The Most Memorable Season
There is a particular violence in the onset of dawn.
However soft the gradient—the sky turning baby blue, the incoming Evian-pink light—the totality of night is punctured. There’s a reason that dawn breaks. Night, on the other hand, falls. We often already have a sense of the drop, we anticipate and step into it: plans for the evening, the shower, the getting-ready, the Vorglühen “pre-glow” drinks, the arrival. And once we’ve arrived, there at least is the illusion of endless night in Berlin’s clubs. For one, because the parties often extend far beyond a 2 a.m. or 5 a.m. cutoff. There’s no rush. But the music itself fosters a sense of perpetuity as well, or at least what’s playing in many of this city’s nightclubs: house, techno, a boundless variety of tones and gestures adhering to a 4/4 measure, mixed so as to lose the sharp definition of their beginnings and ends.
But when the morning comes (a moment Theo Parrish committed to wax), one is again faced with the recognition that the festivities will come to an end just as they began, whether it’s in a few or few-dozen hours. The light brings with it a sharpness, a definition to bodies and objects. Sometimes the illumination is not cute. There’s a reappraisal of one’s aching knees and deafened ears; wet-look sweat sheen might just look like dampness, plastered bangs; people are haggard, disquietingly wired, or just unconscious over there off to the side. I would say, beyond a collective vulnerability, the scene of the morning in a Berlin club is often a crowd of souls turned inside out.
For this reason, I have an especially acute respect for the well-placed morning track, for the DJ who can effectively sculpt the strange space of dawn on a dancefloor. It can be made cruel, or gentle, or uplifting, just like the light. I will point out three of these moments in the past year when nightlife has become, bracingly, just life.
Massive Attack – “Unfinished Sympathy” (1991)
Played by Objekt
Greenhouse – December 15, 2017.
The ubiquity of a certain type of sombre techno in Berlin’s clubs can feel monolithic and monotonous. In fact, the whole party culture here can feel this way—but there are always peculiar things crawling under the surface. I’m always grateful to go to parties at off-spaces, non-institutional clubs like Greenhouse, because the evenings are wildcards. This space sits on the top floor of a jade office complex south of the Nazi-era airport Tempelhofer Feld, which is now a sprawling public park; it’s rare one finds such an elevated position in Berlin, and a club to which the open sky has total access.
Objekt, producer of incredibly tempered tracks, more like mechanisms of sound and texture, dropped this one at the end of an all-night back-to-back set with Call Super, an installment of their party series Everything is True. It was not a standard four-on-the-floor that measured this evening—their selections explored a range of UK breakbeat, 2-step, and drum & bass, much of which was deconstructed or mutated; the air felt dense with latches, slingshots, Amen breaks. Shortly after the morning broke, and that grey sky bowled in through the open windows, there were maybe 10 people left on the dancefloor. Most of my friends had left; the room had become cold without a mass of bodies; I was wearing my jacket as a prelude to departure; Objekt brought up through his mix the strings beginning “Unfinished Sympathy” and I hooted, as I do.
The track is sheer emotional appeal, as Shara Nelson sings from the stranded ground of the unrequited lover, “How can you have a day without a night…like a soul without a mind, and a body without a heart, I’m missing every part.” It is a position of melancholy, no doubt, within a void left by the vacant beloved. But a righteous dignity is there too, the first lines in the song being “I know that I’ve been mad in love before, and how it could be with you.” She knows. The ache of the heart, the ache of the knees, the soul without a mind and the brain without its usual stock of serotonin—in short, glory.
Jellybean – “Twilight Dome Pt. 2” (1995)
Played by Tama Sumo
Panorama Bar – January 1, 2018.
Speaking of monoliths…Berghain is hard to evade as a referent or backdrop when it comes to discussing Berlin’s hedonism. With good reason—the club is venerable, the second iteration of a venue called Ostgut, which came to be in an old train-repair factory during the Post-Wall heyday of 1999. Opened five years later and housed in a former Soviet power station, Berghain has become a generator of its own mythology.
