sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 2

Jeff Hayton: Culture from the Slums

Jeff Hayton's monograph on punk culture in the Federal Republic and GDR could have become the standard historiographical work were it not for the many small and serious shortcomings and scholarly carelessness that undermine almost every positive aspect of the work. In fact, there is a lack of historical studies on German punk culture: since the early 2000s, only journalistic, cultural and social science works on punk in the Federal Republic have appeared, including publications in English. The steadily growing series of books on punk in the GDR have also lacked historical expertise. The only exception is Florian Lipp's historical in-depth study on punk and New Wave in the last decade of the GDR, published in 2021, which, as Hayton himself writes, appeared too late to be included in his work. [1] Consequently, the chapters on punk in the GDR do not offer much new information.

In his introduction, Hayton explains the relevance of a historical reappraisal of the development of punk in both German states as well as the subsequent social and political reactions: according to him, nowhere else did punk "[burrow] deeper into the socio-cultural woodwork than in Germany"; it contributed to the emancipation and pluralization of divided Germany and was a medium for alternative life and a motor for social change (2, 7, 9). Moreover, an exploration of punk, he claims, would help to explain why the Federal Republic flourished and the GDR collapsed: while the GDR failed to absorb punk in its own advantage and East German punks continually undermined state legitimacy, Western democratic capitalism was able to tame alternative currents like punk that challenged its power, value and meaning (9). On top of that Hayton argues that the alternative music scene was "more or less founded by punk", that German-language lyrics in popular music found their initial mass popularization with German punk and that punk influenced other genres such as hip-hop and techno (2).

Impressed, the reader wonders how a subculture that comprised only a few thousand members in the West, and even less than 1,000 in the East (57), could have such a strong impact on both German societies. But Hayton achieves his construction of such a feat only by subsuming various scenes and movements under the term "punk", some of which even opposed the punk subculture. This approach could have worked under certain circumstances if Hayton had used "punk" as an analytical term for a "subject cultural" movement (in the sense of Andreas Reckwitz) whose description went beyond the well-known characteristics and narratives of resistance and back-to-the-roots ideas.

However, as the term "Punk Rock" in the book's subtitle signals, he chooses not to do so: according to Hayton, punks, like their predecessors in the late 1960s, rebelled against Western mainstream society and commercial rock 'n' roll culture ("make rock 'n' roll dangerous again"), with a sound characterized by simple and amateurish instrumentation and fast, repetitive songs, and lyrics dealing with everyday banalities and/or critical social issues (20). As an essential aspect of punk culture, Hayton points to its claim to authenticity, since young people on both sides of the Berlin Wall understood punk as a possibility to elaborate an "honest and genuine" critique of everyday life as well as "more genuine identities" in a world perceived as inauthentic (3, 25).

With regard to this classical definition of punk, it is all the more surprising that Hayton frequently cites musicians and bands that neither musically nor ideologically fit his definition of punk and, contrary to his claim (100), did not see themselves as punks: Mania D., Malaria!, Die Krupps, DAF, Ideal, Einstürzende Neubauten and even the Slovenian industrial group Laibach. In order to be able to press these and other groups into his narrative, Hayton makes use of various means: on the one hand, he adopts the term "Kunstpunks" (art punks), which the followers of hard, political punk rock (he calls them "Hardcores") used to demarcate and devalue new wave musicians, allowing him to continue to mark the latter as punks. This reinterpretation enables Hayton, for example, to devote the fifth chapter to the supposed commercial successes of punk in West Germany at the beginning of the 1980s, although high sales numbers were mainly experienced by the "Kunstpunks" of the so-called Neue Deutsche Welle which Hayton describes, contrary to current research findings [2], as a creation of the music industry based on conventional rock and pop and "silly and trite lyrics" (161).

More serious, however, are Hayton's distortions of content, omissions and unmarked insertions when quoting. Some examples concerning the musicians of the all-female new wave band Mania D. and their statements in Jürgen Teipel's oral history book "Verschwende deine Jugend" (2001) show that his handling of quotations suggests rough carelessness to the point of deliberate deception. For example, without marking it, he inserts the word "punk" into Bettina Köster's statement "We worked in quite a different manner than male punk bands" (71) to make them appear as a punk band. Shortly afterwards he claims that the West-Berlin musician Beate Bartel "recalled how punk let her wear pants, garments prohibited in her school and home at the time" (88), although she is not talking about punk at all. She preferred to wear trousers rather than skirts and got her first pair of pants in 1969, when she was 14 - long before punk even existed.

Last but not least, the reproduction of prominent, yet already outdated narratives throughout the book also stands out negatively. Although Hayton rightly speaks out against the reading of punk as a crisis expression and the resistance narrative (8f.), he then does exactly that: according to him, punk gave youths, a "disenchanted collective buffeted by socio-economic distress", a way of "voicing and grappling with these concerns" (105). Finally, in detecting the effort to "sonically capture contemporary Germanness" in the sound experiments of Einstürzende Neubauten (115), Hayton also takes recourse to the popular interpretation - particularly among Anglo-American pop music researchers - of German pop music, which identifies without any evidence an artistic expression of contemporary "Germanness" in every breath of progressive German music.

On the positive side, the author has compiled a very extensive source base in federal, state, regional and city archives, in radio and church archives as well as in archives on the GDR opposition and in the Berlin Archiv der Jugendkulturen. Despite all the harsh criticism, Hayton's study, which ends with an epilogue on the shape of punk culture after reunification and the subsequent (popular) academic reappraisal, is nevertheless the most comprehensive, source-supported English-language analysis of the history of German punk so far and can thus be recommended to interested readers with no prior thematic knowledge.


[1] Florian Lipp: Punk und New Wave im letzten Jahrzehnt der DDR. Akteure - Konfliktfelder - musikalische Praxis, Münster 2021.

[2] See Barbara Hornberger: Geschichte wird gemacht. Die Neue Deutsche Welle; eine Epoche deutscher Popmusik, Würzburg 2010.

Rezension über:

Jeff Hayton: Culture from the Slums. Punk Rock in East and West Germany, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2022, XV + 364 S., ISBN 978-0-19-886618-3, GBP 75,00

Rezension von:
Florian Völker
Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam (ZZF)
Empfohlene Zitierweise:
Florian Völker: Rezension von: Jeff Hayton: Culture from the Slums. Punk Rock in East and West Germany, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 2 [15.02.2023], URL:

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