For electronic music fans, Berlin’s Tresor has long been considered the Valhalla of Germany’s illustrious club circuit. In March 1991, months after the official dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Tresor, the city’s first techno club, opened near Potsdamer Platz. In short order, the club’s vanguard of DJs, eccentrics, punks, goths and artists birthed a new subculture of Teutonic dance music that united the youth movements of east and west on the dancefloor.
To commemorate the club’s 30th anniversary, Tresor Records is releasing Tresor 30, a 12-record box set of classic and new techno artists from its in-house label. It runs the gamut from early Detroit techno (Underground Resistance’s 1991 sci-fi epic The Final Frontier; Jeff Mills’ Late Night) to ambient techno (the savant-like Function) and third generation, post-techno musicians (Afrodeutsche, Sophia Saze, Grand River), demonstrating Tresor’s trademark, big tent approach to electronic dance music.
Three decades after its founding, the story of Tresor can seem like a fairytale. It began with music student Dimitri Hegemann’s move from rural Westfalia to West Berlin where, by the early 80s, nightclubs such as SO36, Risiko and Sound, as well as underground celebrities Blixa Bargeld, Nick Cave and Christiane F, defined the divided city’s glam-punk aesthetic. While attending Berlin’s Free University, Hegemann organised the first of many Atonal festivals with experimental acts Einstürzende Neubauten, Psychic TV and Clock DVA, and, by 1988, opened the Dada-inspired Fischbüro gallery in the remains of a Kreuzberg shoe store.
“The Fischbüro was a place where creative people came together,” he says. “I was tired of standing in line at the live venues, paying 10 deutschmarks and going home again alone.” Among Fischbüro’s distinguished visitors were Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson; its more peculiar activities included hacking Moscow’s Pravda newspaper with a telex machine and meditating to an industrial-sized electric shoe polisher that sounded like a UFO.
Ufo became the name for the tiny club Hegemann opened in 1988, which specialised in the new sounds of acid house arriving from Chicago via Britain. It was accessed by ladder through a trapdoor in the floor of Fischbüro, and held fewer than 100 people. Its roster of talent included emerging DJ-tastemakers Tanith, Rok, Jonzon, Kid Paul and Dr Motte, future organiser of the city’s famed Love Parade.
“As soon as I heard acid, I knew this was the sound of the future,” says Tanith, whose Wednesday night event Cyberspace mixed acid, house, hip-hop and Detroit techno. “[Ufo] was far from perfect, but it was a good learning ground for all of us.” Although the club was shuttered by late 1990, Hegemann believes the energy of these early gatherings – “unfinished, trashy, anarchistic and radical” – presaged the explosion of techno culture in the months following reunification.
“After the fall of the Wall everything was different,” Hegemann continues, comparing the mood of Berlin to that of Paris after the second world war, when Miles Davis introduced cool jazz to the Left Bank. “People were ready for something new … [There was] no curfew, no police, many available spaces – all this added up to a special readiness that one experiences only during great social upheavals.”
While waves of Ossis (the nickname for East Berliners) immediately poured into the west for new opportunities and entertainment, young Wessis (West Berliners) went in the opposite direction, scouting the east for its abandoned housing stock and illegal squats. During one such trip down Leipziger Strasse, near the infamous Todesstreifen (the “death strip” running alongside the Wall), Hegemann and several friends stumbled upon a storefront with a sealed, underground passage – one of the thousands of bunkers and tunnels that snaked below the surface of the city. It proved to be a bank vault for the Wilhelmine-era Wertheim department store, one of the largest on the continent before it was destroyed during the allied bombing campaigns. They instantly determined that it would be a perfect space for a new club, though it had no electricity, running water or gas. After raising the 1,600 deutschmarks necessary for an interim lease on the property, Hegemann and his partners spent three months on repairs; they also installed a powerful sound system, strobe lights and a makeshift bar, where drinks were passed through the vault’s iron bars.
An early visitor described the experience of descending into Tresor as akin to being buried with Nazi architect Albert Speer. With its metre-thick walls and intense heat, the room had a permanent layer of dampness that would trickle from the ceiling and warp the crates of records, while its distinctive odour clung to everything: “Like 40-year-old air that had never left the building, [with] fungi between the walls, seasoned with fog, cigarettes and spilled drinks,” Tanith recalls.
The club’s spartan surroundings were similarly menacing. “There was no street lighting, no public transportation,” remembers Regina Baer, Tresor’s business manager. “Nobody knew where the club was – except for the brave ones who went looking for it. We wanted to maintain this relative anonymity as long as possible – and so did our guests.”
“As soon as Tresor opened, it was clear where [the music] was leading,” Tanith continues. “In that cellar, even ambient [music] sounded like a drone symphony!” Tanith was one of the club’s first resident DJs and perhaps the most influential in developing its hardcore sound, in more than one sense of the word: he tested the sound system by standing in the centre of the room and turning up the bass until his jean legs began flapping, and remembers all hell breaking loose on the club floor when he played T99’s hard beat hit Anasthasia or X-101’s Sonic Destroyer, which became the club’s unofficial anthem.
Soon, Tresor’s reputation for frenzied, days-long parties fuelled by ecstasy and a hard Detroit soundtrack spilled across the united city and produced a new template for Berlin’s 24-hour nightlife. “No established disco would have played [this] music,” says Baer.
“[The] old clubs gave up – they couldn’t or didn’t want to change their content. [They were] out. Gone,” Hegemann agrees.
Within months of Tresor’s opening, Hegemann started the in-house record label, which initially served as a foreign imprint for Detroit DJs such as Jeff Mills, Mike Banks and Blake Baxter, who were travelling to Berlin to play residencies at the club. Tresor Records’ release of Underground Resistance’s X-101 project, Baxter’s Dream Sequence and Mills’ Waveform Transmission Vol 1 cemented a Detroit/Berlin alliance that continued for the next three decades. Of equal importance were compilation series such as The Techno Sound of Berlin and the single Der Klang Der Familie, which featured heavily in 1992’s edition of the Love Parade and became one of Germany’s first techno hits.
Berlin had not only its first, dedicated techno club, but also a record label devoted exclusively to the city’s new soundtrack. Tresor’s strategy for success was soon matched by neighbouring clubs such as WMF, Planet, E-Werk and Bunker, which also took advantage of the former East Berlin’s industrial ruins and interim usage rules to stage their own house and techno parties. While dozens of these clubs came and went over the years, many specialising in trendier sub-genres of electronic music or more celebrity-driven promotions, Tresor remained a city fixture, synonymous with the invention of the Berlin sound. After its move to a new location at the Kraftwerk Berlin in 2007, the club took on an expanded curatorial role, relaunching the annual Atonal festival and commissioning numerous multimedia events and art exhibitions with the neighbouring OHM gallery.
“Like every club with such a long lifespan, Tresor has had its ups and downs, but always found ways to stay relevant,” Tanith insists. Indeed, in a city that has carried the mantle of world’s dance capital for 30 years, Hegemann’s simple slogan continues to sustain a revolution: “Tresor never sleeps.”
• Tresor 30 is out now from Tresor Records.
• This article was amended on 5 October 2021 to correct a photo caption. DJ Marshall Jefferson is from Chicago, not Detroit as previously stated.