Still Raving Westbam, the Greying Godfather of Techno
Techno as both a musical genre and cultural movement is largely passé. So what's a lifetime DJ like Westbam, one of the earliest impresarios of the German techno scene, to do? He's still making music, and has just released a new album full of collaborations with pop music elites. And the excesses of his past have taught him an important lesson on humility.
Around 1980, when techno DJ Westbam was about 15 and was still called Maximilian Lenz, living in his parents' house in the northern German city of Münster, he used to listen to the Stranglers, a British punk band. When he heard singer Hugh Cornwall singing that there were "No More Heroes," he was in complete agreement. From then on, Cornwall was his hero.
Today, 33 years later, the hero is standing in a pub in North London, next to Maximilian Lenz, who now goes by the name Westbam and is an international star.
"Here in this basement," Cornwell, now 63, says to Westbam, "we, the Stranglers, gave our first performance in London, but only one person came to see us."
These are the kinds of stories that stars tell each other at a time when pop, more than half a century after it was invented as a genre, is mostly a historic phenomenon.
In the summer of 1990, more than half a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the old men of Pink Floyd gave a concert in the desert that was Potsdamer Platz at the time. Some 500 meters away, in an old power plant, there was an illegal rave. It was like a changing of the guard. Techno was destined to, and would, displace rock music. And Westbam was its most programmatic and popular representative.
"No More Fucking Rock and Roll" was one of his songs at the time, but that is now close to 23 years ago. Today techno itself is a historic phenomenon. Last year, Germany's Suhrkamp publishing company published the first oral history book about the techno era: "The Sound of Family."
Learning About Humility
Westbam, who turned 48 a few weeks ago, was one of the important co-inventors of this DJ movement. He shaped, popularized, repeatedly explained and defended it; he was a co-founder and later figurehead of the Love Parade; and he stood atop the Victory Column in Berlin, directing the movements of 1.3 million people with his music. Under those circumstances, who wouldn't go a little crazy after a while? He wanted to turn techno into a global movement, one that went far beyond music, and he wrote a manifesto calling for a "raving society." Another Westbam track was called "We'll Never Stop Living This Way."
He founded a record company that was called Low Spirit, but was simply referred to as "the techno empire." With Low Spirit, he discovered performers like Marusha and Mark 'Oh, who were soon selling millions of records. He became rich and powerful, and he bought condominiums and houses. Of course he hardly slept for a few years, took drugs instead, and lost friends. Some of his fellow pioneers crashed and burned, as the Love Parade became a drinking party marred by disaster and the movement ended where all youth movements eventually end: half of it in commerce and the other half in rehab.
Westbam was also stricken by an identity crisis, but more about that later. He learned about humility at the time, he says today. He toned down his activities, kept recording music and sold a great deal less, and yet he remained an icon and a pioneer.
His new album is called "Götterstraße" ("Street of the Gods"), which is why he is now in London. He composed electronic songs and thought about who could contribute the vocals. He thought back to his youth in Münster, where, as he says, he was "the first punk," and it made him think of New Order and their singer, Bernard Sumner, Psychedelic Furs singer Richard Butler and Iggy Pop, but also of modern hip-hop artists like Kanye West and Lil Wayne. And then there is Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers, the hero of his teenage years.
The result is a breathtaking work of great clarity, because the pared-down order of Westbam's instrumentation gives these great voices of pop music space to sing with raspy voices and be imperfect, adding warmth to the spare electronic music.
Mythical Knowledge, Biblical Language
A crew from the German TV network Arte has come to London. They're filming for a show called "Into the Night With " which chronicles the first meeting of two celebrities. They've brought along an enormous Rolls Royce, which they use to film the rocker and the DJ as they drive through the London night, visiting record stores, guitar shops and a Picasso exhibition, and talking about their lives and music.
Most people find it difficult to have an interesting conversation in front of a rolling camera with someone who is more or less a stranger. Not DJ Westbam, who is capable of immediately conversing about just about everything intelligently, precisely and quickly. It's a reputation he has always had. For instance, he was always said to be a specialist in the works of Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, and to be as familiar with German idealism as with the Bible or the Koran. It was something people never really believed about him, because it sounded too good to be true. And there are too many idiots in the nightlife environment for Westbam to have tolerated it for long.
The first thing you notice is his language. Westbam sounds professional and precise when he speaks, sometimes lending a biblical tone to his diction through the use of big, dramatic words.
Maximilian Lenz was the child of two artists. His parents met at the art academy in Düsseldorf, where they were in the same class with Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. Some time ago, says Westbam, they discovered a few pieces by Polke in the attic of his parents' house. The parents were hippies who later moved to a farm. Westbam tries to paint a picture of a longhaired, much younger version of himself going to demonstrations against the Vietnam War. His father became a professor of art education, but died at an early age, his mother still paints difficult, surrealistic works and his sister is also a painter. His younger brother Fabian followed Westbam into the techno business, where he became known as DJ Dick. He was involved with Low Spirit, but the two brothers eventually had a falling out and parted ways.
On the day after the meeting with Cornwell, the DJ visits the Tate Modern. While walking through the museum, he talks about the anti-authoritarian child he was. When he grew up, he became a self-made millionaire and shaped the hedonistic youth movement that, in many respects, marked the end of the '68 generation. The members of that generation probably wouldn't have had a problem with dancing and drugs, but how would they have felt about the lack of politics, content and protest in the techno movement? Instead there was affirmation, because subversion had become bleak and empty. The children of the techno age preferred being for something, embracing the consumer culture and milking the system. They had no interest in fighting against it.
All of this is horrifying for anyone from the generation of the 1960s. How did Westbam's mother deal with what her son was doing? Westbam thinks about the question for a moment. Then he says: "Even as a hippie, she was naturally glad that she no longer had to worry about her children's finances."
Of course, at the same time, says Westbam, he was his parents' child. There was also continuity between the hippie and the rave movements. What's the big difference between Woodstock and the Love Parade, anyway? And his attempt to create a conceptual framework for raving was always an effort by the child of middle-class intellectuals to give meaning to his actions.
- Part 1: Westbam, the Greying Godfather of Techno
- Part 2: Working For Music, Not For Money