An Echo in the Ruins

For his book, Coming to Berlin, Paul Hanford talks to musician and film-maker Mark Reeder about his early years in West Berlin…

A cold night in Schöneberg, 1979. Gaslit streetlamps flicker shadows over over old tenement buildings, some of which have remained dilapidated for over thirty years. Within this drizzly sepia, a lone car is approaching an address. Inside the car is a hitcher, a young man driven by curiosity. Everywhere he’s been so far, people have scratched their head and asked him: “why Berlin?” From Hamburg to Munich, people have wondered why would you want to step foot anywhere near this ugly, walled-in city, where the air is cold and the sky is thick with the smokebelch of coal. 

The hitcher is reminded by sophisticates, anarchists and anyone with an opinion from Cologne to Düsseldorf that Berlin is no longer the capital; that, divided in two, Berlin is a discarded ruin left over from a time nobody wants to mention, one hundred kilometres into communist East Germany, while West Berlin is a forgotten outpost way behind enemy lines, reachable on land only via a single, long strip of road ominously nicknamed The Iron Corridor: a place with cold weather and coal skies.

Along that very strip of road, earlier that day, the hitcher recalls how the car radio transmitted indecipherable fragments of voices, not too dissimilar from the experimental tape cut-ups of Musique concrète — but far more likely to be coded transmissions meant for passing covert information. This is the height of the Cold War, after all. Wherever the hitcher travels, music guides his curiosity. Exotic, hard to locate sounds, travel guides in the form of vinyl long players have led him to West Germany, and now leave a trail of sonic breadcrumbs region to region. Otherworldly music: Can in Cologne, Faust and Cluster in Saxony, Neu! in Düsseldorf, Amon Düül and Popol Vuh in Munich.

Music that despite the disparate tools used, from tape experiments and electronically generated sounds to guitars and drums, and regardless of the even more disparate operators of these tools spread across a nation, are somehow connected through a desire to start from scratch and walk into the unfamiliar. And now, this quest has led him to this walled in, broken city that nobody has a good word to say about, and where there is absolutely no — as he gets told and told and told — economic miracle. Hometown friends of his play in the band Joy Division and have heard these sounds too; there are touches of this influence in the music they’re making: namely repetitive motorik beats and a droning expansiveness unusual to drab punk Britain.

Into the gaslamps and drizzle. The car stops, the hitcher, who despite the miles travelled and the vinyl discovered, is still a lanky and unfilled-out youth, steps out and walks up the steps to Winterfeldstrasse 24. Mark Reeder has spent the better part of his time around records, thumbing through the vinyl in Manchester’s Virgin Records so frequently that it only seemed logical, when the vacancy arose, to give the kid a job.

Mark Reeder portrait by Chihiro Lia Ottsu.

In the UK, punk had happened and the older staff didn’t know their Buzzcocks from their X-Ray Specs, and didn’t want to either. This was a time where Robert Plant would use Melody Maker to attack punk – “it’s not musical, they can’t play their instruments,” said the Led Zeppelin frontman, possibly from the band’s private jet. The older guard in Virgin Records agreed with Plant and it wasn’t long before they quit the shop. But Reeder stayed.

In the evenings he might have been playing in The Frantic Elevators, a band he formed with the young Mick Hucknall, but during the day he was behind the counter in Lever Street dispensing vinyl. If you wanted something special, something the press hadn’t even cottoned onto, Mark was the man. Tony Wilson of Factory Records knew this. The Tony Wilson who drew his own blood to sign Joy Division. The Tony Wilson who believed in Happy Mondays when everyone else thought they were a shambles. The Tony Wilson of Hacienda fame.

Wilson would pop by the shop deliberately late on a Saturday after everyone left and ask young Mark to put by the records that he thought were good. Not the records that the press thought were good nor the records that were getting the attention but the records Mark thought were good. Punk may have represented a musical year zero in the UK for the young, bored and disenfranchised but for the more adventurous new guard — like Wilson, Joy Division, The Fall and Mark Reeder — punk was never a cul de-sac. And it wasn’t long before the exotic music of Europe was calling him.

