Berghain, February, Monday morning, 3am. The Berlin winter – currently hovering around minus three Celsius – swirls incessantly and indiscriminately around the would-be clientele of the infamous super-club, nipping at any part of the flesh that isn’t covered in regulation techno black. It’s the start of the working week in the rest of Western civilisation, but “civilised” isn’t a word that enters the vernacular in this place: an old power station, in old East Berlin. At the entrance, the club’s brick-shithouse Saint Peters, with a small nod or a shake of the head, decide who is worthy of what lies beyond the door. The monochrome queue shuffles forward, heads down; I lose all feeling in my toes.
Thirty years ago, the Wall that divided this city was torn down, unleashing a pounding techno soundtrack, imported and appropriated from Detroit, that underscored the uncomfortable reunification of the German capital and the country that surrounds it. It thudded in squats, tumbledown raves in abandoned tower blocks, factories and derelict war bunkers; and then on the jetty of Watergate which floats on the river Spree, in the Panorama Bar of Berghain, encased by concrete, hovering somewhere above an industrial wasteland. The fall of “der Mauer” marked an explosion of club culture in Berlin, and the city has never looked back.
Music has always been a form of rebellion, yet in Berlin, it continued to be tinged with a sense of genuine peril for almost seventy years, from the founding of the doomed Weimar Republic, through the entirety of the Third Reich, where cabaret clubs were closed or became clandestine, and then the Cold War.
In the 1960s and ’70s, West Berlin attracted the great and the good and the grotesque of contemporary culture. Bowie was drawn here of course, to make his Berlin Trilogy (only two of which, Heroes (released in 1977) and Lodger (’79) were recorded in Berlin). He brought Iggy with him; they were followed by Lou, then Depeche Mode and U2.
Meanwhile in the East, the Socialist regime of the German Democratic Republic tightly controlled what its youth consumed, so much so that they built a wall in 1961 – first from simple breeze blocks, then of reinforced concrete, with armed watchtowers and a fortified “death strip” – to keep the outside world out and their fertile minds captive.
“Berlin had a negative aura; in Britain, the Germans were still the enemy,” says Mark Reeder, who represented Factory Records (Joy Division, A Certain Radio, The Happy Mondays) in Berlin, and produced and managed some of the biggest electronic artists in the city. He was also the driving force behind B Movie: Lust and Sound in West Berlin a notorious documentary about that place and times, which has since earned a cult status. Reeder is originally from Manchester – another city not unfamiliar with electronic music rising up amongst the ruins – and first came to West Berlin on a whim in the late ’70s. Forty years later, he is still here. I meet him in Luzia, an uber-cool, dimly lit bar, populated by uber-cool, dimly lit people. If you were asked to point to the Mancunian though, you wouldn’t hesitate: New Order hair, North West swagger, and military fatigues.
“There weren’t many of us,” Reeder tells me. “Without the fall of The Wall, it would have just been about 50 people in Metropol [one of the first big clubs, modelled on New York’s Studio 54] dancing to a genre no one else listened to. John Peel on British Forces Radio and Monika Dietl on Radio Free Berlin made the East Germans – who were listening illegally – believe that there was some huge scene going on with hundreds, or even thousands of people… but it was a just a few tiny places with the same group of faces every night.”
Something was brewing on both sides. West Berlin had a thriving gay and trans community, bunker clubs, freaks, draft-dodgers, outcasts, hippies, anarchists, and squatters. Also, crucially, the clubs and bars had no curfew, after it was abolished by the occupying forces in 1949 (another significant anniversary this year).
East Berlin, meanwhile, had its black market in Western literature and music: a Russian man was sent to prison for printing a million records, including ones by The Beatles, on old X‑Ray plates. It had a growing dissident community living on the neglected fringes of the city such as Prenzlauer Berg, a burgeoning “OstPunk” (East Punk) scene, and burgeoning protest movements hiding under the protective wing of the Protestant Church. The elements were ready, primed – all it took was the removal of a thick concrete membrane for the chemicals to mix, and to explode into something entirely new.
“It was a lucky coincidence that The Wall came down, because it was getting boring,” says Reeder. “The scene went East when The Wall fell; the opening up of the GDR reinvigorated everything. It was on the dancefloor that reunification started.”
