Thursday, 29 December 2011

Going Deeper Underground

Right: Squat party in Hackney in 2002

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 there than it is in a club." He was talking about squat parties - or free parties, as they are also known.

After thinking about it for a few minutes I realized something: there aren't that many squat parties in Berlin. There isn't much of an illegal party scene here at all, except for in the summer. And yet, few cities in Europe are as badly in need of an underground techno scene that is willing to "fight for its right to party" as Berlin is.

In both Berlin and London, the tradition of throwing techno parties inside of squats dates back to the early 1990's. In London today, descendents of that tradition still organize parties in the same way 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.

By contrast, Berlin's squat parties have been forcibly moved out of the squats and into the clubs over the past decade or so. Most modern Berlin 'clubs' are more like anti-squats: un-renovated buildings that are rented out cheaply and run with little official interference. So long as no developers come along to snap up the land that they stand on, these squat-ty clubs are able to put down roots and let their style evolve for years at a time. The result is a more rich and sensual D.I.Y. party culture than exists in the UK.

Left: Typically hysterical anti-rave headline from London's The Sun.One reason why London's squat party scene has stayed squatted for longer than the Berlin scene is that English laws have historically been liberal towards squatters whereas squatting is illegal in Berlin. London's do-it-yourself party scene was also demonized by the press and persecuted by the government in ways that Berlin's party scene was not.

Starting in the late 1980s, the Tory government systematically blocked off every avenue through which an underground party scene could manifest. The Tories tightened licensing regulations for music events and then used them as an excuse to fine underground organizers. They raised license fees so that only wealthy businessmen could afford to open clubs. Then they criminalized aspects of squatting. And just to top it all off, they introduced the Anti-Rave act of 1994, which enabled police to arrest rave organizers and attendees. Similar persecution of squatters and underground ravers persists to this day in England.

With the government, the council, the police and much of the public turned against it, London's early nineties rave scene had few options aside from going totally underground. Unsurprisingly, the rave template in the U.K. experienced a sea-change at that time. Raves in the 1980s had been utopian enclaves of acceptance but, in the face of attacks by both press and government, this idealism became steeled with determination to overcome.

By the early 1990s only rebels, radicals, idealists - plus a handful of very reckless entrepreneurs - were willing to do raves anymore. London's first squat party crews had those first three traits in spades, one famous example being Spiral Tribe. Spiral Tribe's first major single, released in 1993, was called "FFWD the Revolution" and it was more of a mission statement than a dance track. Below is a Spiral Tribe flyer in which the crew outlines its philosophy... and they did have a philosophy. Like other party crews that had survived the anti-rave witch-hunt, Spiral Tribe had been driven deeper underground, where they had become radicalized by their contact with other countercultures. Their philosophy was just as informed by punk, the free festival scene, anarchists, activists and artists as it was by rave.

Vote Techno Party!
Spiral Tribe hoped that free parties would cure the social diseases that the Tories had allowed to fester for the past 15 years, by injecting London society with a sense of identity that was not directly linked to profit. The Tories 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 the Tory love of high finance was becoming obvious. Social services lacked funding to help their communities, jobs had been lost in all non-banking sectors, and the land itself was pitted and scarred with time-saving, profit-reaping developments like the M11 link road.

Spiral Tribe also used their parties as a tool for protest, turning squatted buildings into free spaces where income, status and image did not matter and fresh ideas could be bounced around. 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 squat parties, at one time or another. The youths and radicals 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.

Below: 'Monster's Ball' squat party in London 2010

REW The Revolution.
I suspect that this same, rebellious idealism once existed in Berlin's D.I.Y. party scene. I can even see evidence of it in the exclusive door policies of the bigger underground clubs... and yes, you did read that right!

In London, dress codes are associated with fancy clubs but here in Berlin, the biggest underground clubs turn the most people away. Their reasons for doing so are just as shallow as they are in the U.K.: the door dragon doesn't like your outfit or the bouncer thinks that your attitude is wrong. The only difference is that Berlin's door staff judge your clothing and attitude by underground standards. Once inside of these clubs though, they are noticeably more chilled than a London squat party and bouncers are scarce. The lack of friction is a relief, although it feels artificial at times (I am thinking back to my experiences of Berghain, Kater Holzig and Salon Zur Wilden Renate, here).

The down side of the anti-exclusive attitude within London's squat party scene is that it has led to brushes with gangs, perverts or people who simply freaked out because they couldn't handle the scene's intensity - although those people are a minority. Despite the potential for things to go wrong, though, they rarely ever do and there is never any talk of freedoms being 'given' or 'taken away'. It is simply assumed that people are entitled to them. The people who show up at squat parties may come from wildly different backgrounds but they almost always come away with
a feeling of having been included in a community that transcends age, image, gender, income and race. That feeling has had a hugely beneficial effect on London in the past and I reckon it can have the same effect in the future. It can have the same effect elsewhere in Europe, too.

