Our friends at PLEEK.FM recently asked us to compile a Berlin playlist, so here it is, our 22-track romp through the city’s musical past. You can click through and listen to the entire playlist below.
During the heady days following German unification in 1871, Berlin had mutated into a very different city. The Grunderzeit period brought Berlin more wealth but also more poverty, more muscular, triumphant structures like the Dom and the Reichstag, but also a skyline of grim factories and their accompanying chimney stacks spewing out manky fumes to mingle with the already musky Berliner luft. Most importantly, however, were the new people flocking to this once isolated provincial capital, allowing it to transform into an industrial and cultural behemoth on its way to eclipsing all its erstwhile competitors. Otto Reuter was so impressed by the sheer size of the straining metropolis that he felt compelled to lay down this delightful pre-war banger extolling its virtues. Sadly, we can only speculate as to how little Otto’s melon would be twisted even further by the Greater Berlin Act (1920) which would more than double the population of the city with a few strokes of the pen.
By the mid 1920s, a few key performers on the city’s infestuous cabaret scene began to stand out. Claire Waldoff, despite only moving to Berlin in her mid 20s, had wisely not only adopted the guttural local dialect as her own but also her own version of the gruff, no-holds-barred attitude so dear to the hearts of the locals. In the permissive and comparatively liberal context of Berlin in the latter half of the decade, Waldoff was able to live reasonably openly as a lesbian, spending much of her adult life with her partner Olga Von Roder. The two wisely made themselves scarce by the late 1930s, only returning to the crippled city after the war.
Even more than Waldoff, one performer from the Golden Twenties became synonymous with both the short lived euphoria of the time and the gaping void left behind afterwards. Born and raised on the not-especially-mean streets of Schoneberg, Marlene Dietrich cut her teeth in the dive bars of her local kiez and the Friedrichstadt Palast before jetting off to Hollywood where her risque experimentation with preconceived ideas of gender and sexuality would help make her fortune. Her departure is commonly misinterpreted as being a result of the Nazis coming to power but actually preceded Berlin’s darkest time by a couple of years. Her decision to stay away however, was motivated by her disgust at the road Germany had travelled down and she repeatedly refused lucrative offers to return and take part in one of Goebbels’ propaganda horror shows.
Of course, underlying the enormous socio-cultural changes so evident in the period was the impending inevitable clash between the two extremes of the political spectrum. The theatre of Bertolt Brecht could be said to have been revolutionary both in its approach and message. The opening and closing song would go on to be one of the most covered of the 20th Century but Brecht’s own version – wonderfully rough and creaky – contains of course all the gleeful celebrations of rape and knife crime that you won’t find on the Michael Buble version that your mum plays after a few Babycham at Christmas.
Despite, or partly because of, the oppressive atmosphere, there were still flashes of youthful rebellion in the East. The Sputniks had a couple of years at the top of their game in amongst an explosion of similar Beat groups in the DDR. Sadly, in 1965, Rolling Stones fans watching the band in West Berlin got so excited by Mick’s lizard hips that they decided to tear the Waldbühne to pieces for four hours before they were brought under control. This understandably put the willies up the grey, sombre cats running things back over on the other, less fun side of the Wall, who realised that maybe this rock ‘n’ roll caper wasn’t such a good idea after all and began sweeping, oppressive measures targeting The Sputniks and their ilk.
Back in Babylon, of course, things were thankfully getting progressively more and more far out. Communes and collectives began to spring up in West Berlin, housing those willing to lay aside the fact that the city was surrounded by hostile territory and not exactly brimming with the opportunities that were already available again in other West German cities. The Zodiak Free Arts Lab in west Kreuzberg was one such project which collapsed after only a few months of envelope pushing experimentation, but out of the ashes came bands like Cluster, soon to be stuck with the ‘Krautrock’ label whether they liked it or not.
By the early 1970s the anarchist wing of the crystallised student movement had a new martyr in the shape of Georg von Rauch, shot down by plain clothes police on Eisenacher Straße after eight months on the run. The squatters in Kreuzberg’s Bethanien building renamed part of their adopted home after him – a name that still holds today. Ton Steine Scherben, a band more closely ingrained in the movement than perhaps any other at the time, in turn, wrote this Kreuzberg anthem for the squatters themselves.
