Berlin is a city that endured change like no other toward the end of the 20th century. With the fall of the Berlin Wall came a wave of liberation, transforming the city from a place once rife with oppression to one of the freest and most forward thinking capitals in Europe. As techno had begun to emerge from its birth place of Detroit, Berlin was ready to encompass a genre of music that broke down barriers such as language rather than create them. Since then Berlin has taken upon the mantle of the honorary capital for techno, incorporating its own distinguishable scene. With club nights such as XOYO's 12 weeks of techno and the return of Blacklight in Leeds the UK boasts all the makings for a strong techno scene, arguably influenced by the sounds emerging from the clubs in Berlin. So what is it about the German capital that allows it to live and breath techno? Josh Plews explores, with a little help from the guys behind Alter & Volk, the factors enabling the explosion of techno in Berlin and what effect it has had upon the UK.
At First Glance
Techno is currently experiencing somewhat of a revival in the UK, with a number of new club nights, particularly in the North, dedicating their music policy to a heavier sound than their citywide peers. There are a number of parties in the UK that have been flying the techno flag for a lengthy time, with Slam’s long running Saturday night rave Pressure likely being the staple British techno institution that is still with us. A small number of other parties around the country like Selective Hearing in Manchester and Superstition in London have also been eagerly bringing in a vast array of both national and internationally renowned guests, with plenty of large-scale one-offs also in the mixer, particularly in the capital.
The UK already has some great parties nationwide where you can hear good techno music, however this new group of club nights seem to hold one thing in common, this being that they aim their music policies in the direction of one particular European city, Berlin.
Berlin - Photo: Travel Noir
Germany’s Electronic Genes
Before what we know today as techno became what many dance music fans see as the countries defining sound, Germany was a hotbed for early electronic music, with Kraftwerk being perhaps the most notable and most influential group that led to the country as a whole sucking up what Detroit was innovating during the 1980’s and making it their own. The combination of home made electronic instruments, repetitive rhythm and synthesised sound that the Düsseldorf based band used shaped the underlying foundations of techno, with the remaining building blocks coming from the other side of The Atlantic and also from Japan, namely with the Roland TR-909.
From a non-musical sense, as we know Detroit’s industrial history had a large part to play in the birth of techno, Berlin is a city that mirrors Detroit in how well techno represents its characteristics. Gothic, sparse and largely made up of industrial buildings, Berlin matches the physical perception of what techno makes us think of. Then there is the city’s history prior to 1989. Josh Walker from VOLK in Manchester, one of the musically on point promoters who advert to the Berlin influence, comments on how Berlin’s love for techno “stems back to the political issues that the city faced when the wall was still in operation”. These political reasons, especially the idea of enforcing rules on a large scale, could pin down not only reasons for how the music sounds, but also how the club scene operates in this city that overcame segregation and eventually united.
Undoubtedly, there is good techno music coming from cities all over Germany, which leads to belief it’s not necessarily all about the music inside some of Berlin’s clubs. Berlin clubs are not only some of the most hedonistic in the world, but also they seem to encourage a different view on clubbing, not to mention fronting serious attitudes over having fun.
We admire its steadfast dedication to underground principles and its strong sense of musical identity. Our lineups and approach to curation of those lineups have also been informed, in part, by the Berlin scene.
Nick Collins, ALTER
Berlin’s Integral Difference
There are a number of other cities in Germany that have contributed greatly to the world of techno and there are certainly clubs and parties throughout the country superior to some of those in Berlin. Obviously being the capital city means a higher density of nightclubs and people, but something in that particular city is different. There’s something that sets Berlin’s most coveted techno clubs apart from those in other cities and also the remaining clubs in Berlin that are not as notorious, but just as musically brilliant. Ultimately, it is freedom that makes these places what they are.
It is common knowledge that whilst inside a small number of Berlin’s ‘best’ clubs, you have the freedom to do whatever the f**k you want. The amount of hedonism you expose yourself to, is of course, entirely up to you, but be sure to find the utensils and people you want for whatever level that might be, in abundance. This is what makes the scene in Berlin unique, as it contains these environments in which you can be yourself, explore and divulge in your vices and fantasies.
Tresor - Photo: G.V Horst & Rick Kay
As there are some clubs in Berlin that are obviously dedicated to this over music, those of which would more likely be referred to as sex clubs, there are also clubs where you can hear amazing music that draw a line at sexual freedom, with some being balanced between the two. Berghain is the club that immediately springs to mind, whilst also getting the most publicity as a club where ‘anything goes’. A tough door policy and the 6ft tall bouncers are all some get to experience and see respectively, which is understandably to keep out those who would exploit the freedom inside now the club has risen to fame. Josh from VOLK comments on how Berghain’s door policy ensures “the crowd always behaves and looks after itself”, with him describing this club as his “utopia” and one of his best clubbing experiences, with the music being the predominant aspect he went for.
The opening hours of a club are completely flexible, everything is cheap, bouncers are rarely seen inside a venue - they prefer to select people at the door - whilst this may seem elitist, it means that the crowd always behaves and looks after itself. A lot of venues also implement a strict no-photo policy, which means clubbers are free to be hedonistic without fear of being photographed. This creates such a special, liberated vibe.
Josh Walker, VOLK
Bringing Berlin To Britain
Although the hedonistic freedom found within many of Berlin’s nightclubs is ultimately what makes them unique, it’s hard to bring this experience back to the UK. “Limitations like volume control, early closing times and lack of appropriate venues”, which are reasons Josh from VOLK think the Berlin vibe is difficult to recreate, all explain why an inner city club could not operate in the same way Berghain does.
Nevertheless, these are factors only concerning the musical side of what goes on Friday to Monday every weekend in Berlin, without taking into account what goes on off the dance floor and how bringing that to Britain would be a completely different story. When it comes down to the music however, thankfully a large number of DJ’s from the most aurally incredible night clubs around Berlin are internationally touring artists and as such, they can be brought over to the UK to play. Some of the lesser-known clubs around the city do however have residents who play exclusively for them. Venues here in the UK can be leant towards the feel of how they are in Berlin, but ultimately the experience will never be the same. I think VOLK is as close as you can get to a Berlin techno night, whilst staying in the UK. “VOLK is a no-frills night - no fancy lighting, no stage décor - just world-class techno artists playing in a small, dark and intimate venue. I don’t think there needs to be anything else” Josh explains.
The residents from spots like Club Der Visionaire, Watergate and of course the Ostgut Ton artists who hold residencies at Berghain and Panorama Bar amongst a number of other clubs all frequent UK cities from time to time, however the rise of regular nights bringing these artists over more regularly is on the up, with Alter and VOLK being two great examples. At the moment there is no one place in Leeds where techno can be said to be more prominent, although the North seems to be taking the grasp more easily.
Unlike Berlin and Detroit, there is no one city in the UK you can point to and say, “that’s our techno Mecca”, however, there is something to be said for the link between historically industrial, economically challenged cities and the popularity of techno.
Nick Collins, ALTER
So when people use the phrase ‘Berlin influence’, in the UK this will mean first class techno in clubs geared toward the music. For those who have been to Berlin and experienced what goes on at the weekend long parties however, these UK based club nights will be gateways to transporting them back to their fondest clubbing memories and experiences of their lives.
Words by Josh Plews
Main photo courtesy of The Vinyl Factory