Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, The Wall, & the Birth of the New Berlin, by Paul Hockenos

Second paragraph of third chapter:

You don’t have to look very far in Berlin today to find traces of the gifted dilettantes and their creations; they’re everywhere in the old stomping grounds, and beyond Berlin too. The protagonists of the post-Wall techno scene, for example, were embedded among them, experimenting with electronic music more than a decade before its global boom. And there’s not an industrial offshoot worth its salt, from Marilyn Manson to Rammstein and Nine Inch Nails, that doesn’t pay homage to Einstürzende Neubauten, the most renowned Berlin brand of the ’80s. The Brilliant Dilettantes even managed to alter Germanness a shade too.

It’s always good when someone you like writes a book you like about a subject you like. Paul Hockenos and I were friends in Bosnia in 1997, where I worked for a democratisation agency and he was a spokesperson for one of the big international NGOs, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. (Oddly enough, this review is set to post as I return to Banja Luka for the first time since 2003.)

In fact that Balkan interlude was a rather brief phase of his life, which as an adult has been mainly spent in Berlin, far from his upstate New York origins. I too love Berlin, though I don’t know it as well as he does. My own first visit was to a divided city in 1986; and I went back again after the Fall of the Wall, in 1992. I was last there in June, where I attended a reception on the top floor of the Reichstag building; in 1986 it was dilapidated and still partly burnt out, but now it is the democratic heart of Europe’s most important country.

The book divides roughly into thirds. The first part tells the story of how the growth of the alternative music scene in West Berlin, from the 1970s to 1989, was facilitated by the peculiarities of West Berlin’s governance; if you had a salary, the government boosted it by 11% to encourage you to stay (a rare example of a negative income tax) and the absence of the draft meant that the sorts of young men who didn’t want to do military service clustered there. David Bowie was deeply inspired by his three years there from 1976 to 1979, where he collaborated with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, and loved Romy Haag. People experimented with new ways of living and loving; it was an energetic city living, as it turned out, on borrowed time.

The second part tells the story of the links between the alternative music scene in East Berlin, the connection with dilapidated church buildings and the decaying regime’s inability to prevent young people from getting together to overthrow it. The vision here is a rather Berlin-centric one (indeed, a rather Friedrichshain-centric one), but that’s fair enough given the theme of the book. One point I found striking: John Peel was a hero of the Eastern kids, who taped his shows and acquired his musical tastes. They weren’t alone. The wonderful film Good Vibrations chronicles Peel’s effect on divided Belfast at the same time. A couple of hundred kilometres to the south, a friend of mine who grew up outside Limerick has written of how liberating Peel’s shows were for a teenage girl in early 80s Ireland. When the cultural history of Europe in the late twentieth century is written, I hope that Peel is given his due.

And the third part tells the story of the Fall of the Wall, and the disruption to the alternative lifestyles that had grown up on both sides as Germany reunified into a bourgeois bloc, Easterners voting for stability and rapid integration under Helmut Kohl rather than for any more risky alternative. At the same time, the influx of international interest and the very light touch of the last months of East Germany’s existence opened up more space for discourse and experimentation. Disturbingly, neo-Nazis grew in numbers, and actually killed one of Paul’s friends, the activist Silvio Meier. But time passed. The old hip neighbourhoods became gentrified. People settled down. Berlin is still edgy, vibrant, exciting in a way that no other German city is, but it’s not what it was. Well, it’s a city that has a lot of past to wear.

Even if you don’t know much about Berlin or music, it’s still a great book, and you can get it here.

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