It’s also a divisive institution of Berlin. Whether you consider Berghain a lifestyle, a marketing sham, a tired aesthetic, a house of mirrors or worship or both, we can agree the club has a mighty stack of Funktion1 speakers. I have found spiritual ignition on its dancefloors, most definitely at the smaller, relatively more playful Panorama Bar upstairs. It is here that the party most enshrined in my Berlin clubgirl heart is hosted: a quarterly night organized on Fridays by DJs Lakuti and Tama Sumo, who pay respect to both the soulful roots of house and techno, as well as the irrevocable queerness running throughout the genres’ histories.
“Twilight Dome Pt. 2”, however, was played out in the first morning of the year 2018, during Berghain’s multi-day New Year’s party. Tama Sumo has been a resident of the club since its inception 14 years ago, and can work the Panorama Bar soundsystem with a wild deftness. (Maybe it’s like the ease I feel brushing my teeth.) The track itself, which also featured on Lakuti’s Resident Advisor mix released not long before, is baffling: Jellybean, an alias of the Chicago house stalwart Glenn Underground, begins only with a rhythm of bass kicks and tinny bells, then loops and chops the teetering notes of the Twilight Zone TV-show theme song into the drum pattern. Two minutes in, hi-hats come in with a startling brutality. But at the four minute mark, Jellybean diminishes the percussion piece by piece, leaving only the bells, and the spooky notes drop out suddenly to a grooving little guitar lick and a group of voices repeating the phrase, “here in the twilight.”
The sample comes from the 1979 disco cut “Twilight Zone” by Manhattan Transfer; here, in Jellybean’s arrangement, their voices instill a human spirit to a track that was thus far only hard, driving and dizzy. They’re soon joined by some pensive strings: melody as sustained depth and distance rather than the rapid up-and-down phrase of the Twilight Zone theme. Then kicks and cutting hi-hats return with a vengeance, and the track takes off.
When Tama Sumo dropped this one, the sampled voices of Manhattan Transfer reinstated, repeatedly, our place (or lack of place) in time: we were here, in the blurred twilight between one year and another; a liminal, shifting space in which freaky and unbelievable shit could happen, like Jellybean completely torquing the palette of his song. I find the sample more eerie than any supernatural encounter or hanging phenomena. It shook me then, and still shocks me every time it returns.
Toyin Agbetu presents Shades of Black – “Blurton Road (A Chance in Life)” (1991)
Played by ???
Schrippe Hawaii – May 1st, 2018
Toyin Agbetu’s career as a label manager and producer of incredibly classy, sensual house is already enough to garner my deep gratitude. But he is also a dedicated activist, writer, and founder of the Pan-African organization Ligali. There is too much to go into here, but I suggest you dig into his musical and political work. I preface with this because no matter what techno twilight one might wade through, or which gates of the soul swing open on the dancefloor, the club is, was, and always will be a political space. And I don’t find this is at all conflictual with the spiritual and therapeutic dimensions of a good party. In fact, they should be consonant. Whether you are dancing in Berlin or Los Angeles, Detroit or Ibiza, know where the music is coming from—not just geographically, but socially and historically. Know what intentions you embody.
The May 1st Labor Day demonstrations in Berlin grow out of a tradition of resistant radical leftist groups (though, like house music, the day’s history traces back to Chicago). Today, it has been largely pacified and depoliticized, shaped into a sprawling street party in the Kreuzberg district, monitored by a wide deployment of police. Rather than wading through this messy situation, I was lucky enough to attend a party called Imaginary Friend at the small DIY venue Schrippe Hawaii, down at the docks in the southern corner of Neukölln. Eclectic and ravenous sets moved us through the night—especially memorable were those of DJ Fart in the Club and the “2 DEEP” duo of Perila and Special Guest DJ.
It was morning suddenly, as it always is. But this time, rather than restoring definition to things, the sunlight obliterated all order. Squinting, each of the DJs on the bill were just going up and throwing on tunes, back to back to back. Again, I was about to leave, lying with some tired others in a panel of sunlight covering the alley outside, when I heard the first drum loops of Agbetu’s track and ran back upstairs. I’m not sure who put on the slinky, acid-flecked “Blurton Road,” with its lovely homage to Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots,” but I do remember dancing on this sparse floor, solar-slapped and grateful for the comrades around me.
 One can also show up to the party in the morning, exuding freshness and an enviably recent shower. Many do in Berlin; many prefer this approach. In this text, however, I am focusing specifically on songs that have marked the club in its transit from night to day.