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Over Christmas, I was watching a David Attenborough nature documentary (If you don’t know him, he is the male climate crisis activist people don’t get irked by). This was an episode from the series on Madagascar. Madagascar is an island that, due to its relative geographic isolation, contains a unique array of flora and fauna that are native to the island.
In the episode I watched, we saw the life of the tenrec. A very small creature, nocturnal yet with poor vision, curls up into a ball when threatened, body covered in short, sharp quills. But before you call me a handsome fool and tell me that what I was watching was merely a hedgehog, let me stop you right there. I was not. I even double-checked. A small, spiny mammal by any other name would smell just as sweet. Or something.
As Sir Dave huskily explained, tenrecs and hedgehogs are examples of convergent evolution. Tenrecs are endemic to Madagascar whilst hedgehogs can be found on the continent of Africa but both have evolved similarly, yet independently, as a consequence of their environment. Upon watching this, my mind naturally sprang to techno music and its twin capitals of Detroit and Berlin.
Detroit in the 1980s was not a pleasant place to be. This was due to a multitude of reasons such as racially-motivated housing policies and the after-effect of the decline of the automobile industry, once a mass employer. This led to a drastic reduction in the city’s tax base as richer people fled to other areas and then, ultimately, poverty, unemployment and crime. There were mass plots of land, buildings/factories and infrastructure that fell into disrepair as a result of this.
Due to the automobile industry being one of the main sources of employment, people working with machines was almost built into the DNA of Detroit citizens. In terms of musical reputation, Detroit had a pedigree long before techno came to be associated with the city. It is, after all, the home of Motown Records (Motor City/Motor Town/Motown).
A fusion of all of the above led to the emergence of techno in Detroit. Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson were high school friends who are widely considered as the 3 founding fathers of techno music in Detroit. They religiously listened to the German electronic outfit Kraftwerk, Atkins taught the other 2 to DJ while all 3 of them eventually opened up individual techno labels, club nights and radio programs. There was use of synthesizers, tape decks, samplers and whatever technology they could find to create music. Formerly disused, dilapidated buildings were now used for raves. They were repurposed with an infusion of life, vibrancy and hope for the future. Technology, which had led to mass unemployment in the automobile industry with automation, was now being used to reclaim the city and its spaces, with music.
In Europe, Berlin is widely considered as the capital of techno music. East Berlin, the former communist-ruled part of the city, to be precise. In the late 1980s, most countries within the Soviet ‘sphere of influence’ were in financial peril. Corruption, reckless national economic strategies and isolated markets meant that nationalised production factories were often over-staffed, inefficient and had a limited market to which they could export.
These factories, as well as being grossly inefficient, were even ugly to look at. Typical Soviet/communist architecture, in general, was characterised by large dimensions, rigid, sober, sombre lines, with minimal decorative features, almost as if to be emblematic of the supposed strength and power of the Soviet Union. In short, Berlin, like Detroit, was a bleak place to be, physically, mentally, and creatively.
When the control and influence of communism began to wane across the Soviet states in the late 1980s, factories and public buildings began to shut down, be abandoned and, ultimately, fall into a state of disrepair. Gradually, these disused buildings and factories began to be reclaimed by locals and used for cultural purposes. Sound familiar?
When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, techno raves, initially a Detroit staple, began popping up everywhere in Berlin, both East and West. Free from communist oppression, people were able to express themselves in whatever way they felt. Techno music was the prevailing genre. Where before there was no dance culture, the previously-disenfranchised Berliners began creating and cultivating it.
While there could be a distinction drawn between the two styles (the influence of Italo-disco, soul etc. in Detroit versus the more industrial sound of Berlin), there is more that unites them than differentiates them.
Techno music is renowned for prominent, fast-paced drum beats and synthesizer-created sounds. Machines were once again playing a prominent role in both Berlin and Detroit but this time it was electronic music equipment such as Roland drum machines and synthesizers. Loud, fast-paced, almost mechanical-sounding but ultimately energetic, it was the perfect soundtrack for post-industrial cities trying to free themselves from the shackles of oppression, be they economical, political or both. Techno music had the dual purpose of echoing the current bleak physical and mental landscape whilst showing that a brighter future could lay ahead.
This scene, at its heart, was always underground. On the fringes of dance music, the law and even society itself. This is why, when cities felt abandoned and cut adrift, the techno scene flourished. Just as the hedgehogs and tenrecs adapt and evolve, similarly yet independently, in the face of trying to survive in a harsh environment, techno did the very same.
Like the parallel development of these small mammals, the evolutionary mantra for Detroit and Berlin’s techno denizens was always clear, ‘Adapt; Survive; Thrive’. And that they have.