Joy Division gig advertised at the KantKino in West Berlin. Still from B-Movie by Mark Reeder showing the venue on the day. Courtesy of Joydiv.org.

“Berlin was so far away back then, beyond the Western world.” Mark says, looking up at the five floors of Winterfeldstrasse 24. It’s a hot day in July, over 40 years after the drizzly night he arrived here for the first time. “It was in the middle of East Germany, you had to go through this transit route, flying was never an option, because it cost something like £650 with British Airways. So people just didn’t do it, it was just so far away. I only came to Berlin to buy some records, and I never left,” laughs Mark.

Winterfeldstrasse 24 belonged, at that time, to the driver who had picked him up that day. Mark had revealed during the ride that he had nowhere to stay and the driver had said he could stay in his house. Apart from some students living on the second floor, the place was empty; the driver told him it was about to be demolished. He remembers the green door, which is still green as we stand on the doorstep looking at it, and beyond that how grand and unusual it was to have marble flooring.

“He said I can stay for as long as I like until it gets torn down,” says Mark, who received a skeleton key to his own six room flat, way up on the fifth floor. Parquet floorboards, white marble bathroom, stucco on the cieling. No paperwork, no questions and “no one cared,” Mark says. “The whole house had electricity and gas. In England they turn everything off, whereas here they didn’t give a shit. This beautiful old house was about to be torn down to build a new block of flats, this rat infested place with its outside toilet..but they never did.”

As we stand outside, Winterfeldstrasse 24 seems to me the prettiest house on the Strasse right now. The whole tenement building resembles a wedding cake, not like the grand Stalinist style of architecture found a few kilometres east along Karl Marx Allee, but layers of yellow stucco and red brick that contrast against the rest of the street, which is taken up by one building: the Fernmeldeamt. A survivor of the Weimar era, Allied bombs, Nazi occupation and Cold War-era American occupation, this building is still the largest telephone exchange in Europe.

The former Fernmeldeamt at Winterfeldtstraße 19-23. Built between 1921-1924. Image via Thomaswiki.

Mark is wearing a black short-sleeved shirt, black trousers, and black Ray Bans. Now in his early sixties, his hair is white and a little thinning yet still as precisely in place as it was when he bought Joy Division over for their only concert here at the Kant Kino on January 1980. Mark’s life in Berlin and his role in the development of music culture here, which along the way, despite producing the very last record in the GDR, got him labelled as a “Subversiv-Dekadent” by the Stasi, would adhere mythical status if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s so damn approachable.

Pre-pandemic, on occasion I’d bump into him in a cafe and he’d always radiate low-key northern ease. A friend of mine once lived in a shared commune next door to him and one Christmas, the commune invited all of their neighbours over for festive lunch. My friend recollects how, as potatoes were being served, wine bottles uncorked and the air was a little awkward, whispers gradually went around that the gentleman with the industrial haircut spooning gravy onto his plate whilst politely ignoring the boisterous singing of another neighbour, is actually, well, kind of a legend. A Berliner for over forty years, yet a Yorkshireman since ever.    

“Nearly all the people who used to live here in the seventies and early eighties are still here, and in the meantime they’ve stopped being students and become businesspeople or whatever,” he tells me as we leave the house and head into the quarter’s grid of cafes, boutiques and kitas. “If you fight for a house, and you put a lot of work into maintaining it and stopping it from being torn down or being turned into luxury apartments, you tend to want to hang on to that.”

During the eighties, as the one or two hundred people that made up West Berlin’s underground nightlife swirled and drank their way across clubs and bars in Schöneberg and Kreuzberg and played in each other’s bands, Mark had a synthpop duo called Die Unbekannten. Die Unbekannten morphed into Shark Vegas, who released one of the most sought after Factory 12″ singles, “You Hurt Me”. Of course, even if the tune didn’t evoke a melancholic electro swagger like that of his friends New Order, it only feels natural that the man who acted as Tony Wilson’s record consultant those Friday evenings back in Manchester’s Virgin Records should eventually be rewarded with having his very own Factory serial number: FAC111.

