An interview with Klaus Maeck
by Christophe Becker
Et Satan fait danser les pierres… — Boris Vian, Le Chevalier de neige, 1953
Christophe Becker: Last time you and I talked, we discussed the movie Decoder, Genesis P-Orridge and William S. Burroughs. You mentioned the Rip Off punk store. Can you tell me when you first discovered punk music, and what bands or artists you listened to at the time in Hamburg?
Klaus Maeck: I discovered punk music two years after it hit London. Hamburg is quite close to London, there was a ferry going every two days. We often went there. It was cheaper than flying, now it’s the other way around and there’s no more ferry. It happened around 1978 really, when I was working as a taxi driver. I was part of the alternative, autonomous movement. “Non-dogmatic,” we called ourselves. There were a lot of communists around, and militant fractions like the RAF. The 70s were quite busy. But we weren’t following any party line. Punk exploded around that time. Friends in my neighborhood didn’t really understand it. I thought it was kind of a revolution, because it was a revolution — at least for the music industry or for the music culture and subculture. We grew apart because I was going to London, and not really catching any good bands, but that’s when I started to listen to punk music. In Germany it was all a copy of English punk really. Singing in English, trying to copy people’s favorite bands. Only a little later, in 1979 or 1980, German bands started singing in German and finding their own style and identity. Hamburg was known for this hardcore punk. I was listening to the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols were my favorite band, or The Clash.
CB: Did you have the opportunity to see them in concert?
KM: Not the Sex Pistols. I had a ticket for their first Hamburg show, but they split a week or so before coming. I never saw them. But I saw The Clash during one of their early concerts in Hamburg. It was quite an experience. Of course, a little later, in 1980, Einstürzende Neubauten started playing and I didn’t see their first concert in Berlin but in Hamburg, which was quite an exciting event because they played last in a punk / new music festival with very different bands, punk bands, experimental bands, and, like I mentioned before, the Hamburg audience was quite rough. I guess it was our intention because I was also co-organizing the event. I just wanted to show the variety of music happening in Germany. Einstürzende Neubauten was playing in front of fifty people. Most of the people left because there were some fights going on. This concert stuck in everybody’s mind who saw it at that time, these fifty people, I’m very sure. So they became my favorite band.
CB: You say you organized or co-organized these events?
KM: Driving a taxi, I met Alfred Hilsberg. He was sitting in the back of the vehicle, talking to someone, mentioning punk. He was involved, or writing about it. Also he was starting, or planning to do an exhibition about twenty-five years of Rock ‘n’ Roll. This was the twenty-fifth anniversary, I believe it was in 1979. At that time, I was working with a friend on a self-made underground magazine. There was no fanzine then. It was called Cooly Lully Revue. The subtitle was: “A magazine for the radical joy of life.” A crazy magazine about UFOs, we also published political articles… I had the second issue in my taxi. This is where I published the first interview with Johnny Rotten in Germany… which I made up. (laughter) Because I couldn’t reach him. I actually tried to, I had his phone number, well I believed I had his phone number being in London. I even believe until today that he spoke to me because somebody just shouted on the phone “FUCK OFF!”. It might have been him, I don’t know.
CB: (laughter) It might have been. Sounds like him all-right.
KM: So I invented that interview, writing it, copying English interviews. I was well… fascinated.
CB: (laughter) So you’ll never know whether you talked to Johnny Rotten or not.
KM: No… I saw him later, much later, some years ago, playing with Public Image… Anyway, Alfred Hilsberg was organizing this exhibition and, since I gave him my magazine and he saw that I was interested in music, he asked me to help him find books about music and the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll so that I could sell them there.
There were no books about punk yet, not even the first fanzines, but some magazines, I believe. That’s when I started, helping Alfred Hilsberg on this first exhibition. And when that exhibition was finished the idea came up to open a store with the magazines that hadn’t been sold. I was buying badges cheaply in London, selling them here at the first punk concerts. We had no records, only badges and magazines. Soon, we had the first vinyls from London. It was all so fast, the first German independent records were pressed… At first, as you can imagine, there was not so much to buy — it was more of a hangout for punks. In daytime there was no real place for them to rub shoulders so it soon became their meeting point. By the time, more and more records came in, and it turned into a real record store. We had artists in general. Painters, writers, journalists, they all met in the same place. When I say writers, journalists, we were all starting to be. There was no clan. It was the right time. It was four years, from 1979 to 1983. Four very fast years. After the first year already, I think in 1980 or 1981, other record stores opened in Germany. All at once, all at the same time in Berlin, in Dusseldorf, in Munich… Some of them asked for the records we had. I was working with Alfred, he was heading the ZickZack label, publishing lots of singles and first albums. We soon began to exchange records, or to distribute. In 1981, we were distributing independently for lots of German labels. You see how fast it grew in two years.
