August 17, 2012
Reflections on Deutschpunk in the early 80’s
by Oswald Bitterman
Deutsch Punk Uber Alles!
by Oswald Bitterman
When punk rock exploded in the late 70’s, the aftershocks were felt immediately around the world. By the time the first wave of bands from New York and London were releasing their debuts, bands were popping up in every rock n roll loving country you can point to on a map. Hardcore, of course, arrived a few years later. Western Europe and Japan soon followed suit again: the international hardcore scene peaking in the mid 80’s. At this time, the first wave of this sub genre seemed to be floundering in regards to the US and Britain. As a result, many of the absolute best punk records of 1984-1986 are from non English speaking countries. One could argue that the spread of hardcore around the world was a credit to the deep meaning hidden within these abrasive tunes.
Culture crossed national borders much slower and with more difficulty in those pre-internet years. People would write to each other from across the world, trading records, dubbed cassettes and merchandise. Being into this music in some places was a heroic act in itself. In the Soviet Bloc, any cultural deviants faced crushing opposition from the powers that be. People faced time in jail or a mental institution for stepping out Communist Party norms. No privately owned labels meant no way to get controversial music released. (For instance: Dezerter, Poland’s biggest punk export, could only get their 1983 debut 7″ released on a state-run label or not at all.). Parts of Latin America boasted large punk communities in spite of all the gang violence, murderous drug cartels, poverty and almost complete lack of a music industry infrastructure. Through commitment and dedication, many of these scenes have been able to survive into the present day.
International hardcore did have some popularity within the UK and US music scenes at this time. Probably a half dozen such acts played the US, usually financing their tour with massive Goldenvoice promoted gigs in Southern California. The British punk scene eventually embraced the groups too. Along with US hardcore and Celtic Frost, bands from Sweden and Japan were among the most important influences on the late 80’s crust scene.
Fast forward to contemporary punks: this past decade has seen a real explosion in interest in foreign hardcore from the 1980’s (and today). It has now gotten to the point where Rattus shirts seem to outnumber the GBH shirts at shows.
Obviously file sharing has had a hand in all this. Music from all over the world is readily available at the push of a button and kids now seem to know who Eskorbuto is before they have even heard The Damned. So its now much easier to find out about bands from far flung corners of this tainted globe. But whats the appeal of these acts? The fact is, its not just punk in another language, different countries had their own sounds: taking bits from the US and British scenes and making them their own. Any language barrier is basically irrelevant. Plenty of these groups sang in English and with real punk, you cant understand the words no matter what anyway. Music in another language also makes for a unique and special listening experience. The human voice becomes a fourth instrument, so you can concentrate on the rush of glorious noise. Album artwork should tip the listener off to lyrical content and you can certainly bet if the group is a gaggle of mohicans, they aren’t singing about the glory of Jeebus!
Within the scene, three clear favorites seem to have emerged: Finland, Sweden and Japan. My own favorite is quite clear too to anyone who knows me. It is punk from Germany: deutschpunk!
In my definition, deutschpunk in the 80’s was a sound, not just bands that played punk in the Western Republic of Germany (info on East German punk, like the excellent Schleimkeim, is difficult to come by and that’s another story completely). To split hairs, I would not include some of the very good but more generic bands like Vorkriegsphase and Crap Scrapers within this definition because they sounded like they could be from another country. The “classic” deutschpunk musical style was somewhat similar to second wave UK punk with its boozy singalong choruses. However, its often played at a faster clip. This speed doesn’t seem to translate into a significant USHC influence. It almost sounds artificially sped up at times: like UK82 played at the wrong RPM. Many of the best acts of the genre played a variety of musical styles within the punk spectrum side by side. Production was usually professional without being too squeaky clean, so the shoelace raw punk maniacs can still dig a lot of it.
Of the no doubt rich history of this chapter of punk I have very little knowledge. The vague time line in this article is based on impressions I’ve gotten from collecting the genre for about a decade, some sparse info I’ve obtained from various sources and from my own personal opinions.
Like many international scenes, punk in Germany trailed the original British movement by a few years to the point that many of the bands were still playing mid tempo ’77 style punk by 1980-1982. However, the collective musical palette of the subculture in the country was also expanding with Oi! style acts popping up (Daily Terror), as well as some so-so generic hardcore acts. The best early bands of this period and slightly earlier were The Buttocks and Screamer. The Buttocks were absolutely a proto-HARDCORE band. They formed in the late 70’s playing blisteringly fast punk tunes. Lyrical content protested police violence and New Wave sellout foolishness. Screamer, from Hamburg, was another awesome group from around the same time. They eventually evolved into the ever popular Slime and, in fact, several songs off the second Slime LP are reworked/re-recorded Screamer songs. The excellent post Slime combo, The Targets, used some of these tunes as well.
