(printed on a Front T-shirt)
The typical club coordinates in Hamburg in the mid-1980s moved somewhere between mod culture and northern soul or post-punk and wave – in locations such as Kir – and disco preppydom at Trinity, Voilà and Stairways. The port of call was usually chosen by whether the evening plans focused on music and dancing, women or drinking. Some locations would satisfactorily cover all these needs, but in Hamburg it’s always been customary to frequent new locations as soon as an imbalance of these factors becomes too apparent. DJs usually didn’t do any mixing in those days and the music was often quite a wild potpourri of styles, so the nightlife crowd was used to only dancing to a couple of tracks and spending the rest of the night doing other things.
However, a little off the beaten track, near Berliner Tor, there was Front, a club Willi Prange opened in 1983. In 1984, Klaus Stockhausen from Cologne became the resident DJ and like his fellow DJs in others parts of town, he played a mixture of boogie, synthpop, electro, hi-energy and Italo. However, in the eyes of the rest of the city, Front soon had a special status. The main reason for that was probably that most of the guests were gay, that is if one can believe hearsay, who didn’t mind partying the weekend away so far-off from the usual Reeperbahn and Alster area haunts. On the other hand, what was perhaps even more deciding was Stockhausen, who was miles ahead of his colleagues in many ways. I first heard about his amazing DJ skills from one of my best friends, who was a few years older than me and had been frequenting Front since 1984. One evening he’d persuaded Stockhausen to sell him a set of live recordings on tape, for quite a lofty sum – well, the man certainly knew what he was worth.
When I heard the tapes for the first time, I was pretty stunned. I’d always had a weakness for all kinds of danceable music, but what you could do with it when you mix it was totally new to me then. I spotted certain parts of my record collection, but somehow it all sounded different, more energetic and more exciting. There were many instrumental versions, laced with sound effects, scratching and a cappella vocals. You could hear different records playing at the same time, sometimes for several minutes on end, or certain parts for just a few seconds. Most of the time I couldn’t even tell the tracks apart anymore, and I didn’t have a clue how he did it. Moreover, the choice of music was always both very stylish and adventurous. Must be mind-blowing to hear him perform live, I thought.
The nights at Front were already quite a steamy affair at that time, but things really took off at the end of 1985, when Tractor and later Rocco and Container Records started stocking the first house imports. In fact, I only really noticed house when “Jack Your Body” and “Love Can’t Turn Around” suddenly became hits in 1986, but I took an instant liking to it. It seemed like the perfect synthesis of all sorts of club styles, and yet it was also really basic and direct. A promising variation in the chronology of disco music, so to speak. And according to ear witnesses, house was monopolized as of day one at Front, even though there weren’t that many records you could buy, but whatever was available, you could hear it at Front. The European club landscape is admittedly too diverse and extensive to pinpoint where things were actually sparked off exactly, but if you take a look at the musical history books of other countries, Hamburg was in there damn early, without even making a big fuss about it. The regular weekend guests from England certainly seemed to have set out to the touristic wasteland on Heidenkampsweg with full intent to dance and were not there by chance.
The first time I was actually part of the bizarre queue that lined up in good time in front of the stairs leading down to the club was in early 1987. I was almost of age and a little tense. It seemed as if the cool guys around me could hardly wait to be let in by the grumpy moustached geezer who was in charge of the cellar door. The proud majority of the audience consisted of pretty boys in glamorous outfits and half-naked muscle-packed leather types, and there were plenty of them, later to be found on the dance floor, dancing and screaming their hearts out in delight. The club itself was anything but glamorous – “bare” would be putting it mildly. There was nothing on the walls apart from a few emergency exit signs on which the word “danger” blinked from time to time and intermittent slide projections of meaningless phrases like “I mean… is he…” or “…and suddenly…”. The dance floor was surrounded by low platforms with railings which – owing to the low ceiling – meant you were even closer to the nasty tweeter loudspeakers of the sound system that wasn’t exactly good, but it was very effective and, what’s more, very loud. The light-show merely consisted of different-coloured fluorescent tubes, sporadically lighting up the dark dance floor at incomprehensible intervals. And in contrast to other clubs in Hamburg at the time, it was very dark, not to mention the incredible fug of more or less naked bodies that was dripping from the ceiling or channelled back onto the street by the ventilation system, pouring out right next to the entrance as a thick cloud of steam, as if announcing to the outside world like the smoke at a papal conclave what levels of excess had been mutually reached that weekend.