CB: What sort of customers did you have at the time?
KM: Well, music fans. I miss the times, you know, when we went to record stores every week to see what new releases would be available. If that new release from that band would already be there. Just being curious. We would listen to the music in the store. The customers…? We had very young people who wanted to buy badges. Badges became very fashionable. The audience also became younger. We mostly had music fans. Many people told me later they were afraid to come into the store because… I guess they saw so many leather jackets and associated them with rockers and violence, which, you know, never happened inside the store but outside. We even had to close it at some point, and move it, because neighbors were complaining too much. We were not only selling punk records but every sort of new music; I hate the word “new wave,” but all the new music that came out then.
CB: Was there any pressure of any kind… Any form of censorship? Were you absolutely free to express yourself, or sell what you wanted to?
KM: We were mostly free, but… There was this Hamburg band called Slime, and I believe it was their first record. Slime were one of the bands who would drop by the store and give some records “in commission,” as they say. They would come by a week or a month later to collect the money for the records we had sold. I was invited by the police, by the political police, I had to go because I was selling records with political statements to destroy Germany, in short. They asked me if I knew these people, if I knew names etc. Because the record was not allowed to be distributed. But this was basically the only case. I could say “I don’t know them, people dropped by the store, brought records and then came by again, that’s how we do it.” I mentioned at some point we had to move the store, we heard that the Hamburg council tried to prevent our moving to a new neighborhood: they said it was already full of homeless people, they said it was poor enough. But they couldn’t stop us from opening the store.
CB: Did you consider punk as a political movement?
KM: For me it was. It was all very naive, of course: “Kill the police,” “kill the pigs.” But having been educated and having lived in the 70s, the militant groups fought against a police state. It was much more black-and-white at the time. I saw the movement in general was a very political movement by just stating, or showing, that people could organize themselves without any big record companies, global or national structures, or parties. Maybe it was a continuation of the hippie conception of freedom, of an alternate movement. People tried. They tried to grow their own food, to work in collectives, to barter. We didn’t want to make money when we started the record store. It was a fun project, but we had to make a living. It was the first time I could live off my work.
CB: Organization is one of the major themes in Decoder. It’s always been an important topic to you… Were you familiar with radical political publications like Konkret, articles published by Ulrike Meinhof, Klaus Röhl or Peter Rühmkorf?
KM: Yes, Konkret. I was familiar with it. Ulrike Meinhof’s articles. Klaus Röhl, Peter Rühmkorf not so much. I wasn’t a steady reader of Konkret, but it was a very important publication. There weren’t so many left-wing publications at that point. We also worked on our own publication at the time. It was still the era of thermopaper, and some machines we used in school. Of course there were printers. We printed magazines, very simple ones. To publish texts by Ulrike Meinhof, for example. Or even the Red Army Fraction. Not because we were in favor of them, but we were for the publication of their articles. We believed anyone should be able to say or publish anything in a democracy. Obviously, these statements were never printed in the media so it was kind of a counter publicity.
CB: It was mostly Ulrike Meinhof then?
KM: Yes, because she was quite somebody. Having worked as a social worker, being very smart. She was an intellectual turning into a terrorist… I assume she was the most intelligent member of the gang. It’s not that I was a fan of Ulrike Meinhof. She was one of the prominent names of counterculture. Klaus Röhl and Peter Rühmkorf were more on the intellectual, academic level.
CB: Last time we talked you mentioned that movie by Uli Edel, Die Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo . He directed a movie some time ago about Ulrike Meinhof and the Red Army Fraction [Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, 2008]. The movie was pretty much trashed when it was released.
KM: There are two perspectives. Having lived through the time, having known people who knew people who, themselves, knew people… It was a community, it was easy to know someone involved… It was interesting to see the film recounting the story of the Baader Meinhof gang in ninety minutes. It was a commercial tv project. You couldn’t express any depth or criticism in such a commercial film and nobody would have expected that of Uli Edel who’s a handyman. He’s not a very artistic or valuable director in my opinion. But he knows his job and how to do such a film. It was interesting to see it as a document of the time, but not more than that.
CB: To come back to punk music and Rip Off, did you choose to support or promote certain punk bands?
KM: Yes, but the word “choose” is not right. It happened (laughter). Like opening that Rip Off store. I was friends with Frank Z., who was the singer of Abwärts. Abwärts was one of the first German punk bands. They were two to four years older than most of the punks. We were already in our early twenties. We were twenty-two or something. How old was I…? I was twenty-five in ’79. Let’s say we were five years older, and Frank was the same, but punks were rather sixteen, eighteen or twenty. Abwärts jumped the train with the punk attitude. But they did that very well, they were a very nice rock band.
