Roxy Munich: the archaeology of Disco

Introduction

The spiritual hauptstadt of modern totalitarianism is perhaps an unusual place to look for the roots of an ostensibly black musical genre, one imbued with notions of hedonism, abandon and the gay counter-culture. Yet it can be argued that the post-war settlement of Germany, and specifically the occupation of the southern part of the country by American forces, brought about the requisite conditions for the conception of a new music, one indeed which was to spawn much of what is considered dance or electronic music today.

Received narratives of the origins of disco music invariably reference emergent underground gay culture in the New York of the mid-1970s. While disco certainly emerged from this milieu and quickly gained cultural hegemony on both sides of the Atlantic, its early origins have left an archaeological trace in the suburbs of Munich, where the defining artefact, the mixing desk of a home-made recording studio, survives unused in a barn in rural Upper Bavaria.

This brief paper examines embryonic disco in the context of cross-Atlantic cultural and technological exchange with reference to the concept of the ‘familiar past?’ (Tarlow and West 1999) — a central concern in the archaeological investigation of the contemporary past. As archaeologists operating in post medieval contexts, we deal with an abundance of artefactual evidence, a function of working through periods when mass-production and consumerism were transforming the lives of those populations we try to make sense of. In the realm of the contemporary past, archaeologists are confronted with a superabundance of such data. As Buchli and Lucas have noted such archaeologists ‘tend to direct themselves to that which is forgotten, to attempt literally and metaphorically to find what has been ‘buried’ and obscured, sorting through the hyperactive creation and dissipation of resources, information and material goods’ (2001, 79). The recovery of the origins of disco as an archaeological construct, ‘buried’ in a Munich basement, is part of an on-going project being undertaken by the writer and Thomas Meinecke, a Munich-based writer and musician.

The Munich Machine

The producer not generally accredited with the ‘invention’ of disco was a German-speaking South Tyrolean musician and disc jockey, Hansjörg Moroder; however, if disco was ‘invented’ anywhere, Munich was the city of conception. Moroder started djing to black American troops in the early ‘60s in bases throughout Bavaria, spinning imported r’n’b and soul before releasing music of his own as ‘Giorgio’ in 1966, singing in a variety of styles and indeed in several languages. Moroder came to international prominence in 1969 when he was awarded a gold disc for ‘Looky Looky’ released on Ariola Records. From this point onwards he concentrated more on production and moved from Berlin to Munich where Ariola had established a base.

In the unassuming northeastern suburb of Bogenhausen, Moroder developed Musicland, a studio in the basement of the Arabella-Hochhaus, a 23-storey, 170m-long apartment block designed by architect Toby Schmidbauer and constructed from 1966 to 1969. Moroder took an apartment in the then-fashionable apartment block just after it opened and seems to have quickly fashioned a small studio in the basement beside the massive boiler room with the assistance of his cohort, recording engineer Reinhold Mack. Although it was recognised later that the upper floors of the hotel provided petulant recording artistes an opportunity to throw TV sets at the most expensive cars parked below, this does not appear to have been part of the duo’s initial business strategy. However, the studio’s completion was only ensured by the unannounced appearance of Marc Bolan one afternoon in the basement as Moroder and Mack were still in the process of fitting it out.

From here his initial experimentation with proto-electronica was funded on the back of studio fees from T Rex, whose imperator brought in bookings from, among others, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Rory Gallagher. The Electric Light Orchestra and Queen were however to be the mainstays over the next few years, ably engineered by Mack. Mack, a self-effacing, reluctant raconteur of rock’n’roll lore began his career, as most studio engineers do, a humble studio tea boy. Over the initial period of fieldwork at Musicland, we explored the small local park where Gerhard Vates, another tea boy, was instructed by Jeff Lynne to source vegetation to place on the floor for ELO’s ‘Jungle’ in 1976.

Moroder’s combined interest in r’n’b and studio technology brought him in a different direction and where Musicland later boasted a Harrison console (mixing desk) to accommodate more orthodox sensibilities, his early experimentation was undertaken on an adapted 16 track Helios desk boasting circuitry which could accommodate a simple drum machine and a basic early synthesiser. Working with producer/songwriter Pete Bellotte, Moroder’s recording of ‘Son of my Father’ was his first hit featuring a synthesiser; the song was a UK hit for Chicory Tip in 1972, who, by using the Musicland arrangement, thus introduced the machine to a mass audience.

Moroder was probably introduced to synthesised music production by the German classical composer Eberhard Schöner, then resident in Munich. Schöner was a proponent of musique concrète and had been experimenting with Bob Moog’s early synthesiser, a huge machine housed in a private studio elsewhere in the city. Elsewhere in Germany groups such as Düsseldorf’s Kraftwerk were also using technology to move away from traditional band set-ups. However they were not to capitalise on synthesised sound to the same extent as the team based in Musicland and their contribution to the development of electronic music has only been recognised by the mainstream over the past number of years.

Moroder was quick to appreciate the potential of the Minimoog, a more manageable version of the synthesiser released commercially in 1970, and he enjoyed a few minor hits from his desk, influenced as much by Marc Bolan’s boogie as the sound of Tamla Motown. However, what became the defining disco beat emerged more organically from a jam session in the studio in 1973 when the house band, the Munich Machine, came up with the then-unique four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern, played together with the dense hi-hat rhythm that drummer Keith Forsey had heard on the Hues Corporation hit, ‘Rock The Boat’ (Buskin 2009). Enter Donna Summer, one of the cast of the European production of Hair, who was double-jobbing as a session singer in Munich at the time.

