Of course here at Underground, we’re a fans of scenes and cultures that thrive underground. Today is the 40th birthday of one our favourite, one of the best, and one of the longest running: SO36 club in Berlin.
Berlin as a city itself has always been a hotbed for underground culture. Post-war and walled, the division that became West Berlin was cut off and deprived of much. Though, like in all times of despair and decline, the district became a hub for covert music, arts and theatre. Seedy vaudeville, political factions and defiant subcultures cultivated sub-level. One particularly charged neighborhood was- and still is- Kreuzberg. An area gentrified now, it was one of the lowest income areas closest to the wall, and was often likened to New York’s Lower East Side. Kreuzberg is still home to many of Berlin’s best-known clubs, and you can still find S036 on Oranienstraße today. Due to the areas restricted and oppressive past, the community puts in a lot of work to ensure that the area is a diverse, creative and open neighborhood- SO36 operates well within this effort.
The site itself has long battled under ownership for more than a century; though it’s earliest roots can be traced to a pub in the 1860’s. From there it struggled as a cinema- one of the first in Berlin and even survived WW2- and as an unsuccessful supermarket in a proximity struggling with severe poverty. It wasn’t until 40 years ago today that Punk reached Berlin, and the building found it’s famed cause as an underground Punk venue.
Three young immigrants living in the area hoping to open a music space adopted the lease. Sadly, we were unable to pin down the names of these proprietors, but we’d be grateful if anyone could let us know. They asked painter Martin Kippenberger to join the following year, and as the manager/business director he transformed the building into the iconic subcultural hub we know it to be today.
Though not named SO36- the area’s postcode- until 1982, it built a steady reputation and USP from the moment Punk hit the streets. It became known as the European CBGB’s, as Kippenberger ingeniously incorporated the space as a venue for music, art, film and sculpture. He saw Punk transforming/burning out too, and ensured the place adopted New Wave and Post Punk movements, known as Neue Deutsche Welle. It was here in the eighties that the venue thrived thoroughly- securing shows with every Punk band touring through Europe. It gave a platform for German Punk bands to perform, bands like Malaria!, Die Tödliche Doris and Einstürzende Neubauten. It became a favourite hangout to Bowie, Eno and Pop when they lived in the area. Dead Kennedys came to SO36 in the winter of 1982, and although the venue could only hold around 500 people, this night saw 1000 people cramming into the dingy sweatbox to mosh and crowd surf through the night. Sadly, not long after this show, the venue was deemed structurally unsafe and the site was shut down. The owners lost a lot of money; the squatters moved in. Though the place still held under-cover illegal parties, it was not until the 1990’s that the building was refurbished back to a concert venue- the one you can visit today.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down- and changed the city forever. The world in fact. Culture and communities in the area had new, incredible opportunities and space to flourish. During the next decade, the club held a legendary Electric Ballroom for the gay Techno scene alongside the many Punk bands still visiting. This soon spread to the gay Turkish community, as Fatma Souad began playing there in the later part of the 90’s. This was called Gayhane and was known as a Western-Oriental party. Today many gay Muslims frequent SO36 and these parties start at around 1am, and the music is mostly Arabic, Indian and Turkish.
Between then and now, the club closed and re-opened a few more times- for renovations and for rent issues. It seems that today, the council, community and owners are working together to keep the venue safe and thriving. Recent bands to play at the club include IDLES, L7 and The Damned.
Crucially, the venue fronts efforts to keep the gentrified area a diverse and prosperous community for all. Doing so through an organization known as Sub-Opus. Here they strive to accept all people, encourage creativity and make sure history will never repeat itself. Gentrification is the enemy now, and the owners do what they can to avoid propagating the problem.
All in all, one of the most fascinating and robust venues in the world- a place providing nurture for subculture and art to grow. It’s legacy has helped shape Berlin’s reputation as one of the world’s most creatively galvanised, sub-culturally spirited and forward-thinking cities.It’s vibration spreads past music, past art and past film to mould the everyday lives of Berlin’s inhabitants. Considering how it was, for so many years, a living metaphor of the exact opposite of that is an awe-inspiring feat of the fearlessness and endurance of humanity.
To end, here are some words on the gigs at SO36 from the book ‘Musical Performance and the Changing City’:
“During shows, I have witnessed community dynamics so vibrant it gave me a new perspective on the power of this music and of live music clubs. It was not so much the stage diving or other rituals, but more intangible energies of the crowd that could be registered in the totality of micro-level interactions and in moments of collective effervescence.”