Underground Club Culture in Berlin - Unravelling the Onion

Underground Club Culture in Berlin - Unravelling the Onion

Short: We travelled to Berlin to experience the creative culture and techno music. We felt fortunate to hear the amazing music we did, to meet new friends, and we appreciated the kindness of strangers as well as the culture shock we experienced. From discrimination to “exclusive” inclusiveness, it was fascinating to see how the music scene in Berlin is coming to grips with what seems to be, everlasting change.

Our flight to Berlin from France was a breeze. We were very excited to spend a whole 12 days exploring just one city. Unfortunately, three weeks earlier on the way to Georgia, we got news that our dream Airbnb, booked months in advance, was cancelled. The guy told us that the apartment was sold. Thanks for the warning!

We were in a scramble, the hotels were way over budget, and Cecily messaged over 13 Airbnbs with no responses. Finally, we were able to plan our intended stay in the Neukölln neighbourhood starting with two shared apartments and one private for the last 3 nights. Shared accommodations brought flashbacks of Kyrgyzstani yurts, and we were dreading dealing with overly chatty roommates asking us if we wanted to go out with them.

Boros museum - one of many renovated bunkers in Berlin

I find it difficult to fully relax in a shared accommodation as I worry about making too much noise, quirks with the hosts house rules, and awkwardness of messing about in the kitchen. In a private apartment, you can spread out and lay on a couch. Most of all, it feels like you are actually living in the city, not visiting a friend.

Cecily had no idea, but her friend Sarah had secretly planned to come to Berlin and surprise her for her birthday. Sarah and I had planned to meet at a pizza restaurant on our day of arrival. No easy feat. Cecily likes to know all the details about a restaurant before we go. So, I had to plant the pizza seed early in the morning to get her excited about it. I tricked Cecily into unpacking quickly after our flight by mentioning that our metro tickets would still be valid if we left immediately. It was 8PM, Sarah and her husband Mike had left for the restaurant without cell service to communicate. We were now operating without communication, in the dark zone, and I had to pull through on time to make it work.

SURPRISE!! Bewildered, Cecily looked right at Sarah and took a few long seconds to realize that the people saying hello were Sarah and Mike! We drank the night away at the pizza restaurant and caught up on life. Coincidentally, Cecily had run into a childhood friend that she hadn’t seen in over 12 years at the airport when we landed. It was a delight to see friends away from our usual settings.  

Techno nights

The next day we had planned to go to the flea market at Mauer Park, make a boozy picnic at Tempelhofer Feld and then go out for our first club night to explore the legendary Berlin techno music scene. Cecily and I really like dark techno music. It’s a type of electronic music that is very bass heavy, repetitive and industrial sounding. The allure is in the small nuances within each of the songs, their cadence, and the artful way a DJ will blend together songs of varying energy into a sort of minimal roller coaster ride that picks you up and drops you down. In a great club, you can feel the vibrations of the range of notes blasting clearly through immense sound systems. The repetitiveness and dancing can become like meditation, clearing away the clutter of your mind into thoughts inspired by the nuances of each song.

This music isn’t your typical club pop that is accessible, has hooks, and gets everyone screaming. Without everything coming together such as the DJ’s mix, environment, people and the venue, the music has less impact standing on its own. More often than not, in the more popular venues that play techno, there is a tendency to crank the bass which will muddy the mid-range and obstruct many of the notes that come together to create the roller coaster ride.

In Berlin we were looking forward to getting into the music culture and hearing techno on great sound systems in settings like abandoned factories, bunkers and warehouses. This is the dream that we had read and heard all about. Sarah and Mike had partied with me and Cecily in university and also shared a love of electronic music. We were excited to explore and have the experience over the next few nights together.

The one thing we were quite curious about was the Berlin club door politics we had read so much about. Strict entry rules made famous by a club called Berghain make all the parties in Berlin somewhat exclusive, reserved for people “in the scene” who know their stuff. It’s not like just showing up to a club in North America, Amsterdam or England and getting in. You have to know what’s going on and who’s playing.  