Given the explosion of interest on David Bowie’s Berlin years recently, provoked by his Berlin nostalgia-heavy ‘Where are we now?’ single, there’s not much left for us to say that hasn’t been said before, but to leave this out would be churlish. It matters not that a song long believed to have been about star-crossed lovers separated by the Berlin Wall was actually more than likely influenced instead by Bowie glimpsing his (married) producer trying to make the beast with two backs with one of his backing singers in an alley behind the studio. Whatever the true meaning and Bowie’s intentions, the song became something else entirely once Berliners’ interpreted it as their own. We’ve included the German version because Bowie’s strangulated anguish, if anything, sounds better this way. Who says it can’t be a beautiful language?
Somewhat remarkably, Bowie had managed to locate one of the only men in the U.S. more wasted than himself so he subsequently took young Iggy Pop under his straggly wing and decamped to Schoneberg in 1976. The malevolent thunder and howl of The Stooges, despite foolish claims to the contrary, is where punk truly begins. Iggy had been on the horse for the best part of a decade however, the Stooges had fallen apart and he appeared to be a spent force, not long for this world. But with Bowie at the helm and the Berlin S-Bahn – possibly – as his inspiration, Iggy would emerge as more subdued but just as sinister and would continue to alarm the public with his creepy torso for decades to come.
It’s no surprise that when punk hit, it hit West Berlin hard. Few places seemed more suited to the nihilistic ‘No future’ sloganeering. Post-1961 feelings of isolation and abandonment had produced an often grim atmosphere. To compound matters, the idealistic student movement of the late 1960s was in tatters, and its crystallization into terror had left a high body count on both sides. The energy and anger that still remained had to go somewhere however and West Berlin was a perfect breeding ground for something new. Throw in the often somewhat baffling postwar cultural anglophilia, and the eager-to-displease Berliner Schnauze attitude and one would be hard pushed to find better conditions.
The scene flourished in east Kreuzberg but it was during artist and provocateur Martin Kippenberger’s stewardship of the SO36 club that bands based around the neighbourhood began to branch out into a more experimental, new wave direction. A nucleus of groups emerged but Malaria! with their goth-afflicted, skeletal tension alongside their deconstructivist, contrarian contemporaries Die Tödliche Doris continue to cast the longest shadow.
Around the same time saw the explosion of interest in the short lived Neue Deutsche Welle. Most of the bands associated with the label were a million miles away from the boundary shattering going on around Oranienstraße but Ideal possessed an infectious, nervous energy all of their own, and their ‘Berlin’ – a love letter to the battered charm of the island city – remains one of the most enduring numbers from the time.
Messrs Bowie and Pop famously moved to West Berlin to get away from the scenes that were feeding their addictions. Nick Cave and his too-mental-to-live band The Birthday Party appeared to move here a few years later with rather different intentions and fell apart shortly afterwards. His encounter with a West Berliner calling himself Blixa Bargeld, however, would lead to collaborations running into the early 2000s. Bargeld’s own band, Einstürzende Neubauten, for their part had already established themselves as a product of their times, all hollow eyes and glacial alienation.
By the early 1990s Detroit, Michigan was in a state of disarray. Widespread flight from an economic disaster zone had left much of the city in a state of desolation. Factories and warehouses crumbled whilst tens of thousands of apartments lay empty. Sound familiar? A certain sound of hard techno which had been honed for this Detroit setting made perfect sense in the unified but still embryonic Berlin, even if the cities trajectories were leading in opposite directions. DJ, producer and Detroit native Jeff Mills’ grappling hook which secured his place was the Waveform Transmissions vol. 1 release in the summer of 1992. Stand-out track ‘Changes of Life’ sounded so wrong in all the right ways, from the jarring faux-euphoric synth stabs to its unrelenting pace and brutal simplicity, Mills had as good as released a political manifesto, a statement of intent. He may as well have nailed it to the front door of the Rotes Rathaus and been done with it. The record was put out on a relatively new imprint by the name of Tresor, which was based around a club that had set up shop in the basement of an old bombed out department store previously located in the death strip near Potsdamer Platz. Mills briefly became a resident at the club which would fight a drawn out battle to hold on to their piece of what was to become one of the most lucrative pieces of real estate in the city.
