I had an interesting question the other day from a group of English tourists. They asked me where they could go to find an illegal warehouse party in Berlin. The group's spokesperson clarified: "We sometimes go to these parties in Brighton. They aren't advertised and they're usually pretty filthy but the music is way better than it is in a club." He was talking about free parties, (or squat parties, as they are also known).
After thinking about it for a few minutes I realized something: there aren't that many free parties in Berlin. There isn't much of an illegal party scene here at all - not in the winter, at any rate.
Berlin’s legacy of underground techno parties dates back to 1989, when the the Berlin Wall was first opened. Among the crowds of people that came pouring through were countless outcasts and dissidents from both sides of Germany. They settled in Berlin at a time when many others were fleeing because they saw that the city had potential: plenty of resources and space but little structure, thanks to the collapse of the GDR government, which had overseen much of the city. This combination of factors made it an ideal place for squatters, anarchists, punks, artists, queers and revolutionaries to create lives which were not plotted out from beginning to end by forces unsympathetic to their needs.
Techno, the underground party music of the nineties, also caught on quickly in Berlin, thanks to events like the Love Parade, which began as a celebration of the reunification. Over the course of the next decade, Berlin's techno scene became infused with the energy of the radicals who had claimed the city as their own.
Left: Typically hysterical anti-rave headline from London's The Sun.The free party tradition in England also dates back to the late 1980s. In London (and presumably in Brighton, as well) descendents of that tradition still organize underground parties the same way that they always have: via networks of people who are experienced in, and equipped for, partying way off the mainstream radar. Secret numbers, last-minute announcements and mobile sound systems give these networks the flexibility to navigate the loopholes in U.K. law.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, the underground techno scene has been forcibly moved out of squats and into clubs over the past two decades. These days, most of Berlin’s underground parties take place inside 'clubs' that are more like anti-squats: un-renovated buildings, rented cheaply from the landlord and then run on a D.I.Y. basis. As long as no developers with big money snap up the land that they stand on, these ‘clubs’ can put down roots and let their style evolve for years. The benefits of longevity can be seen and felt as soon as one steps inside these clubs: visually and sensually, they are far richer than anything that could be found in a in London squat. Experimentation is taken to much farther extremes as well.
So why has London's free party scene has stuck with its temporary, one-off, squatted venues to this day? One big reason for this is that English laws have historically been more liberal towards squatters than German laws have. Another reason is that London's techno scene has been demonized by the British press and government in ways that Berlin's party scene has never been, making it harder for free party culture to integrate into the mainstream.
The Tory government of the 1980s and 1990s systematically blocked off every legitimate avenue through which free parties manifested. It tightened licensing regulations for music events and used them as an excuse to fine underground organizers. It raised license fees so that only established businessmen could afford to open clubs. It also criminalized aspects of squatting. And, just to top it all off, it introduced the so-called “Anti-Rave act” of 1994, which enabled police to arrest rave organizers and attendees. Persecution of both the squatting movement and free party culture persists to this day, in England. By the early 1990s only rebels, radicals, and a handful of reckless entrepreneurs were willing to do raves in England anymore.
London's first free party crews had those first three traits in spades, the most famous example being Spiral Tribe. Like other free party crews that had survived the anti rave witch-hunt, Spiral Tribe had been driven deeper underground. There, it had become radicalized by its contact with other countercultures. Spiral Tribe’s philosophy was just as informed by punk, the free festival scene, anarchism, activism and emerging art forms as it was by rave. And the crew did have a philosophy, as this quote from an early pamphlet shows: "Every moment that we live, every thought that we have, every action that we make becomes an intrinsic part of the whole." Spiral Tribe hoped that their parties would unify English society and heal some of the social diseases that the Tories had allowed to fester, by injecting English youth with a sense of identity that wasn’t linked to profit.
The Conservative government had focused single-mindedly on building London's financial industries for the previous 15 years and, as the recession of the 1990s began to hit, the downside of its love of high finance was revealed. Social services lacked funding to help struggling communities, jobs had been lost in almost all the non-banking sectors, and the land was pitted and scarred with time-saving, profit-reaping developments like the M11 link road.
Spiral Tribe also used free parties as a tool of protest. They turned the buildings that they squatted into free spaces where income, status and image were irrelevant to admission, and where radical ideas could be bounced around. Even their first major dance music single, “FFWD the Revolution”, had a political statement to make. The Green Party, Anarchist Bookfair, CND, Indymedia, Friends of the Earth, Critical Mass and advocacy groups like Release have all had a visible presence at free parties, at one time or another. The young, radical people who filled these parties saw that there was no future for them in the current system and they wanted to cast a vote against it with their feet. At the same time, they were casting a vote in favour of a world where they mattered.
