“If we get caught here, we’re fucked, we’re all fucked” – Mark Reeder on Berlin, punk and techno in the ‘80s.
By Jack Drummond
Berlin in the 1980s was a turbulent, poverty stricken city. A divided capital filled with elderly war survivors, old crumbling structures and new concrete apartment blocks. Squatters occupied once affluent neighbourhoods, police clashed with punks, and artists like Gudrun Gut, Blixa Bargeld and Nick Cave all attempted to find themselves amidst the drugs, alcohol and the endless nights of partying. A new film, B Movie: Lust and Sound in West-Berlin, 1979-89, attempts to chart the city using previously unseen archive footage and with former Factory Records representative, musician and producer Mark Reeder as its central figure. We spoke to Reeder about the movie, about secret punk gigs in East Berlin, about the Stasi and gay bars, about trance music and early techno, and about the changing face of the German capital he still calls home.
Mark Reeder is an interesting man. Brimming with energy, the first time I meet him is outside the Wintergarten Variety Theatre on Potsdamer Strasse – one of the main thoroughfares of the former West Berlin enclave. It’s now filled with art galleries, döner kebab stands and prostitutes that linger close to the pink neon sex shop on the corner. The Wintergarten is the meeting point for a tour of ‘Mark Reeder’s Berlin’, organised to promote Jörg A. Hoppe, Klaus Maeck and Heiko Lange’s B Movie. Reeder turns up with a massive grin, in a smart blue military jacket with a high starch white collar and a New Wave-esque side-parting in his tightly cropped steely hair. And yet, despite over 30 years in the city, he still hasn’t lost his Mancunian drawl.
B Movie works like a love letter to 1980s Berlin: part-documentary on the city’s music and art scene, part-biography of Reeder. It uses him as the plot’s central pin on which to hang and draw out various events in the life of the city. From early German New Wave scene hangouts, to secret punk gigs in East Berlin, artistic protests and parties on the Wall, and even the formation of the Tresor and E Werk clubs in techno’s early days once the Wall came down, Reeder’s position as someone always present, if not just slightly out of the frame, gives a unique vantage point from which to observe the city. Arguably, the things he witnessed and became involved in, on both sides of the Wall, formed crucial tenements in the formation of the Berlin identity of today: one of artistic creativity, experimentation, rawness and even constant struggle, in one way or another.
“Like I’ve said before I’m the ‘ausländer inländer’,” he grins. “Being involved within it from the outside. I was ‘the man behind the iron curtain’, and really that’s one of the main reasons why I stayed in Berlin.” Born in Manchester to working class parents, Reeder moved to Berlin after studying graphic design and a stint working at the legendary Virgin Record store in Manchester’s Lever Street. There, he cultivated his intense love of music, but quickly became bored and disaffected with the ‘dark and grimy’ northern town. He landed in the divided German city in the summer of 1979.
“Living in Manchester, nobody knew anything about Berlin,” he says. “Nobody gave a shit. ‘Berlin? Oh yeah David Bowie just went there and recorded an album.’ And that was about it.” So why did he go? “I just wanted to get away to be honest. I didn’t have any reason. I didn’t even think I was gonna stay here. I just wanted to see what it was like.”
He travelled around West Germany, visiting Cologne, Dusseldorf, Munich and Hamburg, before heading to Berlin after hearing it was a haven for Germans wanting to escape conscription. “But most people [in West Germany] were like ‘why do you wanna go there, it’s not worth it, it’s crap,’ and I was like, ‘okay, why would anyone want to come to Berlin to make an album if nothing’s happening here?’”
Arriving in Berlin, one of his first assignments was acting as Joy Division and Factory Record’s official promoter thanks to his days at the Manchester music store where he often met Tony Wilson, Rob Gretton, photographer Kevin Cummins and the designer Peter Saville. A few months later, he’d helped bring Joy Division to Berlin for their gig at the Kantkino in January 1980. Despite the gig’s relative failure, the time in Berlin had a profound affect on the band, inspiring their 7” flexi-single ‘Komakino’ released in June 1980.
Over the next few years Reeder found his way in and out of Berlin bands, mingling with Einstürzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld and befriending cutting edge performance artist and punk musician Gudrun Gut, soon becoming the acting manager for her band Malaria!. Meanwhile, he was writing and performing in his own right. Out of the ashes of his first band, Die Unbekannten, formed with friends Alistair Gray and Tommy Wydler (now of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds) he formed Shark Vegas with Gray and recorded under Factory. Shark Vegas’ 1984 single, ‘You Hurt Me’, became a US hit in underground clubs and gay bars. More recently, their 1987 single ‘Pretenders of Love’, which appeared on a Factory Records US promo compilation in 1985, was reissued on Strut Record’s ‘Fac Dance’ compilation in 2011. Despite all this, he recounts his time in West Berlin almost as if it were a footnote to his adventures in the eastern half of the city – the closed capital of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).
