Berlin; it’s the city that seemed to inform the early years of my twenties from a distance. I’d never actually been myself, but it felt like I was the only London-dwelling 26-year old that hadn’t. From the reviews, Berlin seemed like the cultural zeitgeist that London had once been, before it traded that for high-rise luxury apartment buildings and unabashed gentrification. Empty gestures by the Mayor of London couldn’t mask the nature of London’s transition away from the cultural institutions that shape our beloved city; whether it was the ugly uprooting of the Passing Clouds community, or the on-again-off-again closure of Madame JoJos, the token gesture of ‘Nightlife Tzar’ was merely papering over the cracks. But alas, atleast we have Berlin, right?
In all honesty, rave culture had never really resonated with me. I just didn’t get it. Techno music was a no-no and electronic music, to me, meant soft synthesisers and achingly good hooks. I’d affectionately nicknamed anything, from trance to house, as ‘headache’ music and with all my might, stayed within the confines of Soho’s bland queer scene for most of my twenties. But this year, that all changed.
It mostly started with a new job. On my first day, conversations around music centred around the office’s shock that electronic music wasn’t for me. But they persisted. Starting with the light and summery sounds of Hidden Spheres, and slowly moving to Talaboman and Guy J; before long, electronic music dominated my playlists. Lyric-less and repetitive, it helped me hone my concentration in a way that no other music could. Then my girlfriend joined in, and shared with me Hadi Zeidan who’s ‘EP1’ was an Arabic electronic staple in my headphones, NU’s ‘La Fuente’ and more recently, the sounds of Wolf & Lamb; in particular ‘No Habla’. It opened up an entirely new avenue of music to me, and by the end of the year, I’d booked a trip to Berlin for my birthday.
Here’s where it gets tricky. We had four days in Berlin and a plan that involved some of the most famous clubs in the city. First on the list? Kit Kat Club. From what we’d heard, Kit Kat was a haven for queer folk. A place where you can live out your wildest fantasies, a space that prioritised and celebrated queerness, that welcomed gimp suits, butch lesbians and didn’t stick them all in the basement (London, take note). So here we were, queuing outside Kit Kat in the pouring rain for two hours. My best friend wore his best leather choker, gold hoop earrings and not much else. He was cold to his bones, but it didn’t matter because we could hear the pounding electronic baseline from outside, and the Sin City feel of the place promised us the best, and dirtiest night of our lives. That’s until we got to the bouncers.
“Open your jacket”, I opened my coat and waited as he looked me up and down. I was wearing a skimpy top, high fishnet stockings and tartan trousers; “that’s your look for tonight?” he asked me. I nodded and gripped my girlfriend’s hand in the hope we’d get the nod. “and you’re together, you two? That’s your girlfriend?” “um, yeah” I replied, a little surprised he’d inquired about my relationship status. “and how long have you been together?” ok, so this is weird, I thought. “a year and a half?” “hmmm, ok. Go through”. And there I was, ushered into Berlin’s “queer haven” nightclub having had my queerness assessed by the cis white guys at the door. Not the best start to my trip.
The next night, we tried Berghain. It was a no. Fine, we expected that, so we headed to Sisyphos, and we were in. The bouncer made sure we covered our phone cameras, front and back, with small stickers. And there it was; the bustling festival-like atmosphere of Sisyphos, lit up by a monstrous light projection scaling the industrial walls of the club’s main building. The street that you enter on is lined by food stalls and bars; on the left you have the main building, what looks like an old factory renovated into two or three huge rooms. These rooms are pitch black, save for the odd flash of industrial lighting; the music is heavy trance, and the sheer amount of bodies equate to a foggy atmosphere where you can only see a few metres in front of you. We found a small stage in the corner where there was lots of space to throw our bodies into shapes I never thought possible; at that moment, dancing became about how I felt inside, rather than how I looked on the outside. We danced and danced and danced. We crossed the small street again, to reach the other music room, which was tropical house, and lit up with standard living room lights. The bar next door was strewn with bodies slathered on bean bags, and smiling strangers who had a penchant for stroking and complimenting each other in a haze of whatever their drug of the moment was. Outside, we heard a distant rumbling and chased the sound to find fire roaring from flamethrowers lined up on the roof of the club. It was fucking brilliant. 8 hours later, my best friend had hit a wall. His legs could no longer carry him, and the light outside felt like an unwelcome reminder that Sisyphos had to end (except for our new German friend who had been mixing ketamine and cocaine all night).
This was an experience that changed my perception of clubbing. It doesn’t have to be hissing speakers, sticky floors, and shit drinks. You don’t have to sit through hours of Calvin Harris’s discography, pretending to be enjoying your mates birthday as some random twat shows you their new Air Max. Berlin, in some parts, nails clubbing through its commitment to music and creating a space full of people who just want to enjoy their night, dancing like maniacs and avoiding trouble. It feels like the closest thing I’ve experienced to the Frankie Knuckles house culture that was about more than music. However, on the other hand, it’s arguably the pink pound capital of Europe. Trading off its reputation as a hub for subversive culture, its commitment to queerness is merely an empty gesture, a lot like London’s Night Tzar.
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