“The future is now!”
Journalist Martin Böttcher recounts the early days of techno, which he experienced firsthand, both as a fan and a raver.
The clubs are places where you can leave the whole world outside and just do whatever you want.
Martin Böttcher: Actually, there are two moments like that, but I didn’t realize until much later that they were somehow connected. We always talk about 90/91, when clubs like Tresor opened. That’s when techno really took off in Berlin. But actually, years earlier, at least in West Berlin, we had already been through this acid house wave from the UK. When I heard this music for the first time, it was in a youth club. Someone had taken it upon themselves to organize an acid house party. I don’t know where they got the music from, but it all sounded so incredibly spacey, like a completely different world. When I heard it, I thought, “Okay, the future is now! It’s just started now!” But then it lost its charm very quickly because it was so commercially exploited. And it also very quickly got the reputation that it was somehow actually worthless music. That’s why I also only spent that one summer with it. Then I went to the newly-opened Tresor in 1991. That was the real experience. I went to Tresor because I’d heard on the radio that there was a club. At that time, there weren’t that many clubs in that sense. I went in and thought, “Oh, so that’s Tresor. Why is everyone raving about it? There's a bar and some ambient music. What’s so great about that?” It took me an hour before I figured out that there was a stairway going down to the basement and that you could go further down there. I hung around the bar the whole time thinking, “There’s nothing here!” But then I went down into the basement. There were strobe lights and this crazy sound. I was down in the basement for eight or nine hours. It hit me like a wall. After that, I wanted more.
you danced together, aloneSo you didn't really know the techno genre before?
There were a few radio shows that I’d tune in to on Friday and Saturday evenings every now and then. They had (the youth station) Radio 4U from SFB back then, which ran a show with Monika Dietl, aka “Moni D”. She played all these tracks. So I kind of got it that way, but there had to be the club experience first, in order to really reveal the music’s charm to me. It was only after that happened that I got interested in the music too. It was relatively hard to get it or to find record stores. It was more like I began to painstakingly record these radio broadcasts, cutting out the moderation, if possible. Just as you can imagine on cassette. Today I totally regret that the moderation is gone, because it would be a much better historical document.
Can you describe how you experienced the atmosphere with all those people in the basement of Tresor?
The basement was cool, damp, relatively dark and jam-packed with people. When you were raving for hours, at some point you took off your shirt and danced. I found it crazy that there was no contact between anyone at all. I didn’t know anyone. You didn’t get to know anyone, but you still somehow danced together, alone.
... and the light added a specific atmosphere too, didn’t it?
Exactly. It was strobe lights plus the music. So there were no coloured lights or anything. It was always black and white, black and white. It was like a movie. Because the people’s movement continues whenever the strobe light is off, everyone moves kind of like a robot dance. It’s weirdly jagged, a very strange atmosphere. It has nothing to do with normal life anymore. In retrospect, I would say that it was definitely a drug-like experience, without me having taken drugs at the time. And because it was a basement with a relatively low ceiling, it also had something oppressive, ominous. Suddenly time also stops playing a role. You no longer know whether five hours have passed, or perhaps only two. I also didn’t drink for the whole eight hours. I didn’t go to the bar, I just kept dancing like that. That was an awakening. The dancing and the connection with the beat automatically trigger feelings of happiness in the body. You felt like you were part of something big, but without idolizing any star. The DJ was in a corner somewhere and didn't really play a big role. I don’t remember being particularly interested in who was over there and I didn’t notice if they changed.
everything was new and thrillingHow did it continue with you in terms of the other clubs? Did you go out partying every weekend? Did you stay out late?
In the beginning, Tresor had something cool and new about it. But it also wore itself out quickly. Then I think in 1993 the E-Werk opened, right around the corner from Leipziger Straße. From then on we always went there. I think Tresor was already one or two years old by then. Tresor had also developed in a strange way. It had taken on a slightly chav-ish character relatively quickly. Maybe it was like that from the beginning, but it wasn’t so present.
How was the mood different there?
There was sort of a better mood all of a sudden, a very euphoric mood, which I think also had a lot to do with drugs. Maybe trance also suddenly played a role, which was played a lot at the E-Werk. That was something new all at once again. People already knew all about euphoric partying in the club, but from then on again it was in new contexts. New or other clubs came along later, like the Bunker on Reinhardt Straße. At that time, it was actually semi-illegal. Whole areas were closed off; It certainly wasn’t structurally sound. Hard techno was playing and there was a weird fetish scene. We went there quite often to have a counterweight to the E-Werk.
Did you also see and attend illegal raves?
I’ve been to those kinds of events maybe four or five times, which were mostly in the summer and sometimes outside in the forest or in a field. There were all these airports around Berlin, the former Russian military airports. You didn’t really know exactly if it was illegal or not. We learned about it from flyers. But it also happened that it was announced on the radio at very short notice that something was going on. There was of course no internet and no cell phones. We definitely went to proper illegal raves a few times, where someone organized a sound system and a generator. That was also great, of course, because everything was new and thrilling.
You’re part of a cultureDo you still see the effects of that time today?
There are still these magic moments when exactly the right song kicks in at the right moment with the right atmosphere, and the whole room goes wild. This blend of the light, the right beat and then maybe either alcohol or some other substances, that hasn’t changed to this day. There’s that certain singular moment when you no longer feel like an outside observer, but part of the whole. It’s almost exactly the same as it was 30 years ago.
From today’s perspective, what has techno meant to your life?
I’m a West Berliner and grew up in Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf, which is a relatively boring area. I think I got out of there because of techno. I don’t know if I would live where I live now if it wasn’t for techno. I probably wouldn’t be working on what I’m working on. When you get so passionate about something or discover it gives you so much enjoyment and energy, you want to make a profession out of it. That’s why I specialized in it as a journalist and did a lot of reporting along those lines. In my radio program, I always play this music. You’re part of a culture, and a lot of other people have started their own careers that way too, whether it’s in gastronomy, as a journalist with a certain focus, or as a clothing vendor, DJ, or record dealer. The clubs are also places where you can leave the whole world outside and just do whatever you want. This unregulated and free thing, which people already knew about from punk, that’s definitely what I learned there, too. And that you are responsible for your own fun. I definitely took the joy in my life and the joy in my job with me. I don’t know if that would have happened without techno. Maybe through some way, but I don’t really think so.
Martin Böttcher is a West Berliner, or more specifically, a Charlottenburger. Before the opening of the Berlin Wall, he’d look into youth cultures here and there, until the fall of the Wall drew him to the club scene. For a long while, he was just a normal party-goer; Only later, when he had already ended up on the radio (“Fritz”, “ByteFM”, ”RadioEINS”, ”Deutschlandfunk Kultur”), did he start playing records himself. The success was limited, but his career as a techno journalist made up for it. He now runs the blog “Technoarm.de”, has a podcast called “Pop nach 8” with his radio colleague Andreas Müller, and the two-hour radio show “Electro Royale”, which has been running every Saturday night on “ByteFM” for more than 14 years, not once going off the air. His favorite club? Still Tresor.
playliste Martin Böttcher