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July 1997

Corpus Techno:The music of the future will soon be history

Where is the future of techno music headed?

A t the end of the 20th century, popular music is an era of posts. Post-punk, post-grunge, alternative rock on corporate life support. In Germany, even the death of techno — electronic dance music that's produced on computers — is rumored imminent. If you thought techno still meant teens on Ecstasy dancing in dilapidated warehouses and the no-future ethos of the film Kids, think again. Techno is the revamped theme song of a Saturday morning cartoon, the bonhomie of 750,000 peaceful Love Paraders and the good investment of corporate sponsors like Hypobank and R.J. Reynolds. But from fanzines to chill-out rooms, the consensus here is that techno's once-futuristic grooves will soon be a thing of the past. "Techno has become Germany's rock," says 22-year-old Martin Schmidt, a local college student and techno musician. And rock, as everyone knows, is dead. THE HISTORY OF THE FUTURE Techno's roots go back to Germany in 1953, when avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen cofounded the first electronic music studio, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, in Cologne. Stockhausen is best known for works such as Hymnen (1967), excerpts of 137 national anthems taken from radio broadcasts, played against a backdrop of electronic music and recombined with the recorded sounds of static and ducks. One of Stockhausen's protégés, Holzer Czukay, then formed the influential band Can in the early 1970s and created "Krautrock" — a fusion of rock and electronic music rich in rhythm and atmosphere, poor in vocals and melody. A few years later in Düsseldorf, Krautrock in turn inspired the pop group Kraftwerk, whose synthesizer-based odes to Autobahnen and pocket calculators climbed the international charts and later became techno touchstones. Pop music finally emerged from the black hole of disco in the early '80s, when the development of "MIDI" software meant that digital synthesizers, samplers and computers could speak a common language. Hip-hop innnovators used MIDI to deconstruct disco, keeping the big bass, deleting the glitz and adding some samples (e.g., police sirens and fairy tales read aloud). In 1986, Detroit DJ Derrick May mixed this simple hip-hop recipe into the cool surface of Kraftwerk's music, threw in some ultra high-speed beats for good measure, and came up with techno. It's noisy, it's fast; and it's digital, which means that techno tracks are as easy to manipulate as the words in your word processing program. Germany's techno revolution began in 1989 when 150 Berlin clubbers "marched" down the Kurfurstendamm in the first Love Parade. "I was there," says Alec Empire of the Berlin techno-punk band Atari Teenage Riot. "It was about telling the mainstream, 'We exist. You can't ignore us.' It was our statement in the context of reunification and the collapse of the old Left." Though techno was concocted by an American, Americans didn't take to it. Over the next five years, it was in Germany (and England) that techno took hold as a subculture of specialty record shops, independent record labels, internet sites, video artists, DJs and (often illegal) clubs. Techno even developed its own graphic design aesthetic. "Every year, Frontpage [Germany's oldest techno fan magazine, or fanzine] would completely change its design," says techno musician Martin Schmidt. "As a sort of prank, they'd put last year's graphics and fonts on a CD ROM and sell it. Companies trying to sell to young people would buy it and it would backfire, because people in the scene would know they were being manipulated and instinctively reject the products." The first techno generation was ironic about the commercial culture that tried to profit from its coming-of-age; in fact, this tension between subculture and commerce inspired everything from the early scene's "no star" ideology to its self-consciously generic graphics and anonymous music compilations. In techno's peak years, '94 and '95, formerly underground German DJs like Sven Väth and Marc Spoon dominated the domestic charts, and many of the derelict urban structures that were techno's early stomping grounds were transformed into posh clubs. A new generation of listeners came to the scene less interested in techno as a subculture and more interested in just having fun. MTV's German broadcasts reflected the trend: nearly 50 percent of their playlist over the last few years has consisted of techno-influenced tracks. Most major German cities now produce distinct strains of techno. Hamburg is known for house (slower, more congenial techno), Frankfurt for trance (techno at 200 mph), Cologne for experimental techno ("trip hop," for example, which puts the hip hop back