Berlin’s CBGB faces curtain call

Berlin's CBGB faces curtain call
Henry Rollins leads Black Flag during an SO36 show in 1983. Photo: Peter Gruchot
Berlin’s seminal punk venue SO36 might be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but it’s also on the verge of being shut down. Michael Dumiak looks at efforts to save Germany’s very own CBGB.

It’s 11:40 pm on a Monday on Oranienstrasse by the time the samosas guy pulls up in front of SO36 and parks his little red car. He stops at the club in Berlin’s edgy Kreuzberg district and greets the familiar doormen, chats a bit. They’ve only just pulled the gates up on the evening.

Inside it’s the well-worn long corridor, posters from old shows peeling from the wall, opening into the big hall. A large sign’s painted on a sheet behind the bar: Dreh Ma Lauter, or Crank it up! Droning undertones and pulses of minimal techno are already throbbing in the air, plugged in by shadowy figures shrouded in dry ice and crouched behind Apples, starting their set for the show.

It’s pretty empty, though – at quarter to midnight it’s still early. Like any good club SO36’s heart beats strongest in the small hours. But if solutions aren’t found soon, the venue named after Kreuzberg’s old postal code, won’t have any heartbeat at all. This old punk haunt has real problems.

“Berlin is the new Atlantis,” says Mark Eins, a painter and musician whose band was on the bill three decades ago when SO36 first opened its doors. “There were so many places here in recent history. But they’re all gone, or going away. The SO is one of the last remaining places of old West Berlin.”

Click here for a photo gallery of legendary SO36 shows.

There are a couple of issues facing the club. One is that nostalgia is weak currency for a venue and spirit all about making and reacting to new things now. But there are more pressing matters: a neighbor’s noise complaints are pressing the SO36 into an expensive soundproofing upgrade. The club, of course, is run on a shoestring and has to raise the money. Meanwhile, tightly enforced sound restrictions are causing bookers to have second thoughts about bringing their acts to Oranienstrasse.

“We have to do shows at such a low sound level, you can’t really do that to the bands, to the audience, to ourselves,” says the matter-of-fact Henning, a 42-year-old from Saarbrücken who does the club’s advertising and public relations. “The American band Helmet was playing here a few months ago, and the audience was yelling, louder, louder. It’s tough on the engineers. It’s an ugly situation all around.”

Henning says the club organisers understand they need to keep their neighbours happy, but it seems this one particular case is proving hard to find a compromise. So the club is looking to build an €80,000 ($115,000) soundproofing wall. As of now they’ve raised a grand total of €3,250.

They’re looking at a summer full of benefit shows starting this Thursday. But even if they’re successful, other neighbours may object to the new soundproofing plans. Mark Eins echoes others in suspecting a grab for the location is going on. Henning is just focused on getting the problems solved.

“We’ve got a great neighbourhood. They’re all in it with us. We get lots of support, but everyone’s poor. It warms our heart, but that’s not money,” he says. “I’m afraid it will close. It’s fifty-fifty.”

Primed to explode

When the SO36 got started in earnest in 1979 (after a few early events in the dog days of summer 1978) there wasn’t much on now-bustling Oranienstrasse: the well-known Hasir’s kebab shop (where the döner was suposedly invented), a dairy store, a small gay club, a committed and networked squatter’s community and, above a crumbling storefront at Oranienstrasse 189, a sign reading Merhaba.

The scene was primed to explode, though. Steam had run from the hippies, sclerotic corporate hi-fi clogged the airwaves and the Turkish owners of Merhaba decided to rent the place out to a promoter for a couple nights of new sounds.

“The idea was to make a festival with new bands. And we were new bands,” Eins says. He’d recently moved to Berlin with his band Testbild, met the endlessly energetic Gudrun Gut with her band Din A4, and formed Din A Testbild in making sound collages, improvised music as if for films.

“Gudrun came one day and said there’s a new club, we’ve got to go. And then we played,” Eins says. “It was a strange mix; it was the first time people came together to make music that was our own, and it sounded different from England. Berlin was a crazy place with crazy people, and was the only place where we could make this music. People listened.”