But Mark wasn’t just a scenester. He was also a smuggler, bringing cassettes across the Iron Curtain to punk-deprived kids in the East. He chose cassettes because vinyl was impossible to conceal, although eventually he managed to smuggle across an actual band, Die Toten Hosen, which he also managed, organising highly illegal punk gigs in churches in East Berlin — the first time anyone in the West had done so.

Much later, after the wall fell and the two sides of the city learnt to connect again through ecstasy, techno and abandoned spaces, Mark found himself managing the career of a young East German DJ he had discovered; his name was Paul Van Dyk. He also set up a label called M.F.S., the official abbreviation for the East German Ministry For State Security, the Stasi. Now it stood for Masterminded For Success.

In 1979 when Mark arrived, he says there wasn’t a scene: “Berlin wasn’t seen as a musical city, it was always viewed as a political place. This was where the Third World War would definitely happen, east meets west, all that rubbish. When Bowie came to Berlin, he obviously put the city on the musical map, but still, people weren’t lining up to come here. He made “Heroes” and then left and then there was a gap — nothing until the dawn of the eighties really.”

East German border guard at Berlin Wall, July 1988 By Neptuul – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

At the end of Winterfeldstrasse, we reach a secluded square set off the road, with benches spaced neatly around a cleared space of yellow pebbles, Japanese style. It’s calm and peaceful and I can imagine it being a good spot for a pensioner to let their dog have a quick sniff around. We stand on the tiny pebbles and Mark tells me this used to be the site of a bar named “die Ruine” (“The Ruin”). “It was just the rest of what was left after a bomb attacked,” Mark says, “the owners thought – this room is still intact, let’s turn what’s left into a bar. Back then there were no rules and regulations, you could find a space and open it up twenty-four hours a day.”  

It must have been strange, I say to him, coming to Berlin from Manchester, a place with such a vibrant musical culture and one that he himself was so connected to. “People in Manchester made music so they could get away, so they could escape. Boredom, no prospects, no future, that’s was it was for most kids. I was really privileged. I had a job, nearly all my friends had no jobs, and no idea what they could do with their lives. Signing on the dole, that was it. If you didn’t go to university your life was going to be on benefits, and no one gave you any form of encouragement. Punk rock gave people that encouragement. You could get a guitar for ten quid on your dole money. In Germany punk was looked upon as being something a bit suspicious. They’d never even heard of the Sex Pistols, so something like Joy Division didn’t even enter into it. When I got here there was one punk rock band with one single, called Tempo.”

Tempo were from Schöneberg. Their debut EP, released in 1979, begins with the aptly named “Waiting For The Eighties”. It’s a fun song, veering towards the new wave power-pop of “My Charona”, ideal for a montage sequence in an eighties teen comedy. Yet in its sentiment, the song was soundtracking something just around the corner, something needing to happen. The lyrics are about getting no sleep or rest and waiting for the eighties with their neon bars and classic cars. Mark mentions another band called PVC, who’d supported Iggy Pop and who called their music Wall City Rock. Music from a walled-in city.

Still from B-Movie. Lust & Sound in West Berlin 

Punk may not have developed into any kind of vibrant scene when Mark arrived, but sounds were being made here that somehow captured the ruined buildings and decaying streets just as vividly as the Joy Division’s transmitted the ennui of youth in the industrial north of England. Tangerine Dream, one of bands dotted around West Germany that had drawn Mark’s curiousity, were from Schöneberg. Sonically, they drew from a pallet very different to punk: beatless and instrumental, electronic and atmospheric, Kosmische music made without a roadmap that — particularly on their 1975 album, “Rubycon”– somehow made a commercial impression in the UK. “I remember I was really excited when I heard Tangerine Dream had a new album coming out,” he says, “and when we played “Rubycon” in the Virgin Record Shop through the loudspeakers, it sounded unlike anything else at the time.”

