From creative courage to drug abuse in the industry: Creative Audio Production & Sound Engineering student Stas Gutnova reflects on the modern-day lessons of legendary Berlin musician Mark Reeder’s nostalgic recent Guest Session. The ‘on the couch’ event was organised by the Netherlands’ fantastic Rock City Institute as part of their Schoolclash intercultural exchange visit.
“The island of escape” and “the avant-garde music and performing arts scene” are quotes still widely used to describe the city of Berlin. The once notorious wall separating the West from the East inspired many musicians to come together at the most strenuous of times and create something completely out of the ordinary. This is precisely what sparked Mark Reeder, who presented the first of Catalyst’s 2018 Guest Sessions, to move from Manchester to Berlin in 1972. He has never left this city since.
“The once notorious wall separating the West from the East inspired many musicians to come together at the most strenuous of times and create something completely out of the ordinary”
As one of the creators of trance music and an owner of MFS, the electronic dance label that once curated Paul van Dyk, Mark’s story was intricate and exciting. He was also the protagonist of cult documentary B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989, a fast-paced collage of unreleased film and TV footage from the frenzied decade. However, his devil-may-care approach to the music industry and performing techniques raised many questions for me – especially on drug abuse and its continued prevalence in today’s scene.
It goes without saying that the ‘80s is a huge trend today. Starting with high-waisted mom jeans and ending with the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, there’s no denying our generation’s love of glorifying the ‘80s style and aesthetics in all aspects. In fact, we love it so blindly and so much that we almost wish we’d been born on time to have lived it ourselves.
“Electric guitars, along with any non-traditional instruments such as synthesizers and drum machines, were prohibited in East Germany due to the heavy censorship enforced by the Soviet government”
Certainly, we forget and somewhat underappreciate the stability and opportunities of our time, versus the hardship of the yet-to-be-reunified, post-World War II Berlin. Mark explained the struggles and the thrill of travelling across Berlin. Electric guitars, along with any non-traditional instruments such as synthesizers and drum machines, were prohibited in East Germany due to the heavy censorship enforced by the Soviet government. Any instrument brought over to the East required its own travel visa; meaning one had to first explain their intentions as a musician. If the Communists approved, you could take your instrument. However, as you might already know, the Communists were only okay with a very narrow list of songs.
Nonetheless, all of these restrictions didn’t stop Mark from entering the “sci-fi parallel reality” that East Germany was for him and others from the West. His band at the time, Die Unbekannten, whose synth-pop rock was very representative of the early ‘80s, even hosted a secret gig in Czechoslovakia. “Rules were meant to be broken” for young Mark. But you might wonder, how did he and his band manage to smuggle all their instruments to the East?
Well, since there was no way to get them in legally, Mark had found a loophole. As it happened, one church was permitted to have an electric guitar and even to perform Bob Dylan songs as part of its mass. So, with the help of Christen and Suzanne, party organisers Mark met in East Germany, Die Unbekannten’s gig took place in that church in 1983. In fact, the Stasi informant who was supposed to call the police on the gig turned out to be one of Mark’s close friends. But even the informants were fond of hearing Western music once in a while, so the event was a success.
“The idea of even one’s circle of close friends being infiltrated by the Secret Police had me wondering how difficult it must have been to make friends, or to trust people at all”
The idea of even one’s circle of close friends being infiltrated by the Secret Police had me wondering how difficult it must have been to make friends, or to trust people at all. A clear modern parallel arose in my head. Today, we as a society willingly reveal every aspect of our lives to social media for praise. We may have hundreds, or even thousands, of followers and yet fewer and fewer friends. For me personally, taking a social media break was an act of self-care and a very creative time musically. I had been experiencing a lot of anxiety, stemming from Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, which hindered my ability to make music. The possibility of an instant response from your audience can be simultaneously teaching and scarring. People feel safer being rude behind their keyboards in the seclusion of their homes. To me, haters disguised as friendly followers is as paranoia inducing as the thought of being watched by the Stasi.
Drunk on the success of breaking the law of the East, Mark went on to smuggle music cassettes as well as illegal substances, playing with his freedom like a kid with fire. He justified his behaviour as something that kept him on his toes and gave him inspiration to produce musical content. Without a doubt, this was effective for him and other successful musicians of the time.
“Unfortunately, substance abuse is to this day a prevalent topic in the music industry. We lose at least three to five well-known young DJs, singers or producers every year.”
Today, however, news, scientific research papers and mental healthcare resources are readily available to everyone via the internet. They provide us with undeniable evidence of the damage drugs can have on the human mind and body. Drugs such as psychedelics and MDMA were part of the Berlin music scene experience in the ‘80s. But, in my humble opinion, the continuation of this lifestyle decades later destroys the creativity and individuality of artists. It moulds Generation X into something the previous generation used to be. I am a firm believer that we can draw inspiration from the ‘80s sound, basslines and drum patterns, without also imitating the shadier aspects of the era. We should moreover be taking a healthy, self-caring and loving approach to music.
Unfortunately, substance abuse is to this day a prevalent topic in the music industry. We lose at least three to five well-known young DJs, singers or producers every year. The deaths of Mac Miller, 26, and Avicii, 28, this year shook social media. Seeing such talented artists go so soon really makes me question if our society is really as compassionate as we deem ourselves to be. Perhaps the reality is that we are hypocrites, pushing each other to the edge through a constant stream of likes, comments and shares.
As much as the music industry has evolved since the ‘80s, we are still endorsing and glorifying illegal substances as God’s miracle of creativity. All the while, we underpay and under-hire female producers and allow labels to exploit musicians to absolute extremes. To say the least, we have a very long path ahead to build bridges over neglected compassion, care and mutual understanding as a community.
There are many things to be learnt and reintroduced into our lives from the wild ‘80s, but never at the expense of one’s bodily and mental health. While, in the traumatising wake of a World War, drugs must have been an understandable escape, we are fortunate enough to live in comparatively peaceful times. With that in mind, we can take away a positive message from Mark Reeder’s reckless adventures: When it comes to creating and following our dreams, we should always be courageous.