“It was parallel,” he says. “For me Berlin was always just one city, it never felt divided because I moved between the borders.” Many West Berliners would never venture over the border into the east, he explains, or, if they did, only for school trips and family visits. “But for me, [East Berlin] was a completely different playground altogether. It was a ‘Disneyland for depressives’,” he smiles, echoing his narrative from B Movie. With his frequent trips across, he befriended many East Berliners and, mixing with his obvious enthusiasm for the music and parties he was experiencing in the west, he was inspired to start bringing bands and music over the Wall to his friends in the east.
“I always found it difficult to see the people I liked living [in East Berlin] – my friends, having to go through their everyday lives under such circumstances. It always frustrated me that I couldn’t do more for these people,” he says, referencing the prevalence of the Stasi and the suffocating level of bureaucracy which even regulated who got to play what instruments and where across the GDR. “You couldn’t just walk into a shop and get your guitars and drums and synthesizers with your own money and go off and play,” he explains. “It wasn’t like Manchester. Everything was controlled. Every single aspect of society, at every single level.” He recalls meeting “some hippy looking guy” at a bar near Treptower Park who told him about the regulations covering instruments and how you needed licenses to both buy and then perform using an electric guitar in East Germany. However, the hippy also told Reeder about the Blues Messe at his local church in the neighbouring Rummelsberg district where he played, according to Reeder: “The usual – Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and the blues. And I was like, ‘okay whatever’, and then a week goes by and I’m thinking to myself: ‘I wonder if I could play there with my own band, Die Unbekannten, maybe’.”
Which is how the two Toten Hosen gigs came about. Following a conversation with a confused priest in Rummelsberg, the West German punk band was able to play in the isolated GDR capital, with East Berlin punk band Planlos in support. Other instruments were begged for and borrowed from Feeling B, the former band of bright-eyed Till Lindemann before his Rammstein days.
“We ended up doing two secret Toten Hosen gigs: One in March ‘83 and the other later in ‘88. The one you see in the film, with the sandpit and the church car park, and Campino [Toten Hosen’s lead singer] with bright red hair, that was in ‘88.” Was he nervous? “Yeah, the first gig especially was very, very nerve-wracking. ‘If we get caught here, we’re fucked, we’re all fucked’ we thought. Not just me but all my friends too.” The gigs were made possible thanks to the unique position of the church in East Germany. In a socialist, atheist country such as the GDR, Christianity wasn’t exactly encouraged. “The church in East Germany was tolerated to a degree because there were so many Christians, but it was actually a form of silent protest,” explains Reeder, with a cheeky grin. So the Toten Hosen gig was billed as a church mass with gospel and blues music and, of course, prayers, but in actual fact became one of many forms of small radical protest against the current social orthodoxy.
What was the effect? “At the time we weren’t aware of what the significance would be,” he smiles. “We thought there were punk rock concerts everywhere, in cellars across the nation. Not a fucking chance. It wasn’t like that at all.” After the gig, Reeder became listed as a ‘subversive element’ by the Stasi and closely monitored, but that didn’t deter him. In the end, one of the few safe places to meet his friends, organise future gigs and smuggle western music through the Wall was by meeting up in the numerous, though highly secretive, gay bars dotted across the capital. Places like Besenkammer in Alexanderplatz, a gay disco called Busch Allee, and a café in Prenzlauer Berg’s Eberswalder Strasse “we nicknamed ‘Café Bück Dich’ (‘Café Bend Over’) because it was full of these gay Stasi guys”, ended up becoming regular meeting points.
“We knew that the everyday normal Stasi informer would probably shirk at wanting to go in a place like that,” explains Reeder, which made them perfect as the Stasi couldn’t admit to being in them, let alone their existence. Reeder leans forward: “The word ‘homosexual’ didn’t exist in the GDR: If you look at an old GDR dictionary, the word only starting appearing around ‘87 because of the AIDS crisis.”
A year later in ’88, the Busch Allee disco would soon debut the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Introspective’ album thanks to Reeder and his author friend Dave Rimmer (although it wasn’t exactly successful: “We gasped in awe… it cleared the dancefloor within minutes” recalls Reeder). However, this was already in a city that had fundamentally changed, on both sides of the Wall, since that Toten Hosen gig in a Rummelsberg parish church hall in ’83.
