The story of how Berlin became techno’s epicentre
This article is part of a new series of Music Tour City Guides put together with our partner Miller – for more inside info on clubbing in Berlin, visit the Miller Music Tour’s Berlin Hub.
“Techno’s like our folk music here in Berlin,” music journalist Felix Denk told the New York Times last year, discussing his oracle Der Klang der Familie, written with fellow scene figurehead Sven von Thülen. If electronic music is rooted deeply in the city’s cultural development over the past 25 years after the clock was reset by reunification, then it also has its own distinct mythology that continues to resonate powerfully – complete with its very own cataclysmic ‘big bang’ event in the form of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Berlin is one of the most pivotal cities in the recent history of Western Europe. After being nearly entirely flattened by Allied bombing during World War II, the start of the Cold War in 1961 saw the Berlin Wall erected to draw a wide, empty death strip through the middle of the city, transforming it into a physical barrier between Eastern and Western Europe.
At the close of the 20th century, though, Berlin would rise like a phoenix to become one of the world’s most celebrated centres of music, art, culture and creativity – in a sense reclaiming the status it held for fifteen years following World War 1, before Hitler’s rise to power, when Weimar-era Berlin was a flourishing, world-leading centre for arts and sciences.
Germany’s unconventional capital has been transformed in every sense since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and not just in how it looks. The ravaged urban landscapes and abandoned buildings that opened up in the city’s East, only to eventually fall to gentrification, have changed dramatically since 1989; but culturally, Berlin is a different city too. The special creative energy that powered the city in the 90s remains to this day, drawing people in from all over the world.
This was the engine that drove the city’s legendary early techno scene, which has since evolved into what’s widely recognised as one of the strongest dance cultures anywhere in the world. An oversupply of cheap living space was a massive contributor to Berlin developing into a mecca for alternative culture, helped along by the fact that more than a third of the buildings in East Berlin lay unoccupied after reunification. The scene’s early days were defined by a creative and entrepreneurial use of that space, with almost all of Berlin’s famous clubs in the 90s taking advantage of derelict buildings with favourable rental terms, as well as a nomadic attitude largely free of long-term planning or economic considerations.
While the fall of the Berlin Wall might have really kicked things into gear – creating a scenario where people genuinely felt they could start again with a clean slate – the groundwork for Berlin’s iconic techno scene was actually being laid in the decade before the collapse of the GDR, and it was happening on both sides of the Wall.
Coming to Berlin
Even before reunification, West Germany’s alternative types that weren’t content to fit neatly within the system were already being drawn to Berlin. Citizens across the country were obliged to complete military service after finishing high school; with the exception being West Berlin, due to the presence of allied forces. Anyone less than keen to do their military time would uproot from their hometown after finishing high school and move to West Berlin. This had an enormous impact on both the city’s energy and its reputation.
Thilo Schneider was aware of that reputation before he arrived in the early 90s. Since 2000 Schneider has worked fulltime in editorial for the Berlin-based Groove Magazine, one of Germany’s leading tomes for electronic music. He’s also worked since the early days with Ostgut GmbH, the company that owns the reigning Berghain nightclub.
“The city drew a lot of people who were unhappy with the country’s conservative elements,” Schneider says. “West Germany at that time was a very strict and moral place. I had always liked the image of West Berlin as a very dark, outsider place. This dark city without any rules.”
The Wall cast a considerable shadow over the city, in terms of both the claustrophobic, suffocating vibe it brought for those who were living in the West, and those in the East unhappy with GDR repression. The fall of the Wall brought feelings of elation, a tangible sense of a fresh start, as well as a population from the East celebrating their newfound freedom.
“There was no other city in Germany where the West and the East came together like that. We had become one nation, though each side had a completely different government. After the Wall came down, you had these people from the East, people who looked so terrible, wearing these terrible clothes with such pale faces; but so hungry for everything the West had to offer.”
Schneider’s initial idea when he arrived in 1993 was to study. Unsurprisingly, techno ended up getting in the way. “Of course in 1993, this whole city was so crazy,” he says. “The nightlife was just so intense, and I really was swept up in it. I worked twice a week in different clubs, at Tresor and Bunker, but I went out five times a week for years. It was a crazy time.”
According to Schneider, the atmosphere of a ‘post-Wall’ city continued well into the 90s. “I found it very open; a very strange energy. We all lived in horrible flats without any toilets, but for really cheap rent. There were people who came from middle class backgrounds but lived a free life in very poor circumstances. And you really did feel that energy. But it was a good energy. It wasn’t a depressed energy, it was an energy of relief and freedom.”