Berlin moves to an electronic pulse. For many, it’s the reason that they discover and even move to the city. For others, it’s perhaps more of a ubiquitous nuisance. Wherever your sonic allegiances lie however, it’s undeniable that techno music and its variations have come to define the city more than any other genre. So how did techno come to dominate above all else? In an attempt to answer this quirk of musical evolution, here is a whistlestop tour of Berlin’s electronic music history.
I tried to pick the tracks along a fairly basic, chronological timeline. There are obviously a whole host of hugely important tracks that could be mentioned but I thought that tying my choices to institutions, moments, movements or concepts that were important would give more of a sense of context and narrative than some randomly plucked YouTube clips in isolation. Similarly there are several clubs that could easily also have been mentioned for various reasons (WMF and Bar 25 spring to mind) but what follows seemed the most pressing.
For the clubs I have included links to DJ sets as opposed to individual tracks. I feel that the nature of dance music and the unique way that it operates within space and time dictates that a DJ set will always be more representative of a single club’s sonic aesthetic and character than a single track. For example: Dettman’s Berghain 02 mix CD will always remind me more of being on that particular dance floor than any single track, no matter how significant hearing that track in that space may have been at the time.
The Berlin School
Many point to a general German fascination with electronic music throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as the source of techno’s current dominance, manifest in the popularity of synth-pop (Depeche Mode, OMD etc.), Neue Deutsche Welle (DAF, FSK etc.) and Industrial (Nitzer Ebb, Front 242, Einstürzende Neubauten etc.) as well as a widespread interest in the EBM and New Beat streaming in from across the Belgian border.
However, the real bedrock seems to me more rooted in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. While Cologne, Düsseldorf and Munich may have produced many of the Kosmische/Krautrock movement’s better known artists (Can, Neu! and Amon Düül respectively) many of the non-Berlin based groups relied heavily on a motorik but organic sense of rhythm and often featured vocals. Berlin’s take on the form was both intensely considered and intensely synthesised. Feeble man stripped away to let the machines run amok! A truly electronic foundation for what was to follow with key exponents including Klaus Schulze, Edgar Froese both alone and with Tangerine Dream and the mighty Ashra/Ash Ra Tempel.
Berlin-born Manuel Göttsching effectively was the band Ashra (sometimes known as Ash Ra Tempel) who made the beautiful track “Sunrain” above. In 1984 he created E2-E4, an hour long piece of modulating synths and machine percussion.
To many his masterpiece, it is widely recognised as arguably one of the first European manifestations of what would become known as “techno”. That it occurred almost simultaneously and independently from Juan Atkins and Rick Davis’s work as Cybotron in Detroit is spookily synchronistic.
There has been much discussion upon the significance of industrial music to the sound that developed in Berlin in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Many argue that industrial had a far more formative influence on Frankfurt’s nascent Tekno (with a K!) scene and posit that Berlin somehow hopped from Göttsching to Metroplex then ran hard with the ball. In light of what you get to experience on almost any given weekend, played by Berlin born and raised residents on the main floor at Berghain, I have trouble accepting this take. Einstürzende Neubauten were most assuredly from Berlin and seem immensely significant in terms of fostering a sense of confrontation, abrasiveness and atmosphere that, to my ears at least, continues to pervade the sound that has become associated with the city:
They also infamously performed at the ICA in London in 1984, turning up with compressors and drills, they attempted to dig through the floor of the venue in order to access the tunnels below the ICA which lead to Buckingham Palace. Here is a contemporary press cutting from The NME detailing this particularly rambunctious aktion.
Von Oswald & Ernestus
Perhaps no single entity is of greater significance to an attempt at a narrative discussing electronic music in Berlin than Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus. As Basic Channel and via several aliases (Quadrant, Cyrus, Maurizio, Phylyps etc.) they redefined techno, creating a unique and distinctive take on the form infused with a deep understanding of the power of dub that continues to echo and reverberate in countless productions released every year. Via their ‘techno’ labels (Basic Channel, Chain Reaction and Maurizio) they further spread this aesthetic by discovering and spotlighting significant new artists who shared a similar sonic vision (Vainqueur, Substance, Monolake etc.).
