How can you know a city the mythos of which grows larger than itself? How can you dream of ever touching years that went on before you were even born? This is what a city like Berlin is made of: its extensive mystique propagates across decades of musical history, deeming it the place to be before its image as such was even constructed.
I mostly know Berlin from sounds, films and other such historical documents. One particular piece of cultural testimony is Mark Reeder’s B-Movie: Lust and Sound in West Berlin 1979-89. I say Reeder’s and not director Jorg A. Hoppe’s because the actor narrates a story he lived, recreating pieces of his own life. Even more interesting than the film were his candid post-screening declarations at the film’s UK premiere. Most of the quoted text that follows was heard during the film’s Q&A at Sensoria Music and Film Festival in Sheffield.
As a 20 year-old living in 1970s’ Manchester, Reeder worked in a little Virgin record store at a time when, prompted by the DIY-inspired Buzzcocks fever, everyone made music. He went to Berlin at the end of the decade to discover a derelict desperation similar to that in Manchester – but also a similar urge to live and to create.
‘It was the squatters that saved the face of the city’, he tells me during the Q&A. The DIY spirit went beyond personal and creative motivations and into people’s ways of appropriating urban space. The city attracted artists and musicians who lay the foundations of the cultural mecca that is Berlin today.
This was the ’80s, ‘the time of drugs, pubic hair and Super 8 cameras’. The music, as the art, was loud and fast and sometimes dark – a Neue Deutsche Welle developed here too and it was probably why the locals had no interest in bands like Joy Division, as Reeder giddily declares. He was the Factory Records representative at the time, meaning he was pretty much the only connection the band had in Berlin. ‘They had their own scene of miserable music’, he says. Broadcasters refused to play them. The sole gig of their German tour lasted for 25 minutes, had incredibly poor sound and took place in what Reeder describes as a ‘self-service “restaurant”’. Needless to say, the boys went home with their tails between their legs.
In ’80s’ West Berlin people flew more freely between bands compared to the UK scene. Also, given the high density of creatives the city attracted, there was a lot of room for both real and wannabe artists. Bands like Neu!, Aqua, Malaria!, Tangerine Dream and other makers of punk and kraut rock are covered in the film, along with some lesser known ones whose names I hastily jotted down yet probably never will be able to learn about without sticking my nose in some dusty Bundesrepublik archive. Our own Iggy, Bowie and Nick Cave were drawn into the city by the promise of life on the division line. Nick came for a gig with the Birthday Party and resolved to stay. He and Reeder even shared a flat for a while.
At the same time, East Berlin was like a parallel world. ‘There was no advertising, hardly any cars, and it was forbidden to listen to West Berlin radio – which of course, people did’. They knew all about West Berlin bands from the radio, and Reeder was very much on their side, smuggling records in with the help of American soldiers. He was suspected of ‘attempting to subvert German youth using western music’. Even more ridiculously, he was thought to be ‘working for the MI5’ at a point when he was doing a programme about East Berlin for British television.
All these years of division eventually converged in the city’s release, although the fall of the Berlin Wall largely passed Reeder by. ‘We completely missed the fall and only found out days later. We were busy recording the last album of East Germany’. The fall was, perhaps unsurprisingly, soundtracked by techno music. The techno scene boomed in the years that succeeded it, maintaining the same atmosphere as that created in the punk years but under free sounds, with no lyrics and no rules. East Berliners would no longer listen to what the state gave them so it became punk to choose techno.
As the Cold War was ending, Berlin was growing on all levels. Musically, DJs became the new superstars and, starting with the first editions of the Love Parade, the city established itself as the rave capital of Europe – not even Madchester would come close to it. Its legacy has grown into one of the most culturally and musically developed scenes worldwide, yet the city that was is slowly being gnawed at by post-tourists and gentrification (like all major capitals). I’m confident, though, that a city like Berlin will continue to reinvent itself and the community of creatives that resides there now will not let it be divided again.
Cover photo by Yves Lorson