The music on Rubycon was made up of two 17-minute long tracks where textures, gurgles, arpeggiations, moments of melody and synthetic choral sounds seem to emerge out of ancient shadows. “I thought it sounded dark and mysterious and somehow primeval,” Mark says. Whereas those other electronic pioneers Kraftwerk were celebrating newness and technology like champagne-popping industrialists, the music on “Rubycon” could have been made in a damp cave. “Actually, I was doing quite a bit of potholing and hiking at the time,” Mark says, thinking back to his surroundings pre-Berlin. “And when I heard this album, my thoughts were transported to this barren landscape. It still takes me back even today. I played this album every day, non-stop for weeks on end.” 

Here I’m reminded of a chat I had with another Berlin settler, Robert Henke, producer, artist and co-founder of Ableton Live, who arrived here after leaving Munich in the early nineties, and whose love of creating dimensional spaces with sound via the widescreen techno sound of his Monolake moniker led us conversationally to Tangerine Dream. “Tangerine Dream, that’s Schöneberg of the mid seventies,” he said. “This kind of hippie-esque but at the same time brutally grey, brown, unfriendly place where you need an escape in some kind of strange reverby space, with beautiful longing harmonics.” 

As Mark was settling in, Rob Gretton from Manchester got in contact, someone Mark had known before he became the manager of Joy Division. Mark knew Ian Curtis before then too, from his work in the record shop. When “An Ideal For Living”, the band’s first EP was re-released as a 12-inch, Rob asked Mark if he could give a few copies to radio stations in Berlin, “since British soldiers are posted there.” Did it work? “Na. Rob sent me a big box of records, and I sent them to all these magazines but no chance. I thought people would love it when they heard it but no one was interested, not in the slightest. Back then it was considered unlistenable.”

Mark suggests we go to Cafe M. Goltzstrasse has, over the years, swooned into a late-middle aged respectability, with the whispers of Tangerine Dream’s “Rubycon” existing only in the memories of its older inhabitants; but its musical past is proudly illuminated in the zigzagging letter “M” that gives its name to the cafe we enter. In the seventies, Bowie and Iggy were regulars here and once, a couple of years back, I came here on the anniversary of Bowie’s departure. That night, there were Bowie pilgrims, older locals I like to imagine knew him, and others, like me, who didn’t exactly know why they were here. Photos of David and Iggy during the “Lust For Life” era, hang in the toilets the way an Italian restaurant might have a photo of Al Pacino eating a spoonful of linguini. 

Cafe M(itropa) in Schöneberg. Photo courtesy of Lost Views.

It was in the eighties when Cafe M really became a haunt for a community of like-minded artists, musicians, anarchists, hellraisers, art school kids and film students…and, of course, Mark. The “Geniale Dilletanten”, deliberately misspelled. This community would visit here at any point in the night, as well as in nearby hangouts like Cafe Einstein, Jungle or even across at Kottbusser Tor. It’s in these places that much of the footage of the film B-Movie:Lust And Sound In West Berlin 1979-1989, takes place. Assembled by Jörg A. Hoppe, Klaus Maeck & Heiko Lange, the entire film is both an essay and a montage, woven through Super 8 footage of late night excess, afternoons huddled in cafes, music experimentation in shops.

And taking the starring role is Mark: witness, participant, catalyst. It is effectively the story, through Mark’s narration, of Berlin’s underground arts subculture in the eighties. There is a scene where two conspirators are seen nestled up along a bar, both agents of the Geniale Dilletante. One, Blixa Bargeld, sings over the sound of industrial destruction in the band Einsturzende Neubauten, the other is the Australian polymath Nick Cave, who has left his band The Birthday Party and for the next two years has made Berlin his home. The two have become conspiratorially close, they look wrecked and are, according to Mark’s narration, “waging a war against sleep.”

