Reviewed Elsewhere: Julia Sneeringer. Rock’n’Roll in Germany: Hamburg From Burlesque to the Beatles, 1956–69

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Julia Sneeringer. Rock’n’Roll in Germany: Hamburg From Burlesque to the Beatles, 1956–69. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. xi + 280 pp. £85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-35003-438-9.

For historians and other experts working on popular culture, the history of pop culture in Germany seems to be a bad joke. In the 1960s, however, a small Anglophile island in Germany called Hamburg had already begun to encourage music and lifestyle journalists to visit a country mainly known for its classical music, an art form primarily linked at the time to the tastes of the Western upper classes. The British magazine Rave went so far as to ask if the Beatles had been born in Hamburg rather than in Liverpool. In the early 1960s, Hamburg began to transform into a pop city with a global reputation. And, with the help of Britain, ‘the time of village music was over’, as an advert produced by the famous Star Club put it.

Inspired by social-historical research, Rock’n’Roll in Germany complements existing research, primarily from the perspectives of cultural history and musicology, by telling the history of Hamburg’s Rock ‘n’ Roll scene with a focus on actor groups. Sneeringer demonstrates how complex networks and interactions between historical actors shaped Hamburg’s pop-cultural landscape and international reputation. ...

Sneeringer’s book is conceptualized as an urban history of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the late 1950s and 1960s in Germany. To this end, she analyses Hamburg’s entertainment culture, one which was embedded in cultural and economic dynamics of urbanization and as a consequence was concentrated in traditional, long-standing entertainment districts of the city. As in other cities, pop culture in Hamburg was linked to certain places and venues, derived from local business networks and personal relationships, which began to turn into cultural scenes and thus shaped new relationships between artists, clubs (and their owners) and fans—both domestic and foreign—who met each other face to face. The role of popular culture and the ways in which 1960s pop and youth culture was seen by wider society, however, also fostered different relationships between authorities and local entertainment industries. When youth culture started to be linked to juvenile delinquency and forms of urban vice, pop came increasingly to be seen as the source of young people’s immorality. ...

The book gives new insights into the decisions and the relationships between local club owners, authorities, fans and transnational music networks which shaped the image and reality of Hamburg’s Rock ‘n’ Roll scene. The author shows adeptly that fans acted as groups with agency, shaping the identity and directing the development of popular culture. The most important aspect of the book is that for Sneeringer, ‘St. Pauli’s entertainment spaces weren’t just empty containers.’ Rather, they ‘became sites of cultural innovation in an urban district that rewarded boldness. (…). They link the local to broader histories of modernity, leisure, and sexuality’ (p. 65). Here, she offers a perspective that has the potential to overcome one of the major deficits of research on popular culture, a field that tends to read and study pop in a somewhat nebulous and encoded space, seeing it as something that happens in the mindset of people rather than in material spaces. Within the everyday, physical and often repetitive experiences and productions of popular culture, the social and cultural changes associated with the 1960s did not just come alive, but were born. For scholars interested in the history of German popular culture, Sneeringer’s book is a must. The depth of the research and the variety of sources make the book relevant for reading lists of history courses dealing with the post-war history of Germany and/or the urban cultural and social history of the 1960s.

Felix Fuhg. German History 37, 1 (2019), 136–138.