Westbam is the titan of German techno. To celebrate his 50th birthday he has released a German-language autobiography, "The Power of the Night," a first-hand account of the rise of Germany's legendary techno scene.
"Westbam, for me, is all about the beats, to which you need to dance," says Marco, 34 years of age. "Stronger, more intense, more energetic beats than was the standard until Westbam took the stage. Even stronger than what the standard is today." Over 3000 techno disciples gathered at Berlin's Columbia Hall on the weekend for "Maxrave" in celebration of Maximilian Lenz and to celebrate the release of his book. The speakers are booming, the smoke machine on full steam and a suitably techno laser show bathes the hall in an ocean of colors, from green to red and blue. Westbam fan Marco has traveled all the way from near Münster in Westphalia, where Maximilian Lenz spent much of his childhood. It's a place that also informed his stage name: Westbam is an abbreviation of "Westphalia Bambaataa," Bambaataa name-checking and honoring pioneering New York hip-hop DJ Afrika Bambaataa, a huge influence on Lenz.
Marching to a different beat
Along with Sven Väth, Westbam is Germany's most famous DJ. Songs like "Sunshine," "Sonic Empire" and "Beatbox Rocker" have not only managed to conquer club dancefloors across the planet, but also break through to popular music charts and mass-market compilation albums, such as Germany's hugely popular "Bravo Hits" series.
A musical career, however, wasn't always apparent for Lenz, as he writes in "The Power of the Night." Acoustic guitars don't do much for him and he finds singing stressful. "There were lots of sounds which turned me on more: hammering nails, burning plastic bags […] or crushing Matchbox cars in a vice," he writes. He finally found a genre that made sense to him. "March music was my first love!" For the young Maximilian it was "the first experience of freedom and adventure." The burgeoning musical career of the young Lenz, however, first went less in the direction of the "hum ta ta" of German military marching bands or futuristic "umts, pats, umpts" of techno - but towards punk.
Maximilian Lenz joined the "MS-Punks" (MS standing for Münster), an anti-establishment collective riling against pretty much everything. He named his first band Anormal Null (Abnormal Zero), and his musical heroes included groups like D.A.F. and Ideal. In 1981 Lenz and friends founded the punk group Kriegsschauplatz Tempodrom (Theatre of War Tempodrom) especially for the "Festival of Brilliant Amateurs" in West Berlin. He had recently met punk legend Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzenden Neubauten, who invited him to play at the festival.
From punk to techno
For the young Max, Berlin was "wonderful from the first second," he writes in "The Power of the Night." Westbam recalls the extreme scenes in the former Berlin club Metropol: the local gay community dancing to unfamiliar hard electronic beats that had spilled across the oceans from faraway Chicago. "Now a robot voice begins in rhythm with the beats, counting down. 10, 9, 8…a siren, a thunderous sound, a new synth riff, a new meaning for the word population explosion, screams, whistles, hysteria. Public energy. Total ecstasy. It was a completely different intensity from the one I previously knew from other clubs." Lenz was "shocked and intrigued at the same time" and - completely transformed.
His first gig as a DJ was at the Odeon in Münster, where he went by the name of DJ Captain Xerox - a throwback to Frank Xerox, his nom de guerre from the punk years. For his first gigs he was paid 75 deutschmarks - later doubled to 150. "The fee seemed astronomically high," Westbam writes, "but William [his manager] said that one day I would get 500! Yes, even 1000!" The days where the DJ would touch the turntables for 1000 DM are long, long gone.
Techno without drugs
The story of techno is not complete, of course, without talking about the drugs. Reading "The Power of the Night" one gets the sense that the two are intrinsically linked - that the non-stop party couldn't go on without the chemicals. However, for Westbam the party was over on July 24, 2010 in Duisburg, where 21 people died at the "Love Parade" in a serious accident. Westbam cancelled his appearance. He had DJed each "Love Parade" from 1989-2008, the only one to do so. In the early 1990s he launched his second major project with his brother Fabian Lenz (DJ Dick): "Mayday." The event quickly became the largest indoor rave party in Germany - starting in Berlin and later moving to Dortmund. Up to 25,000 fans descend on the techno pilgrimage each year.
Fade up, fade down, done
Before Maximilian Lenz' debut at the Odeon in 1983 - which he kicked off with "Bela Lugosi's Dead" from Bauhaus - he recalls some advice from house technicians as to how to operate the decks: "'Just before the record is finished you start the second turntable. No pause between songs. Fade up, fade down, done. And that was about all you need to know as a DJ." Well, almost true. Over the coming years the newcomer developed his unique style - adapting to different speeds with the pitch controller until the tracks synchronize to one another. Hence, the audible shift between the two tracks is removed and the transition becomes seamless.
"I had to learn what DJing was all about: to know well before what comes next," he writes in his book. This idea is still relevant today. "I am thrilled, I must confess," 57-year-old Michael says of the gig at Columbia Hall. He wears a shirt and jacket and chic artistic glasses. It's Michael's first time to a techno event, and he is accompanied by his 17-year-old son. "Sure, it is pretty loud, but the energy in the room is phenomenal. It propels you - in a beautiful, joyous way. And the beat does not stop!"