I would consider the peak period for the scene to be between 1983 and 1986 but a preview of the brilliance to come could be seen a few years earlier in the form of the above mentioned Slime but also the equally outstanding Upright Citizens. These two acts seemed to get the ball rolling above all others with a much more evolved sound. Slime first appeared in 7″ form with a controversial offering titled ‘Wir Wollen Keine Bullenschweine’ (which translates roughly to “We don’t want pigs”) and also tracks on the important “Soundtracks Zum Untergang” compilation LP. ”Polizei/SA/SS” off this record, is one of their very best songs. Again, the lyrical mode is one of anti-police sentiment (which is always punk as fuck, of course) and the song is very very fucking fast. Its as full of piss and vinegar as the ground breaking Middle Class ‘Out of Vogue’ EP and much faster than anything coming out of the UK at this time. Frankly, the sheer brilliance of this cut makes the rest of the bands on the record look stupid and old fashioned, in my opinion. Upright Citizens exploded into the scene with their excellent ‘Bombs of Peace’12” in 1982. The primary influence was clearly British but more fast and scrappy. The total package was topped off by snotty but socially aware lyrics (in English). They would go on to be one of the most vital acts of the era, very much tied into the broader international hardcore scene. To the best of my knowledge, they were the first and only band during the period to tour the US.
As stated before, I think 1983 was the year deutschpunk really came into its own. In record numbers, bands all over West Germany picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Slime. 1983 and the couple of years following, saw a flurry of mind blowing releases with nary a dud in evidence. The country had one of the largest punk communities in the world as evidenced by the Chaos-Tage punk festival held in Hanover. (The fest was attended yearly by thousands of rowdy punk rockers, toting around pet rats, burning down the city and clashing with Nazi Skinheads).
There is just so much to like about this amazing era of punk rock. I present to you a short list of some of my favorite deutschpunk bands and their best records in no particular order.
Slime from Hamburg is a group I highly regard among all punk bands. They are arguably the biggest act of this time period and are considered one of the most important underground groups to come from Germany EVER. They certainly set the tone for the bands that followed in their wake. Unlike most other acts, they were fresh right out of the box and played in that classic deutschpunk vein a good 3 years before everyone else. Their musical style is characterized by big, sweeping terrace chant choruses complimenting non-wimpy anthems, lightning fast ragers and unfortunately the occasional reggae tune (ignore this dreck: the only major blemish on their early discography). The groups anti-police/anti government stance got them into hot water and made them infamous. Their records were banned, stores selling their merchandise were raided and their gigs were busted up by the pigs. In this way, they were almost like the Deutsche Sex Pistols/Black Flag! Narrowing down a favorite among the three incredible albums they released before their original split in the mid 80’s is a difficult task. In my opinion, their career highlight is “Stortebeker” off their third LP ‘Alle Gegen Alle’ but best over all release..?After much soul searching and painful introspection, I would have to select their 1981 debut self titled LP. The album has both English and Deutsche language tracks , divided into two sides. It begins with the rousing call to arms: “We don’t need the Army” and doesn’t stop being nearly perfect until the needle lifts. Again, its hard to pick a favorite as nearly every song is amazing. (Ignore the reggae song!!!!) Even the slightly goofy “Robot Age” has a killer chorus; something of a Slime trademark it appears. “A.C.A.B.” is a stand out cut. It ranks among the best tunes on the topic of that very special relationship between punk and pig and is quite superior to the 4-Skins songs of the same name. “Hey Punk!” will also have you uncontrollably pumping your fist and thrashing around your dingy studio apartment. This record was so very awesome that the authorities tried to literally drown out the sentiments contained within. There is a censored version of it, with amusingly enough, parts of songs actually bleeped out to protect the delicate sensibilities of the public. Those songs are basically unlistenable in this form but it still makes one chuckle.
Crawling out of the punk rock gutters of Cologne, came Bluttat (“Bloody Deed”). I have heard them compared to DIRT and Potential Threat and that sounds vaguely correct. Its punk rock with male and female vocals and anarcho ethics. Lyrical topics include: war, police, apartheid, no future etc but with a sense of humor. They released three LPs in the first half of the decade. Their second album, ‘Nkululeko’, is their most hardcore offering, which of course makes it their best. Released in 1984, it really does sound like a faster, more raw Potential Threat on many songs. “Oarl” features some excellent use of male and female vocals. “Fight your Wars” is another classic with a forceful but catchy chorus coupled over some alarmingly intense guitar thrashing. “Sty” compares the West German republic to the place where swine dwell in their own filth and has a cool bridge chant of “Destroy the motors of society!” Sound advice and an indication of the band’s noble mission. The record has a lot of songs and a lot of ideas. Its not all thrashy punk but they manage to pull it all off including some forays into a capella and a weird creepy slow number with keyboards. A hardcore punk classic!
