Regional Music Movements
The Sound of German Cities

Berlin Tresor, the legendary German techno club and label
Berlin Tresor, the legendary German techno club and label | Photo (detail): © Tresor Berlin

Hand-made rock from Hamburg, electro-pop from Dusseldorf, techno from Berlin: Regional Indie scenes have been an established part of the music scene in Germany since the 1960s. Their influence can still be felt today.

Not only in Liverpool or San Francisco, in German cities, too, regional music movements have been around since the 1960s – movements that have written pop-music history. These independent scenes created the sound of their towns and their development followed a similar pattern: musicians, often from the country areas outside the cities, got together in the urban environment to meet similarly minded people, they played in the same clubs, shared rehearsal rooms, studios and managers to save money and often set up their own record companies. This is how the journalist, Ole Löding, co-author of Sound of the Cities, a study of regional music scenes in the world published in 2015.

Even though these scenes are often called “schools”, it is not so much a case of institutions imparting a certain doctrine to generations of students, but rather temporary groupings that come about due to certain conditions and disperse again once the framework is no longer given.

Intelligent lyrics: The Hamburg School

The so-called Hamburg School originated in the late 1980s and saw itself as an alternative to Deutschrock and Neue Deutsche Welle (German rock and German New Wave) – two influential German pop traditions that adapted rock and punk for the German language. They were criticised by bands like Blumfeld, Die Sterne and Tocotronic for using trivial lyrics; these bands were looking for new, subjective ways of expressing themselves.

An essential feature of the Hamburg School were its intelligent, poetic and political lyrics that focused on concrete everyday experiences. Although the Hamburg School had already reached its peak by the mid-1990s, its influence is still great. Young, German-speaking rock bands such as Trümmer, whose debut album was released in 2014, identify with them even today. “The Hamburg school invented a mix of sophisticated texts and innovative, hand-made music in Germany – music to which young independent musicians are still oriented today,” explains Ole Löding.

Commerce: the end of Dusseldorf avant-garde

In Dusseldorf in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia it was mainly two clubs which spawned significant scenes. Even before the small club called the Ratinger Hof became the birthplace of punk and new wave, there was a dance club there called Creamcheese where the electronic avant-garde of the 1970s would get together, including such people as the artist, Joseph Beuys, and bands like Kraftwerk.

In 1974 the fourth studio album, Autobahn, by Kraftwerk not only achieved a high chart position – this monotonously repetitive electro-pop that sounded like a mix of German motorway, digital Modernism and cold machinery also inspired electro, techno and hip-hop pioneers all over the world. None other than David Bowie was one of the admirers of Kraftwerk and the Krautrock group NEU! [Krautrock is an  experimental, innovative West German rock music of the late 1960s, early 1970s] that influenced English punk. The environment of the Ratinger Hof also later spawned electro-punk formations like DAF or the rock band Fehlfarben. When the latter signed a contract with major company, EMI, it was seen as a form of betrayal by some other groups. It was the start of something that destroyed not only the Dusseldorf independent scene, but also many others – the commercialisation by the music industry. As their popularity grew, some individual bands dissociated themselves from the scene context, others viewed this with envy and solidarity started to ebb.

From the Berlin School to techno club culture

The long history of Berlin music movements goes back to the 1960s when the divided city, surrounded by the Berlin Wall, became a stomping ground for young men from West Germany who moved to the city to avoid having to do military service. This is how Mark Chung, long-standing bass guitarist of the group Einstürzende Neubauten, describes it in Sound of the Cities. “The city and the music scene were protected by the Wall. It was an artificial habitat, where things could happen that did not happen elsewhere.”

At the end of the 1960s the Zodiak Club became an underground biotope for West Berlin's experimental musicians, who took drugs and loved to improvise excessively. Bands like Ash Ra Tempel, Agitation Free or Tangerine Dream influenced the style of the Berlin School: sequence-based electronic music with synthesizers and extended solos. Kreuzberg became the centre of the counter-culture, the rock group Ton Steine Scherben became the mouthpiece of the left-wing squatter movement and the Neonbabies the most influential band somewhere between punk and Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave). In the early 1990s the Tresor club turned into a meeting point for the subcultural techno scene that continued the pioneering work of the Berlin School and – benefiting from the power vacuum of the post-reunification years – organised techno parties round the clock. To date, the scene still attracts millions of tourists from around the world.

Hardly any regional scenes since 2000

Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Berlin are just three of many examples. Regional music movements have, for example, also emerged in Stuttgart, which gave the German-language hip-hop of the nineties a major impetus – with groups such as The Fantastischen Vier or the Stuttgarter Kolchose and also attracted rappers like the Massiven Töne and Freundeskreis with Max Herre. It was due to this that Deutsch-rap was enjoying huge media attention before the millennium, until it was then superseded by Battle-rap and Gangsta-rap.

Since the 2000s, there have been barely any noticeable regional music movements – with a few exceptions, as in Chemnitz in Saxony, observed Ole Löding. “Due to digitizing and the social media, bands are no longer tied to a specific location. Not even in Mannheim, where a pop academy was created specifically for this very purpose, has a genuine scene been able to gain a foothold.” There is still no sign of a Mannheim School, which would embrace the R'n'B singer, Xavier Naidoo, along with such Pop Academy graduates as Get Well Soon or Abby.