Sascha Lange is a journalist and expert on youth culture in the GDR. A former self-styled Dave-double, Lange recently wrote a book about his teenage years in the East, DJ West Radio, which focuses on the country’s well-developed DIY culture. Without a relative on the other side of the Wall who could score them Western swag, GDR youth had to figure out on their own how to make bondage harnesses like the one Martin Gore wore in Depeche Mode’s early years. This is the third in a six-part series of conversations with the fans. Click here for more.
Friday 11:25 pm, Leipzig: Sascha Lange – journalist and historian of East German youth culture
Growing up in East Germany in the early eighties, DIY was de rigueur—especially when it came to expressing yourself as a fan of Depeche Mode. It was all about making your own DM-style clothing, pins and accessories . . . and bugging family in the West to smuggle posters, pins, and Bravo magazines. Take for example the S&M leather harness, like the one that Martin Gore wore in the early years: the main problem with owning something like that was that there wasn’t a single sex shop in the entire GDR. So we improvised. A friend of mine owned a pair of leather suspenders from the East German riot police, which I ended up buying off him and simply wearing backwards. Purely in terms of looks, it came pretty damn close to the original. You have to understand: there was a lot of thought and planning involved in figuring out what to wear, and there was serious intention behind every purchase and object modification. If you somehow heard that Mode was coming out with a new album, you couldn’t just walk over to the store and buy it. You had to think, “OK, now it’s March. Grandma’s coming for Christmas and mom might get permission for a visit to the West in September. OK, she could get it for me, but . . . in six months!?” Or if you really wanted it that bad, you had to spend, like, two hundred ostmarks to buy it on the black market . . . which is what I made during my carpentry apprenticeship in two months.
Depeche Mode fan culture in the GDR was a lot about a kind of reenactment and styling ourselves just like the band. This often manifested itself in “band” photos that we would pose for and take ourselves. And as a general matter, the DM visual and graphical style had an immense effect on us all. It wasn’t like you just looked at a poster, liked it, and hung it on your wall. No—you studied it. You brought all of your clothes to the dry cleaner and had them bleached black. Instead of Doc Martens we wore industrial workman’s boots and other classic workwear garments that were available in the GDR. However, in terms of the music, we weren’t entirely starved of what was happening in the West. We were able to pick up West German radio and television in Leipzig, and that was an important source for us, and always the subject of conversation in school the next day.
My obsession began with “Blasphemous Rumours” in 1984. In the beginning, we only heard the singles in the radio, so somehow these morphed into the main aspects of our fan identity—that is, until circa 1986 when the government set up the East German youth radio Jugend-radio DT64. Specifically, the show Duett-—Musik für den Rekorder [Music for the Tape Recorder] played albums from beginning to end so that we could record them at home onto tape. Each day in the newspaper you’d find the albums they scheduled to play that evening. We’d all be sure to get home early to adjust the radio antenna for optimal reception. For me it’s clear that Depeche Mode always had a special attraction for East German youth. They had an image that was absolutely unmistakable, and the mid-eighties of course was the height of total identification with the music you listened to. Back then, you couldn’t tell who was, say, a George Michael or Duran Duran fan. In contrast, with Depeche Mode, even if you owned all of the albums you wouldn’t be taken seriously by any of the real fans if you dressed like a preppy and didn’t have it be you’re entire identity. In my opinion, this obsessiveness developed out of what I call Depeche Mode’s double-inaccessibility. First, the band was inaccessible because they were rock gods—but they were also inaccessible because they were on the other side of the Wall.
But not all of our parents were comfortable with their children “sticking out”, so to speak; or belonging to such a unique subculture. Well, at least until a very brief moment in history. Let me back up briefly. Since the 1960s, the country’s ruling party had officially declared “Western” rock and roll to be a form of evil cultural capitalism. In fact, the official East German definition as it appeared in Meyers Kleines Lexikon, in Leipzig 1959 was, “Rock and Roll: A frenzied form of boogie originating in the USA; seduces the youth to excess; functions in West Germany as a form of ‘psychological warfare’ to distract the youth from thinking about political questions of the day.” This was literally the party line until around 1987, when riots on the East side of the Brandenburg Gate broke out after hundreds of teenagers had tried to get as close as possible to the border to hear David Bowie, who was playing right on the other side to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin. After the riots, the authorities decided that the best way to be able to control the youth was by occasionally inviting bigger bands to come to the GDR. It was also a good way to prove to the world that the country was “open”. You have to understand: the GDR cared about what the world thought of them—not like, for example, Iran today, who couldn’t give a shit about their demonization in the West.
Anyhow, fast-forward nine months later to March 1988. One day in school, word started to spread that the forty-two-year anniversary of the state-run East German youth organization FDJ [Free German Youth] would be celebrated with a Depeche Mode concert in East Berlin. Needless to say, dozens of rumors like this had circulated in the past and none came to be true. But lo and behold, about a week before the concert was scheduled, friends of mine called to tell me that they had found a ticket available and the concert was definitely for real. We had suspected it might be more than a rumor when one of the moderators on DT64 announced it by mistake. But somehow I still couldn’t believe my ears. So it was with blind faith that I saved up 150 ostmarks for the ticket and took the train for the first time by myself to East Berlin when I was sixteen. At the main station in Leipzig, I immediately ran into various Dave Gahan and Martin Gore look-alikes also on their way to the show. We ran into plenty more when we got to the venue in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg, and even after I made my way through the masses to get inside the Werner Seelenbinder arena, it still was just so unreal. The place was filled to far beyond capacity and we couldn’t really move individually, but rather only as a group.
After a dreadful East German opening act who you couldn’t hear because everybody was screaming “De-Peche-Mode!” the whole time, the room grew quiet and the lights dimmed. Suddenly you could here the opening piano lines to “Pimpf” and I got goose bumps all over. The lights went up and four figures appeared behind a scrim, which then dropped, and there they were. It’s almost impossible to describe the feeling I had at that moment and for the rest of concert. Surely it was the greatest ninety minutes of my life, and every time I listen to the live bootleg at home, I cry my eyes out. Growing up, I never had the chance to go on vacation to Italy or France, or do the things that normal kids in the West could do. But I did see Depeche Mode, and, honestly, I don’t think I missed out on anything.