On Köpenicker Strasse, a dead-end street amputated by the Wall, one of West Berlin’s all-around impresarios, Dimitiri Hegemann, had just opened Fischbüro, or Fish Office, a hangout for musically attuned people and free thinkers who, with time to kill, bounced kooky ideas off one another and performed Dadaist gags. Characters came and went, not least Timothy Leary, the US psychologist known for advocating LSD. The Fischbüro housed an alternative dating service, waltz classes, a relationship therapy practice and West Berlin’s first techno club in its basement, a former bomb shelter.
In the Fischbüro’s cellar, Hegemann opened UFO, the first West Berlin club dedicated solely to acid house and other, hard-edged electronic dance music, the likes of which would one day wear the badge of techno. UFO never had a sign on its door, and UFO parties could take place at other venues in West Berlin, too. The locations were announced on a weekly dance-music radio show.
No one gave the day after tomorrow any thought at all.
One entered the building through a side doorway in the back courtyard, then walked through an uninhabited apartment into its kitchen, which had a trap door in the floor. Wooden stairs led into a low, cobwebbed cellar. The only lighting was a single strobe. The place would have been a death trap had fire broken out, thus there was no chance of obtaining a license for it. Hegemann didn’t even try. The DJs who played there, nobodies at the time, would become the superstars of techno: Motte, Westbam, Jonzon, Tanith, Kid Paul.
The first tuned-in easterners found UFO soon after the Wall dissolved. Music junkies in the East had been glued to the late-night electronic dance music shows on West Berlin radio stations. When they first appeared out of nowhere at UFO’s door, the West Berliners grimaced at the nerdy look. But given the exceptional circumstances, all codes were waived, which was ultimately techno’s spirit. Inside everyone striped down anyway, erasing the most visible sign of origin. (Outside the dance clubs, clothing and hairstyles would brand “Ossis” and “Wessis” for years to come.)
In search of the perfect dance club venue on the east side, Hegemann had had his keen eye peeled for months when at the tail end of 1990 he peered into the darkness of the clammy subterranean dungeon that lay beneath the former Wertheim department store. […] The fabled techno club Tresor opened its doors in early 1991. […] On Tresor’s heels followed Bunker, WMF, Elektro, KitKatClub, Planet, Ostgut and E-Werk, among others across the rollercoaster 1990s, some of which came and went in a matter of months, their “living in the now, fuck tomorrow” part of the concept. No one thought they’d last forever. No one gave the day after tomorrow any thought at all.
There was no sexism, no homophobia, no east-west, no racism. The scene was a social utopia, one night at a time.
Planet and its ginormous successor, E-Werk, witnessed techno’s dizzying ascent—and its sorry plunge. [Daniel] Bier [a Berlin DJ] says that at the beginning, techno was a vision of an international Germany that rejected the categories of the Cold War and the post-Wall new order, too. “There was no sexism, no homophobia, no east-west, no racism. The scene was a social utopia, one night at a time.” In this early phase, the techno clubs and their communities were arguably temporary autonomous zones, too, no less than the squats. In fact, when it came to raw hedonism—sex, drugs, multi-day-long parties—the clubs outdid the squats by legions.
It took half a dozen glorious years, says Bier, before Berlin’s techno impresarios were yanked back down to earth—or at least until he was. The media, including MTV, which would soon have its European headquarters on the Spree, couldn’t get enough of it. Middlemen showed up on every front, eager to cash in; cigarette companies and energy drinks poured untold millions into gimmicky advertising; generic techno pop caught the ear of the casual clubber. And the drugs took their toll on the unwitting.
The transformation of Berlin’s electronic music scene from underground to establishment poses the questions eventually asked about all subcultures that attract the masses: When do commodification and mainstream appeal strip away everything that was subcultural about them? To what degree is turning a profit anathema to outside-the-box creativity and cool? Is Tresor, 25 years down the road, anything more than a well-run, medium-sized business?
When underground ideas, sounds, or images seep into conventional culture, the status quo itself is altered. Surely, one aim of politically subversive art is to exactly that: change the world.
Subcultures by definition are not for everybody. They lie beyond mainstream taste and morality—and as such expose the status quo’s narrowness. It is the eccentricity of the margins that makes their products original and subversive. When their environs become so safe that the next-door neighbor and the postman feel comfortable there too, it’s not fringe anymore. Counterculture rebels against the Normalbürger precisely because they lack the imagination to undertake anything qualitatively new. Once accepted by society, the scenes become unable to reinvent themselves, to explore new terrain that might offend patrons. Or, as Daniel Bier remarks about techno, they turn conservative, bent on holding their place and just getting bigger.
Of course, clubs, communes and art houses have bills to pay too. If they fancy themselves above the schmutz of lucre or are badly managed, they’ll go down the tubes like so many extraordinary venues have over the years. There’s nothing hypocritical about properly bankrolling an off-the-wall, hypercritical project—providing that the founder doesn’t tamper with it. On the other hand, advocates of the temporary autonomous zone claim that the nature of truly radical, idiosyncratic projects is transient. They come and go. The death knell is not when the doors shut, but when their avant-garde spirit is snuffed out. This happens when money becomes the raison d’être, a stop on Lonely Planet’s “10 Must-See Places” in the city. Once it’s in the travel books, it’s dead.
There’s another way to look at it too, in favor of mainstreaming. When underground ideas, sounds, or images seep into conventional culture, the status quo itself is altered. Surely, one aim of politically subversive art is to exactly that: change the world. When commonly held assumptions are challenged and subverted, a new synthesis is born, whether that be in the art world or politics or everyday life. The subculture’s loss is the mainstream’s gain. It becomes broader, richer, more hybrid. Berlin’s past is replete with examples—from Kommune I to techno—of counterculture changing dyed-in-the-wool Germany.
Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin can be purchased at The New Press here.
Published July 17, 2017.