The West Berlin avant-garde music scene from around 1980 was a wild movement. This scene is an inexhaustive source of fascinating stories and ideas. For instance, while the rest of West Germany was trying to cope with the threat of a nuclear war, Blixa Bargeld tried to recreate the sound of collapsing buildings, and the girls from Malaria! played with the gruesome idea of bathing in ice cold and clear water, as if they couldn’t wait to speed things up and call upon the end of the world by themselves. Frontstadt West Berlin was the perfect playground for developing an experimental and mysterious scene like this one. But how to define this avant-garde scene?
To get to know if there were clear demarcations and overlaps between this scene and other West Berlin subcultures I asked Mark Reeder to have an interview with him. Mark Reeder is a musician and producer who was part of this West Berlin avant-garde scene himself during the seventies and eighties. His fascinating documentary film B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin 1979-1989 is currently shown in cinemas all around the world. While currently writing my Master thesis for the University of Amsterdam on punk and inter-subcultural identity formation in the urban space of West Berlin around 1980 I was fortunate to have an interview with him in Amsterdam. We talked about many things from that era, ranging from boutiques where punks could buy their ready-made punk uniforms, to what it was like going out within the small but wild avant-garde scene itself. The following is a fragment of the long interview, focusing on defining the avant-garde scene and how it today is perceived as Neue Deutsche Welle, while the people themselves didn’t experience it like that at all.
Hi, Mark. How did you come into contact with punk music?
When punk rock started it was like this refreshing moment. When I was still living in the UK as a teenager we had been listening to things like the album Tales from Topographic Oceans from Yes, this rock saga over six sides. I thought to myself: “Is this the future!?” It was all just boring, one record after the other. The album Animals by Pink Floyd was a load of rubbish. Everybody had the album Dark Side of the Moon from Pink Floyd. So, when punk rock came along it was refreshing, a burst of energy. In the record shop where I worked in Manchester we had the single Anarchy in the UK from the Sex Pistols. It was so rough, so different. Everyone in the shop was a hippie with long hair. They were much older and didn’t understand what this new punk music was all about. I was the guy who filed all the records, because nobody wanted to do this job: unpacking them, putting them into stock. It was mundane and boring to them. So having a little kid like me as a slave to do this job and getting paid in records was very convenient for them. But at the same time I got to know all these records and I thought: “What’s this? Sex Pistols!? That sounds really interesting!” I read about them a couple of weeks later in the Sun paper, because they were trying to promote their single. The paper wrote about how these guys were spitting on old people and abusing them in the streets. It was scandalous. And I thought: “Well, that’s really daft!”, while everybody else was really upset about it. And then, when I saw pictures of the Sex Pistols elsewhere there was something I could identify with. This radical ‘fuck off’ attitude, it just hit a chord.
How did you develop an interest in German music while you were living in Manchester, at the other end of the canal, so to speak?
The shop where I worked was initially a hippie record shop. It smelled of incense and it was mainly known as a progressive rock shop. But they started to sell things that were bizarre and avant-garde, I suppose for that time. We had records of German artists like Faust, Cosmic Jokers, and Tangerine Dream. I was working there as a part-timer when I was a teenager, and I was enthralled by this weird music. It sounded so different than anything else coming out of the UK. We were never exposed to this German music. The only thing I could remember was seeing Kraftwerk on Top of the Pops playing the song ‘Autobahn’. They played this futuristic kind of music with synthesizers. But this was a one-off moment thing, and then it disappeared. And I thought: “What was that!?” It was over before it even had begun. It was a while before it started to take off again. Their music was not really recognized for what it was at the time. But all this German music was really interesting to me as a person who grew up in the traditional era of rock and roll from the sixties.
When did you decide to go to West Germany and West Berlin?
I immediately went to West Germany when I became 18. I was hoping to buy records in West Germany that I couldn’t find in the UK. I thought it was a great opportunity when I got a passport to see what the rest of Europe was like. Because as a Brit you didn’t do that. The European continent was miles and miles away, across the water. It was a journey, you had to go there on a boat. Flying was a luxury, it was unaffordable for people like me from the working class. And having found quite a few German records in Cologne and Hamburg I immediately thought that there must be loads of other places with tons of records in thousands of record shops just lying there, waiting to be bought. So, I made a lot of trips to West Germany before going to West Berlin. West Berlin was miles and miles away in the middle of communist territory, and when I asked people about it they always said: “What do you want to go there for?” There was always some kind of negative thing about it, this attitude. Only guys who didn’t want to go to the army went there. But I thought: “That sounds interesting… So what’s in Berlin?” So then I decided I wanted to go there and find out what it was like, and I never left.
