It’s 5am on a hellish Sunday morning, and we’re stood in the dusty lot of a former power station, discussing the plan of attack – aka cigarette-packet briefing – prior to our attempt at negotiating one of the world’s most notoriously strict door policies: that of Berlin’s techno behemoth, The Berghain.
After a quick rehearsal of our elaborate script (“eine bitte”) at the last checkpoint, I reassure myself that my apprehensions are misplaced, still drowsy from the cumbersome 500-mile drive from Amsterdam to Berlin. I’d studied the forums meticulously, adhered as closely as I could to the ambiguous dress code, and even abstained from getting totally shitfaced in the hope of increasing my chances of infiltrating this fortress. We approach the Disneyland-length queue and survey the habits of those in more desirable circumstances. Patiently, we amble, for three unnerving hours, contained like a regiment of poorly camouflaged spies condemned to incarceration at a POW camp for the criminally hedonistic. The quivers of bass that squirm through the ruts of the steel and concrete lull us into a gentle transcendence, before a tall, authoritarian bloke in a bomber jacket shouts the only other German phrase I bothered to learn: “NIEN!”. You get the picture. The Temple of Techno eludes us and the ultimate exercise in carrot dangling is completed. Verdammte scheiße!
The hours and days following our refusal were spent spuriously debating the stringent selection methods of the surly doorman responsible for our rejection. Kneejerk speculation was rife: “it’s a premeditated numbers game, one in, two out,” said one fist-clenched quibbler, whilst another enraged voice rebuked “Nah, there’s an obvious discrimination against Britons”. Our rationales were ultimately futile, but the spate of reactionary comments did eventually culminate in a collective realisation: this was no mere act of arbitrary denial on the part of the Berghain; this was the calculated resilience of a sub-cultural institution expressing its determination to remain esoteric, isolated from the glare of society and misunderstood by the masses. A determination we all agreed was admirable.
The implementation of this elitist doctrine was an alien concept when compared to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ clubbing agendas currently adopted in the UK. In a landscape where the lines between genre categories are increasingly blurred, the readily downloadable glut of digital dance music available to fringe listeners has created a culture of Jersey Shore collectivism, a community of taste-making socialites compelled by the notion of eclecticism for eclecticism’s sake. Dance music: even the phrase is non-descript and without real purpose; a catch-all term that by its very definition reinforces the function that’s omnipresent in countless other forms of music. And don’t fret – I’ll spare you the spiel by way of refraining from using the Americanised acronym.
These deductions are not to suggest the components of the UK club scene are any less nuanced than the scene of their pan-European counterparts (see Clive Martin’s Big Night Out series on Vice.com for ample examples of modern-day British sub-cultures); however, it is prudent to suggest these components are rehashes of their original form, bastardised and diluted to the point of parody.
To infer that dance music is now the UK’s de-facto sub-cultural dominatrix would be a moot point, but there’s definitely weight to the argument that neo-sub-cultures as a whole have ceased to dictate youth culture in any visible way – Britpop being the last sub-culture to be definable by class, fashion, politics and music.
To hark back to dance music’s origins on these shores, early 90s UK rave culture – like many other sub-cultures before it – was ostensibly about the disenfranchised youth of the period rebelling against the status quo, or, if you like, a bunch of working-class kids doing things a bit differently. This was usually achieved through the appropriation and subversion of mainstream class, fashion, music and politics, i.e. in this case, the appropriation of American techno originated from Detroit.
The Germanic techno scene and by extension the identity and traits that have become synonymous with its proponents (black/gothic aesthetic choices, overt homosexuality and stoic demeanour) are also a subversion of that derivative. Yet still, while the cultural ethos of each respective country remains poles apart, dance music and all its ugly children continue to pervade youth culture across the globe.
If the wider dissemination and distillation of dance music is writ large by the advent of the digital age, then it is gratifying to see the preservation of an underground scene that hides in plain sight, but is still unscathed by the death knell of exposure. Yes, I travelled 500 miles; yes, I queued for three hours to no avail; yes, the exclusivity of the Berghian is a shrewd marketing technique, but, irrespective of all these deterrents, our innate tribal instincts drew us towards that sub-cultural bubble, to a place of belonging and liberation. This, in the cold light of day, was dance music at its most authentic.