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Drugs, Squats and the Birth of Techno: A Mancunian in 80s Berlin

We talked to Berlin music-scene staple, Mark Reeder, about the cultural apoplexy that was West Berlin during the 1980s, and what happened when he brought Joy Division over to play.

Mark Reeder on stage

Premiering at Sensoria Festival later this year is B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin 1979-89, a documentary that tells the story of Mark Reeder, a Manchester lad who moved to Berlin in 1978. As Factory Records' man in Germany, Reeder brought the likes of Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and Crispy Ambulance to the capital for the first time. He also oversaw the rise of the fiercely underground techno scene that flourished in the 80s and still defines Berlin culturally to this day.


When Channel 4's The Tube put together a Berlin Special in 1983, Reeder was the man chosen to show the crew the largely unknown bands, artists and late-night bars and clubs of the city. Reeder also played in bands himself – such as Die Unbekannten and The Frantic Elevators, the latter a Manchester-based outfit that also counted Simply Red's Mick Hucknall in their ranks.

B–Movie has been pieced together from the work of over 70 directors, many of whom shoplifted expensive film to capture life in the city. It paints a picture of drugs, sex, political tension, squatters and life behind the wall. We see Nick Cave staggering through the streets spinning a revolver in his hand, a very young – and terrifyingly feral – Blixa Bargeld making performance sound art in a tiny clothes shop, and New Order joking around backstage. It's an immersive film, one that captures the drug-crazed and booze-soaked clubbers spilling out into the streets, the squatters rioting and clashing with armed police, petrol bombs hurtling through the air and the brilliant experimental music of the time. It puts you right in the centre of the action. It's a film that doesn't just bring a story to life but a divided city, too.

Reeder was just 18 when he got a passport and set about travelling. After getting picked up by a student while hitchhiking, he headed to Berlin. "We arrived in the night and it was grizzly and rainy," he told me. "It was like being in outer space, you couldn't see anything; it was complete, total blackness apart from the lights on the cars lighting up the road. No silhouettes of anything, it was all flat and black."


The student offered Reeder a free place to stay in a block of flats that was about to be levelled. He described their house, with its four-metre high ceilings, balcony, marble bathroom and six bedrooms. It sounded huge. Obviously someone very rich had previously occupied it, but there he was, a lad from Manchester living there for free. The electricity was on, but the only furniture was whatever got dumped on the street outside. After about five months Reeder was told the house was about to be demolished and he left for another flat.

Die Unbekannten

"We were watching the telly a week later and there were people throwing Molotov cocktails from my old balcony down at the police below. As soon as we'd left, squatters had moved into our house and they saved it from being demolished. It's still standing now." According to Reeder, without the squatter scene, Berlin would be hideous today. They saved the city from demolition.

The squats of the day weren't flophouses but cultural and political hubs. As Reeder recalls, "They weren't party houses, at least not at first. They were more like hives of revolution and the atmosphere was definitely more battleground than dancefloor. This was serious shit." He tells of the early 80s, when the police would raid a house and drag everyone and everything out onto the streets. As soon as they left though, the house would immediately be reoccupied. This drove the authorities to take even more drastic measures. "Eventually, it came to a point where the police would raid the house and behind them would be waiting the wrecking ball and demolition crews."


Reeder soon heard about Sounds Discotheque. "It sounded a bit dodgy but I went along and there were blokes stood outside saying, 'hash, smoke, LSD, speed, hash' and I thought, 'ah this sounds interesting'. I went inside and it was full of kids who had once been hippies but were trying to be a bit New Wave-y now, like they had shaved half of their hair off." He tells me of one night when Tangerine Dream was playing. "I thought 'who plays Tangerine Dream in a club?' and I got in and everyone was sat on the floor – no one was dancing, everyone was sat on the floor completely stoned."

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Other venues, like SO36 – an old supermarket home to radical shows, including one in which Einstürzende Neubauten used a pneumatic drill to bore a hole in the wall – revealed a different Berlin. "I found this record shop that had just opened, Zensor, that was the only shop in Berlin to stock more alternative stuff from the UK and that's where I met Gudrun Gut, who later formed Malaria." Reeder went on to work with Malaria, and while drifting through these places met the Berliners most residents will never see.

Reeder brought Joy Division over to play, thinking they would be a perfect match for Berlin, but their Hitler Youth imagery invoked on their debut EP An Ideal Living was lost in translation. "We put on this gig at the Campino and it was a complete and utter disaster. Here they are coming to Berlin and nobody would entertain them. About 50 people turned up and the gig was atrocious, the sound was awful, Ian was shouting for the monitors to be turned up – he couldn't hear anything, the crowd couldn't hear anything and someone shouted in German (everyone thought Bernard was German because he called himself 'Bernard Albrecht' on the first record) 'Can you turn the vocals up' but with Bernard not understanding what they were saying, he just snapped back, 'Speak fucking English you German bastard' and from that moment on, the ambiance in the room just sank."


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Drugs were as prominent in Berlin's culture as the music and art that was being created there. As Reeder remembers, "It was really easily available. Most people took speed around that period. For me, it was hashish and a bit of LSD now and again if it was fresh. There were loads and loads of drugs though. Germans in general know how to pace themselves, it's not like in the UK where people binge: Germans are quite responsible. People were fucked up, of course, but it wasn't totally aggressive. The biggest problem was people getting into the habit of taking heroin to ease the comedown from the speed, thinking it would alleviate that pain, but of course it would inevitably lead to more pain."

Reeder offers an insight into the drug channels during the era too, "Most of it came from East Berlin. Heroin and hashish came from Afghanistan, the LSD and speed was produced in East Berlin. It was made by them to undermine West Berlin, so they could show their kids in East Germany 'look at all these drug-fuelled, debauched people taking loads of drugs. Our kids don't take drugs in East Berlin. We don't have it.' But they were making it all."

Bernard Albrecht and Mark Reeder

Some of the sounds that were coming out of clubs Reeder frequented regularly ended up making it to the mainstream through their subtle influence on outside visitors. "After Ian Curtis died I got Bernard to come over again and I took him to Metropol, which was a gay disco, to enlighten him. New Order had made their first foray into music but it sounded just like Joy Division. I said people would just end up comparing them all the time, so I dragged him down to this disco and the DJ played this weird electronic disco music, which was really underground, trippy, sort of LSD-driven disco music from the United States – Larry Levan type stuff. I took him there with the aim of inspiring him and it eventually did, because it became Blue Monday."


Despite the wealth of footage in the film B-Movie, the Metropol is one place that doesn't feature, "There is no footage taken in there. Nobody was allowed to go in with a camera or to film what they were doing in that place. It was debauchery, pure debauchery. Hedonistic is a mild way of putting it, you can't believe what I saw in that club," says Mark with a laugh.

This is all a small part of what Mark Reeder was involved with in that decade (a great deal more is covered in the documentary) and in the following decade he would go on to form the influential dance label MFS and help launch the career of Paul Van Dyke, amongst others.

Reeder wraps up by telling me, "I am very lucky to have experienced so many different musical genres in this city, all of them equally as important in some way to the other. I have many memories from all of them, too many to mention here. I've been involved with the Berlin avant garde scene, what is today known as the darkwave scene, the hi-NRG disco scene, the acid-house scene, the techno and trance scene and I still go to clubs and gigs and make music in my own retro-modern way. The city has its ups and downs, but always something new and different will eventually arise. That's what Berlin does best."

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