Our Man in Berlin: Mark Reeder

by coldwarnightlife

mark-reederMark Reeder left Manchester in 1978 to live in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. At the time, it was a world away from being a Mecca for hipster baristas or techie start-ups: reconstruction had been held back by the practical exigencies of the Cold War, and parts of the city had been left a patchwork of squats inhabited by punks, junkies and other outsiders. It was an island of Western decay surrounded by a sea of make-believe socialism, connected to the Federal Republic by a road that was the on-ramp to World War Three. Residents were exempted from compulsory military service and had liberal access to social assistance, so had a unique space within which to create music and art.

Reeder immersed himself in this world, enjoying the alternative arts scene that flourished on Europe’s political fault line. He soon found himself playing Our Man in Berlin to English record companies needing a local representative, promoting Factory Records artists like Joy Division and A Certain Ratio to shops and clubs. He played in his own band, Die Unbekannten (which became Shark Vegas), promoted shows for Die Toten Hosen, and co-managed the legendary Malaria! founded by Gudrun Gut and Bettina Köster.

When the Wall came down, the scene started to dissipate, but a different energy filled the void: the beat. House and techno took over dance music at the end of the 1980s, and the first Love Parade was held just over a year before German reunification. Berlin after the Wall absorbed these sounds, giving up heroin for MDMA and trading big hair for acid bass lines. At Ground Zero, Reeder founded a new label, MFS (Masterminded for Success), channelled the emerging trance sound into vinyl grooves and gave a push to the fledgling Paul van Dyk, amongst others.

Beate_Bartel_Berlin_Sep_1979As a musician himself, Reeder’s ear has been tuned consistently into sounds that belong five minutes into the future. Among his many projects, he has put out a compilation of remixes undertaken for some of the most respected electronic music artists, including Depeche Mode, John Foxx and Anne Clark. Five Point One assembles specimens of Reeder’s work for the Pet Shop Boys and Sam Taylor-Wood, Blank & Jones, Bad Lieutenant, amongst others, in both stereo and 5.1 surround sound formats. The tracks are all tailored for the dancefloor, lifted by old school drum beats and slick arrangements.

Reeder’s story is now going a step further with the highly-anticipated release of B-Movie. Currently touring on the festival circuit, the film tells the story of Berlin as an artistic cauldron by following Reeder’s own path. Through archive footage, interviews and stylised re-enactments, the Walled City’s underground is revealed in its gritty, darkly humorous glory. We caught up with Reeder while waiting for the film to come to a cinema closer to us.

What inspired you to move to Berlin in 1978?

I had previously travelled around West Germany before going to Berlin, and when I asked people what Berlin was like, I always seemed to get a really negative response; something like, “What do you want to go there for?” Their attitude made me even more curious to find out for myself why they didn’t seem to want me to go there. In hindsight, perhaps was it because Berlin didn’t represent the prosperous image of the concrete, chrome and squeaky clean version of the flourishing Federal Republic. Berlin was just so far away, stuck in the middle of East Germany, and getting there was not easy, especially on a shoestring budget.

There were no budget airlines to Berlin back then, only expensive flights, so people didn’t fly so much. The alternatives were by train or car. I had a Eurail pass, which was a cheap train travel ticket for under-26 year olds. On my way from Hamburg to Berlin, I missed my train and ended up stuck in the middle of West Germany on a warm, drizzly night. The station master told me I could take a regional train to the border and then hitch a ride to West Berlin from there, as it was the only destination along the transit road. So, that’s exactly what I did. I had only been waiting at the border for a few moments when a hippy-looking student in a rusty, bile-green Volkswagen gave me a ride. We trundled along the bumpy autobahn in almost total darkness; it was like travelling in space.

291227Whatever inspired me, music certainly played a major role in my decision to go to Berlin from the onset, especially my thirst for electronic music. Probably, from the first time I had heard the Dr Who theme, then Walter Carlos’ album Switched on Bach in the late 60s, I had become synth-obsessed. I listened to anything that had a synth. It sounded so sci-fi.

Back in the 70s, synths were a rarity in Britain, and only established bands like Yes, Pink Floyd or King Crimson could afford such luxurious instruments. It was also quite hard to get hold of any kind of weird, underground synth records, too, as traditional record shops like HMV didn’t really stock such exotic sounds. Luckily for me, I was working in the small Virgin record shop in Manchester, so I could order all the weird synth music from Germany and elsewhere.

In the early 70s, I listened to a lot of krautrock and early electronic music by bands like Faust, Neu!, Cluster, Popol Vuh, Michael Rother, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, or Klaus Schulze; and, of course, when the two Bowie Berlin albums, Low and Heroes, came out, they had really impressed me. They were dark and became the soundtrack to my imaginary Berlin. Bowie had obviously been impressed by this city scarred by the war.

