Berlin on Vinyl

A journey through Berlin via album covers…

Sometime last year, we contributed to the crowd-funding for a fantastic project called Berlin On Vinyl, a coffee-table book full of vintage album covers depicting Berlin. The idea came from Bernd Leyon, a local record vendor with over 20 years experience of rooting through the racks at flea markets and music fairs, and – for the last few years – selling records through his Musik Department store.

“In spring 1990 I embarked on my first bicycle ride through Prenzlauer Berg,” he recalls in the book’s foreword. “’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…

“There is rush hour traffic on the street and on the wide sidewalk people flow from their work to their home or to the shops. It is 4:40pm, as the clock in the picture indicates. At 6pm the shops will close, all the day’s shopping will have to be done by then. It will be years before a shopping centre at the S-Bahn station Schönhauser Allee will welcome customers late into the night. Those colors, those cars, those people. A lot of activity on one of East-Berlin’s main thoroughfares and the record presents the perfect orchestral accompaniment. I asked the grocer how much he wanted for the record. “Two Marks!”. He gets his two Marks and one day the cover will take up its own very special place. Even back in spring 1990 I had a premonition of this…”

Bernd opened the Musik Department in 2010. True to his original vision, the flamboyant cover of “Gross Stadt Rhythmus” – blown up to 1.20 by 1.20m – was hung on a wall opposite the entrance right from the start, and entranced customers and passersby alike. “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.

Finally, in 2014, Bernd took the plunge and put together the book. Featuring over 200 album covers from 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,” says Bernd. “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 because of the access to collectors and sellers on the worldwide web I was able to research. I already had a certain number of the vinyls at home, especially most of the East German stuff, that I fortunately bought cheaply in the 90s. 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 90% of Berlin-born artists have 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 40s, just 78s (without picture covers). The 50s started just five years after WW2, so the vinyl era emerged slowly in Germany and then also mainly with 7Inches; 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 (60s to 89) 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 I listened to what I didn’t know. 60% is mainly German Schlager. You have a lot on Berliner Gassenhauer, well known songs from and about Berlin in the 40s to the 60s. 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 80% of the vinyl covers there were no notes about the designer or photographer.

The feeling of the book being like a visual guide is enhanced by how you have ordered the covers geographically…

BL: “I didn’t want a simple discography, or 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 50s and 60s, 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 or by dropping a mail to musikdepartment@gmail.com. To read our profile of the main store, click here.

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