As if redefining techno was not enough, they also had a bash at making some utterly flawless house music via the ‘Round’ releases on their Main Street sub-label. All of this is before we get to the fact that as Rhythm & Sound they went on to work with many of Jamaican roots, dub and reggae music’s most conscious and legendary voices. Oh, and they set up and run Hard Wax. And Dubplates & Mastering. If this thing had mayors, it’d probably be these guys. For life. Choosing a single track of theirs is impossible but if I must:
The Detroit Connection
While Berlin is unquestionably now the centre of the techno universe, Detroit will always be its birthplace. However, until relatively recently, Detroit did little to acknowledge the importance of the city’s most significant sonic output since Motown. As a result many of Detroit’s first and second wave producers found a receptive and immensely appreciative audience in Berlin from the turn of the ’90s onwards and thus they spent much time in the city. Few posters have adorned the walls at Hard Wax (that real estate is in the main reserved for records of course) but the Intersteller Fugitives of Underground Resistance held and continue to hold pride of place and Tresor in particular fostered a close relationship with the visiting creators of the music that the city so insatiably dances to. This track symbolises that relationship. It is a collaboration between Moritz Von Oswald (yep, him again), Thomas Fehlmann and Juan Atkins.
An extension of their Fischburo creative space Achim Kohlenberger and Dimitri Hegemann set up the UFO club in Kreuzberg in 1988. It was the club that would beget Tresor in 1991 and usher in a certain crystalisation of what ‘Berlin Techno’ is, was, or could be. DJ Tanith was a resident throughout the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s who many believe helped define the sound of the period:
Located in an electrical substation near Checkpoint Charlie, the E-Werk took the squat/free-party vibe that its architects had created with their free form parties under the Planet moniker and played a central role in the mid-90s. Here’s resident Woody live from the club in 1995:
Or here we have DJ Cle who many site as a huge influence, playing with DJ Dole and what must have been a very young Dixon in 1994.
It seems unnecessary to say anything about a place that has had so much written about it already. It’s still open and if you are interested in this music and you haven’t been then as opposed to having others tell you about it you should go for yourself. Of the officially released mix CDs you can’t really go wrong but I have a soft spot for Dettmann’s “Berghain 02” (below) and Prosumer’s “Panorama Bar 03”.
Disclaimer: This is a short, subjective take on a vast and much picked apart topic and I have provided some links for further reading which will offer far more depth than my relatively cursory selection. Furthermore, I am sure that many a native Berliner would scoff at my picks and they are more than entitled to do so. I wasn’t there then nor am I there now. However, I’d like to think that a sizeable amateur interest in the field has served up a couple of interesting nuggets at the very least.
Ernestus and Von Oswald have always been highly reticent when it has come to talking to the press hence the great value of this two-hour plus discussion at the Red Bull Music Academy offers in terms of insight into his approach to music. Mark Reeder made the journey from post-punk Manchester to Berlin as a Factory Records scout and offers here a great insight into the evolution of the city and its sounds from the late ’70s onwards.
For an overview of Berlin club culture German speakers will probably get much value from ‘Der Klang der Familie‘, a book by Felix Denk and Sven Von Thulen. While there is no English translation of the entire book a translation of the chapter on the old Tresor can be found here. Tobias Rapp’s Lost & Sound: Berlin, Techno and the Easyjet Set offers another good overview and is available in English from the Innervisions store.
We Call It Techno! is a 2008 documentary focusing on the evolution of techno throughout Germany from the late ’80s onwards. Inevitably much of the focus is on Berlin and the likes of Dr. Motte, Tanith and Dimtri Hegemann all get their say. Techno City Berlin is a 1993 German news report and features some colourful footage of how people used do things back then as well some Hard Wax footage.
About author: jnrknight used to occasionally write about music in various places and continues to do so increasingly sporadically. To keep himself busy he mainly runs a website called Low Bias with a guy called Dustin. Check it out.
Image credits: 1. © G.V. Horst & Rick Kay, The old Tresor.