toten Hosen’s second illegal gig.

Torture was recorded while the GDR was starting to fall apart, and it was to be the last album made in communist East Germany. In reality, the album production was merely a front to monitor Reeder’s subversive activities, but history was accelerating. Soon the authorities would have more than a few punks making a racket to worry about.

While the state’s attitudes to music were softening, the SED’s rejection of Gorbachev’s liberalising policies led to conflict with their Russian sponsors and increasing unrest among the population who demanded greater freedoms. Elections in East Germany were normally a formality, serving only to endorse the continued rule of the SED. However, before the local elections in 1989 an increasing number of people, many within the church movement, made clear their intention not to vote, or to vote against the official candidate. When the electoral commission announced a 98.85% vote for the official candidates, a wave of protest swept the country. As the other Warsaw Pact countries struggled with their own border controls, tens of thousands of East Germans fled to the west via Hungary.

Die Toten Hosen, 1988
Die Toten Hosen, 1988Photograph: Holm Friedrich

Many people involved in the punk scene joined the church in contesting the results of the election. A significant number also applied for exit visas as the state began expelling people deemed undesirable in an attempt to shore up its strength; many of those ended up in West Berlin. Reeder remembers it as an unbearably tense time. “No one knew what was going to happen. It felt like a dangerous moment. No one expected the Wall to come down

“Having expelled the perceived undesirables, the state suddenly tightened its grip on the borders and people started talking about the possibility of revolution or a wave of violent repression. I could always leave, but the people there were trapped. It was very scary. I thought, all I can do is try and make this record the best I can.

“I was very naive. The singer said, ‘There’s a flat above mine you can borrow, so you don’t have to keep going back to West Berlin. There were no empty flats in East Berlin. To have a flat as a single man like him was almost unheard of, but I never really connected the dots – that he must be privileged in some way. When he showed me the flat above his there was a fucking huge one-way mirror on the wall. In reality the Stasi were always trying to control me and the music. The singer of Die Vision was informing for the Stasi, the studio engineer was informing for the Stasi.”

Weekly vigils centred around the Gethsemane Church and the emergence of the democratic New Forum movement led to large scale protests starting on October 7, 1989, the GDR’s 40th anniversary. Many protesters were beaten and arrested, but the protests spread quickly. On November 4, over half a million people attended the largest demonstration in GDR history at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. Honecker had been forced to stand down several weeks earlier, and Politburo had resigned en masse. During the night of November 9, the Wall came down. By December the old communist system ceased to exist, but no one yet knew what would take its place.

Worn down by the situation at the studio and the febrile atmosphere outside, Reeder decided to take break from producing the album to take a trip with some English friends to Romania, travelling via Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In East Germany it was obvious even to the SED that restriction on travel to the west would eventually have to be relaxed, although they envisioned only a limited number of people being granted permission to cross the border.

Asked at a press conference when this rule change might take place, a flustered spokesman for the SED, Politburo member Günter Schabowski, replied: “Immediately and for all people.” It was not exactly what the SED had intended. Thousands of East Germans flocked to the Wall, demanding to be let through. The guards didn’t shoot, and for the first time in 24 years, people were allowed to cross freely into West Berlin. Still on his way to Romania, Reeder didn’t find out about the fall of the Wall for several days. “There was no point rushing back, we’d missed it,” he remembers. “I now only wanted to return to Berlin to finish the album.”

For many dissidents in the East German punk scene, the transition to democracy proved extremely hard. “Along with the Wall, everything they’d fought against disappeared. They had no raison d’etre anymore. Having fought so hard, nearly all my friends from the East fell by the wayside in the following years, either through alcoholism or drugs. They just dissipated. Almost all suffered in one way or another.”

The movement that had hastened the collapse of East Germany had always been about reform, and not revolution. Most people wanted a fairer version of socialism rather than the introduction of untrammelled capitalism, but the reunified Germany was in many ways simply an extension the politics and economics of West Germany. In the first free elections, held in March 1990, the democracy movement candidates were steamrollered by new branches of the West German parties. Along with their political aspirations, a unique Eastern culture, formed under the pressure of a totalitarian regime, disappeared in an instant.

As the city began to knit itself back together, two different versions of Berlin slid into history. No longer isolated within the GDR, money and people trickled into the city. For the East German punks, who’d grown up in a society almost entirely free of drugs, the West held almost as many pitfalls as opportunities. Months before the Wall fell, Berlin had hosted the first ever Love Parade. For those that remained and survived in the city, the birth of techno, a wordless genre, was to provide the ideal soundtrack to reunification. In a city awash with new music and new drugs, the remaining East German punks settled into their new lives or found new things to rebel against.

“I knew the second the Wall came down, for me that was the end of Disneyland. Our old Berlin was finished,” acknowledges Reeder. “Still, it was one huge adventure.”

Mark Reeder is the star and narrator of the film B-Movie, Lust and Sound in West Berlin

Top image: Mark Reeder in the studio



Share Tweet