Der Klang Der Familie is a book length oral history that went on to inform Wendeklang (In This Place Called Techno), an independent documentary that is touring film festivals at the moment. Originally published in 2012 in German then later transalted into French this is the first time the book has been available in English. Both the book and the documentary are the work of Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen. (You might remember the track of the same name by 3Phase and Dr Motte from 1992)
Presented raw as an oral history makes for a gripping read – if at first it takes a while to grasp all the characters who are now mostly in their forties and fifties. Beginning in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall we learn about the importance of radio in creating commonalities in youth culture despite the Wall, the crushing boredom and inter-scene violence in the East, and the slow death of a heroin drenched post-punk Berlin in the West.
The book then explores how the Berlin techno scene emerged from the unifcation of East and West Germany and the anarchic reuse of the rapidly depopulating of East Berlin. As the stories unfold the excitement and energy of 1990 and the Berlin Summer of Love (1991) is palpable in the recollections – Ossies (former East Beriners) coming to terms with new found freedoms and its cost, and both Ossies and Wessis discovering new music, Esctasy, and abandoned buildings in which to set up venues in.
As 1992 rolls on the interviews track a scene experiencing rapid growth, commercialisation and emerging rivalries – the transformation of the Love Parade with Camel sponsorship, the split between the evolving German trance sound, and harder techno, the emergence of mega club E-Werk and Frontpage magazine. And in the final years there is the comedown with drug casualties, the impact of HIV/AIDS, and soured friendships. By the end in 1996 the tone of the book has darkened and there is only a wistful looking back to the early years.
Although there have been a number of recent fims about the German techno scene – Maren Sextro & Holger Wick’s We Call It Techno (2008), Tilmann Kunzel’s Sub Berlin: The Story of Tresor (2008), and Denk and von Thülen’s film that followed the original German version of this book – none of them have been able to effectively reveal the deep animosities and divisions, scams and dirty dealings that lay underneath. Most likely this is a flaw of the documentary format – where a singluar narrative is more rewarding for the viewer – but here in book-form they add enormously to the complexity and richness of the story.
Denk and von Thülen have a knack for revealing these stories that haven’t been told elsewhere and I suspect it is their lack of personal involvement in the scene at the time that allowed them to build enough trust with their interviewees to go into uncomfortable territory. By the end of the book it is clear that everyone is flawed – and has different perspectives on certain events and dealings – but that they all managed to contribute to a fabulously valuable cultural moment.
The Berlin-Detroit axis is explored in depth, too, with Mike Banks, Robert Hood, Blake Baxter, Derrick May, and the Burden brothers all speaking about their amazement in their first trips to play in Berlin and later relationship with the city and its music. This is tinged with a bitterness that during that period they were unable to find a similar acceptance in the US.
There’s a lot that has changed in the past 25 years since the fall of the Wall, and it is fascinating to understand the importance of radio, unregulated open spaces, record stores as meeting places and filters, scarcity, all the things that are in short supply these days.
If you are in anyway interested in German electronic music, Berlin, or the way in which subcultures are born, grow, metatasize and then break down, De Klang Der Familie is an essential read. For those totally unfamiliar with the sounds or the period, watching the comapnion documentary will help set the scene, but it is the book that really excels at communicating the passion and vitality of that time and place.
The English edition is, fittingly, released on November 9, 2014.