Berlin was shaky in the ’70s and ’80s, you never knew what was going to happen next, says Gudrun Gut. That’s why it felt a bit ignored, and you could do things differently. It’s why music developed the way it did here. As we sit chatting in the courtyard outside Berghain, the club that has come to define Berlin in recent years, Gut’s stories of feminism and rebellion mesmerise; of making music that was remarkably ahead of its time – and yet rooted in a precise, Teutonic cultural history too.
We’re at Berlin Music Days, a conference and quasi-festival set up in the wake of Popkomm’s fall from grace. In the divided days before Die Wende, Berlin might have been a hotbed of people trying to make music, but it was not the place to be – or the place to come. Hamburg, with its Reeperbahn (and subsequent festival) was the centre of the German music and media scene. But now a united Berin has risen from the ashes. This city is making strides forward. It’s sucking in talent from all around Europe – and it is showcasing them at its many unique clubs, like this one. Berghain is known the world-over. This former industrial building is now even hosting gigs – Veronica Falls play while we’re in town.
Out in the cold, 51-year-old Gut is charming with her insights. Gut formed Einstrzende Neubauten in 1980. The dissonant noises theses angry art students crafted sounded like the soundtrack to end of the world. When you watch videos of them bashing bits of metal on a freezing autobahn in the early ’80s and screeching industrialised vocals down a mic, it certainly looks like the end of the world. Bedfellows like Faust and Kraftwerk cemented (pun intended) German tarmac techno over the same period.
Gut and these other pioneers lived in West Berlin, but you can only imagine the heart attacks that the Stasi’s cultural command and control joykillers would have had on the other side of the Wall if East German kids started deviating from the party’s official music line and making rebellious noises like this.
West Berlin, says Gut, wasn’t quite the paradise picture painted by people who wanted to see easy distinctions between what was on each side of the wall. We had to use coal to heat our flats, she says. But was it the fact that you could get out of military service that attracted Germany’s dropouts and rebels to Kreuzberg? That’s right, she says to me in perfect, purring English. No national service. There was lots of people making music.
Knowing your history is essential in this city. Perhaps nowhere else in the world has politics been brought to life so vividly; in the sense that the buildings and the streets and the souls of these people are stamped with a certain something. What you’ve read about becomes visceral in Berlin history comes alive. Thinking about music, it’s essential to understand that rebellious streak and those underloved post-war ruins and that sense of impending disaster that permeated from 1945 all the way up to German reunification in 1990. Because when you do then Berlin’s music culture unlocks itself and you can begin to peer into one of the most exciting places on the planet right now and see just why Berlin has become so intrinsic to modern music.
The rebellious streak is also shown up by the owners of the Watergate Club who comically argue with the Berlin City Council press officer sent down to take care of things at an official lunch organised by the German Foreign Ministry (who – full disclaimer – paid for our plane tickets out here). Watergate’s founders speak at length about how Berliners and especially Berlin’s electroni music and clubbing community like to do things differently. They’re talking about a punk spirit really, about doing things for art’s sake rather than for commerce. About how no-one’s in this to look cool or make money, about how it’s all about the moment.
It’s one of the deepest ironies that in a country where capitalism won over communism, there is perhaps a nostalgia for something entirely different?
Later that night in Watergate, no camera signs are spotted photography is prohibited in nearly all Berlin clubs. There’s also that grumpy who do you think you are anyway? vibe you get from people on the doors in clubs here. Well at new kid on the block, Gretchen, we do. I ask our fellow journalists which is their favourite club of all. Some say Berghain. Or Tresor. Katharina Seidler, from Vienna’s FM4 radio station, jokes: If I had to get married to a building it would probably be Kater Holzig Club.”
At Luzia bar in Kreuzberg we listen to wonderful electro while at HBC in Alexanderplatz the city’s slightly older hipsters gather and the DJ plays Friends segued into Stevie Wonder.
Those German electronic artists are still going strong. Barbara Morgenstern shows that women here still have a central role in things. Alva Noto and Kangding Ray impress at Berghain with their minimalism.
And at the stark but ultimately mesmerising old airport at Tempelhof the next day, the whole thing explodes into a big party as Tiefschwarz, Thomas Felhmann, Sven Vath, Bookashade, Ame, James Holden and more all take to the stage. Berlin is at the top of its game. This is the place to be, and German music too is on the up.
I remember taking New Order round Berlin in the ’80s, Gudrun Gut says, flashing a smile. They were really enjoying it. Some things never change.