Vorkriegsjugend (not to be confused with Vorkiegsphase) hailed from Berlin. This was a band of squatter punks. They shared members with Zerstorte Jugend, who were also excellent.
The Vorkiegsjugend moniker means “pre-war youth” and they still retain a sizable fan base to this day despite a very small discography. The ‘Heute Spass, Morgen Tod ‘ EP was their first release. Other than the fact that its a double 7″ (not unheard of but not too common), the first thing one notices is the cool cover. Its a photo of their dingy, run down squat with barely visable Articles of Faith and Void logos on it. However, the music is pure deutschpunk, not much yank influence in evidence. It features seven songs: four fast and three mid tempo, but its never boring for a second. The vocal style is high and raspy. A bit evil sounding even for a Teutonic language. “Vaterland” begins the assault on your feeble eardrums. Its a pounding and catchy slower track with an irresistible bass-line. It kicks into the faster “Ratten” before the next track “Rache” which is even better with its cool, echo-y chorus. The two sounds, slow and fast ,featured at the beginning, set the town for the remaining tracks: the songs alternate between the two tempos. This record is frankly one of the best of the genre but unfortunately one of the hardest and most expensive to find in its original format (typically German punk records are fairly cheap). I recommend seeking out the 12″ reissue on a Brazilian label from a couple years later.
…And then there’s Blut + Eisen from Hanover. This band is my absolute favorite and the first deutschpunk band that really clicked with me. During their reign, they released two LPs, a 7″ and a split 7″. Much like Slime, I found it hard to decide on which record stands above the others. ‘Schon Geseh’n’, their second album is great. It features some of the very best songs they did but half of it is some odd (but kinda cool) slower numbers that flow into each other. Their first LP, ‘ Schrei Doch!” is thus their magnum opus. The record is just amazing. Its fearless originality makes it hard to accurately describe, however: mere words cannot do it justice. The sound is catchy and intense but skewed and random without being arty. It features atypical song arrangements, songs that end and begin without a break, weird middle sections with church bells in the background and a part where the tune just stops and everyone counts to three, three times before it kicks back in again with stunning speed and precision.
These are dense songs, with many more different parts to them than is average in short hardcore punk blasts. But they also feature Abrasive Wheels style hooks that will stay in your brain until the cops beat you into a stupor. There isn’t a single bad song on the record. Just when you think its going to be a boring bit, it kicks into a different riff and the whole thing changes. My absolute favorite deutschpunk song of all time rages hard as the second to last track. “Darf ich es wagen das zu sagen” is one of the most pissed off punk songs ever written, especially as it builds to its crescendo at the end. It also features some cool reverb on the vocals like so many great UK82 bands.
Along with Malinheads, Scapegoats and Vorkiegsphase, Inferno unleashed the most brutal thrash attack among deutschpunk bands. However, in the classic German punk tradition, this Augsburg act had a very tight and polished sound and well written tunes . This is why I don’t lump them in with the above mentioned noise merchants. Words like “harsh” and “dark” come to mind when you are indulging in their brilliant music, but its all still very hummable for those of us who aren’t nursing or elderly. They appeared on many compilations and offered up a slew of uniformly incredible records right up through 1986 but 1983’s ‘Tot & Wahnsinn’ is their gem among gems. ‘Death and Madness’ the title translates to and boy, does it fit. Although admittedly it does features a few tracks with silly lyrics like “Ram it Up”, its 20 tracks of unprecedented intensity. This is their debut, and its great right down to the awesome Pushead artwork of an unfortunate fellow with a melting face.”Life at War” uses slower and fast bits to great effect, and the excellent “Escape from..” raises the middle finger to society with a chainsaw-like guitar whizzing away. Basically hardcore punk perfection.
These are just some of many many incredible releases from this time period to come out of Germany. For better or for worse, things changed after 1986, just like everywhere else. It was now the age of Teutonic thrash metal (Kreator, Sodom etc). In the punk world, this period saw the rise of US style “skate-core” bands like Spermbirds, Hostages of Ayatollah, Sons of Sadism and others. It wasn’t terrible music but honestly seemed very light weight and childish compared to what came before. (why anyone would rather wear shorts and a baseball cap over a leather jacket and boots is beyond me but hey, I wasn’t there!) This scene was more woven into the larger hardcore movement happening at this time and so punk in Germany lost a good deal of its uniqueness. In spite of this, the country apparently remains a staunch punk zone to this day, catering to a variety of sub genres under this big banner labeled ‘punk’. Still, the classic period of hardcore punk from Germany remains very under appreciated compared to Japan and others, even though the record are relatively cheap and easy to find. I look forward to the day when more people know about and appreciate these great sounding bands.