The Mauer Park Market was a boon and we came away with a haul of different Berlin-style goods: a jean jacket for me, a stone-faced watch, porcelain coat hooks, a beach blanket, and other knick-knacks. Next, we took in an outstanding sunset in Tempelhofer Feld, a huge plot of land formerly an airport used in the war and then for the Allies to deliver goods to West Germany. It’s a historic site of much modern-day political contention regarding land development. After, we headed to a garden party. The event promoted an inclusive space, no racism, no sexism, no fascism. This wasn’t the first time I had seen this advertised in Berlin. Cecily and I thought it was interesting to see it posted. Our impression was that “Wow, this is a really cool place with strong beliefs.”  

The garden party was beside a metro station, right off the road in a small fenced off area filled with sand and a few large trees. People were dancing barefoot under dim hanging lights as cool music gradually increased in intensity. We were celebrating Cecily’s birthday, and Mike had bought a few rounds of shots for us. The party was going strong, and we had made new friends and were laughing, sharing stories and learning more about the culture.

Then, out of nowhere, we experienced the most awful blatant racism towards Sarah. When Sarah and Cecily were at the bar, a man who had lived in Berlin for 15 years all of a sudden told her that people like her should not be allowed here and that she deserved to be bottled! I was astounded hearing this back at the table. Sarah was upset and we did our best to keep her spirits high but became increasingly angry at the situation. Tempers soon flared and Cecily without fear walked to the back where the man was and yelled at him as I kept Mike calm. There was such a confusion of emotions in those moments as the loud music thudded on that it was difficult to pull everything together. Anger, sadness, confusion, and disbelief.  

Noticing the commotion, a pair of Berliners walked over and asked what was going on. They often visit the venue and were just as shocked as we were that something like this happened. They offered to help us kick the man out. Cecily and the couple spoke to the bartender who defended the man with a vague excuse and a personal attestation to his character. A problem with these off-the-beaten-path venues is that they are run by a small staff; there was one bartender and no security.

It was astonishing. How could this happen at a place that prominently promotes inclusiveness? I thought this was what music and dancing in Berlin represented, an inclusive place free from all of the prejudice staining the world.

After some time, we noticed the venue owner talking to the man as he continued to resist leaving, his body language implying that he had done nothing wrong. We had planned to hear the music at another club called Wilde Renate down the street, so I suggested that we exit first before the man did. I thought that it would be best so as not to run into each other outside. We left at least knowing that there were people there who went out of their way to help us and took a stand with us about the unacceptable behaviour. We had made a friend from France who was humorously intoxicated and tagged along with us on our way. He lifted the mood with his drunken light-hearted remarks.

Berlin’s notoriously difficult door politics did not deter us from marching right up to the next club. Sometimes speaking to the bouncer can be like stepping into a job interview and at that moment I was hazy. I had no idea what was going on that night or who was playing. The bouncer asked if any of us had been there before. “Nope.” “No.” “No.” Luckily at the back of the line, Cecily waived her arm and said, “YES!” We were in. Spirits lifted immediately as our ears filled with music. It felt like we had earned our entry. Cool, freely dressed people were mingling about inside the courtyard and we all sighed in relief feeling that we were now in a safe place. More drinks and we danced for hours in the heat of the party, meandering through different dance floors within the converted four-story apartment building. A testament to her character, Sarah completely turned her night around. I could see how free and carefree she was with Mike on the dance floor. They were having the moment they had been seeking in a Berlin club, and it was a sight Cecily and I will not forget.  

Around 5:00AM our energy had finally left us. As we walked out, Sarah noticed that she had lost her phone. Oh no! I thought for certain that bad memories would now overshadow the experience we had just had. Determined, we all stormed back in. Cecily and I checked the bathrooms while Mike went upstairs to the still jam-packed dance floors. We found Sarah at the coat check where the phone was being charged by the staff. How remarkable! Things really were looking up for us, and some more nice people had done a good deed in returning the phone. Like the rush of winning a lottery, we continued on joyously, dancing and turning up the music in the cab ride home. Quite surprisingly, the Uber had rated Sarah a 5/5 on that ride, so I guess we were all right by his standards!  

