GDR Underground Tapes



tapetopia is a series of vinyl releases based on cassettes from East Germany’s 80s underground, particularly from the East Berlin "Mauerstadt" music scene, featuring original layouts and track lists. For over 30 years after their initial “release” the music on these tapes was neither available on vinyl nor CD, but they were important statements in the canon of the GDR subculture. Despite the miniscule number of original cassettes in circulation at the time many of the bands were popular in countercultural circles, a factor that made them highly suspect among the government’s own inner circles.

While the underground tape scene of the 1980s worked similarly in the two “sound systems” that were East and West Germany, at their core they were fundamentally different. In both east and west, fans taped non-hits for a like-minded circle of friends. In the west they rejected the music that dominated the market; in the east, they simply had no concept of “the market”. Bridges between these two sonic worlds did exist, but the production conditions on both sides reflected two very different ideological world views.

For the tape scene in the east the issue wasn’t only coming up with an idea; there was also the problem of how to get it onto tape. The equipment needed to produce a song wasn’t readily available, but the bigger problem was the sheer impossibility of making enough copies to be relevant. Western tape decks were as rare as bronze in the Stone Age and priced accordingly. East German cassette recorders such as Stern, Sonett, Minett, Anett, Babett or the tape deck from the state-owned RFT were exorbitantly expensive and, subject to the whims of a moody economy, seldom in the shops. GDR tape recorders were also infamously unreliable and repairs could take from 4 to 8 weeks, often returning just as broken as they left. The GDR also didn’t manufacture any tapes that were affordable and suitable for reproduction. The only thing cheap about the ORWO cassettes from VEB Filmfabrik Wolfen was their quality, always prone to unspool into a useless pile of tape spaghetti. With a young job trainee’s average monthly income of around 250 East German Marks, paying 20 Marks per cassette wasn’t exactly enticing, particularly given that the monthly rent for an older 1-room apartment was only around 25 Marks. Resourceful tapers would therefore simply record over used tapes by irrelevant stars from East Germany’s official AMIGA record label. Artist names like Les Humphries Singers or Mireille Mathieu could often be seen faintly underneath the newly inscribed names of the GDR’s underground bands.

For those without access to western currencies, i.e. "Westgeld", or to private trade routes into the western sector of Berlin or West Germany used for smuggling equipment through the gaps in the Iron Curtain, the options for tape productions were severely limited. In addition, releases without GDR government approval or regard for its ideological added-value chain were, if not strictly illegal, nevertheless still not legal. Smuggling large quantities of such items across the established foreign currency exchange borders of the day breached exchange control regulations, a crime eagerly pursued and prosecuted by both East German police investigators and the Stasi secret police.

But large numbers of tapes hardly seemed necessary in the GDR, where things like “distribution structures” or “independent record stores” were mysteries only heard about from a different, more “German” Germany. Throughout the GDR from 1984-89 some 200 of these moonshiner tapes appeared. While this is a drop in the ocean compared to West German productions, a few of these tapes, usually only in small numbers of 20 – 50 cassettes each, made the rounds among the initiated and attained legendary status, such as the “Rotmaul” cassette by Freakwave outfit Ornament & Verbrechen or "AIDS delikat" by the noisemongers in Klick + Aus.

Henryk Gericke
Translation: Jeff Collier