A few streets away from the Wintergarten Variety Theatre lies Winterfeldplatz, a square in the middle of Schöneberg’s Nollendorfplatz neighbourhood where Reeder first lived in 1979. Back then, the place was a regular spot for street battles between police and squatters watched on by elderly survivors of the war. By the late 1980s, neighbouring Nollendorfplatz had become home to the Metropol, one of the biggest gay clubs in Europe and a pioneering space for house, HiNRG and acid music. Now, both Nollendorf and Winterfeldlplatz are leafy, quiet places filled with cafés, restaurants and flea and food markets on Sundays. However, they serve as useful metaphors for the radical social changes that have swept across the city.
The idea of Berlin as a hub of creativity and a destination for international artists is well known. Many factors and stories have contributed to the city becoming what it is, and the narrative is strong enough that today people from across the world continue to flock to its gates. Last year, more than 40,000 people alone moved to the city in a continuing sign of its popularity, but with obvious knock-on effects for rental prices and the social makeup of neighbourhoods.
“The kind of people who seem to come to Berlin these days still have the same aspirations, I suppose, as I did,” says Reeder: “Getting away from wherever you’ve been growing up and experiencing a city where you can find yourself.”
“If you want to make a lot of money then Berlin’s definitely not the place to come,” he adds. “But if you want to learn about yourself and about getting by and experimenting with your every day existence, then Berlin’s a very comfortable place to be.”
But back in the ‘80s, the flock of people heading to West Berlin were mainly from across West Germany. “When I first came here, I was probably one of three or four British people who lived in the city – the others being ones I’d mainly met in clubs,” says Reeder. “I mean the British Army were here but they weren’t let out. They were confined to barracks […] They were kind of kept away from the population because they, Berliners, didn’t really want them.” If they did go out, Reeder recalls, they’d head to the Europa Center opposite Berlin Zoo where there was an Irish bar serving bitter and Guinness – but the evening would often end in fights and the Army doing a mock drunken drill outside the door on Breitscheidplatz, according to Reeder. “There were hardly any foreigners here back then, that’s true, and if you did [see them] they were just passing through.”
In terms of music, far from being synonymous with punk and German New Wave, Berlin’s soundtrack today is firmly rooted in electronic music and techno. I ask Reeder whether a knock-on affect of the increased international presence in Berlin today has been on its nightlife and music. Reeder, who still occasionally DJs in Berlin, and who played last year at the revived Berlin Atonal festival, also sits as a guest lecturer for Berlin’s DBS Music School which specializes in electronic music and sound production; it also teaches classes in English. However, he disputes the question.
“I don’t think it’s possible to place it on other people being here,” he says.
“I think that through the ‘90s [the alternative punk and rock scene] eroded more and more because the focus was more on the electronic techno scene.”
“In 1982, Dimitri Hegemann held the Berlin Atonal because there were all these experimental things happening, so it just seemed to be the thing to do. And for a number of years it got bigger and bigger with more established acts playing and then, suddenly, towards the end of the second part of the ‘80s, things started to become a bit more standardised, and experimental exciting things were watered down,” says Reeder. He places this down to two factors: people discovering and making for themselves new types of music through cheaper equipment like drum machines and sequencers, and the twin fact that the punk and German New Wave scene started to become more ‘Americanized’. Bands like Jingo de Lunch who, although from the Berlin squatter scene, were far from radical in their output, became popular in the ‘pop’ music sense.
“We’ve had such a long run with techno, when you compare it to say something like progressive rock of the 70s or punk rock or disco or even…” he trails off and I suggest trance music. Reeder, towards the end of the 1980s launched his Masterminded for Success record label (abbreviated as MFS in a knowing nod to the Stasi, or Ministerium für Staatssicherheit) through the former GDR’s state owned record label AMIGA. MFS then became one of the most important record labels of the early ‘90s, releasing seminal trance records and launching the careers of Mijk van Dijk, Cosmic Baby and Paul van Dyk in the process. “Well trance was part of the techno development really,” he continues. “It was a moment within that.”
So what changed? “The only differences in the early days of techno were the type of drugs people took and that there was a different door policy in the clubs: the people who were standing on the doors were clubber types. It was a relaxed entrance into a place, like with the E Werk or Tresor.” For Reeder, the need to control the door policy and people’s increased determination to enter a place, despite not necessarily knowing what it is about, defines the Berlin nightlife experience today.
However, he’s doubtful whether it will affect Berlin that much. “It’s a pretty stable form of music. You go out to a party, to any club, anywhere in the world, and you’re gonna hear it. […] People wanna dance when they go out. They’re not gonna dance to 1940s jazz. They want techno.”
B Movie: Lust and Sound in West-Berlin, 1979-89 is playing at selected cinemas across the UK and the Sensoria Film Festival, Sheffield, featuring a Q&A with Mark Reeder. September 25 – October 3 2015.