Badeschiff

The next day Mike and I had an early afternoon shot to kick the hangover and the group of us lazily explored around the Landwhaer Canal and Badeschiff. We discussed the previous evening’s escapades and how all the clubs promote the same inclusiveness, anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-sexism mentality. We also reflected on how lucky we were to be let into Wilde Renate in our state, not knowing who was playing. The door politics in Berlin leave out many from abroad due to their questioning and stereotyping. It was quite strange, and after our first night out, we were certainly confused. How can clubs be inclusive yet exclusive? It’s a paradox that would take us the rest of our 12 nights to figure out. That evening, we said bye to Sarah and Mike as they headed off to Bavaria for Oktoberfest.

We were excited because our friends Kayli and Josh also planned to be in Berlin to see us. We were looking forward to showing them the Berlin night life and trying some new spots. Cecily had found a great DJ at a club called About Blank and we had planned to head there for the evening. This was another event that directly promoted inclusiveness in the listing. Unfortunately, as we walked in, the bouncer checking bags asked Cecily a question in German and was very rude to her after she asked him in German if he speaks English. After some dancing and a few drinks, we called it a night early so we could save our energy for a more welcoming place.

After a lazy day we were excited to find a punk bar and followed it up with a visit to a most interesting club called Griessmuehle; taking us through two sides of music culture. At the punk bar, we enjoyed the jovial energy and affordable drinks. We left quite literally in high spirits to Griessmuehle where the Swedish DJ UBX128 was playing at the former grain mill. They had converted the grounds into a playground with a fire pit, couches, climbers, swings and a treehouse! Inside, down a rusted steel staircase, the music was chugging along. We danced into techno heaven as solid red light and clear-as-day music cascaded around us. That night we danced and marvelled at the way the DJ put the sound together for the room. We met very friendly people there and shared lots of stories when taking breaks outside in the cool air between dancing sessions. We had found the event that we were dreaming of!

By 6:00AM we were tired and ended up running to catch a bus back home. We had just missed the first bus but could see a load of party goers get off across the street and head straight for the club. Crazy city!

East Side Gallery

The next day, we said our goodbyes to Kayli and Josh after having one of the best burgers of my life at BurgerMeister. We had yet to see any historical sites so we watched some documentaries on East and West Berlin before biking around the East Side Gallery and the wall memorial. We marvelled at the fact that the wall came down the year we were born, and how it is such a crazy bit of recent history that we had little appreciation for before coming to the city.

The next night was Sunday and our last chance to go to the legendary club Berghain. This club is the jewel of the door policy crown and has become an even bigger destination for those simply looking to see if they can get in. So many people try to get in that there is even an app called Berghain trainer! Cecily and I were nervous to go, it was Sunday in the early evening, and it was pouring rain outside. As we approached, we could hear the thundering bass and could see purple lights flickering from inside the monolithic bunker. There was no line, which was surprising, and we followed what seemed to be a local in through the barricades. The woman we had followed in was let in immediately and as we walked up the bouncer simply shook his head without our saying a single word. We continued walking, not breaking stride for more than a second, as disappointment washed over us.

Every question imaginable flowed through our minds. Are we wearing appropriate clothing? Should we have said something? Was it the time of day we were going? How come the woman in front of us got in without saying a word? We went home in the rain disheartened. The most logical explanation at the time was that I was wearing the jean jacket from the market and not all black. I know, it seems ridiculous. We did more online research for stories, and it confirmed you should wear all black for your best chance. So, we changed. I put on my black coat and hiked up my pants a bit and Cecily wore her cardigan instead of her sleek black bomber coat. We were set to go back, but this time a few hours later.