Front was a place that you’d go to in order to dance, rather than to pose, although you could of course also do both if necessary, and wander from left to right, spellbound by the booming splendour. The atmosphere was extremely physical and highly sexed: the Front kids had designed their temple, paying reverence to hedonism with unconditional allegiance. In fact, nothing mattered as long as it was fun. If you left the dance floor, not that anyone would ever want to, the only distraction was a bar with a few benches, one floor down, whose drinks taps were tipped to the beat accompanied by the sounds of partying bar staff – often dressed in torero outfits. Other distractions included the notorious toilets, which were extraordinarily highly frequented and snubbed any notions of segregation of the sexes, as well as a pinball machine that never worked. The exuberance was deliberate, controlled from a DJ area which was very different to those in any other clubs in one respect: you couldn’t see the DJ. It was an elevated dark booth that you accessed through a door from the dance floor, and the DJ – whom you could only catch glimpses of – could look out through two tiny crenels. That had the effect that you concentrated on the music and sometimes it seemed as if it was coming from another world, although you were fully aware, of course, that the master of ceremonies responsible was something special, applauded with screams of delight on the dance floor. Clearly a renunciation of the elsewhere increasingly popular trend of hero-worshipping specific DJs – a trend that was ultimately the reason why Stockhausen laid down his headphones forever in 1991 to pursue an equally successful career as a fashion editor for well-known lifestyle magazines. I only found out many years later what he actually looked like, thanks to a series of photos in a city magazine, though it didn’t really matter anyway. The same went for his highly talented successor Boris Dlugosch, who became Stockhausen’s protégé as of 1986 and took over the baton after he left, directing the next era of the club just as stylishly – as did other DJs such as Michael Braune, Michi Lange, Sören Schnakenberg and Merve Japes. In time, more and more celebrities came, but were hardly taken any notice of.
These conditions didn’t change much in the years that followed. There were rituals like the quadraphonic test record that crackled away with the lights turned off, usually heralding in the final phase with a review of disco classics, though the Front’s sound system made even those sound like they’d been reborn in a ball of lightning. There were various wild and special events plus the annual birthday bash where, believe it or not, everything was turned one notch higher. Unforgotten is also the performance of an innocent busker who, on the outbreak of the first Gulf War, was engaged ad hoc on the high street and nervously played “Give Peace A Chance” on his guitar to an ecstatic audience.
In the developments of house music and all the various different styles emerging from it, Front served as a tough yardstick in the following years. First came the acid phase, which also conquered the rest of Hamburg in other new locations such as Opera House, Shag and Shangri-La, and the first wave of Detroit techno was welcomed with open arms. In those days, trips to clubs in other cities were often rather disappointing by comparison, and you soon looked forward to the next night out at home. In 1989 the New York hybrids of techno and house from Nu Groove and Strictly Rhythm followed, and the post-acid developments from Britain, such as Bleeps or Shut Up And Dance and 4hero, generally referred to as breakbeat techno back then, were also received to some acclaim. When techno started to increasingly define itself in terms of hardness as of ‘91, Front returned to its groove roots, leaving the speed-freaks to get on with it at locations like the first Unit. Overnight, garage and deep house were virtually mixed to new heights under the aegis of Dlugosch, without losing any of the easygoing dynamics on the dance floor: the delirious frenzy just happened to sound a little different now. Front embodied thrust and style and had brought its followers up on house to its best ability, which is why Hamburg never became much of a techno city compared to other metropolises. The club featured in Face, I-D and Tempo magazine as a world-class location and, with Dlugosch, was at least on a par with purely house and garage clubs in the USA and England, and was practically unrivalled on the continent for many years, which was underpinned by the fact that Front soon started to book big names from abroad. DJ Pierre slipped up on Wild Pitch and made up for it with acid meets garage; Mike Hitman Wilson botched up completely; Frankie Knuckles put a towel round his shoulders, placed a bottle of cognac and a desk fan in front of him and then set out to communicate just that; the Murk Boys were mutual love at first sight; and Derrick May didn’t want to stop.
But the first guests also offered insights into other scenes, which got more and more club-goers interested, and competition in Hamburg soared, generally using Front as the benchmark. The gay crowd felt increasingly more corned by prying eyes, and eventually the faces of the first generation gradually stopped coming and started going elsewhere. Not only the spirit of the pioneering age was waning but also the music began to lose its intensity. Even the 24-hour petrol station round the corner suddenly shut down. Nevertheless, like many others I felt privileged to have witnessed the emergence of house, happening live at such a special place that we all still carry in our hearts. At some point the show ran by itself and at other venues – as of ’94, I went there far less frequently, until I got a wake-up call in ‘97 when I suddenly heard about the farewell party. I preferred to remember it as it was in its heyday and decided not to go. Befitting for a truly legendary club, the deco was later auctioned like relics to the highest bidders. But I already had the perfect souvenir and it still adorns my door: the sign of the ladies’ toilets, mysteriously stuck to my T-shirt one Sunday afternoon when I woke up on the floor at a friend’s place still in my outfit from the night before. Those were the days. Klaus Stockhausen is still the best DJ I’ve ever heard and for me the club’s intensity is still unparalleled, minus a bit of sentimental glorification. It left a deep impression on me. Whenever I drive into Hamburg coming from Berlin, I always steal a glance at the Leder-Schüler building and hear music in my head. This used to be my playground.
Many thanks to Walter Fasshauer, Patrick Lazhar and Frank Ilgener.
R.I.P. Willi Prange and Phillip Clarke