Unification was not without its problems of course and it didn’t take long before resentment began to settle in on both sides. Far-right extremism began to rear its inevitably ugly head as people moved as far along the spectrum as they could from the old, oppressive socialist regime. For every action, fortunately there is an equal and opposite reaction. Riding to the rescue was Alec Empire and his band of shouty, posturing and reliably preposterous anarchists Atari Teenage Riot.
By the turn of the millenium, the word was truly out and the hip were knocking at the gates. The city’s reputation was once again undergoing a rapid rehabilitation as a creative hotspot of almost limitless potential. Chilly Gonzalez moved over from Canada in 1999 and within a few years was holding a press conference to announce that he was running against Alec Empire for the (non-existent, entirely fabricated) position of ‘Leader of the Berlin Underground.’ He was joined by long-time friend and collaborator, the censor-worrying, renaissance woman Peaches shortly afterwards.
Not everyone (i.e. hardly anyone) truly comes here to actually create anything of course. Or maybe they come with the best intentions and just get blown off course. This is not the place to get into a debate about the ins and outs of the party scene over the last few years but lets not kid ourselves here – in 100 years’ time when some embittered music-snob hack settles down in front of his hover-laptop (yeah? probably…) to write a bucket list of 21st Century Berlin music, there will be one place that will dominate the opening paragraphs. We’ve chosen two tracks from Berghain’s Ostgut Ton label to help illustrate why.
Whilst not exactly Biggie vs. Tupac, Berlin had its own version of a long running hip-hop beef in the form of Sido vs. Bushido and their various respective chums. It trundled slowly and uneventfully along for the most part but Sido’s ‘blistering’ Du bist scheiße finally laid the cards on the table and Bushido responded with a heavy diss aimed at Sido’s mum. Sido in turn categorically stated that Bushido was well out of order but didn’t shoot him or anything, and that was pretty much that. Given the choice of these two buffoons, we’d come down on the side of Sido every time, even if he did shamelessly half-inch the mask idea from a certain other, far superior rapper.
The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that we deftly sidestepped the Nazi period earlier on. Creativity of course didn’t come to an end in January 1933 once these goons got their grip on the city but the stifling, paranoid and downright terrifying atmosphere would have made things incredibly difficult for those attempting to create outside the Nazis’ narrow, reductive and, let’s not forgot, predominantly shit taste in the arts. Perhaps it’s small consolation to speculate as to how Adolf Hitler would have viewed the capital of the former Reich in the years after the war. A cursory glance at our list so far, with its anarchists, foreigners and queers would suggest that he would be rather disappointed. With their customary lack of subtlety, K.I.Z. have taken this speculation a stage further and posed the question ‘What would happen if Adolf woke up in Wrangelkiez in 2013?’
1. Otto Reutter – Berlin ist ja so groß
2. Claire Waldoff – Wat Braucht Der Berliner Um Glücklich Zu Sein
3. Marlene Dietrich – Ich habe noch einen Koffer in Berlin
4. Bertolt Brecht – Mack the Knife
5. Die Sputniks – Sputnik Thema
6. Cluster – Caramel
7. Ton Steine Scherben – Rauch Haus Song
8. David Bowie – Helden
9. Iggy Pop – Passenger
10. Malaria! – Geh duschen
11. Die Tödliche Doris – STOPP (DER INFORMATION)
12. Ideal – Berlin
13. Birthday Party – Release The Bats
14. Einstürzende Neubauten – Yü Gung Fütter Mein Ego
15. Jeff Mills – Changes of life
16. Atari Teenage Riot – Deutschland (Has Gotta Die)
17. Chilly Gonzales – Dot
18. Peaches – Lovertits
19. Tony Lionni – Found A Place
20. Steffi – Yours feat. Virginia
21. Sido – Schlechtes Vorbild
22. K.I.Z – Ich bin Adolf Hitler
Listen to our mixtape here on PLEEK.FM – a new Berlin-based music discovery platform.
Image credits: 1. Rickz via Flickr 2. Bundesarchiv 3. & 6. Ryan Balmer 4, 5 & 8. Unknown 7. Bleddyn Butcher