Young people in the west today wouldn’t have known too much about the loss of liberty that the current coronavirus restrictions are imposing, but for those who remember what it was like to live in East Berlin before the Wall came down, it will be all too familiar. Will any youth cultures emerge from the wreckage this time?
For the Observer Magazine of 28 August 1983, in ‘Children of the Berlin Wall’, Ian Walker reported from behind the Wall (via a series of one-day visas from West Berlin). ‘Bikers and hippies, skinheads and punks, mohicans and new romantics’, young East Berliners managed against the odds to create an unofficial youth culture.
Walker soon learned about churchyard concerts. All of East Berlin’s hundred-odd unofficial rock groups were called cellar bands, pretty much by definition. ‘They have nowhere to play. They just come out of the cellar occasionally for gigs in churchyards, like tonight’s,’ said Uwe, a lab technician.
Uwe talked about his favourite UK bands – the Damned, Cockney Rejects, Joy Division – and the West Berlin group Einstürzende Neubauten. ‘Punk arrived here in 1979-80, just after it happened in West Berlin. It’s the same with everything, skinheads and new romantics, too. But the normal youth here just like disco music. Same as the West.’
They gleefully pointed out all the plainclothes cops trying to look anonymous in parked cars and on park benches. But the authorities didn’t know whether to stick or twist. ‘On the one hand, punk is outlawed,’ wrote Walker, ‘and, on the other, a group called Pankow has recently been promoted in the vain hope of defusing dangerous desires.’
To really give a flavour of the topsy-turvy times: ‘When the gig was over a long-haired church worker took the microphone to appeal for tolerance from the hippies. “We all have the same aims,” he said. “Listen to the punks.”’