The Beatles, beat music and East Germany: Two terms that don’t seem to go together at first glance but they are closely linked

Beat music and the GDR — two terms that don’t seem to go together at first glance. But they are closely linked, as a new book reveals.

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, which four young men were especially 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 Germanies: the western-aligned Federal Republic of Germany, and the Soviet-aligned German Democratic Republic, or GDR. In 1961, the GDR built a wall that divided the two German states not just politically, but physically as well.

Those divisions inevitably led to growing cultural differences, especially regarding youth culture. In the west, rock ‘n’ roll heralded a change that the older generation found sinister and shocking, but which could no longer be stopped. Then came an ever “harder” form of music — beat music. And the Iron Curtain could not contain this juggernaut.

‘Folksy singers’

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

The East German regime initially tolerated these bands, accommodating the younger generation for being literally walled-in. So they made sure the kids got the music they wanted.

Three 45 rpm singles lie next to their covers, which show photos of the heads of The Beatles in an illustrated old-fashioned baby carriage.
The 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 Das Magazin stated: “The Beatles are a group of folksy singers between the ages of 20 and 24 who play electric guitars and drums and twisting rhythmically up and down, hurl their ‘beat’ music into a mechanical amplifier with cheerful persistence,” wrote a London correspondent in the popular cultural journal.

“The exuberant, unbridled, youthful glee in what they do goes into the audience, grabs and infects young and old,” it continued. And so Beatles records were indeed spinning on the decks — the GDR record company Amiga actually released a few of their records.

A social menace

But that friendly attitude didn’t last very long. The music, the bands, the fans and their haircuts got out of control, from the GDR leadership’s point of view. It used the riots at a Rolling Stones concert in Berlin in September 1965 as an opportunity to declare beat music a social menace. Authorities were instructed to “take tough action against such excesses during and after dance events (…) as well as against this ‘Hottentot music’ in general.”

Excited Fans Reacting to The Beatles British Rock and Roll Performing, Washington Coliseum, Washington, D.C., USA, in a black-and-white photograph by Marion S. Trikosko, February 11, 1964

Screaming girls, unruly crowds: The behavior of beat music fans tended to upset the authoritiesImage: Glasshouse Images/picture alliance
The GDR head of state Walter Ulbricht formulated his dislike in the following manner: “Is it really the case that we have to copy every piece of filth that comes from the West? Surely we should put an end to the monotony of ‘ye, ye, ye’ or whatever it’s all called.”

A passion for music

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

GDR meeting in Berlin of GDR State and Party Leader Walter Ulbricht (standing, center) with private entrepreneurs, in a black-and-white photo from March 1966 by Leon Schmidtke

Walter Ulbricht, GDR Head of State and Party from 1950-1971Image: Leon Schmidtke/
In Leipzig alone, 44 beat and guitar bands were affected by the ban. Martin also tells the stories of those musicians in his book. He spoke to numerous East German music stars, including Veronika Fischer, Frank Schöbel and Dieter Birr from the band the Puhdys.

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

In a black-and-white photo from November 10, 1979, the four members of the East German rock band the Puhdys perform onstage in Hamburg.
The Puhdys were the first East German rock band allowed to perform in West GermanyImage: Heidtmann/dpa/picture-alliance
Wolfgang Martin takes a deep dive into the East German music scene as well as into everyday life there, illustrating it all with wonderful pictures of album covers, band photos and newspaper clippings from those years. Some of it might seem quaintly amusing to modern eyes, but it was deadly serious for the people involved back then.

Schluss mit all dem Yeah Yeah Yeah? (“Enough with all the yeah, yeah, yeah?”) is a piece of contemporary history — German history and of course pop music history — written by a music fan who lovingly and carefully collected all the photos and interviews. Wolfgang Martin turned his passion into his profession: He was a radio presenter (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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