“A signal went through the city: you can do what you want to do,” says Dimitri Hegemann, softly spoken, with white hair and an inconspicuous blue sweater. His office is above the second incarnation of Tresor, the legendary club – social experiment, really – that he co-founded in a basement in 1991. Tresor was a trailblazing club, without which the likes of Berghain, which started up in the following decade, might not exist. “In the night, you think of the possibilities, not the limitations,” he says. “You can open your mind and dance to music, or interact with whatever you’ve never come across before. And that’s why this is so important for a community. It does something for you as a person – this is the atmosphere that Berlin created. There was a euphoria at the fall of The Wall.”
A euphoria of cultural freedom, and actual freedom, pervaded the scarred city in the ’90s. It wasn’t just East Berlin that was accustomed to being insular and walled-in either: for 40 years West Berlin had been a confused island of capitalism and democracy surrounded by a grey sea of socialism, unique not only in its geographical position, but in its designation, making it a safe haven for those who wanted to escape Western society. Maybe it makes sense that the sound which ended up defining the modern city is so mechanical, claustrophobic, and inward-looking.
“There are reasons why techno suits Berlin so well,” says Hegemann. “There are no words – the language is international, primal; it is not happy music, it is dark, like Berlin; and finally, it is industrial – it fits into the shape of the factories, and it’s the sound of the factories falling. Techno was the soundtrack for reunification.” Later, as I drive around with Thilo Schmied in his Berlin Music Tours minibus, he speaks of wary Western taxi drivers unwilling to go into the hinterland; “ghost” U‑Bahn stations still breeze blocked from the era of division. “In the early days, in some of the bunkers, ravers had unexploded mines over their heads,” he recalls.
It was in the early years of the 21st century that the rest of the world became obsessed with Berlin as the rave capital. The Love Parade, the annual celebration of electronic dance music and general hedonism, founded in 1989, was reaching a dangerous critical mass (two million people attended in 2000). Tresor was temporarily closed due to the inconvenience of being bulldozed, and Berghain opened to fill the gap. Then the “EasyJet Ravers” arrived, prompted by Berlin’s international reputation and the rise of the low-cost airlines – leading to a boom in something which remains a keystone of the city’s personality, its prized “Night Time Economy”. Lutz Leichsenring, Head of the Berlin Club Commission, tells me that rave tourists spent 1.4bn euros in Berlin in 2018. He continues, “It is important to make a distinction between EasyJetsetters, who are music driven, and part of a global community, and those who are in Berlin for pub crawls, beerbikes, bachelor-parties etc. The former is usually indistinguishable from the resident crowd. The latter is a big problem, and often related to noise complaints, public urination and alcohol-related nuisances.”
It’s a fight – a constant balancing act. Where the creatives flock, corporations eventually follow, driving clubs to the edge of the city as concrete and glass developments spring up in their place. The modern city retains its character, apart from a few shiny shopping malls and platze named after car companies, but only pockets survive from the frontier era. Tresor’s original vault door is now literally a museum piece: Berlin’s new cultural institution Humboldt Forum, which opens at the end of this year to coincide with the city’s huge 30th anniversary celebrations for the fall of The Wall, will have it on permanent display.
And then Berghain. It stands before me, an ice-cold monolith encapsulating everything about Berlin that came before it: the tumbledown aesthetic, the brutal architecture, the permissiveness, the drugs, the sense of belonging, and the music. Always the music. As Hegemann says, “The night time brings magic.” I’m vetted by the infamous doorman Sven Marquardt, sunglasses on, tattoos spidering across his face. A sticker is placed on the camera lens of my phone. Inside, it’s a fever dream where time means nothing, and everything is the rhythm, the darkness, and the concrete… And just as suddenly as I was in, the sun is coming up, and it’s time to catch a plane. I’m plunged into the cold again.
8am, Schönefeld Airport. I follow in the footsteps of the EasyJet Ravers of the early 2000s and fly out of the airport of old East Berlin where, just 30 years ago, planes could only fly to other Soviet Bloc countries, or, if the citizens could afford it, perhaps Cuba or Vietnam. Berlin’s other airport, Tegel, is being closed next year, replaced by a bigger, much delayed, international airport. There’s talk of turning the old building into a nightclub.