wild nights and love parades: a history of techno in berlin
In 1988 Ralf Niemczyk went underground in West Germany for i-D to report on the early days of the techno scene in Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg, bringing the world of all weekend parties and Love Parades to us for the first time. Here he picks up where...
I had totally forgotten about that piece from 1988: a spread over several pages with the title Germany - The Past, Present and Future of Dance Music if I remember. We drafted the text as a kind of German-English co-production. Matthew Collin did research in what was still West Germany at the time; I channeled my vision into a kind of semi-clever English text; and in the end, the team in London fused both parts together.
The piece was about the burgeoning techno scene centred in the underground discos of Frankfurt, Hamburg and Berlin. Its musical roots were in Kraftwerk and krautrock, electro glam, gay discos, leather-lovers and robotic dance music; this wasto be the great music-historical arc of late-80s club culture all across Europe. That same issue of i-D also featured reports of EBM, the French electrorap scene, and the Dutch club culture that would give rise to Gabber. This electro-futurism was crystallising in England too in Acid House; across Europe discos black, gay, American club music from Detroit and Chicago was becoming the youth soundtrack. But nowhere did it stick quite as much, leave such an imprint, as Germany.
Key influences on the sound in those early days were the sequencer eccentric, Gabi Delgado, from DAF, and Klaus Stockhausen, a house music DJ pioneer from Hamburg, and today a Northern German playboy. London's hip-pop-culture was turning to Germany's electronic music scene for inspiration. WOW! We were relevant again. What an accolade. And this was just the beginning of everything.
In 1988 the Wall was still up and Berlin was still pretty underdeveloped, especially when it came to clubs and especially in comparison with the rest of West Germany. There was Dschungel, Berlin's equivalent to Studio 54, Westbam was djing a lot, there was the Metropol club on Nollendorf Platz in Schöneberg, and the Depeche Mode fan spot, Linientreu near the infamous Bahnhof Zoo. Aside from those bastions of dance music and club culture Schöneberg and Kreuzberg in 1988 were mainly inundated with heroin-fueled anarchist punks rather than forward thinking techno clubs. And other than that, Berlin was pretty much a snooze for youth culture, full stop. Everything was going on elsewhere in the country, mainly Frankfurt and Hamburg.
But just eleven months after that article, in October 1989, a saga that's been told 6,589 times unfolded, when a political storm entangled itself with the currents of pop culture: The Iron Curtain fell. The new sound of techno was to become the soundtrack to the wall coming down, to the city's and country's unification. Back then I was living in skeptical Cologne, where reunification was met with disinterest. At the time, even prosperous Munich with it's ritz and glitz and soullessness seemed more attractive to most than the dilapidated buildings of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.
This all changed very quickly in the next few years. In 1990 and 1991 WMF and Tresor and many other smaller clubs brought the techno sound to the dance floors of Berlin, and it turned out all those dilapidated buildings of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg would be the perfect places to have massive all night, or even all weekend long, techno parties.
But Berlin's musical style, which had developed out of a mixture of Detroit techno together with industrial music and EBM (and had just started being called "tekkno") wasn't my cup of tea. It pulsated endlessly with strobes, fog and a huge amounts of drugs, it was four-to-the-floor marching music in the former dead zone. Yeah, yeah, it was exciting. But at five in the morning in a club in Alexanderplatz it was somehow annoyingly sobering if you weren't on drugs.
It was moving happily along though until about 95/96, when money entered the picture. Lots of money. This was always in play for the champagne hedonists of Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg and Munich, but in Berlin it was not en vogue in the beginning. Berlin was always too anti-establishment, too weird, and too poor for that.
Jurgen Laarman moved to Berlin from Frankfurt in 1992 and turned his black-and-white fanzine, Frontpage, into a glitzy marketing machine for techno-culture in only a few years, with helped from the money supplied by the advertising industry.
In the Frontpage office, in a corner building on Tauenzien Strasse, loopy strategies for world domination were dreamt up and implemented. They took got involved in promoting events, slagging off rival promoters, and trying to make as much money as possible. The real attention came from their involvement with Love Parade, which in 1994 attracted over 100,000 people. You could see the insane mess, which significantly contributed to Germany's new image, from the Frontpage office. The fashion was weird, classic, mid-90s club wear; Buffalo boots, sunflower tops, pink cowboy hats, garbage-man trousers, huge water guns and pierced nipples beneath mesh shirts.
Insanity, sex and lots of money tumbled very quickly down into Berlin's underground. It led to grotesque trench warfare and territorial fights, a re-enactment of Gangs of New York, but of the mild, MDMA, techno, variety.
But by then techno was making a play for major mainstream success. Marusha had reached it already with a dance version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Westbam's label, Low Spirit, released a succession of crossover hits, and West Germany's major labels started to realise there was still a lot more money to be made from techno. A lot of musical trash was thrown at the walls, some of it even stuck.
In April 1997 the final Technomedia offices on Motz Strasse were suffering from a bad hangover. The company was going bankrupt. In the end it was just another broke medium-sized media and event company, Love Parade continued to grow but none of it seemed that exciting anymore, at least not for the people who had been around in the beginning. Techno frayed into countless sub-genres that could only be differentiated between by the deepest insiders.
As techno was losing its relevancy Berlin was starting to turn into Europe's hub for young artists, the first wave of big galleries from Cologne, London and New York moved there. Rents in Neukölln, Wedding and Friedrichshain were still way below the West German average, and remain cheaper than any other of Europe's capital cities. In the decades since then no other German city has succeeded in challenging Berlin as a centre for dance music.
After the mid 90s there was the excesses of Bar 25 (R.I.P.) and the notorious endless partying in the ketamine temple, Berghain, with its annoying circus of a line like a reverberation from times past. In many big cities in Europe there's definitely a breadth of music styles existing all at once in a way we've never seen before. But on the other hand, it's also become more haphazard, less tribal, less dangerous, than it was back then.
In New York they used to have "eurotrash" but nowadays hipster caricatures from Brooklyn roam Neukölln's Weserstraße at night. Berlin is booming, things are going well in Germany, you just have to ask yourself for how long.
Text Ralf Niemczyk
Photography Tilman Brembs / Zeitmaschine.org