...wreaking havoc and fashion fear-mongering

by Shawden Sheabar
It’s a walk on the wild side in a prototypical storybook setting turned upside down. When the quaint corridors of a Helvetian or Germanic town centre with its Fachwerk-lined boroughs become tormented night & day by a disturbia of enfants terribles clad not in lederhosen and classic dirndls, but brooding Perfecto motorcycle jackets, studded jeans, and GT Thunderbird sidekicks.

They shook, rattled, and rolled the public with their devil-may-care attitude. Living on the margins of the bourgeoisie, they were anti-establishment provocateurs, a teenagehood in search of its defining rhythm. With the rockabilly attitude of Johnny Cash, their transistor radios eschewed any form of Volksmusik and infected the airwaves with the electric guitars and snare drum backbeats of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock or Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes.

Far from teen angst or fanatical uproars, this was a post WWII and Cold War youth movement trying to break from the clutches of nationalism, social decorum, and strict militaristic frameworks. They turned to the unrestrained pop culture of rock ‘n’ roll and outlaw movies such as The Wild One starring Marlon Brando (1953) or James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955). As working-class adolescents, the Halbstarke “half strongs” as they were called, took matters into their own hands in re-creating the looks of their favourite cultural icons. Traditional jean zippers were sacrificed and soldered with metal wires or rope, whilst crotches were treated with massive horseshoe ingots. They wore bandana knee-braces often with the latest issue of Blick charmingly tucked behind, cable chain necklaces with gong-size pendants, shrapnel belts, and cowboy boots.

Although American insignia was far and wide, home remained closer and many of their jackets were emblazoned with gang names such as Road Vikings Geneve, Jets and Jaguars Basel, or The Lions Basel. They rioted at concerts and film screenings, and just like their distant cousins, the Teddy Boys in London, the release of the film Rock Around the Clock (1956), featuring the tunes of Bill Haley & His Comets, caused a deluge of riots at theatres, firing a sensational media outpour in newspapers, press coverage, and police reports.

Since their emergence in the 1950s, their rebellious behavior was always under the radar by authorities, especially in Germany. With the country still in a state of restabilisation and reconfiguration of national identity, they viewed such juvenile insouciance as a form of political demonstration. Already up in arms about American imports, they feared that pop influence only bestialized youth, encouraged sexual promiscuity, destroyed cultural heritage, and diffused racial hierarchies. Especially with rock ‘n’ roll’s origins in the black culture of blues and jazz, there was a concern that such consumption intermingled different racial and social groups. Instead of seeing their visual appearance as a form of self-expression, the state politicized their behavior as fear from fascist threats until the close of the decade.

Nonetheless, it seems authorities in general will always have something to fear. By the mid 60s they were back to wagging their index fingers at the thought of Beat music with the appearance of major acts as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones...oh the horror. What then with this simple speculation: Why not just let them be? Imagine the likelihood that a group of punk rockers today get ousted as political activists for their appearance. In the end it’s all about the no-holds-barred quest for self identity, a declaration of individuality.

The Halbstarke were bold non-conformists who didn’t care about fitting in – the ultimate black sheep who forged their way off the beaten path. Especially in the style of NJAL talents Bjorg, Elnaz Niknani, Husam El Odeh, Fanny and Jessy, and many more, here is where the legacy continues, where norms are challenged, and the unconventional, unexpected, and autonomous rock it until the house comes down.