The rise of electronic music in Berlin – 

Soundtrack of a state of emergency

Techno has made its mark on Berlin for over 20 years and vice-versa. Whether it was Westbam who moved to West Berlin in the mid-80s and played an early form of what would later become known as Techno in his DJ sets, or in places like the legendary Tresor club after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the whole thing took on a dynamic of its own. By the mid-90s E-werk was playing a more populist sound and within the span of only a few years the Love Parade had turned into an event that drew millions and that was broadcast live on television. Nowadays Techno in Berlin still remains part of an experimental subculture while simultaneously bringing tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world to the city. As constantly evolving as the locations in which parties are being thrown, is the ever changing soundtrack of electronic music in the German capital, something which is as creative and as non-stop as ever.

Following 28 years of division, on October 3rd 1990 East and West Germany were reunited and resulted in the sudden emergence of a new space within Berlin in which to venture. Whether it was a former tank depot in the dusty no man’s land in the death strip, a bunker from the 2nd World War, a disused soap factory by the River Spree or a power station opposite the former ministry for aviation of the 3rd Reich – all of these places, which had become outdated by history, suddenly became the backdrop for the Techno scene and Techno just as suddenly became the underground soundtrack of the East-West reunification.

Techno itself had already started in Detroit back in the mid-80s, but the new electronic sound had never really made a home for itself there . A club scene surrounding the music had never really developed.

Berlin at the beginning of the 90s was quite the opposite as the city did not have a long history of electronic music. Unlike Frankfurt which from the 80s onwards had had a network of clubs, producers in place, at the time West Berlin was actually a city of Rock n Roll, albeit an experimental one. In East Berlin on the other hand, it was a highly secretive and dangerous task to be part of any youth culture and the first generation of punks were rigorously persecuted. Young people were accustomed to having to look hard for niches. For example Breakdance, which had a longer lasting effect on subculture in East Germany than in West Germany. This could possibly explain the roots of the East Germany’s love of electronic music. This love of the sound flourished in temporary clubs and parties in empty spaces and abandoned buildings in the city just after 1989. Some for were on just for just one night, others for weeks or even years. In the end it was Berlin, following the fall of the wall, that was able to provide the most fertile ground for a Techno to develop and a creative club scene to take shape.

A short and certainly uncomprehensive summary of the infinite places and protagonists that have left their mark on electronic music in Berlin since then will follow ;-

The magic of new sounds and undiscovered places

The promise of freedom hidden within the music turned Techno into the soundtrack of the state of emergency that followed the fall of the wall. Suddenly everyone could DJ, produce tracks or start fanzines. At the start, the Techno scene was not concentrated on star figures and even the DJ was just a part of the party and not the focus. Even today the stars of the city are not individuals, rather part of the collective i.e. Berlin’s clubs and it’s club goers. And at the beginning of the 90s there seemed hardly any music genre that could cause to such a disparate mix of people to dance so peacefully together in the way that techno did. Early parties were attended by breakdancers, football hooligans, punks from the former East Berlin and radio junkies, as well as a mass of former West Berliners from the gay scene, the squatter scene, students, artists or even off duty soldiers. They partied in clubs like Walfisch, Planet, UFO or at Tekknozid parties the latter of which was started by Wolle XDB amongst others. Tresor, a club which was situated in the former Wertheim department store building, also made a considerable mark on it’s city and in that in such a way that no other club did in the 90s. Having opened in 1991, Tresor gave rise to the Detroit-Berlin axis and not only took particular care to fortify and maintain it through the label Tresor Records, they even launched a number of DJ and producer careers. From the resident Djs , Tanith, Jonzon, Rok and Terrible are probably the most prominent. In May 2005 Tresor and the building that housed it was finally torn down because an office building was being planned on the same site. Only two years later the club reopened at a different location. Some of the original locker safes from the old club in the Wertheim building were removed and built into the new club, thus serving to preserve the memory of the old Tresor. However the spirit of the old club could never really be restored to it’s prior glory.