On the bill: PVC, Mittagspause, Male, S.Y.P.H., Din A Testbild, Ffurs and Stukka Pilots, all featuring members who’d go on to put an indelible stamp on Berlin art and music. “I looooved this club. It was perfect. So different,” Gut recalls. “This was a big space, with a big bar with metal; the design was industrial and basic. No light show. Nothing but green neon lights. Great sound.”

From the beginning the SO36 was more than a music hall. It was rooted and connected to a mushrooming and anarchic art scene, and managed by the loud, late Martin Kippenberger, a talented artist and impresario in his own right who would go on to breach the cold high walls of the Tate and the MoMa. It became the place to play for punk and new wave acts in Berlin along with the fading Punkhaus, the Kant Kino, soon-to-be Risiko, ExN’Pop and Café Mitropa. Like West Berlin and Kreuzberg itself, Oranienstrasse 189 became a creative, free, dynamic and sometimes dark place.

Hanging out with Bowie and Iggy

“West Germany was very square,” Gut adds. “My boyfriend took me here when I was 16. I could breathe. I thought, please, I have to go here. I felt freedom.”

Iggy Pop and David Bowie prowled the city’s streets in the 1970s. The Kreuzberg photographer Peter Gruchot, whose work captured Berlin night life and the punk/new wave spirit, says it was infectious. West Berlin, surrounded by communist East Germany, was small enough that it was easy to make connections.

“The Wall created a very cozy place in some ways,” Gruchot says. “It was a family affair with a lot of international visitors. What makes Berlin alive are displaced people.”

But it wasn’t exactly peaceful. Film cameraman Christian Paasch, better known as Zzup, remembers having raw lamb thrown at him at a show by the industrial outfit SPK. And not all the anarchists in Kreuzberg took to the SO36; Kippenberger more than once got into scraps with them, once apparently over raising the price of beer. During a landmark show by the sequencer-based Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, police penned in the crowd. It could be scary. The ownership was unstable.

“There was no show without the police. The police would come, sometimes raid the place; sometimes they’d even close the gate to keep the police out, or if it was overcrowded,” Gruchot says. “The SO36 was always run by different people. Everybody went broke running this place, or was visited with a lot of trouble from the authorities. And so the next group of people would come to run it.”

The SO36 magic

So Henning and his 15 cohorts in the collective running the SO36 today find themselves in a well-worn spot. “It’s always close to the abyss; always was,” he says. “But this is a magic neighbourhood. Before I came to Berlin, when I came to this area I had the feeling of freedom, that you can do what you want. You can ride a bicycle with three tits and a wig and have a bottle of beer in your hand, and nobody cares.”

The questions raised then with the SO’s situation is whether that neighbourhood is changing, and whether anyone should feel sentimental about a club. A few years ago New York’s legendary club CBGB went down for the last time – suffering a death by nasty rent hike, replaced by the strange mall-glass towers that now dot the Lower East Side – and Patti Smith made the point.

“This is not a fucking temple,” she said. “Anyone can start a club like this anywhere.”

But Einsturzende Neubauten’s N.U. Unruh and PVC’s Gerrit Meijer counter that it takes time for a place to build up a culture, and that Oranienstrasse was a desert before the club sprang up. SO36 may have made its name 30 years ago, but the place went on to pioneer gay Turkish nights and is still, says concert promoter Marro, an important place to get exposure.

“This is a living neighbourhood. Look at NYC. It’s dead!,” Gut chimes in. “You have to take care of your places. Is there another place like that? I don’t think so. I like that you live somewhere, and there’s a bakery in the street, and a place to get vegetables, and a club.”

Henning agrees. “It would be disappointing if it goes. I’ve been here so many times, it’s such a great place,” he says. “And I’d lose my job.”

This Thursday, July 2, numerous bands and DJs will stage a SO36 benefit show at the Modulorhaus in the heart of Berlin’s Kreuzberg district at Prinzenstrasse 85.

For €10 you’ll get Jessie Evans, Texas Terri Bomb, Erik Penny, Khan, Mona Mur & En Esch, Kitty Solaris and DJ Jean-Michel Tourette from Wir Sind Helden.

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