The Night The Wall Fell: A Techno Perspective

An extract from Der Klang der Familie: a book on the origins and development of Berlin’s techno scene… 

It was basically pure coincidence. This new, raw, stark machine music appeared—and then the Wall came down. In East Berlin, the administration collapsed; the former GDR capital became a “temporary autonomous zone.” Suddenly, there were all these spaces to discover: a panzer chamber in the dusty no man’s land of the former death strip, a World War Two bunker, a decommissioned soap factory on the Spree, a transformer station opposite the erstwhile Reich Ministry of Aviation. And suddenly, people were dancing at all these sites rejected by recent history, to a music virtually reinvented from week to week.

Berlin Wall. Photo by Ben de Biel
Photo by Ben de Biel, courtesy of the authors.

Put simply, techno originated in Detroit in the mid-eighties. But the new electronic sounds didn’t find a home in the crisis-ridden Motor City. No club scene developed around the music, which became an export by necessity. Detroit musicians found their largest following in Berlin, of all places, and a symbiotic relationship developed between the two desolate cities. Aside from the efforts and enthusiasm of a few music freaks, this, too, was for the most part a matter of chance.

At the time, Berlin couldn’t look back on a long history of electronic music—unlike, say, Frankfurt, where a professional network of clubs, producers and labels had been operating since the eighties. Even the word “techno” was already being used there. West Berlin, by contrast, was a rock city, albeit an experimental one. Bands like Einstürzende Neubauten and movements like the Geniale Dilletanten meant there was a fairly broad understanding of what the word music could mean. And in clubs like Metropol, a small DJ culture was already emerging, born from the days of disco.

In East Berlin, of course, everything was different. Youth culture was something clandestine, even dangerous. The first generation of punks was vigorously persecuted. Young people were accustomed to seeking out niches. One of them was breakdancing, which began to shape GDR subculture far earlier than in West Germany, a fact which explains the East’s special enthusiasm for electronic sounds.

Techno became the soundtrack of reunification-era Berlin for three main reasons: the pure kinetic energy of the new sounds, the magic of the places it was played and the promise of freedom it contained. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone could program his own world: DJ, produce, start magazines, print tee-shirts. Techno was a music that called for participation, a sound of flat hierarchies. Not for nothing was it referred to in the early days as a music with no need for stars. There didn’t seem to be any room for them.

The human disappeared in the tracks; the artist-subject dissolved in the circuitry of the drum machine, the binary codes of the sampler and the ever-changing project names of the producers. At the beginning, even the DJ was part of the party, not its focus or star. The star was the party itself and with it, all the abandoned, decaying venues transformed into dance floors, sometimes for a night, sometimes long enough that people from around the world could come dance on them.

Few music genres have brought together such a disparate mix of people with a shared feeling of joy. At the early techno parties, breakdancers from Alexanderplatz, football hooligans, former East German punks and radio junkies encountered a West Berlin conglomerate of Schöneberg gays, Kreuzberg squatters, students, artists, English soldiers on furlough and American expats in Berlin for the cheap rents. For a while, it seemed as though differences no longer mattered, nor where you came from or what you were wearing. So long as you participated. Everything was focused on the music and the new togetherness on and alongside the dance floor. The exuberant, contradictory community that converged there every weekend really saw itself as a family—in the early years, at least.

Ewerk in the nineties, photo courtesy of the authors

Introduction above and interviews below by Felix Denk & Sven von Thülen

MARK REEDER In England, no one could ever tell me anything about the GDR. Not in West Berlin either. Only those with relatives went there. The coverage was always negative and hostile.

MONIKA DIETL Mark was a friend of mine with an Eastern Europe fetish. He was obsessed with the whole Wall thing and East thing. Models of old war planes hung from the ceilings of his Kreuzberg apartment. Dive bombers and such.

MARK REEDER The first time I went over, I was amazed. Not so bad here—no advertisements, empty shop windows, no Western influence. I had the feeling I was in a different era. I wanted to know what the young people were listening to who weren’t into City and Karat. When I drove over by car, I glued tapes to my back. Sometimes, they were copied 300 times. I also smuggled records sometimes, but that was hard.

MONIKA DIETL Mark was always looking for someone to accompany him. I went sometimes; it was exciting. At some point, he had a huge fan club, little Eastern girls.