They met in the store and made plans and finally recorded an album. I was kind of their sound-mixer on live gigs and their manager, but it was all very small, just trying to organize a record, a tour, an album. It just happened. And when Abwärts got really good friends with Einstürzende Neubauten, two members of Abwärts left to play with Neubauten, like Mark Chung and FM Einheit. This was the band I worked with for many years, even decades later.
In the late 80s, when Rip Off was bankrupt and I was being chased by financiers and government officials to pay money I didn’t have, I went to West Berlin which was still a good place for exile because it was not connected to West Germany. In Hamburg I couldn’t have a car, I couldn’t have a telephone, I couldn’t have a bank account etc. Because of my bankruptcy. While in Berlin everything was possible, life was a bit easier there. I was working on a book about Neubauten, Listen with Pain, and later, in the early ’90s, I made a documentary called Liebeslieder: Einstürzende Neubauten  about the first thirteen years of the band, with lots of music, footage and interviews. After that I really wanted to stop. I don’t want to be the life-long biographer of Neubauten. I became their manager because they needed one. We worked together for another ten years, until 2003 or something. So yes, Abwärts and Einstürzende Neubauten were bands I worked with the most.
CB: Rip Off finally closed and you were bankrupt.
KM: Yes. Was it 1993, or 1994? In those days, the record industry needed that long to finally realize there was a serious new music movement which they could exploit as well. So this was the “Neue Deutsche Welle,” the new German rage, starting only around, I guess, 1983, with bands that were put together artificially to fit together. Artificial bands, songs written by someone else but in German and hitting the trend. This was quite a big marketing event, a new German wave. We never had any money for marketing, it was a self-going business for people who were interested. We were kind of run over by the record industry, because suddenly the new wave was something else… It didn’t have anything to do with new music. It was just exploiting a trend, but it also harmed the independent scene; without notice our records did not sell as well as before. Plus, we were naïve and didn’t know anything about selling. We were unsuspecting when it came to taxes. It was like a chain-reaction. The store went bankrupt, all the labels went bankrupt on account of our being dependent on each-other.
Labels could not produce anymore, records could not sell anymore. In 1984 I had to go to court and say: “I own nothing and I don’t have any money,” so they would leave us alone for seven years. That’s how long it took. I was in debts, something between fifty and a hundred-thousand Deutschmarks. I was in my mid-twenties. I thought I would never be able to pay that money back again.
C. B.: Last time we talked you mentioned the magazine Gasolin 23.
KM: There was a big coincidence. We worked on the first album of Abwärts. We called it “Amok Koma.” “Koma” is “Amok” backwards. I knew some of the publishers of Gasolin. Before punk I was interested in German underground or subculture writers. Around the record store there was the best book store I ever knew, called Welt Buchhandlung, “world bookshop.” They had every booklet or book coming from every independent writer and publisher — especially the underground press. There was more going on in the ’70s than there is now. There is no underground today. I’m sure I knew Gasolin because I read some of the writers. And around the same time, we were working on the Abwärts album “Amok Koma,” they published an anthology called “Amok Koma.” We hadn’t been in touch. It was a real coincidence that people in Hamburg and people in Frankfort had the same title idea at the same time, and that’s how we came into contact. Later I wrote something for Gasolin. I became friend with the publishers and some of the writers.
C. B.: Can you give me examples of writers who were significant to you. I know that obviously William Burroughs was a major influence.
KM: One of the editors and writers of Gasolin was Jürgen Ploog who was also a friend of Burroughs and wrote books about him and until today is publishing his non-readable cut-up stories. He was a pilot for Lufthansa for a long time. He always travelled in time and space. He was always travelling in-between worlds. He keeps up that cut-up feeling of not being in one place but in many places at the same time [Ploog died May, 19, 2020 in Frankfurt]. Jürgen Ploog is not a very successful writer because, as I said, he’s very hard to read. Another name is Walter Hartmann, who was more responsible for the design and layout of Gasolin 23, lots and lots of book covers and illustrations.
C. B.: Do you believe that, today, the punk scene is entirely dead?
KM: Yes, I think so (laughter). As you know yourself punk became a fashion very fast. What is punk today? It’s a music style. But punk, as I saw it as a movement, is dead. There are other movements, new movements. Punk was ’80s. Do you think different? I’m curious.
C. B.: The answer would have been different a few years ago. I still think that a band like The Fall was great even after the ’70s. Bands like Wire, they do an entirely different sort of music now, and I trust it’s wonderful and different.
KM: I agree with the bands you mentioned, but I wouldn’t call them punk. Obviously, some of the more interesting bands are still doing things. The Fall, not anymore now [their leader Mark E. Smith died January, 24, 2018]. Lots of punk bands play their old songs. They realize it’s one of the few ways they can make a little money. They make good songs, but I don’t expect any new ideas.
Klaus Maeck, Clémentine Hougue, Noëlle Batt, Oliver Harris.