In Berlin, outdoor parties serve more or less the same role as squat parties. 'Open-airs', as they are called, are free and their focus is firmly on socializing, music and creativity. Like London's squat parties, they free people from the notion that they can only connect with strangers in a commercial way. Open-air parties draw a more mixed, liberal-minded crowd than its clubs do, and no two parties are ever the same. The idea is not to duplicate a successful party formula ad infinitum like the club scene does - it is to let go and have fun. The only down side of is that open-airs are only possible in the summertime. For the other two thirds of the year, Berlin's techno underground lives inside of its clubs.
Below: An open-air (free) party in Berlin 2011
Whether it is found in a club or in an open air rave, Berlin's techno scene owes its exsistence to a mix of factors that came together in the early nineties, just as London's scene does. Revolutionary new people and ideas flooded into Berlin after the fall of the Wall - squatters, anarchists, punks, artists and queers. The living was cheap, space was plentiful, and authorities were scarce. Outcasts and dissidents could create a life for themselves here that was not plotted out from birth to death by forces unsympathetic to their needs. The underground party music of the day - techno - became infused with their radical energy. To this day, that subversive drive is what gives underground techno its energy and momentum, distinguishing it from mainstream dance music.
Yet corporate uniforms and commercial codes of conduct are quickly remoulding the radical model of Berlin. The city's government is steering it towards a more conformist model, with cultural landmarks like Potsdamer Platz and East Side Gallery being overshadowed by big brand names. Squats are few and far between and the underground techno scene is being pushed back into less visible, less confrontational spaces. That doesn't mean that the underground techno scene has to settle for becoming just an exclusive subset of the commercial club scene, though. Berlin's underground clubs can create a new model of clubbing that is truer to its radical roots. It can break away from the mainstream model of the club as an elitist playground (albeit an 'underground' elitist playground). It can give everybody in the techno scene the same freedom and respect as the guy running the club, regardless of what the law says.
Maybe Berlin's underground clubs can't continue to fight for their right to party out on the streets like it did in the nineties, but they can keep fighting on a psychological front. But first, they need to find their conviction that Berliners have a "right" to party... which could be difficult to do while turning droves of people away from the door.


  1. Interesting run down in the differences in the party scene. I hadn't realized England had such liberal laws concerning squatting.

    p.s. love the blog theme/colors :)

  2. Thanks... your blog's theme is pretty cool, too!

  3. Hi Miss E, this was a very interesting read. I run (but I'm also a clubber and music journalist "on the side"). We don't cover nightlife as such but this kind of deeper analysis is always welcome if you'd consider a re-post? Sadly we don't make any money so can't offer payment, but we can of course provide links and credits and a short bio etc.

  4. Hey Paul, thanks for the feedback and the article request. I am happy for you to re-post this article, as long as it remains unchanged and an attribution (A. Elliott) is added, along with a link to this blog. If you want to add a bio as well, you can copy & paste my profile text. Nice website by the way:-)

    (FAO my other readers: Please always send a request like this before using my material for your own sites and publications. I am almost always happy to oblige but I like to know in advance!)

  5. i was talking about this with a german friend last nite & we realized another difference between berlin & londons underground. in london the party scene was carved out of a repressive society to create an alternative & people were accustomed to fighting to keep it that way. they had a lot of experience in standing up to cops, courts, council officials, gangs etc. whereas in berlin the party scene was created by chance. the space was there, the lack of structure were already there thru an accident of chance & people made the best of it. in london, the 'fight 4 your for your right to party' ethos was the reason for the scene's existence, as was the ethos of equality & it became embedded in the scenes behaviour... whereas in berlin the embedded ethos seems to have been "easy come,.easy go." the same friend pointed to Pyonen as an example of more 'radical' ravers although they don't do much illegal stuff these days.

  6. I have just moved back to Berlin from London (near Dalston). I went to some raves in the late 1980s in Australia, but never really got into it. I find the political dimension to the London rave scene very interesting. My impression of London is that it's such an intense/controlled space that anything like a party scene is bound to become politicized.

    Perhaps it's right to say that because people haven't had to fight for their rights here in the same way, it's much easier to commercialize them away.

  7. That's my picture at the top of the page wow! Took It from the roof when I was buzzing on mushrooms lol As long as there's an overground there will be underground, it's in nature to manifest an opposite! I Choose to enjoy both as a balanced life style lol

  8. Awesome, thanks for taking it! That was a great party and the pic brought back many hazy memories ;-)
    By the way, you can send me your name and/or site links if you want me to add credits to the photo.

    Miss E.