MARK REEDER In January 1989, the East German band Die Vision asked if I wanted to produce their next album. They were good guys. The singer studied English at the Humboldt University and was thus allowed to sing in English; the only band in the GDR that could. I wondered how I could do it as a westerner. I couldn’t just go over and produce a record, after all. No one had ever done it. The band said they’d try to get it going through official channels. For a long time, nothing happened.

COSMIC BABY I had a lot of relatives in the East. I kept meeting more and more people there on my trips. Students, writers, actors, people from the church context. I wanted to be there when things started to change. A lot of my friends had contributed a great deal to helping the GDR transform itself into a new kind of socialist state. I considered continuing my studies at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music. I’d already inquired at the appropriate places if and how that could work. If I could live there and give up my West Berlin passport or if I had to become a GDR citizen.

MARK REEDER Then in June, they actually got permission from Amiga, the GDR record label. First, I had to go to the Palace of the President of the Reichstag, where Amiga was located, to arrange studio times. I figured I’d need six weeks for the recording and mixing. I went in. A woman was sitting there with a book as big as the whole table. I said I needed the studio from June to late August. “Won’t work,” she said. So much time was impossible. I could only work Monday from seven am to one pm and Tuesday from one pm to eight pm because other people also needed the studio. The first weeks, I primly held to the shift schedule. The people before and after me were recording folk music and classical. Then the first ones wanted to switch shifts. Everyone wanted to work from seven am to one pm, then get home as quickly as possible. Eventually, I had all the late shifts and could finish the record in peace.

PAUL VAN DYK One week before the Wall came down, I left the country with my mother on an exit visa—the actually illegal, but still official variety. A perversion of the system. You had to file an application for release from citizenship, but that alone was already forbidden. Usually, you had to leave within 24-hours. For us, they also stipulated that we had to leave via Rostock and Lübeck. My mother, my dog and I. The dog was processed as a commodity.

MARK REEDER A sort of vow of silence reigned in the Amiga studio. You didn’t talk about the events, but a question mark loomed over everyone. The mood was tense. But I wanted to do my work. I wanted it to be a good record. The recordings proceeded with difficulty because the drummer backed out after three days. We had to arrange for a drum machine in order to continue at all. I smuggled in instruments as well. There were always fluctuations in the current. Every time the voltage went down and back up again, the recording device deleted what we’d just done. As a result, everything was delayed. We finally finished recording on November 2nd.

COSMIC BABY As a political person, November 4th, 1989 was the most momentous day of my life. It was a Saturday. Rainy, cold. An incredible sense of expectation prevailed. I stood at Alexanderplatz in a huge mass of people. No one knew what would happen. A hundred thousand people could have simply walked to the Wall. Or to the State Council building. What would the police have done? It was clear to everyone that this day was something special. The possibility of taking history into your own hands seemed close enough to touch.

Hinterhof Linienstrasse by Ben de Biel, courtesy of the authors

MARK REEDER On the night of November 8th, I went on holiday with friends. We wanted to go to Romania via Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. I didn’t find out what had happened until ten days later in a Hungarian hotel.

KATI SCHWIND I lived directly at Schlesisches Tor [in West Berlin] with Jonzon and a girlfriend. I remember exactly how I stood in the kitchen washing up. From the other room, I heard the Tagesthemen [Issues of the Day], and Hanns Joachim Friedrichs said, “Tonight is probably the most important night in the history of Germany. One shouldn’t utter such big words, but…”

CLÉ I saw it on TV. There was a press conference with Walter Momper where he stood up and said he had to go where he belonged now. That’s when I first realized what was going on. I met up with two, three people at Kumpelnest on Potsdamer Straße. We went directly to the Brandenburg Gate and then to East Berlin through the Invalidenstraße checkpoint.

KATI SCHWIND We went to the Oberbaumbrücke immediately. There were a few figures looking slightly sheepish, and I was just like, “Are these my brothers and sisters from the East?” I didn’t have the feeling that I’d have a tremendous amount in common with them. But I absolutely wanted to cross the Oberbaumbrücke. I’d always dreamed about that. But they didn’t let me across. Only from East to West, they said, not the other way around.

