Read an exclusive extract from Rave On, a new book telling the story of global club culture
For many initiates into dance music, Altered State remains an essential set text alongside Simon Reynolds’ Energy Flash.
Written by Matthew Collin in 1997, Altered State told the definitive story of acid house and rave in Britain. Today (11 January) Collin releases his latest work, Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music. The new book sees Collin broaden his field of study to take in global dance music culture, travelling across the world to experience the discrete scenes where dance music survives and thrives in the 21st century. Taking in the multi-million-dollar superclubs of Las Vegas, the post-Apartheid rave movements in South Africa, the queer enclaves of NYC and beyond, Collins paints an evocative portrait of the clubs, dancers and driving forces in a bid to discover whether dance music culture – or rather the DIY ethos upon which it was founded – can survive its own far-reaching success.
In this exclusive extract from the chapter Techno Cities #2: Berlin, Collin heads to the German capital to understand the precise alchemy behind one of the world’s most storied clubs, Berghain.
And as the dawn evaporates into light outside, the dancers around us seem to have become purposeful in their dedication, more hardcore… Among us now, as if they came from nowhere, are the bear-like men in leather harnesses who have filtered in from the darkrooms downstairs, stripped down to jockstraps to display muscled hairiness and sturdy masculinity, and the slender young lads in Adidas shorts and football socks like wayward strikers gone astray after a cup winning bender, and the headstrong divas disrobed to reveal their diaphanous lingerie, and those characters with such androgynous features and peculiar garments who in this dim light could be of any or every gender. All freaks, all beautiful… A lanky transvestite cools the DJ with his fan as churning loops of rhythm coalesce out of the mix and then begin to rise and rise again, steadily at first and then racing harder towards another crescendo, until the DJ reins the beat in, tempting and teasing, before going back in again for the next gradual ascent towards release.
It seems like days ago now that we were in that cavernous entrance hall and marvelled at all those so-serious dancers getting changed into aerobic disco gear in preparation for the most punishing of workouts, then headed for the stairs towards the turbine room, anticipation gathering as the muffled pounding of the drums emerged into focus. In front of us at the top of the stairs, two elegant silhouettes appeared to be cut out against the white light – male or female or maybe something else, and anyway who really cares in here? – and then we gazed down in awe at the rippling mass of adrenalised flesh on the dancefloor below, reverberating with the irrepressible force of human vitality.
With the walls stretching 18 metres from the concrete floor to the ceiling of the old power plant, Berghain seemed more like a set from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis than a nightclub, its monumental brutalist architecture seemingly designed to make the individual feel so small as to be almost invisible in the face of an all-powerful, inscrutable force. The dancers below looked as if they could be fabulous extras in this grand drama of sound and chemistry and lust, perfectly costume-designed in austere black or brilliant white, arms inked with cryptic hieroglyphs and runic phrases, hair slashed with flawless barbarity.
Up another metal staircase to Panoramabar on the next floor, where a little filtered light seeped in through a colour-gelled window, red, green, blue and yellow like some kind of secular stained glass in this basilica of emancipated desires, casting a soft warmth over the people sprawled underneath, caressing each other’s bare skin while they take brief respite from their exertions and recharge themselves with all manner of pills and powders and potions.
As the hours pass, it feels like some kind of psychological barrier has been breached and all the repressed fantasies are pouring out and everyone has somehow dissolved into the mass, into the music itself… and in the darkened alcoves and secluded cloisters, the boys are snorting and sucking greedily, babbling and philosophising and declaring their love and vowing eternal friendship and saying all those other things that need to be said before the long night’s journey into day is finally over.
Berghain was the pre-eminent symbol of Berlin nightlife in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Imposing and mysterious, mythologised and feared and adored as any nightclub ever had been, this grey hulk of a former East German heat-and-electricity-generating plant was the grandest landmark of the techno capital of Europe. It could rekindle all those cloudy half-remembered sensations of lost immaculate nights in warehouses and aircraft hangars and old factories – those huge spaces in which we had lost ourselves deliciously and utterly in transcendent oblivion – but it was not those places, hijacked for a onenight stand in the darkness. Standing stern and seemingly invulnerable in the nondescript streets near the Ostbahnhof, Berghain was an institution; one that could only have come into being through the collective will for it to exist, the efforts of an able and committed few to make that happen, and the historical serendipity that had allowed all of it to be possible.
It was a club that existed because of the political and cultural forces which had converged over the previous decades, coming together in a specific time and place at the epicentre of a historic upheaval – in Berlin, at the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the reunification of Germany.
When it opened in 2004, Berghain, with its upstairs Panoramabar dancefloor and downstairs Lab.Oratory men-only sex club, seemed to have somehow refined all the nocturnal obsessions that the city had been pursuing since the eighties: rigorous techno, reclaimed industrial spaces, edgy bohemianism, sexual permissiveness, hedonistic abandon.‘The best club in the world’ is a highly subjective accolade – a description that’s been attached to places like the Paradise Garage in New York, Amnesia in Ibiza, the Haçienda in Manchester and so many other places over the decades – but for technoheads of a certain generation, Berghain was the one.