The old and the new ‘club mile’ of Berlin

Without doubt the Berlin scene has since then forged links with numerous places of revelry like Bar 25, Ostgut’s follow-up club Berghain or Watergate. Most of them gravitate somewhere along the axis between Alexanderplatz and Revelar Straße. Tobias Rapp, in his critically acclaimed book ‘Lost and Sound’ which was recently also published in English, refers to Berlin’s new ‘club mile’. The ‘club mile’ actually has a predecessor. There was also a time back in the 90s when club culture found itself concentrated in one area i.e. a kilometre stretch along Leipzigerstraße which runs between Friedrichstraße and Potsdamer Platz , itself still a barren wasteland at that time. Due to clubs like Tresor, WMF and E-werk which were located on that stretch, there were less people on the street during the day than at the night.

For those keen on finding out more about the Berlin clubscene from the late 80s till the mid-90s, Der Klang der Familie by Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen is highly recommended and will most probably find a place in the heart of any insatiable raver.

The book is a form of oral history and with the help of a collage of 150 interviews, it sheds light on the period surrounding the beginnings of the Berlin club scene. Even those who feel that there’s little that has not been said about this period will find an abundance of unknown facts, anedotes and cross references linger upon.

The babble of languages

Following what’s statistically been seen as the peak of Techno at the end of the 90s (1.5 million visitors at the 1999 Berlin Love Parade) and despite what some media predicted as the end of electronic music and the comeback of the Rockstar, there has been and continues to be a vibrant culture of House, Techno, Electro, Minimal – and whatever else one wants to name it! In fact in Berlin this music and it’s associated scene became bigger, more diverse and more interesting in the noughties than ever before. Never before have clubs in Berlin been able to draw such large crowds (especially on an international level) in the way that Berghain, Watergate, Weekend and the now extinct Bar 25 have done. Thousands upon thousands have , and continue to come ot Berlin week in and week out to spend the weekend partying endlessly.

When standing in the queue of a club in Berlin and upon hearing the babble of languages that surround you, it becomes apparent that it ‘s not a local but rather an international phenomenon which despite culminating in Berlin, is actually fuelled by clubbers from the all over the world, in particular from the USA but also from northern and southern parts of Europe. Some people stay for a few months or more while others just come for the weekend.

The noughties saw an ever increasing number of artists drawn to the city by relatively cheap rents and a network of labels, clubs, producers and record shops (e.g. the legendary Hard Wax which is run by the just as legendary Mark Ernestus, who together with Moritz von Oswald formed the dub techno duo Basic Channel which is a legend in itself) as well as ample opportunities to perform live. Such is the case with Luciano, Richie Hawtin or Zip, the latter of whom moved to Berlin from Frankfurt with his label Perlon and very much shaped the sound of the city and it’s afterhour culture. The same applies for Ricardo Villalobos who’s tracks „Dexter“ or „Easy Lee“ went on to become signature tracks of the new sound of Berlin.

Autumn 2008 saw the release of director Hannes Stöhr’s film Berlin Calling where Paul Kalkbrenner (meanwhile well on his way to being a superstar) acted in the main role. The film hit the cinema almost 20 years after the first serious attempt of a film about Berlin and it’s Techno culture. Since then there have been numerous documentaries that try to tell the story of Berlin’s clubs. The three most recent examples are Subberlin – The Story of Tresor, Bar 25 – Tage außerhalb der Zeit or Berlinized – Sexy An Eis.

The wild times are over but the spirit remains …

Even in the decade after the noughties, Berlin remains the ultimate mekka for EasyJet-Ravers and there’s nowhere else in Germany that has such a diverse, affordable and extensive kind of partying on offer. In fact there’s nowhere else in the world where there’s always another party waiting and before you know it, just as the last afterhour comes to an end the next weekend has commenced.

However on the relative scale of things the wild times of the 90s in Berlin are over, whereby many clubs (illegal or semi-legal) have become solidly-run small and middle sized businesses. However the spirit does continue to be felt. Each month sees the opening and closing of new locations and each weekend sees an array of illegal open air parties taking place all over the city. But in face of the discussion surrounding gentrification, the planned introduction of new fees which clubs will be forced to pay to the German royalties society (GEMA) and its consequent threat to clubs in 2013, the question is for just how long can this spirit actually remain? The fact that millions of club tourists not only fill the empty cash desks of the city and that the party szene itself has played a huge role in forming an image of Berlin as a creative hub is something that even the Berlin senate has recognized. Thus they are putting pressure on the German royalties society to change their detrimental reform which is planned.

One can hope that Techno will continue to create and develop smaller and larger niches in the city, although that certainly seems to have been easier to do 20 years ago than it is today.

written by Sascha Uhlig