UWE REINEKE I was sitting with Jonzon and a few friends at Mitropa on Wrangelstraße. Suddenly someone came in and said the Wall was open. At first we thought he’d lost his marbles. Still, we left shortly thereafter to have a look. We rode our bikes towards Checkpoint Charlie. It wasn’t far, after all. On the way, we realized that something really was up. There were no bars, no stores, no nothing from SO36 to Kochstraße, so it stuck out that cars were suddenly driving there and people running around. Arriving at Checkpoint Charlie, we watched for a while as westerners welcomed the Trabis by knocking on their roofs and people celebrated. We didn’t join in the jubilation, which went something like, “Hurrah! My brothers and sisters from the East are here!” We weren’t Bild readers, after all. It was definitely fun, but we didn’t know what to make of it. We couldn’t pigeonhole it. We had to go back to Mitropa to let it sink in.

JOHNNIE STIELER I was in Leipzig fighting for socialism in a different form. The first East German AStAs30 had gathered at a conference. Suddenly, some Stasi broad came in with a telex in her hand saying the Wall was open. It wasn’t a total sensation; at first, the conference continued. But then everyone made a beeline for home.

DJ JAUCHE I was dancing at Café Nord on Schönhauser Allee. A guy came in, went up to the DJ and told him something. The DJ turned off the music and said through the microphone that the Wall was open. The music started again, and there was confusion. Everyone was alone with the information at first. I kept dancing. It was different for the friend I was with. He was immediately agitated and wanted to head out right away. He didn’t let up until he’d convinced me to walk to Bornholmer Straße

WOLLE XDP My girlfriend and I were heading to Operncafé. When we arrived, the bouncer asked us why we weren’t in the West. At first, we didn’t understand what he meant. We were the last of the Mohicans; 80 percent of our circle of friends was already in the West. All of them had left the country. But he couldn’t have meant that. We went home, turned on the TV and heard the news.

DJ JAUCHE On the way to Bornholmer Straße, the flow of people who wanted to get to the border crossing got bigger and bigger. That was the first time I thought, “OK, something’s really happening here.” When we got to the crossing, it was still closed. A bit later, the border opened, and there was a scramble. A few older people next to us didn’t dare cross and just started to cry. They were afraid they wouldn’t be allowed back. For me, it wasn’t an issue. I wanted to leave anyway. I just thought, “Everything will be different now. Now I can do what I always wanted to do.”

WOLLE XDP The first question was, “Will they let us back in?” When we saw the lines of people that wanted to get out, it was clear they’d have to, or else they’d be all alone. Then at some point, we were at Bahnhof Zoo. We didn’t know what to do. First idea: call Arne. We didn’t have any money, of course. My girlfriend, who worked at Intershop back then, had 20 cents. But we still needed ten, which we got by panhandling. But there was a problem. I knew Arne’s number by heart because when you called someone in the West from the East, you had to dial a thousand times before you finally got through. But because it was cheaper, Arne always hung up right away and called back. Naturally, I had to keep him from doing that.

ARNE GRAHM Suddenly, Wolle called and screamed that he was at Zoo. And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, sure.” He told me to look out the window, it should all be full of Trabis. I lived in Spandau back then, out in the sticks. It was unusual even to see traffic on the main road. I looked out the window and immediately realized that Wolle was right.

DJ JAUCHE We fought our way through the crowd at Bornholmer Straße and crossed over. West Berlin was sleeping. Not much was happening, but it was immediately more colorful. Right away, we got on the subway to Ku’damm. The neon signs gave me a headache. It was as though you’d been watching black-and-white TV the whole time, and suddenly, it’s color programming. We headed to the Europa Center because we wanted to look out over the city. Upstairs, we got off the elevator and were standing directly in a bar. A birthday party was in full swing—that of a former class-mate who’d left a year earlier with his family. He stared at us, completely dumbfounded, and we at him. Where had we come from, he wanted to know. And we just said, “The Wall’s open.”

CLÉ In East Berlin, we went against the tide with a small group of people I didn’t even know. It was gloomy—no display windows, totally cold. But no one felt the cold. The side streets were deserted. Really spooky for a West Berliner. At some point, we were at the Brandenburg Gate. The Vopos said, “Please go back. We’re trying to sort this out.” So we dutifully turned around back to Kumpelnest and got properly wasted.

Photo by Ben de Biel
Photo by Ben de Biel, courtesy of the authors.

ARNE GRAHM Wolle, his girlfriend and I met at Zoo. We stood in the crowd on Ku’damm. The encounters playing out there were pretty damn folksy. That turned us off, though we couldn’t totally withdraw from the euphoria. But we quickly kept going. Silly laughing and waving the whole time was not really our thing.