I tell Mark that I’ve been told that people went out so much in the 1980s to escape the cold, because the coal heating would take so long to heat the flats up. “That’s a lie! It’s not because the coal heating didn’t heat the flats up enough, it’s because they couldn’t get up in time to go to the coal merchant to buy the coal to heat the flats in the first place. They went out all night and slept all day. And then you’d get up at ten to six and you’d realise, crap, I’ve missed the coal merchant, he’s going to be shut in two minutes, so you’d have to go out again.”

In those early evenings, Mark might also head over to the Arsenal Kino on Fuggerstraße, “which was always a real haunt. You’d see all these Tarkovsky films, and all the avant-garde stuff and it’d start really early, like seven o’clock. You’d spend a couple of hours in the cinema, keeping nice and warm watching movies. And then you’d move on to a cafe, hang around there for a while, then the bar, and then the club, and then it was the next day and time to go home.”

After Cafe M we do a circuit, up to Nollendorfplatz then, grabbing a quick stop for refreshments before heading along back to Winterfeldplatz, Mark points to a long bar, closed with tinted windows and with blue boat-wood decking called Slumber Land. “This was the original Jungle,” he says. In the 1980s, Jungle was a safe space for people who’d forgotten to buy coal a regular haunt for actress and singer Zazie de Paris, designer Claudia Skoda, musician Gudrun Gut, Christiane F, and of course, Nick Cave, Blixa Bargeld…and Mark.

Image courtesy of Dschungel.de 

“It used to be a kindergarten,” Mark tells me. “They’d gone and just left paintings on the wall of The Jungle Book film. It was a very hippie place like everything else in Schöneberg, deckchairs, Steve Hillage on the stereo, but when the couple that run it split up the girl decided she was going to do something else, so she went to Nurenberger Strasse, twenty minutes walk away and opened a new place, more New Wavey fashionable, still called The Jungle, still maintaining the name.” Without Mowgli and Balloo peering down on you, the new Jungle used blinds to shut out the world. It also had a notoriously tough door policy. As tough as Studio54? “That was the kind of image they wanted to create, a place exclusively for people in the know…and if you didn’t know, you couldn’t just get in.” 

Romy Haag, the cabaret performer who had a romantic relationship with Bowie, and David Hemmings, who directed “Just A Gigolo” starring Bowie alongside another Schöneberg native, Marlene Deitrich, were also regulars. As were Mick Jagger, Grace Jones and Barbra Streisand when they were in town. “It was a bit like Berghain really, we don’t want idiots, we want people who are nice, who fit in, who are part of our scene, and even if we don’t know them because they’ve just arrived, you can tell immediately if they belong. It’s not just because they decide to wear a black T shirt, there’s other things, there’s other chemistry. If you were doing music, films or doing writing, you could go to the Jungle and have a likeminded conversation, or dance.”

I think of the Berlin I know myself, international, progressive but in a budget airline away. The night before I meet Mark, I’m with a friend drinking Flensburger in Laidak, a cafe that stays open late at night on the corner of Mainzer Strasse and Boddinstrasse in Neukölln. Here, smoke streams across the ripped leather sofas and the upholstery is covered in tags and graffiti: Gegen Nazis, Stoppt Die AFD, defiantly left wing, Nobody cares about money or at least everyone is extremely careful to project that they don’t care about money. Amongst the many shades of gender, loose vested and shaved headed girls and mullet-haired boys with painted nails drink and smoke, read books and chat. It stays open until the staff decide they can’t be bothered to serve anymore and stack the chairs. I hear punk music being played out of an old Acer PC with a cracked screen that perches by the cash register. Perhaps we are all the children of the Genialle Dillanante, living through a four decade echo that keeps resounding through the ruins of the past. 

This post is an edited extract from the book Coming To Berlin, a journey through Berlin’s club and electronic music culture by Paul Hanford. Published by Velocity Press, 2022.

 

 

Next in Day Trips & Weekends AwayA Hike Through The Erpetal »