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September 26, 2018

Tim Mohr's Playlist for His Book "Burning Down the Haus"

Burning Down the Haus

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tim Mohr's Burning Down the Haus is a riveting and important examination of the roots of East German punk rock.

The Wall Street Journal wrote of the book:

"Original and inspiring . . . Mr. Mohr has writ­ten an im­por­tant work of Cold War cul­tural his­tory."

In his own words, here is Tim Mohr's Book Notes music playlist for his book Burning Down the Haus:

Burning Down the Haus is first and foremost a story of resisting authoritarianism. Many of the musicians in the East German punk scene saw their music primarily as a tool, or even a weapon, toward that end—which is also one of the reasons the scene completely evaporated immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because punks were banned from recording studios, which were all part of the state-controlled media system, East German punk recordings are quite scarce, and the homemade production quality of what does exist exist is often rough. So this playlist is a mix of things related to the book in other ways, whether influential on the scene itself or on the process of my writing about it.

“Fuck tha Police,” N.W.A.
My initial belief in the importance of the story of East German punk was reinforced after I returned to the U.S. and recognized an ominous echo in developments here: mass surveillance on a scale the Stasi could only have dreamed about, the widespread use of insidiously pliable charges like “failure to comply with a lawful order,” the struggle of protest movements such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and #NoDAPL in the face of a complacent or even hostile society. We tend to dismiss out of hand comparisons of our system to authoritarian regimes like the one in East Germany. But East German police—unlike our own—could not murder people in the street with impunity.

“Verschwende deine Jugend,” D.A.F.
The most famous book on West German punk is named after this 1981 song and represents an exact analogue to Please Kill Me—an oral history of the scene, complete with all the big names. I knew an oral history format would not work for my own book: for one thing, all the protagonists are complete unknowns, and for another, there was too much context necessary to make the story comprehensible to readers unfamiliar with the East Bloc. But this tune has a great, menacing groove, and part of me thinks that punk made on synths is even more punk—synth-punk is also a sound we heard a lot of in 1990s Berlin, from Atari Teenage Riot to Peaches.

“Cold War,” Oppenheimer Analysis
At the time the events in Burning Down the Haus were unfolding, the idea that life on earth could be vaporized in a matter of minutes occupied a prominent place not only in the popular imagination but also, in the West, in pop culture. Think of “99 Luftballons” by Nena, “Forever Young” by Alphaville, “Ask” by the Smiths, or “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” by Ultravox, to name a few. This is something more obscure but no less affecting, a tune that was exhumed as part of the boom in interest in 1980s Cold Wave and minimal synth music.

“Wir Tanzen in Viereck,” Stereo Total
With a cult following to this day, Stereo Total is the only band of note that came out of the scene I was part of as a DJ during the 1990s—a much lighter scene than the Teutonic techno most people associate with the city. Also, I love this band. They instantly transport me to Berlin, so I listen to them a lot. Bonus points: Françoise Cactus’s earlier band, the Lolitas, even managed to play a gig in East Berlin before the fall of the Wall.

“Oh Bondage Up Yours,” X-Ray Spex
I listened to a lot of old school UK punk while writing this book. Though we don’t necessarily think of X-Ray Spex as among the biggest first generation UK punk bands, they had a major impact in East Germany. Each section of my book takes its title from a song, and I just knew the section that concentrates on Jana Schlosser, the singer for a band called Namenlos, had to have this title. Jana and all her bandmates ended up in Stasi prison for their incendiary lyrics.

“A Min We Vo Nou We,” Les Sympathics de Porto Novo
For about ten years now, there’s been a steady flow of rediscovered 1970s funk and psych from West Africa put out by labels like Analogue Africa, Strut, and Soundway. The tracks blend Afrobeat and Highlife with American soul, rock, and disco sounds, often packing in horns, psychedelic guitar licks, organs, and early synths. It’s the perfect music to bob your head and write to. This one has a wicked guitar line over jumpy bass, punctuated by bursts of brass.

“Holidays in the Sun,” The Sex Pistols
One of the most interesting revelations of the story of East German punk rock is that the Pistols turn out to have been more important to the fall of the Berlin Wall than Ronald Reagan’s tear-own-this-wall speech was. The rebellious kids the Pistols and other early UK punks inspired were only looking for teenage kicks, but they quickly became politicized by their extreme treatment at the hands of the police—causing the scene to evolve into an full-blown political movement that took the lead in moving protests into the streets, where things eventually snowballed into the mass demonstrations that toppled the regime in 1989.

“Prefiero No Callar,” Los Grillos
Maybe it has something to do with being a translator, but just as punk from the non-English speaking world fascinates me, I love 1960s Beat music from around the world. There are German-language songs sung in heavy accents by singers from the UK, France, and Spain; mind-blowingly good French stuff from people like Jacques Dutronc; and lots of organ-heavy Beat from South America. I first ran across this Bolivian band’s music at a flea market on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

“Something We Got,” Minx
I listen to a lot of vintage R&B these days, and on the rare occasions when I still DJ, it’s mostly what I play. I found this track on a compilation of obscure Philly soul and it has worked its way onto all my party playlists. “What I got, I got a lot!”

“Minor Threat,” Minor Threat
Burning Down the Haus was actually published in German first, under the title Stirb nicht im Warteraum der Zukunft, which was a graffiti slogan used by East German punks that means “Don’t die in the waiting room of the future.” At one point I thought Minor Threat might work as an English title, since the phrase pretty much sums up the story. Something that surprised me at the onset of my research was the dictatorship’s paranoia over a bunch of teens with bad haircuts. I couldn’t help thinking: Why was the Stasi so worried? Of course, as I came to realize, they had been right to worry. East German punks may have been minors, but they really did represent a threat—because they ended up steeling the resolve of opposition forces by going toe to toe with the security forces and surviving.

“Take Me With You,” Lyn Christopher
This super slinky 1973 U.S. track actually has a Berlin connection for me. An old DJ friend, DJ Supermarkt, curates a club night and compilation series called Too Slow to Disco, and the first time I came across this song was on one of his compilations. And DJ Supermarkt has a monthly Too Slow to Disco residency in Monarch, a great little micro-club at Kottbusser Tor, in Kreuzberg, which also hosted the Berlin release party for the German version of Burning Down the Haus.

“You Only Live Twice,” Nancy Sinatra
It’s perhaps a sad indictment of 1980s America, but I’m pretty sure James Bond movies colored my childhood understanding of international politics—including the way I thought of Berlin before arrived there and scoped it out for myself. But I love the soaring orchestration on here, and I sometimes used to close out my DJ sets with this track back in the day.

Tim Mohr and Burning Down the Haus links:

BookPage review
Kirkus review
Pitchfork review
Publishers Weekly review
Wall Street Journal review

Billboard interview with the author
Jefferson Public Radio interview with the author
Rolling Stone profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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