WOLLE XDP On the way to Arne’s, we bought a bottle of champagne at the gas station on Martin-Luther-Straße. We popped it at his place and talked all through the night.

DJ JAUCHE At first, it was strange back at the border. We had no passports or anything with us. Would they let us back in? But the border guards weren’t doing anything anymore. They just stood around waving people through.

KATI SCHWIND When I woke up the next morning, there was a heaviness in the air. Something was up. When I looked out the window, I almost fainted. Hunched, dishwater blondes in stonewashed jeans were running around everywhere. Nobody spoke, they all just looked around stricken, slinking along from the Oberbaumbrücke towards the post office on Skalitzer Straße, where a huge line had already formed for the “welcome money.” I couldn’t believe it. I went down to buy cigarettes, and one of them called after me in a Saxon accent: “Something like you is allowed to run loose here?!?” I’d had enough. I just thought, “Go back where you came from, you asshole.”

DJ JAUCHE The next day, I immediately started looking for pitch-control record players for DJing. They weren’t so easy to find. I finally got my hands on some at a store on Potsdamer Straße. They were Jim Carson replicas, true junk. I brought them back after a week and bought myself a Technics. I didn’t have any more money, so I had to wait a long time before I got together the money for a second. The next day, I went to Pinky Records in Steglitz.

THOMAS ELIAS The first to come over was an old breakdance buddy of mine. We were at my place with a few friends, starting things off with some joints. He wasn’t familiar with that yet. At some point, totally stoned, I went out with him to get chocolate at the gas station. When we got back, I could already hear from the elevator that Dieta couldn’t contain her laughter. When I stepped into the hall, I saw my parents, sitting among my totally stoned friends as Trax records played. They just wanted to say “hi”. A true surprise attack. I’d never imagined that I would see my parents again so soon. My mom just said, “Thomas, you really have a nice sound system.”

WOLLE XDP On Friday, we wanted to go out. I said, “Whatever we do, we have to go to UFO.” Arne was surprised. “How do you guys know about UFO?” I didn’t know that it was his regular spot, that he wasn’t into the punk thing anymore. So we all headed out in a red Opel Manta with flames and red cushions. Arne had borrowed it because his own car was broken. He said anyone who cracked a joke about it would have to walk. I didn’t even know that people made fun of Mantas in the West. First we went to Madhouse on Hauptstraße. The place was shared by goths and psychobillies. The goths looked intense. They had chalk-white faces. I thought they were about to die. When The Cure came on, they went three steps forward, three steps back on the dance floor like ghosts. When the DJ gave a signal, the psychobillies shot onto the dance floor in their winklepickers, and the goths scattered like scarecrows. When we arrived at Ufo, I was amazed at how small the place was. It didn’t look like the Roxy in Beat Street. Not much was going on. People were dancing like on The Muppet Show, apparently unconcerned with how they looked. And you didn’t have to be afraid of getting smacked in the face. After Ufo, Arne brought us to the border crossing at Invalidenstraße. On a whim, he decided to come over with us. He wanted to visit his parents.

ARNE GRAHM In East Berlin, I gallivanted around with the bouncer from Schoppenstube, a guy I’d done karate with for many years. We were totally drunk and on speed. There were some others too. At some point, we managed to get ourselves into a brawl. Suddenly, the two guys were lying in front of me on the ground, and I just thought, “Wait, what happened? It must have been the others.” I could barely stand, after all. A very hazy day. That night, a friend of mine was run over by a car in front of Operncafé. He came running towards me—right in front of a taxi. It was bad. We had to get the cops and bring him to the hospital. It all took a while, of course, which is why we got back to the border a half hour too late. Actually, we should have had to change 25 marks again, but the border guards were so obliging, we didn’t have to pay anything. I went back over with Zappa to UFO.

ZAPPA UFO was like paradise on earth for us. Der Würfler was DJing. There were maybe 30 people there. But it was just awesome. I’m pretty sure we were the first Ossis there, and we immediately felt right at home, even though our clothes were a little different. At first, I thought they didn’t like us. I couldn’t place the looks, and I didn’t have the courage to really dance. But then I went up to Tanith and later to some others and chatted them up. It was clear that they were totally down with us, that they welcomed us warmly. I was there every week.