We were sure we had “the look” this time and walked through the empty barricades in the rain towards the bouncer. As soon as we took down the umbrella, the bouncer said, “Not tonight.” Oh come on! This time, however, we stood 20 meters away from the door and watched the bouncer for over half an hour. We would try to guess who would get in and who we thought wouldn’t. What was shocking was that out of 50 people who went to the door, only two got in, and all of our guesses were wrong. Those two were both men, separate, and alone. Each had just a quick discussion with the bouncer and were let in. The rest of the people who were going in were actually there before and were coming back with stamps. The club opens Saturday night and doesn’t close until Monday morning.  

We were thoroughly down on ourselves. We were excluded from the party. A playground with one of the best sound systems in the world and a party, sure to match our Greissmhuele night, that spans Saturday to Monday every weekend, was out of reach for us this day and we didn’t know why. The worst part was that we were really excited for the DJ’s music that was playing when we first got there and had listened to many of his sets.

The next nights we went to Tresor, Kitkat and Suicide Circus. It was early in the week and no great DJs were playing. Our first disappointment came at Tresor, a more popular place. Standing right behind us in line was a group of three drunk guys. They were all dressed to go out in button-up collared shirts, and one was on the phone with a friend boasting about a woman he was with the night before. There was no door control for them. It was Monday and everyone was allowed in. Inside, walking through the dance floor we had to avoid getting whacked by elbows and butts. I noticed immediately that the sound system was not tuned that night, it was muddy and the bass was boosted to the maximum so you lost all of the more subtle elements to the music only to partially catch what was going on by the piercing high notes. We left for Kit Kat that was around the corner but also left disappointed. Bright lights, everyone looking around at others dancing, a non sensical mix being played by the DJ.

Our last night out was at Suicide Circus. As soon as we got there, a DJ duo had made such an awfully dissonant transition that people left the dance floor. It was that moment when we realized that we weren’t going to have that perfect music night we were looking for. However, while hanging around waiting for the next DJ we met some very nice and interesting people whom we ended up talking to for the entire night. We learned a lot about Berlin, the culture and lifestyle there. And finally, that’s where things about the scene really came together for us.

The thing about a club is that, over the course of the night or weekend, an energy begins to develop like an organic system. It has a vibe and a feeling beyond the sound when you walk into it. You could even say it has a personality. The music and environment dictate only a small part of how it’s going to feel. When certain people are let loose into the space, they can have a dramatic effect on it especially if they don’t prescribe to the same values as the rest of the people there do. Like a stranger walking unannounced into a family dinner, overly chatty obnoxious people bumping into you take away from the music experience and stick out like a sore thumb. Racist or sexist people harassing others do so to unimaginable extents. Through this process, we figured out that it was actually the role of the doorman to curate and maintain the party’s personality, that there is really no other way to do it than to stereotype the people that come to the door. That is the reason for the questions and for having a “look”.

The history of the Berlin techno scene is immense and deeply rooted. Over the course of the last 5 years, the city has experienced a tourism and immigration boom that is impacting Berlin culture. We saw firsthand from the door politics to the racism why Berliners are protective of it. In our short time there, it was very difficult to sort out the great parties from the generic, and unfortunately the most famous and consistent one of all, Berghain, was out of reach for us that Sunday night. That protectionism can impact good-willed people like us who sometimes get the short end of the stick.  

So even as disappointed as we were by the behaviour we witnessed the first night, the indiscriminate rudeness from some people, and the door politics, we felt grateful. We felt fortunate to hear the amazing music we did, to meet new friends, and we appreciated the kindness of strangers as well as the culture shock we experienced. It was fascinating to see.

Berlin has been shaped by so many movements and our thoughts about it continue to unravel long after our departure as we look at even more different cultures. It’s a truly special place that at its heart is pure. Its people strive to protect it from all of the negative external influences that try to change and dilute it. It is exclusively inclusive and we’re ok with that. It just took 12 nights of going out to figure out. Perhaps a bigger question remains now. When everything is not the way it was, how far will people go to keep their ideal intact?

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