I suspect that this rebellious idealism once existed in Berlin's underground club scene, too. I can even see evidence of it in the exclusive door policies of the bigger clubs... and yes, you did read that right! In England, dress codes are associated with fancy clubs but in Berlin, underground clubs turn the most people away. Their reasons for doing so are just as shallow as they are in London: the door dragon doesn't like your outfit or the bouncer thinks your attitude is wrong. The only difference is that Berlin's underground club staff judge your clothing and attitude by underground standards.
The down sides of all-inclusiveness however, can occasionally be seen in London's free party scene. The policy of letting everyone in has led to close encounters with gangs, perverts or people who simply couldn’t handle the party’s intensity and freaked out, in the past. Inside of Berlin’s underground clubs, however, the atmosphere is reliably chilled-out. The lack of friction is a relief but it can seem artificial at times - I am thinking back to my experiences of Berghain, Kater Holzig and Salon Zur Wilden Renate, here. And since problematic people do tend to be in a minority at free parties, it seems a bit harsh to exclude large amounts of people on the basis that they may be one of the few trouble-makers. In both Berlin and London, the majority of people who go to free parties come away from them with a sense of having been included in a community, regardless of superficial differences. People are given every freedom up until they stop respecting the freedom of others and that sense of trust can have a rehabilitative effect in all communities.
In Berlin, outdoor parties play a similar role to that of free parties in London. ‘Open-air' parties, as they are called, are all about socializing, music and creativity. Their aim is to free Berlin’s party community from the notion that strangers can only interact on a superficial, commercial level. Open-air parties draw a more mixed and liberal-minded crowd than Berlin’s underground clubs do; they’re unpredictable; they can be shut down due to noise complaints, and no two parties are ever the same. But then, their raison d’etre is not to endlessly duplicate a successful party formula, it is to have fun.
Below: 'Monster's Ball' squat party in London 2010
The down side of Berlin’s open-airs is that they can only happen during the warm months. For the other two thirds of the year, Berlin's underground party scene lives inside of its clubs. This, in part, explains why some of Berlin’s bigger underground clubs can afford to hold exclusive door policies: for half of the year, they are the only gig in town. Another reason is that Berlin’s reputation as a no-holds-barred party city has spread to the rest of Europe, and underground techno fans fly in from around the continent (and the world) every weekend. Their constant pilgrimages to techno’s Mecca have created a week-in, week-out party scene that steams ahead in every season. At peak times of the year the city’s clubs are inundated with people unfamiliar with both the city and the German language, but eager to party, and they make easy targets for power-tripping bouncers or club owners. But it isn’t only foreign visitors who are short-changed by strict door policies at underground clubs. Locals who can well remember the radical roots of berlin’s techno scene are put off, as well. Marten, founder of venues Zur Moebel Fabrik and Brunnen 70, summed his feelings up by stating, “I hate these kind of entrance policies. If I get refused, i never come back. [It’s] not cool at all, just arrogant and aggressive.”
Like London in the late 80s, Berlin’s profile as an international city is growing. The city’s government is seeking to maximize the profits of this development because they have a huge debt to pay off. In the process however, they seem are remoulding the city’s radical image to suit a broader and blander range of tastes. Generic, corporate-style developments have eclipsed some of the city’s best-known cultural landmarks: Potsdamer Platz, the East Side Gallery, Checkpoint Charlie; the river Spree is next in line to get the populist treatment with the Mediaspree development. Squats are becoming fewer and farther between and underground clubs are being pushed back into less visible, less confrontational locations on the outskirts of tourist districts. To many people in Berlin’s underground, it appears that the local government is engaging in a policy of cultural replacement, not renewal. D.I.Y. culture is slowly being supplanted with mainstream consumer culture, just as it was in London. If ever there was a time when Berlin’s underground clubs should be joining forces to fight for their right to party, this is it.
These days, Berlin’s underground clubs are still much cheaper than clubs elsewhere. They are more liberal once you’re inside, and they stay open later than other clubs in Europe. But, can they claim to embody any sort of free spirit while they are weeding out people on the door? In their own way, I believe that the more exclusive clubs in the underground scene are trying to defend their vision of a radical, underground Berlin from conformist influences. But all the same, they are toeing a fine line.
It is the subversive roots of Berlin’s clubs that sets them apart from clubs in other European capitals. Rebellion is the source of the underground techno scene’s energy, momentum and intensity. Without those things, 4/4 time would be just another pop music trend – as endless Eurotrance artists have amply demonstrated. Venues that play nothing but techno would face masses of mainstream competition and eventually die out. By restricting the freedom of techno fans just because they can, Berlin’s underground clubs are blunting the edge that put them ahead of the rest of Europe’s party flock in the first place. They are dulling the sense of subverting the system, hacking the program… basically, of being underground. As Spiral Tribe might say, they are rewinding the revolution.
Left: dancers at open air party in Berlin, June 2010