ARNE GRAHM Suddenly, I was seeing people I’d been convinced I’d never see again my whole life. I could see my family and best friends again. But at the same time, you were running into the people you’d wanted to get away from in the first place. All the informers and socialist crackerjacks.

JOHNNIE STIELER Operncafé was the place to be on Mondays. I stumbled in, and suddenly everybody who’d left was standing there, as though they’d never been gone. I walked right back out. I just thought, “Do I want this?”

ZAPPA I went straight to City Music on Ku’damm with my “welcome money” and exchanged the 100 marks for records—Chaka Khan, Frank Zappa, LL Cool J and a few others. First, I was just unbelievably happy. Later, I sat at home and thought, “The world is collapsing now. I can just buy all this.”

DJ JAUCHE Behind the Bornholmer Straße crossing on the western side stood a truck distributing bananas and chocolate. It was more than unpleasant for me. That’s not what I was about. It made me ashamed to be a citizen of the GDR.

ARNE GRAHM It was embarrassing to me that the bananas and exchange rate were being celebrated like a goal in a soccer game. For me, it was the height of moral corruption that in the first election in Saxony, the place where the staunchest Communists always came from and all the civics teachers and Russian teachers, people were suddenly voting CDU.

SPEZIAL I was pretty pissed off. You drop everything, cut out of there, and suddenly all the morons are back again. I don’t mean my friends, of course, I mean the idiots who let themselves be doused in coffee and bananas on Ku’damm, let themselves be treated that way by the westerners. They acted as though we’d eaten bricks in the East. Seeing this embarrassment was pretty tough.

JOHNNIE STIELER I wasn’t so incredibly happy about it. The Wall opened, and we could go over from the East. But since West Berlin was such an unbelievably narrow-minded and stuffy city with unbelievably narrow-minded and stuffy West Berliners, it wasn’t so thrilling. They all looked like Günter Pfitzmann or the Drei Damen vom Grill [Three Ladies from the Grill], catastrophically badly-dressed people. Ku’damm was anything but glamorous. If Paris, London, Munich or even Cologne had been on the other side, I would have been floored. But this subsidized backwater? That was just sad.

KATI SCHWIND Then the first difficult days began. I wanted my Wall back. Seriously. I thought they were all dumb. They looked like shit, behaved stupidly, and in the evening, I couldn’t get fruit anymore. You couldn’t get into the subway, and the line for the Beate Uhse store went three times around the block. It was pretty horrifying.

Hinter-dem-Tacheles-1990 credit Ben de Biel
Photo by Ben de Biel, courtesy of the authors.

MARK REEDER In a Hungarian hotel, I read a magazine announcing that border troops were beginning partial demolition of the Wall. I knew that my small, private Disney World no longer existed. Back in West Berlin, Trabis were driving everywhere. At Bahnhof Zoo, they sold a clothing set for 99 marks: a leather-scrap jacket, stonewashed jeans and sneakers. The “zone zombies,” as everyone called them, bought them like crazy. Whole armies ran around in those kits. In East Berlin, the feeling was totally different. The border guards were suddenly nice and friendly, not such dicks as before. The people were in a totally different mood. More cheerful, more positive.

UWE REINEKE It got interesting as little by little, the Wall opened everywhere. It went on for weeks and months. “Potsdamer Platz is opening,” they said. “Pariser Platz is opening, Bernauer Straße is opening.” I indulged in reunification tourism. At Pariser Platz, we crossed over to the East. Arriving there, we were interviewed for Australian television. We came back basically through the Brandenburg Gate—there were two parts of the Wall that were open—and passed ourselves off as easterners, walking to the West cheering “freedom.” They pawed at us and slipped us money. We did that a few times.

STEFAN SCHVANKE This frenzy of nationalism was a nightmare. I went with a friend to the Wall and put back a few stones just for fun. The people almost lynched us, just for slightly challenging their reunified Germany. Horrible. You experienced up close who these Bild readers really are.

DJ JAUCHE Two weeks later, I had to go for my muster. I thought, “What do they want now?” In the East, refusal was only possible if you were in the church; otherwise, it was jail. So I went and was mustered as though nothing had happened. I stood in the room with these six NVA guys, and they wanted to issue me a military ID card. I told them I wouldn’t go to the army. They were like, “What do you mean, not go to the army?” And I said, “Well, excuse me, but the Wall just came down. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. I’m not going to the army now.”

The excerpt and interviews above are taken from the English translation of Der Klang Der Familie

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