So, the expectation that I would discover more records in a similar style – stuff that hadn’t been imported into Britain – was a huge incentive to me. I couldn’t wait to scour the record shops within the ruins. Naturally, at this time while in Manchester, working in the only shop in the city that sold punk, I had also become part of the emerging punk scene, too, and that was also very exciting. Punk was something else. It wasn’t only a musical movement but a vehicle to portray how young people thought. Punk liberated us lost teenagers from the shackles of boring middle-of-the-road rock and mind-numbing bubble-gum pop. I pushed aside my progressive rock roots and delved into the excitement of punk. It was what I listened to live and in clubs, and electronic music became my chill out. I even played bass in a band called The Frantic Elevators with Mick Hucknall.

Yet, by 1978, I had already decided to leave Britain. I had become disillusioned. Punk was no longer thrilling, and I wanted to venture over to Germany to see what was happening there and hopefully find new, more electronic music. Once I arrived in Berlin, I was totally captivated. Indeed, it was nothing like I had imagined. Driving from the dark, bleakness of the transit autobahn into the inviting lights of the city, Berlin was not a pile of rubble, but it appeared to be a shiny, gleaming, colourful, modern-looking place. In fact, I would find out it was actually both. The shiny bit was the Ku’damm and the crumbly bits were scattered everywhere around it.

My first Berlin encounter was the next day, when I went out to get change for the payphone. I entered into the nearest corner bar and asked the person who was bent down, stocking up the shelves, if she could give me change. She arose, and it was a 6 foot transvestite with bright orange hair and a yellow-and-black polka-dot top and horror-show make up. It was at that moment that I realised I really was in Berlin. Yes, Cabaret and all that. I went out to as many bars and clubs as I could find and saw all kinds of weird and wonderful people. Their attitude was very different to the one I was used to in Manchester. I discovered that most of the guys living in Berlin were there because it exempted them from their obligatory military service.

The excitement of going over into unknown East Berlin was also definitely one of the aspects that kept me here. No one went there, and I encountered the same attitude as I had in West Germany with regard to Berlin. It was fascinating. East Berlin was like a parallel world, resembling something from an episode of Star Trek; it seemed to be stuck in a 50s time-warp. There were uniforms of all kinds everywhere, and being a Westerner East Berlin always had that Great Escape feeling – like being in a war film, on the run. It was actually thrilling, but equally scary to know that you were probably being constantly watched by agents of the secret police.

I loved the crappiness of it, too, and the way people were creative in their attempts to make ends meet. After a while, it became my own strange kind of Disneyland. The rest of the Eastern Bloc was also untouched and there to be discovered, too. No one went there, either, so I did. I travelled regularly to Prague, Budapest and Bucharest, and became totally addicted. Berlin was the perfect platform to venture east.

The battlefield life expectancy of a West German punk was probably not great, should the Cold War have heated up. How did that affect the atmosphere in Berlin?

I think if there had been a war with the Soviets, the punks would probably have survived it pretty well in a Mad Max kind of way. After all, they already lived on the edge of society and were used to dealing with everyday hardships of little food, no accommodation, water or electricity. The city was full of washed-up kids, punks, draft dodgers, gay men and weirdos, all mixed in with little old ladies (these were the former trummerfrauen – the ones who rebuilt Berlin after the war).

245253-b-movie-lust-sound-in-west-berlin-0-230-0-341-cropThe atmosphere of constant military invasion always hung in the air, threatening, but in reality everyone knew Berlin was already lost. After all, it was surrounded by the massed might of the Soviet army, all waiting to pounce, and the West part was proudly defended by the allied forces of freedom, and they knew they didn’t stand a cat-in-hell’s chance. We were walled in, isolated and forgotten. So, no one gave a fuck. People did what they wanted. The music definitely reflected that attitude.

Once the radical idea of new wave/punk reached Berlin, it changed the way people made music here too. However, whereas UK bands tried to make hit punk records in the hope of escaping the dole queue to a better way of life, the people making the music in Berlin had already escaped and were just making music which reflected their lives. They didn’t think about making hits, they just wanted to express themselves and their situation.

B-Movie follows your adventures in Berlin, in order to tell the Walled City’s eclectic and chaotic story as a music centre. How did the film come about and how has it been received?

The idea was initially Heiko Lange’s, while he was working with Joerg Hoppe on another project. During the 80s, Joerg used to manage a band called Extrabreit and knew a lot of the people involved in the music scene back then. Being an infant during the 80s, Heiko was interested in the idea of telling the story of Island West-Berlin through pictures and music. Joerg had also been given a copy of my Five Point One album, which was a compilation of remixes I had made in surround sound for bands like Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Anne Clark or John Foxx. He thought it was a great album, and he wanted me to restore the 80s tracks he wanted to use in the film and compose some score music for the film in a similar style, which I did.