How did you end up in the, let’s say, alternative scene of West Berlin?
I was just interested in different kinds of music. In West Berlin I continued my search for alternative sorts of music, because I knew it existed, but I didn’t know where to go. The first place I went to was a place called Sound. It was a discotheque, but it wasn’t your regular kind of Saturday Night discotheque. Initially, when they started it, it was like that, but it became this drugs haven. They played all kinds of music there: Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, stuff like that. It was a progressive rock music place. In the movie Christiane F. they filmed a scene in Sound, and that particular scene was actually how Sound really was at that time. I went there first, and spoke to the DJs. They told me that if I like alternative places I would have to go to several other places, like SO36. Later on you had other places like Exxcess. Getting dragged into the avant-garde scene happened just by meeting new people who would give you indicators of other people and other places. By being the only Brit in the city who was into these things, apart from all the other Brits who were in the army, people were intrigued by me. It was always an opportunity for them to learn English. And also because I was involved in the music industry, already having worked in a record shop, but also by becoming Joy Division’s German representative because I was living in West Berlin. And when Tony Wilson formed Factory I also became a representative for that label. So I had all these Factory records, though no one was interested in them in the beginning. They only became interested in them when Ian Curtis died.
Many scholars and music experts nowadays argue that the Neue Deutsche Welle was an actual scene in West Berlin around 1980. But according to you the musicians and enthusiasts of the West Berlin Geniale Dilettanten avant-garde movement, of which you became part of, experienced it differently.
Yes, at the time we didn’t really think “we’re going to make NDW”. This was a term that was given to this kind of music, really. At the time we really never gave it any consideration at all, not for one second. It was just something what we were doing. Like for example Gudrun Gut from Mania D and Malaria!, she was inspired by new music from the UK which didn’t conform to the rules of rock and roll per se, as in Yes and Pink Floyd. This new idea of making music, making short bursts with some kind of expressive statement, she took that and interpreted it for herself. And Blixa Bargeld had taken the German Krautrock music genre as his example. His prime example was Rio Reiser from Ton Steine Scherben, with songs like ‘Macht kaputt was euch kaputt macht’. That became his main driving force. That inspired him. So, he was like: “I have no other way to make music, other than making music with things that surround me.” He was not a virtuous guitar player, he just thought: “I’m going to do what I want to do, whatever way I feel like”. He didn’t work in a structured manner or something like that. Everything he did was spontaneous, and if you missed it, you missed it, because that was the performance. It was created on the spot. Gudrun’s band Mania D for example, I’m sure they practiced, but it wasn’t like they were perfect musicians. They made their own songs, their own versions of songs. It was very different. It took a while before West Germans started to adapt this idea of punk rock which we had in the UK since 1976. It started a little late in West Germany, because you didn’t have social media back then. It was all word of mouth, these kind of records were not available everywhere yet.
How did your band Die Unbekannten become part of the avant-garde music movement?
My band Die Unbekannten – we were really shit live – were brought into this avant-garde music scene because we were also a real shambles live and completely chaotic. But people were really entertained by that, so therefore we were embraced into the avant-garde scene because we weren’t conventional either. However, we wanted to be more structured. It was only when we got into the studio that we were able to prove that we could actually play music. But on stage we were a mess. But in that mess we became part of the Geniale Dilletanten scene. We did all these things with all these other bands. For instance, we were on tour with Malaria! all the time. We were their support act, and additionally I was their manager and sound engineer. So, all these things went hand in hand.
Not much is known about your band Die Unbekannten. Could you elaborate on that?