into techno and adds some jazz), and Berlin for everything. By contrast, Munich largely imports techno and organizes large techno events. Techno culture culminates in the rave, an all-night, multi-media techno party with more than 1,000 people that takes place either outside or in a large club. There is only a handful of major raves left in Germany, mainly Munich's Union Move and Rave City, Düsseldorf's Mayday and the Love Parade. German media have long dismissed raves as drugfests that deaden the minds (and ears) of German youth, a charge that's not entirely unfounded. "Youth and club cultures are always somewhat drug-oriented," says Martin Schmidt. "So, yes, there are drugs in techno culture. But less so than a few years ago, and plenty of people, including some of the big DJs and musicians, are very antidrug." With or without the Ecstasy and miscellaneous amphetamines, what raves thrive on is sensory overload — a barrage of laser lights and discontinuous video images, a relentless aural assault and the sensation of speed itself. An all-nighter at a techno club is something like a small-scale rave or 10-minute techno anthem: it's filled with peak moments that to outsiders make about as much sense as the metric system does to Americans. MA, I'M ONLY DANCING Friday night, May 9, Kunstpark Ost (behind Ostbahnhof). A mint-condition Greyhound is parked on the blacktop lot outside the clubs. A mermaid in a silver lamé dress steps out of the bus, and a crowd of Day-Glo people gathers around her. She glides through the crowd, points to a guy wearing a baggy pair of jeans and takes him inside the bus with her. A GQ poster boy closes ranks behind them and guards the door. The windows of the bus are suddenly suffused in a neon-blue glow. Hidden speakers produce spacey Muzak ("ambient," in techno-speak) and the sound of running water. The guy with the baggy jeans steps out of the bus, only now his hair is wet and he's wearing jeans that fit. At the front of the crowd, a girl in a "girlie" T-shirt says, "What's it mean?" Her friend wearing a small, leather-look Rucksack shrugs. The GQ poster boy tells them, "It's a promo for Shrink-to-Fit Levis." Rucksack girl says it's like that techno group Underworld. "They do music for Pepsi and Nike on the side." Saturday afternoon, May 31, Union Move. 100,000 people are dancing on Leopoldstraße as more than a dozen techno-floats ahead of them inch towards Odeonsplatz. The air is filled with the scattershot of a thousand squirt guns and the incessant screech of the whistles hanging from every third raver's neck. Darth Vader has his arm around Princess Leia on the radio station Bayern 3's float. A techno hippy takes a picture with his Funsaver camera. A group of guys in lycra skirts wave their hands in time with the thump thump thump of the music as they skip towards the Feldherrnhalle. Three adolescent girls with glitter sprinkled under their eyes hold hands as though they were on a field trip. An old woman in psychedelic stockings and a raincoat digs through her purse, extracting a whistle on a string. Saturday night, May 31, Ultraschall II (Kunstpark Ost). A girl swans through the club wearing a poodle for a purse. It matches her halter top and the club's furry walls. She looks like she's looking for someone. The Marlboro promotions team has a Polaroid camera: free pack of American-blends for any taker. Everyone's smoking. Everyone's bored; or, since this is Europe, maybe it's ennui. Mario Grassel, resident techno slacker, glad-hands or nods at nearly everyone. "Two types of people," he says. "People who go to clubs and people who don't." The jackhammer bass is in your head. You can taste it. Mario calls it "the perfect now." Images of trains, ugly Frigidaires, and crowds on city sidewalks flicker on video screens overhead. This is the future of the '70s, Toffler's future: fast and synthetic. Don't eat that pink candy with your 5 coffee; it's styrofoam. Mario leaves as the sun comes up. "When it gets too bright," he says, slipping his shades over his eyes. "It's like a hat for your brain." RAVE REVIEWS Take Union Move, multiply by 10 and you have the Love Parade. It's Germany's carnivale. It's the Cannes of techno. "Everyone goes to the Love Parade," says DJ Hell, Munich's most successful techno producer, "from the most experimental DJs to thousands upon thousands of tourists." Last year 750,000 ravers showed up, which made the Love Parade 50 percent bigger than Woodstock. There were no arrests, but 1,600 people required first aid for dancing themselves to exhaustion. With the long-running TV soap Marienhof, pop Radio Energy and R.J. Reynolds/Camel picking up this year's DM 800,000 tab, purists are complaining that the Love Parade has gotten too mainstream and too dependent on corporate endorsements. In fact, for everyone except the ravers, techno