Dr. Motte, a founder of the now-defunct German electronic music festival Love Parade, DJing at Tresor (Photo by Oliver Wia)
25 years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell. More than two million Berliners poured in from both sides, dancing on top of the wall for two glorious days. Following decades divided, this momentous decision to open the border between East and West Berlin ushered in an era of freedom. The feeling that everything was possible led to the explosion of a new kind of youth culture: techno.
Der Klang Der Familie ("The Sound of the Family") is an oral history of this critical time in dance music history. Penned by former De:Bug journalists Felix Denk and Sven Von Thulen, the book was originally published in German in 2012. The English version will arrive today, November 9, on the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down. It charts the rise of techno culture from the mid-80s to 1997, through stories shared by those in the center of the movement—DJs, club owners, music producers, bouncers, and "scenesters" (you know, the people we call "club rats" these days).
Von Thülen admits that he and Denk were relatively late to the scene—they arrived in Berlin in the mid-90s. "You could still feel it, but by then techno wasn't new anymore." Right after the wall fell, it was a different time—the decrepit city felt like a playground full of possibilities. People were living in a state close to anarchy, but rather than running around amok, that freedom was channeled creatively—into parties like the 23-years-and-running Back To Basics, and clubs like Planet, UFO, E-Werk, and Tresor.
"The lack of authority didn't lead to looting and destruction—quite the contrary," von Thülen says. "People in East Berlin tried to bring new life to the city, using free spaces, experimenting, and thinking how they wanted to live together, what economy they wanted."
Quickly, our conversation turns to the many crazy stories in the book.
"There's this one crazy story from Tresor," von Thülen recalls, referring to the legendary German club built in the concrete vaults of a former East Berlin department store. Founded by the electronic music label Interfisch, the club quickly became the epicenter of city's techno scene, a place where gasmask-wearing ravers danced to industrial and acid techno. While building the club, the Interfisch crew needed a water pipe for the restrooms. But to get that, they had to try and find who had the plans for the area. Somehow, they managed to find a place deep in East Berlin that held the city's sewage plans. "So they got the plans, unrolled them… and they were blank," says von Thülen. Turns out Tresor was close to the former "Death Strip," an area along the wall that was lined with barbed wire, a bed of nails and other obstacles to prevent people from escaping. "Not even East Berlin had plans for the water in that area—it was all top secret."
Von Thülen's tales of the Wild East continue. One of the book's many characters shared his technique for finding abandoned buildings to squat in. "He would check them out for a couple days to watch if any lights came on. If not, they broke down the door. If they really felt the need to be legal, they would look for where to get a contract. But often there was nobody to speak to." Before, buildings belonged to the state. But when the wall came down, it wasn't clear who owned what anymore. So squatters took what they could, and if they lived there for a while, it sort of just… became theirs.
Perhaps the most famous squat-turned-techno-club was Eimer, also known as "The Bucket" due to the bucket hung outside. For some time, UK free party crew Spiral Tribe lived there while in exile from Britain.
Eimer was originally squatted just after the Wall came down by East German punks. Big chunks of the surrounding area, Mitte, were completely empty, as there were plans to build high-rise towers there. "The guys who took over Eimer knew it was already off the books for destruction," says von Thülen. "There were no papers for the building. So they moved in and it stayed open until 2003, and the authorities couldn't really do anything about it."
Collapsed power structures created space for a new kind of techno economy to form—one that was based on self-sufficiency and community rather than top-down authority. As a character in the book puts it, "You made your money within the scene, you spent your money within the scene." If a club had a problem like a busted pipe, the owners would turn someone in the scene to fix it. "The feeling of being connected was really important, that's why they refer to [the community] as a family," says von Thülen, referring to the title of his book.
"I think the main thing at the time was that it was all completely new. Not just the music, but everything. The music was new, the places you would go were new, the drugs were new, the overall feeling was new. It was all exciting, a big adventure—no laws, and this extreme sense of freedom."
As my conversation with von Thülen draws to a close, I'm left with pictures—real and imagined. A capital awash with raw creativity, expression, and beats. Envy seems inevitable. Still, though, at least we have the book.
Der Klang Der Familie is out today, November 9, 2014