‘It’s the best club in the world because of the variety of experiences going on at the same time,’ says Marea Stamper, an American DJ better known as The Black Madonna. ‘In Berghain itself you have this amazing, enormous, chilly, mechanical techno machine. Then you walk up the steps into Panoramabar and it’s this bright, warm, engaging, human celebration. Then you have the Lab which is this sweaty hypersexual space. For me, those three kinds of worlds are what created dance music as we understand it, and to have them all happening at once and people crossing between them is just so unique and special.’
The club’s roots ran deep into the Berlin subculture that developed after the fall of the Wall in 1989. Its owners, Michael Teufele and Norbert Thormann, organised first their Snax sex parties in the nineties at the Bunker club, an abandoned World War Two air-raid shelter occupied by ravers in 1992 and run as a hardcore outpost for acid techno, gabba and BDSM parties, amongst other niche predilections, until it was raided and shuttered in 1996.
Two years later, Teufele and Thormann founded Ostgut in an old railway depot in the Friedrichshein district, which at the time was a drab and desolate sector of what had been East Berlin. It was a point when the energies of the post-Wall nightlife uprising had cooled, says Thilo Schneider, the reviews editor of the German electronic music magazine Groove, who was an Ostgut regular. The Love Parade had become commercialised and culturally neutered, E-Werk and the Bunker had both closed, Tresor had become a kind of institution, and techno appeared to be finished as a creative phenomenon, or so people were saying. The revolution was over – or was it?
‘It was the end of the nineties, techno was out of fashion, but Ostgut was a place where people were still doing Ecstasy and having a great time, with parties going on until the afternoon,’ Schneider recalls. ‘It was a well-kept secret, no magazine wrote about it; it was really a special place for the people who went there and no one else. We wanted to keep it a secret because when something becomes too public, it loses its spirit. Nowadays, because of the internet, you couldn’t do that.’
Ostgut finally closed in 2003 and the building was demolished to make way for a car park serving the huge O2 World entertainment arena. But Teufele and Thormann managed to secure an ambitious replacement – a fifties-era East German Heizkraftwerk near the Ostbahnhof which had shut in the twilight years of the DDR. The disused power plant, with its neoclassical façade, stark interior and vast turbine room, was absolutely colossal. ‘When they showed me the place before it opened, I remember people were saying, “This is great, but you are crazy, it’s so big,”’ says Schneider, who edited the texts for Berghain’s elaborate monthly flyers. ‘It was a big risk. It could have gone totally
Instead, Berghain became a Mecca for techno aficionados and a haven for sexual dissidents. It was much more than just a disco; it was also a subcultural meeting point, a nexus of musical creativity and an alternative arts institution. On an unprecedented scale.
A sign at the door in English, French, Russian and German warned sternly that photography was not permitted inside. At the entrance, the staff placed little stickers over the camera lenses of people’s mobile phones; any transgressors spotted trying to take a quick snap were brusquely ejected. Even a Twitter feed called Inside Berghain made it clear that it would not contravene the club’s no-photography rule: ‘No pictures from inside,’ it declared. ‘No leaks. No sellout. No selfies.’
The almost complete absence of visual documentation of what happened inside – in an era when everything and everyone was photographed, all the time, and in the most banal of detail – not only allowed clubbers to discard their inhibitions and experiment with fantasies that they would not necessarily want to be captured in pictures, but also contributed to the club’s powerful mystique. A night at Berghain would not be digitally preserved for posterity. It existed in its moment and only endured as memory, gossip, rumour or wild speculation. This was a kind of reality-blocking mechanism that cultivated a liberating sense of total disconnection from the everyday panopticon. Berghain was one of the few remaining places in Western Europe where you could exit the matrix.
‘People want to be uncontrolled, but in a normal club in London or New York you have people walking around with earpieces, video cameras everywhere, toilets under surveillance – it’s a complete atmosphere of control,’ says the artist Wolfgang Tillmans, whose huge photographic prints on the Panoramabar walls were one of the club’s great visual delights.
Inside Berghain, external influences were effectively erased and nothing mattered but the here and now. ‘It’s just a grey building with a black hole inside, so you can just project your own ideas and make it into whatever you like,’ says Boris Dolinski, a resident DJ at Panoramabar. ‘The most special thing is that you can just close your eyes and dissolve yourself into the music. You feel like you are somewhere that has no connection to the outside world at all.’
Edited extracts from Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music by Matthew Collin, published by Serpent’s Tail at £14.99 and available from Amazon and all other outlets. Matthew Collin will be in conversation about the book at Rough Trade East on Tuesday 16 January, Rough Trade Bristol on Wednesday 17 January and Rough Trade Nottingham on Thursday 18 January.