parades are moneymaking ventures. Last year, Berlin's economic chief Wolfgang Branoner called the Love Parade "the city's most important tourist event of the year," predicting that it would attract one million ravers this year and bring in DM 110 million in revenue. Similarly, Munich's Union Move was sponsored by Hypobank this year and was organized by the promoters of Kunstpark Ost, where most of the post-rave partying took place. Atari Teenage Riot's Alec Empire says that commerce has simply taken the place of what was once a techno subculture. "The promoters and everyone involved in the business of techno are forcing the techno trend at this point," he says. "It's been a long time since techno had anything to do with an underground. What we have here is techno overkill." Ravers once believed techno would lead to revolution, but even the first Love Parade mottoes — "The future is ours" and "We are one family" — were only vaguely political. This year's motto, "Let the sun shine in your life," is more of a commentary on the techno generation's political apathy than it is a statement about their political commitment. "It's not like our parents' ideals achieved anything," says techno slacker Grassel. "Look at them now. Middle-aged. Watching TV." On paper, though, the Love Parade and Union Move are political demonstrations, which means techno fans have a constitutional right to dance in the streets, the city has to pay for cleaning up after them, and the community's objections to the noise and traffic backups are overruled. Despite all the hype about the Love Parade, the trend in techno is definitely towards downsizing. When Munich's largest techno venue, four terminals at the old airport in Riem, closed last May to make room for a new conference center, Werkstatthallen (in Laim) and Kunstpark Ost emerged in its wake; neither has more than a third of Riem's 20,000 capacity. These days, without convenient U-Bahn connections and monster lineups of famous DJs, techno events tend to flop. Techno clubs — those that haven't closed down or retreated into '60s Schlager (schmalzy pop), '70s disco or nostalgiac '80s new wave nights — often face half-empty dance floors. Perhaps most emblematically, techno's premier magazine, Frontpage, folded two months ago. "They all thought they were gods, right, like it would go on forever," says Robert Klanten, a graphic designer at Die Gestalten in Berlin and the editor/publisher of Localizer 1.0: The Techno-House Book. "These are people who had once fought against that kind of rock'n'roll attitude." WAITING FOR SVEN Wednesday night, May 28: Rave City 5. 6,000 ravers are crammed into three of Kunstpark Ost's clubs:KW, Ultraschall II and Babylon. The DJ lineup is impressive: David Morales (David Bowie's remixer), Sven Väth, Marc Spoon, Carl Cox (from the U.K.) and several other gods in the techno pantheon. The major labels in the U.S. think techno is the next big thing, but tonight at Kunstpark Ost it's sounding more like the last. Outside and in the chill-out rooms, ravers complain about famous DJs who mix in bass-lines at the wrong speed or who don't do much at all, just fade one known-quantity track into the next. DJs who've sounded the same for the last three years. "It's so commercial," says Stephen Scheiderer, who came to Rave City from Stuttgart. "Sometimes we stay home and listen to stuff from '90, '91. We're like old people talking about the old days. We complain about these kids who think they're so cool, but they're intothis canned music." How old are you? "Twenty-two," he says. The thing is, Sven Väth is a great DJ. For the first half of his set. 2,000 sweating, grooving bodies are on the dance floor facing him, and he looks up after every tweak and fade to see how they're responding. The anthemic buildups are there; hands fly into the air at all the right "amen" breakdowns. But after two hours, he slows down. Way down. He lets his fans dance to the same three-second drum loop for what seems like eternity while he fumbles for the next record. People start to leave. A couple of girls sneak on stage and ask for his autograph; he complies. "Sven Väth used to be one of us," Scheiderer says. "But they're all stars now." In a backroom at Babylon, a dozen or so journalists wait for famous techno DJs to finish their sets. Many have been promised exclusive interviews with David, Marc or Sven. They chat with friendly ravers, give an obscure East European DJ more attention than he deserves and interview each other. The journalists wait for five hours, fed on shrimp chips, warm beer and rumors of the impending arrival of the gods; they never come. The Love Parade starts at 2 p.m. on July 12 at Ernst-Reuter-Platz in Berlin. Call the Love Parade Info-Pool at (30) 390 66 60 for information.

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