Nomen est omen. A German journalist gave our band name to us, because we didn’t have a band name. I had been asked by a promoter who did gigs at Exxcess to play a concert on the 17th of June in 1981, which was called the Concert for the Reunification of Germany. He asked me if I could play, and I said: “Yeah, sure!”, not thinking of what this actually would entail. So, I had to make a band, and so I asked my English friend, Alistair, if he could sing. He crooned Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’ on the phone to me after which I told him that I had a gig next Wednesday and that I would show him how to play bass guitar. We wrote three songs – we thought we didn’t need more than that – and then we went to do the gig in SO36. It was a complete mess, completely rubbish. One song, ‘Radio War’, was about the war of the airwaves between the British, American, French and German radio stations fighting out a propaganda war. We wrote that song half an hour before we went on stage. This resulted in a mess. I turned the drum machine on wrong and it played the wrong pattern, so it became Bossanova and we tried to play against this. But everyone thought it was weird and avant-garde, so we became part of the Geniale Dilletanten. A journalist from the West Berlin city magazine zitty1 who had seen this concert wrote about us as “Die zwei unbekannten Engländer” (two unknown Englishmen). And from that moment on amongst all our friends in Risiko and places like that we became known as Die Unbekannten. Our music was very dark and miserable, very depressive. We would call it depressive disco music. In 1984 we were to embark on a tour with New Order, because they asked us to go on a European tour with them. Then we decided to change our name, because people outside of West Germany didn’t know what Die Unbekannten meant. They thought it said die Unbekannten, as in dying Unbekannten. We always had to explain how to pronounce our name and what it meant. So we decided to call ourselves Shark Vegas so that everybody could understand it. It didn’t mean anything. We also changed our musical style a bit into a more up-tempo kind of music, high-energy disco.
The avant-garde scene organized a festival in Tempodrom at the same time as the Tuwat squatter’s congress on September 4, 1981. Did this mean that the avant-garde scene with the Geniale Dilletanten musicians was committed to the cause of the squatter’s scene?
No, not really. The Geniale Dilettanten thing didn’t really have anything to do with that. The Geniale Dilletanten was about trying to express ourselves in some way. Wolfgang Müller had this idea to organize a festival at Tempodrom at the Potsdamer Platz. It was a hippie circus tent. The owner, Irene, was very sympathetic to us and our kind of artistic expression. So, the handful of people of the scene went there to play at the event. All of our friends also came to Tempodrom. That’s all it was, really. It was an evening for ourselves. It wasn’t taken seriously at all, even by us. Wieland Speck was the compere, it was done like a Eurovision Song Contest. It was a joke! My friend Alistair and I also performed there with our band Die Unbekannten. The first song of our gig was called Nekropolis, and Wieland Speck announced us as Nekropolis! It was all fun, it was all about having a laugh. It wasn’t anything to be taken totally seriously.
What happened with the Geniale Dilletanten scene after the Tempodrom festival?
The Geniale Dilettanten concept wasn’t really experienced as a scene by us at that time. It was an event. For obvious and clarifying reasons you can nowadays call the scene like that, because all the avant-garde bands and musicians were playing at that event, but at that time we just experienced it as avant-garde. The Geniale Dilletanten event became this myth. The so-called Berliner Krankheit tour went hand in hand with the Geniale Dilletanten festival. That created throughout West Germany this idea of what was going on in West Berlin. Because for West German people West Berlin was miles and miles away, they had the idea that there were only weirdos living there, because it was full of gay men, draft dodgers, people like that. You didn’t go there if you were a straight edge person.
Was the music of the more pop-oriented bands like Ideal, who are now also called Neue Deutsche Welle, also part of the West Berlin avant-garde scene?
No, those were two totally different things. Ideal was the first Neue Deutsche Welle band – if you want to call them like that – to have an impact on the actual charts. They had this stripy trousers image and were a bit older. Their kind of music had nothing to do with what bands like Malaria! and Einstürzende Neubauten were doing. In a way, their music did sound original. It was a bit ironic, punky-esque. The thing that made them interesting to the music industry was that they toured and went to every little village in West Germany where other bands didn’t want to go. They knew that even ten people would be so appreciative that they would be willing to buy their records. But unlike the avant-garde artists Ideal had a more pop-oriented image, and combined with their tireless urge to go on tour this became the conception of Neue Deutsche Welle for the majority of West German people. All consequent bands and artists who wanted to tap into that success of what Ideal had achieved followed that particular route, like Hubert Kah, Peter Schilling, even Nena. They all jumped the bandwagon of this Ideal thing, singing a bit quirky, wearing stripy trousers, squeaking “Oooh!” at the end of their sentences. That’s what became Neue Deutsche Welle in the end. It had nothing to do with Einstürzende Neubauten and all the other artists of the West Berlin Geniale Dilletanten scene. But – and this is something people easily forget – they needed each other in order to have a balance. That’s what the Ideal image of Neue Deutsche Welle gave to the avant-garde scene. It gave it a raison d’etre. That was really essential.
Thank you, Mark, for the lovely interview.
1. The first letter of title of the West Berlin city magazine zitty is originally written with a lower case character.