Above: Some amazing photos here by Oliver Wia. They all feature in the book. The top one is Dr Motte, who produced the track Der Klang Der Familie. An early anthem that gave the book its title. The first Tressor club features in the rest.
The folklore of English and US dancefloors is a well trodden path of familiar origin myths and falls from grace. Unfortunately there’s very little on the record in English about the early days Berlin’s infamous techno underground. Thankfully a new book called Der Klang Der Familie: Berlin, Techno and the Fall of the Wall by Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen comes correct to scratch away at our ignorance. Rashers Tierney grabbed the pair for a chat.
It’s a really broad read, like there’s something like 70 players from Berlin’s early techno scene commenting in it. How did you get them all on board? Were they personal friends or did you have to do some degree of digging to gain trust and make contact?
Sven: We knew maybe a third of them personally through our work as editors for De:Bug magazine and myself as a dj since the late 90s. So we started with those people, from there it all came quite naturally. We’d get recommendations who we should talk to next. Once we’ve done the first interviews, word got around that there are “two guys talking to everyone”, so sometimes when we would contact someone we didn’t know personally that person had already done a background check of us. Trust is definitely key when you work the way we’ve worked, and we are very grateful that all the interviewees shared all those experiences with us. We mostly met more than one time and the length of the interviews varied between 5 minutes on the phone to 5 hours.
The scouring of the now vacant East for clubbing and party spaces led to some stunning finds. From your own memories, what were some of the more spectacular spaces that were liberated for parties?
Sven: In terms of places that are mentioned in the book, I think clubs like Tresor, e-werk and, especially the e-werk control room, which was used for one glorious illegal party in the summer of 1990, were pretty spectacular. Also squats like Tacheles or Eimer. But there were so many, very often only used once or twice, that I am sure I am forgetting a ton of amazing spaces. Outside Berlin, or in the East in general, a lot of raves happened on former Russian military bases, which was also pretty special. Felix: One rather funny club was in a subterranean toilet for tramway drivers underneath Rosenthaler Platz in Mitte. It was called Sexyland. No idea, where it got its name from.
Berlin still knows how to make good use of unlikely spaces for parties, and you guys have mentioned Katerholzig and Berghain in that regard before. Are there other, perhaps more off the beat spaces that capture the vibe of the earlier techno scene better?
Sven: Fortunately, there is still a constant flux of new spaces opening. It gets harder but it’s still possible. One of the exciting things in the 90s was to find those places. For instance, there were illegal bars/clubs that opened only 1 day a week. So you had a “Monday bar”, a “Tuesday bar” etc. And everything was word of mouth. You had to ask around, there was no Facebook, no RA, people actively tried to keep things secret. I really loved that vibe. And even though a lot has changed, the best thing still is to come and keep your eyes and ears open and get ready to explore the city. There’s still a lot going on outside the renowned clubs: Heideglühen, Gegen, Cocktail D’amour are just a few names.
You talk about how the guys around Underground Resistance didn’t have a crowd back in Detroit but could find one in Berlin. What were the underlying similarities between the two cities that allowed that?
Sven: Both cities were pretty desolate and grey, with lots of inner city ruins and vacant space. Felix: There is no city like Detroit with its super fast rise to one of the richest cities of the planet in the first half of the 20th century and its dramatic fall from the late sixties onwards. Many DJs from Detroit said that Berlin with its grey and empty streets reminded them to Detroit. They felt more at home in Berlin than London, although there is no language barrier there. From the Berlin side there is a deep fascination for Detroit and its music, there is a long and constant collaboration – with lots of Detroit records being released in Berlin. We are also blessed with many Detroit DJs playing here quite often.
There’s a few moments in the book, where various contributors describe the moment when they realised just how much the techno scene had gone over ground. Could you guys share the moment you realised it had gone well and truly over ground? Or were you even around for the period covered? Sven: On average we are roughly 8 years younger than most of the people we interviewed, and we both came to Berlin in the mid 90s. At that point some of the early activists already felt like the party’s over. The really intimate, formative years where everyone was talking about “the family” were over by 1994/1995, some say even 1992. But for Felix and me, Berlin was still an incredible playground full of possibilities. And after e-werk closed and Frontpage went bust in the summer of 1997, the whole scene went back underground. You’d still have the Love Parade as the big commercial media thing, but apart from that, the mainstream didn’t care about techno anymore. Things have changed over the last 5 years. It was a slow process before, but since the Berlin and Berghain hype and with the rise of rents and the influx of real estate investors, techno has hit a new commercial peak.
Felix: Clubbing did change in the second half of the nineties in Berlin. That was visible for everyone. By that time you couldn’t come with your fluorescent raver gear in a club. Rather you’d wear a Helmut Lang shirt, that you scored somewhere second hand. You had to be smart, not euphoric. Euphoria vanished out of the music. it became more minimal, more experimental. you wouldn’t see people on ecstasy cuddling on the sofa anymore. It got more hedonistic again at the turn of the millennium – but on a very subterranean level. Techno was below the radar of media broadcast. And that was a good thing.
The best bits for me were the parts before the wall fell and the descriptions of the subcultures that existed across the city and how radio unified them despite the separation of spaces. In this fractured digital age, are youth subcultures weaker for lacking such centering mediums?
Felix: For us that was very fascinating too. We weren’t aware of that when we started researching for the book. The kids in east Berlin were manic radio listeners. They never missed a radio show. Still today they know when Monika Dietls show started. Obviously that was a strong moment of identification and subcultural belonging. On the other hand, when I’m in a good club these days there doesn’t seem to be a lack of drive, of identification. So apparently something must have compensated that.
There’s the constant notion of Berlin as a playground during this period immediately after the wall fell. New music, new drugs and new spaces. Looking back from the vantage of 25 years on, what was the most important aspect that allowed the scene to develop and its most lasting contribution to the city?
Sven: It was all a bit of a historic accident, really. The Wall fell and you had this new music, new drugs and all these spaces and the freedom to do whatever you wanted. I think that sense of freedom and the explorer mode that was so strong in the 90s, are lasting contributions. For a lot of people who were and are still active today, the experience came first, not the financial outcome. The club scene is part of Berlin’s cultural DNA now. But the economic pressure is a lot higher these days and there are more and more people trying to get involved who see this culture and see the money you might be able to make with it. It will be very interesting to see how Berlin will develop in the next 5 to 10 years.
Der Klang der Familie is available for sale online. Give that embedded play list a listen too. Some good shit.