B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin (1979-1989) – Official Trailer from scenes from on Vimeo.

That’s how I got involved. However, during our first meeting, I told Joerg that I had also quite a bit of footage of 80s Berlin from programmes I had been involved in for ITV and BBC – mostly long forgotten footage, never seen outside of the UK and certainly never since. When he saw it, he couldn’t believe what I had given him. It was exactly what he had been looking for. Now he had a story to hold all the pictures together. The story of West Berlin would be told through my eyes – the eyes of a Brit in Berlin.

Obviously, we couldn’t cram everything we wanted into a 90 minute movie. We sadly had to leave many parts out; in most cases, because footage didn’t exist or because it simply didn’t fit in. We did our best with the resources and budget we had. The film has been very well received, I am happy to say; mainly, because it probably isn’t a traditional documentary film of talking heads, telling you how brilliant it was back in the 80s, but an adventure told through real images and my narrative.

Germany is one of the countries where electronic music was first embraced by a mass audience. You have played a role there in managing bands and releasing music, both as a label boss with MFS and as an artist. What have been some of the highlights for you so far?

My musical story begins with my arrival in Berlin and almost immediately being designated the then-newly-formed Factory records’ Man in Berlin. I was their so-called representative. This really meant I tried to get Joy Division played on the radio or get the magazines to write about them. In marketing terms, it was a total disaster. People only became interested in Joy Division after Ian Curtis died. I slogged through the 80s managing Malaria!, mixing bands live, working in the Loft club and playing in my own bands, Die Unbekannten and Shark Vegas.

Obvious highlights were making my first records, Die Unbekannten, and, later, “You Hurt Me” with Bernard Sumner. Also, producing Torture by East German indie band, Die Vision, which we recorded in East Berlin – that was a very interesting experience, especially as the communist state was falling apart during the process. It was destined to become the last album ever to be recorded in the GDR, as the Berlin wall fell literally a week after we finished, and I feel very privileged to be the only Westerner ever to have produced an album in East Berlin. I am currently putting together a special 2CD edition remaster of Torture, as I found some old tapes with outtakes and demos.

My experience and contacts with the AMIGA (the former state-owned East German record label) opened the door to create my own label, MFS (Masterminded for Success). The initials I took from the official name of the dreaded East German secret police, the Ministry for State Security or STASI. My label was housed in room 101 of the former office building of the Reichstag’s President, Herman Goering, which since 1948 had become the home of AMIGA. It was from a secret tunnel under this palais that the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag in 1933, as the German parliament building was only a few meters away. The two buildings had been separated by the Berlin Wall since 1963, and in 1990, when I moved in, the Wall was still there.

MFS was the first indie label in East Berlin (or even East Germany) and the first joint East-West label venture. Finally, for the first time since the 1920s, the Eastie kids could listen to whatever music they wanted – not the tepid rubbish the state force-fed them – and their music of choice was techno. No complex lyrics, just driving beats.

With MFS, my initial aim was to provide a platform mainly for poor Eastie kids all eager to make techno, but I decided to make my style a more melodic version of techno, tapping into the optimistic emotions and expectations of German reunification fuelled by Ecstasy. I wanted my music to be hypnotic and trance inducing, so I called it trance-dance, until my label sound eventually became known as trance.

Through MFS I launched the careers of quite a few (now well-known) names. It was a thrilling and exciting time. I would spend a lot of time in the studio with many of the artists and oversee their projects. I decidedly took a back seat as a producer, though, and undoubtedly, due to the time involved in running the label, I ended up sacrificing my own musical career in order to help others: I invested everything; I sat in the studio and mastered everything they did; I designed most of their covers, wrote all the copy and PR; I created their images, managed them and even went on tour with them around the world. I had a great time.

I thought nomen est omen, so I put all my love, time and creativity into the label and my artists in the pursuit of success. I expected only loyalty, but they rewarded me by defecting to major labels. Unfortunately, it appears they were only driven by money, while I was driven by an ideal. It was very disappointing. Yet, I am not one to give up so easily. I had to regroup. After much prompting to make music again, I eventually capitulated and stopped running the label. I guess, after almost 20 years, I had got a bit bored by it all. So, by going back to roughly where I left off musically, I could utilise all my experience, as well as the luxury of modern technology, and finally make my own kind of retro-modern sounding electronic music.

Recently, I remixed a track called “mmm mmm mmm ahhh” for a new Manchester band called Modern Family Unit, and I also produced a more acoustic-sounding album called Unintended Consequences by Australian artist Stuart Orchard, which was quite challenging, as well as making the soundtrack score for B-Movie.

