"Lessons of the past through the music of the future"? Underworld and Public Service Broadcasting live in Berlin
This is the fourth in a series of short articles following a recent trip to Berlin. The first article, A weekend in Berlin, provides some historical context while the second, A bike tour through Stasiland, describes a bike trip from Neukölln, taking in the Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park, the Stasi Museum and the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial. The third article recalls a football match in the forest, FC Union Berlin, an unforgettable experience at the incomparable "Stadium by the old forester's house" (Stadion An der Alten Försterei).
This article, a review of two gigs we were lucky enough to see during our stay in Berlin, emphasises the German capitals credentials as a fantastic destination for live music and nightlife.
Notwithstanding the dark historical story the city has to tell, the stimulus for this particular visit to Berlin was the announcement that influential electronic music pioneers Underworld would be playing at city's Columbiahalle as part of their European tour. Located in the Kreuzberg district, next to Tempelhofer Park, Columbiahalle has been an important venue for live music in Berlin since 1998. Its size and vibe provide the perfect setting for an Underworld gig.
My first encounter with Underworld was a life changing event at Irvine Beach Park in Scotland 20 years previously. Underworld's music has been a constant presence in my life ever since.
With the recent anniversary of the seminal Dubnobasswithmyheadman album and high profile gigs on BBC6Music, as well as a new album to promote (Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future), Underworld have been in the public eye recently.
In Berlin Underworld were removed from the pressures and expectations of promotion and, compared to the relatively restrained performance on 6Music, they seemed to be having a great time. That's how it looked from where I was standing/bouncing anyway!
They belted out classic barnstorming anthems like Dark and Long, Rez/Cowgirl and Born Slippy, alongside new material like I Exhale (an instant classic) and Low Burn (haunting and persistent) from the critically acclaimed new album.
As always with Underworld, the visuals were stunning - drawing you deeper into the music. Hyde, ever the showman, performed his trademark high-energy, high drama, high camp dance moves which, in my mind at least, define cool. Smith, the technician, always a captivating presence behind the console, joined on stage by prolific DJ and producer Darren Price, who replaced original band member Darren Emerson in 2005.
From T in the Park, to V98, Irvine Beach Park to the Manchester Evening News Arena, Underworld gigs have been a regular source of unbridled hedonistic pleasure for me. But their music is so much more than disengage-your-brain rave music. It has a depth, timelessness and resonance that is unusual for dance music. Dubnobassinmyhead and Second Toughest in the Infants sound just as good today as they did twenty years ago. From dingy student flats in the pre-dawn hours to the final few strides of the Verona marathon, Underworld is the music of my life. With those friends with whom I have shared their music there exists a special bond. To those unforgettable moments, Columbia Halle, Berlin, Germany now joins that list.
But the music didn't stop there. For us the weekend was a doubleheader.
Arriving on Thursday, we had originally planned to return home to wives and family on Saturday. That plan was swiftly mothballed when Public Service Broadcasting announced that they would also be playing Berlin (at the adjoining Columbia theatre) that same weekend.
My brother and I have a long harboured fascination for the Apollo space programme, kick started by Kennedy's inspirational "We choose to go to the moon speech" and its imploration to constantly test yourself and seek out new challenges. I count among my favourite books Andrew Smith's inspirational Moondust, which explores the moon landings from the very human perspective of the 12 men who walked on the moon.
So, imagine a hip young band that embraces our fascination for the moon landings, incorporates historical audio from the time and has a contemporary electronic sound. This is basically Public Service Broadcasting. I've tried to explain the attraction to a number of people, but doing so makes for rather awkward conversation. I guess you just have to be there!
Less intense than the Underworld gig two nights before, PSB was nonetheless a fantastic way to round off our trip to Berlin. The venue was small, bright and well serviced (if that counts as a criteria on which to judge a gig). On the big screen behind the band, vintage newsreel footage accompanied each song. The highlight of the playlist was undoubtedly "GO!", which culminates in Apollo flight director Gene Kranz asking his flight controllers if they are ready to land on the moon. Only if they all affirm can the historic landing go ahead. Armstrong’s famous ‘Eagle has landed’ rings out and the audience joins in with a final euphoric chorus of ‘Go!. Again, perhaps you have to be there!
The band were well received and were happy to mingle with fans after the gig. As polite and well mannered as you'd expect from someone who habitually performs in a bow-tie and tweed jacket and refers to himself as J. Willgoose, Esq, PSB are unashamedly proud of their geek credentials (in fact, beneath the carefully contrived exterior I suspect there may be an alpha male jock in disguise!).
PSBs self-proclaimed mission is to inform, educate and entertain audiences around the globe. They certainly did that in Berlin. Teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future, they have just finished their European tour and new material is expected later in the year. I for one, will be very interested to see where they go next.
Richard Hough writes about history, football, wine, whisky, culture + travel and is currently working on a trilogy about wartime Verona.