Berlin on Vinyl

A journey through Berlin via album covers…

In spring 1990 I embarked on my first bicycle ride through Prenzlauer Berg,” recalls Bernd Leyon in the foreword to his striking coffee-table book, Berlin On Vinyl. “’I’ll ride to the other side’ people said back then when talking about East Berlin. Soon enough I stumbled upon a weekly market in Cantianstraße, near Schönhauser Allee. Makeshift wooden stalls, fruit and vegetables, and among junk from all over the world and countless crates of books—vinyl records. Down on my knees, I dug through a collection of records, hidden underneath one of the stalls, and there I found a gem: “Gross Stadt Rhythmus” (Big City Rhythm). What a title, what a cover. It showed a twenty-year-old snapshot of Schönhauser Allee

Leyon continued rooting through the racks at flea markets and music fairs all through the nineties and early noughties, re-selling many of his find through his own record store, Musik Department store, which he opened in 2010 and which closed in 2018. On the wall opposite the shop’s entrance was hung an enlarged print of the cover of “Gross Stadt Rhythmus”. “Customers would stand in awe in front of the picture,” he says. “Sometimes even people anxiously waiting outside for their tram to arrive would get distracted from their own “big city rhythm” by the picture and get washed into the shop. Parents have told their children about the old days while standing in front of the photo…people from all parts of Berlin, East and West alike.”

In 2014, Leyon decided to compile a book of Berlin-themed record covers. Featuring over 200 of them, spanning the ’60s-’80s, it’s a completely unique visual journey through the city: “A journey through time, across the decades, beginning in the 1960s, gathering speed all the way to the 1980s,” he comments. “If I were granted a wish it would be that the reader takes the time to thumb through the pages, to browse, to excavate submerged memories. Make your own comparisons about what is and what has been, what remains, what has vanished, what the new times have brought with them and what remains of the old times. In short, I wish you to marvel like I do every day anew, about these covers, these pictures and this city.”

How did you research and find all the vinyl covers once the idea was started? 

BL: “For sure, without the internet, this project would be hard to realise, but thankfully I could research online a whole universe of collectors and sellers. I already had a certain number at home, especially East German stuff that I  bought cheaply in the nineties. I also searched endless boxes in the flea markets, which helped. A lot of them were very hard to find. I made a list of artists in Berlin but surprisingly ninety percent of Berlin-born artists never created a vinyl cover using a photo from Berlin.

The book span the 1960s-80s. Why those decades?

BL: “I started as early as possible. Album vinyls didn’t exist in the forties, just 78s , without picture covers. The 1950s started just five years after WW2, so the vinyl-era emerged slowly in Germany and then mainly with 7-inch records; so the earliest we could start was 1959. I stopped the book at 1989 because not only was there a break in vinyl cover design in any form then, but mainly the era (1960s-1989) summarises the real Berlin for me.

One of the fun parts of the book is guessing what the music sounds like: what are the associated genres, and did you get to listen to some or all the actual records – if so you must have found some interesting discoveries?

BL: “Most of the stuff I know already because I know the artists, and of course I listened to what I didn’t know. Sixty percent is mainly German Schlager. You have a lot of Berliner Gassenhauer, well-known songs from and about Berlin in the forties up until the sixties. Then of course specific sounds from West and East Germany. Some of the songs are repeated, but by different artists.

Are the East German covers rarer than the West?

BL: “Absolutely, the East German covers are harder to find, but of course you also have obscure West German records, like private presses or super rare jazz. Not one collector had the cover on pages 26-27; I had to get it from Hamburg, so it needed patience, persistence and of course a lot of luck to find all of these gems. In eighty percent of the vinyl covers there were no notes about the designer or photographer.

Why did you order the covers ane chapters the way you did?

BL: “I didn’t want a simple discography, or to just throw them in the book with no logical structure. So I started the first chapter with the arrangement of a visit to Berlin, starting in the south of Berlin just after the old border station Dreilinden. The autobahn to Charlottenburg was the first view for West Berlin in the 60s to 80s… aaah back home! To the right of the Funkturm you are opposite the ICC, which means almost at Schloss Charlottenburg. Then you move over the Ernst-Reuter Platz to Hardenbergplatz, then to Breitscheidplatz and to the Tiergarten then through the Brandenburg Gate and into East Berlin . You could use the first chapter as a map and have a logical route through Berlin. The other chapters are self explanatory through their titles.

As a Berliner, do you have any personal favourites or memories from these records or covers?

BL: “The whole book is sentimental to me. There is a mixture of melancholy and memories of my childhood here in West Berlin…colours, sounds, visuals. From 1989-1999 there was a new and exciting Berlin. From 2000 onwards we simply have a different Berlin, one with many dynamics.

The sound postcards at the end of the book are wonderful. These were laminated postcards containing music that could actually be played on a turntable, right?  

BL: “Yes, the postcards were mainly produced in the fifties and sixties, a fantastic marketing idea that sadly became extinct. Imagine you are on a visit somewhere, writing a classic postcard and the recipient has not only a picture but also on the other side the sound from a city, country or area…”

And what has the response been like since you put the book out?

BL: “I never expected such a response from so many totally different audiences; Berliners and visitors, young and old people, music lovers and design lovers etc. Making a book and after nine weeks from the release date getting the information to be registered in the program from the Kunst Bibliothek Berlin was also strange but good!”

“Berlin On Vinyl” can be ordered via the website tumblr_mve2khJ0S31sls913o1_1280

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