You organised a punk show in East Berlin under the guise of a religious event, pre-dating Pussy Riot by decades. Putin was probably stationed there at the time. Do you think that he took note of the STASI’s failure to shut it down?

Luckily, Putin was in Leipzig running the KGB there, so he probably didn’t get to hear about that gig until much later. I am sure he eventually did, as the Soviet authorities were very aware of what kind of reaction and repercussions such a momentous and inspiring cultural event could have throughout the communist republic. Even though it was very small, it meant a great deal to the Eastie kids and inspired others to be more adventurous. We had basically out-run the commie system and they didn’t like people doing that. They were totally paranoid control freaks and wanted to control everything and everyone. So, doing something like that was tantamount to a terrorist act. In East Germany, punk was seen as reflecting the failings of capitalism, and therefore it was a throwback of unemployment. East Germany was a workers’ and farmers’ state, and that meant everyone had a job, at least officially. That also meant punk didn’t officially exist, and any signs of it were immediately stamped out. They were fighting a losing battle, though. The Church, too, was seen as subversive, although tolerated to a degree. It was a silent form of protest against the communist regime.

We used the loophole of what was known as a “blues-mass” – which was basically an official church service with singing – for our gig. You couldn’t just buy a guitar, form a band and play in East Germany; it all had to be controlled. Every aspect. So those few who had instruments – but no permit to play – would strum out their protest songs within the confines of the Church. Once I heard about this, I first thought about organising a gig with my own band, Die Unbekannten, but as electronic equipment was almost non-existent, we opted to put on the gig with my friends from a relatively new punk band from Dusseldorf, called Die Toten Hosen, instead.

We all clandestinely entered East Berlin in small groups of three and met up at the station near the church. Another unofficial East Berlin punk band, called Planlos, supplied most of the equipment, and the rest was provided by another band, Feeling B. We invited a handful of punky friends, and after the performance we all had to pray.

In 1988, we repeated the Toten Hosen event in another church in Pankow, this time disguised as a concert for starving Romanian orphans, with Die Vision as support. That gig we even managed to film and smuggle in our own instruments, thanks to my friends in the US Army.

You recently released Five Point One, a collection of remixes by artists such as John Foxx, Depeche Mode and Parralox in the 5.1 format often associated with cinematic releases. What pushed you in that direction?

I’ve always loved surround. It is such a different, yet authentic listening experience. It’s also a challenge to produce too. Unfortunately, most surround albums were only by bands like King Crimson or Pink Floyd, but after the release of Depeche Mode and Nick Cave in 5.1, I was thinking how nice it would be to have more albums in 5.1 by my other favourite artists too. The idea really came about after mixing “German Film Star” for the Pet Shop Boys and Sam Taylor-Wood, which I made with my studio partner Micha Adam in 5.1 surround. We had already made a collection of remixes on Reordered for Blank & Jones, which also featured my version of “A Forest” with Robert Smith, and the PSB loved my remix of the track with Bernard Sumner. So I thought about expanding on that idea and making an entire album of my remixes all in surround. One thing led to another and with each new remix job we made a 5.1 mix, until I had enough for a compilation.

Is it intimidating to work with the material of such celebrated artists?

It was actually really thrilling. The intimidation was the constant thought of what the die-hard fans would think; but, as I am a fan too, I just decided to make it like something that would I want to buy – how I would like a remix to sound.

Berlin is still going through changes, including gentrification. Is there anything that you miss from the time of the Wall?

I knew that once the Berlin Wall had fallen, the city would never be the same again. I don’t let that bother me. I think the city is still vibrant and exciting. It’s a constantly changing city. I certainly wouldn’t want the Wall back, if that’s what you mean. The feeling of having to say goodbye to your friends at the border, knowing that you had the freedom of movement but they were confined, was always very upsetting. The fact that in the West I could go into a shop and buy any record I wanted or any instrument, or say or do what I liked, was one of the things that compelled me to help my friends in any way I could. I didn’t have weapons, so I fought the commies with music.

East Germany wasn’t all bad, though. It was advert-free and quiet. People seemed to help each other much more. I always got the impression that Britain must have been like that during the war. As a Brit in Eastern Europe, we were always under scrutiny, but we weaved through the obstacles. Today, I really only miss a few things, like the adrenalin rush of successfully being let into East Berlin, or the quirkiness of East German everyday life and, of course, smuggling crap.

B-Movie opens in Germany on 21 May 2015. Keep an eye out for festival dates.
Official B-Movie Web site: b-movie-der-film.de
Official B-Movie Facebook page: facebook.com/lustandsoundinwestberlin
Mark Reeder’s Five Point One: 5point1.org

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