The first hit with Summer on board was a Munich re-recording of ‘Love to Love You Baby’, where the singer’s moans — which according to Time Magazine amounted to 22 simulated orgasms — had the record banned by certain radio stations including the BBC. Moroder has since admitted that his primary motivation lay beyond the production of art and his main influence on ‘Love to Love You Baby’ was the earlier commercial success of the Birkin/Gainsbourg hit ‘Je t’aime… (moi non plus)’. What differentiated this track however was the use of a simple drum machine channelled through Moroder’s desk, with tape editing (effectively early sequencing) enabling the band to record an extended 16-minute version, keeping everything in perfect time. Extending the length of the track to such a degree — taking up an entire side of a 12’ vinyl disc without there being any skipping at the deeper frequencies — ensured the success of the song on dancefloors across the Atlantic, where the more traditional r’n’b infused soul was starting to give way to other genres of dance music such as funk and Go-go. The music recorded in Munich was thus a unique combination of European technological innovation and American soul; clever marketing and distribution brought it back across the Atlantic where it became equally successful in the charts, bestowing the title ‘Queen of Disco’ on its clean-living vocalist.

On the success of ‘Love to Love You Baby’ the team was further encouraged to investigate employing the MiniMoog in the same way the drum machine had been utilised before. By this stage the studio had expanded and now featured a state of the art Eastlake sound-room designed by Californian acoustic engineer Tom Hidley, which included a 32-track Harrison console. Robbie Wedel, who had brought in the Moog to the studio, simulated a hi-hat, snare and bass drum, recorded on a 16-track Studer A80 tape machine, simply direct-injecting the monophonic signal into Moroder’s mixing desk. Summer’s vocals were recorded on Neumann U87 condenser microphones (which are still used in professional studios today) with much less sound compression and reverb than usual for the time provided by an early Lexicon effects unit.

The result was ‘I Feel Love’ a massive hit which catapulted disco into the mainstream. The track was universally considered ‘future proof’ and again, extending the mix to fit on a side of vinyl without loss of sound quality, the powerful lower ranges combined with higher frequencies resulted in a music which could perhaps only be fully appreciated in a club atmosphere. This was however revolutionary music in another sense: if brought to its ultimate conclusion, this technology now rendered musicians redundant and the studio itself was now brought to the forefront of the creative process.

Moroder and Summer subsequently decamped to the US and under the stewardship of Mack Musicland continued as the studio of choice for the UK’s rockistocracy, with Moroder’s original desk placed in storage in a back room. The studio closed when vibrations from the construction of the U4 in 1987 rendered further recording there impossible.

Disco heritage?

The Münchner Stadtmuseum is an excellent example of a city museum without a temporal cut-off point. The twentieth century is well represented with exhibitions dealing with the Nazi period, along with a permanent display featuring the rise of BMW and indeed the 1972 Olympics and Black September. The museum however contextualises the city’s contemporary popular culture in terms of the beer hall: the Oktoberfest has a display of its own, replete with life-sized models of refreshed tourists, busty blond waitresses and ever watchful riot police keeping well to the background. Over the course of a brief interview, a museum curator — who admittedly was under the impression she was partaking in an informal discussion on the city’s response to development-led archaeology — articulated an official ignorance of the city’s locus as the birthplace of disco, although she was aware that Queen had made several recordings near the Arabella Platz. Unspoken in the exchange was an acceptance that possibly more people have a disco record in their collection than drive a BMW. So why had the museum not recognised this unique role played by the city in the creation of electronic dance music, or was it simply another aspect of the city’s hidden history? In an attempt to answer this question, we decided to investigate Musicland, on one level as curious cultural tourists, on another as an archaeological inquiry into the built landscape, as the foundation of a project to prospect for an ephemeral, though very real global material culture.

David Byrne (2012, 9) has recently written on the ephemerality of music:

You can’t touch music — it exists only at the moment it’s being apprehended — and yet it can profoundly alter how we view the world and our place in it. Music can get us through difficult patches in our lives by changing not only how we feel about ourselves, but also how we feel about everything outside ourselves. It’s powerful stuff.

If this very ephemerality of music should place it beyond the concerns of traditional archaeological inquiry, its ubiquity as a cultural product certainly places it within the wider ambit of material culture studies, of which archaeology is a part. Moreover, this ‘powerful stuff’ is central to the materiality of everyone’s life today and the physical circumstances of its creation as ‘product’ have their own materiality, manifest in the equipment used and the physical fabric of the studio itself — irrespective of the music, the performance or indeed the musicians, producers and engineers. In this regard the concrete basement of the Arabella-Hochhaus does not immediately appear to have the same cachet as Motown or the early Muscle Shoals and the museum authorities can perhaps be excused for facilitating its absence on the city’s cultural itinerary. There is, we argue, nonetheless value to be had by evoking Musicland as an archaeological site, one which will repay archaeological study in all of its guises.

On leaving the Stadtmuseum we were assured that our inquiries were possibly more archaeological in the traditional sense, for the Arabella-Hochhaus had apparently been demolished prior to the development of a Sheraton Hotel. Fortunately, this was found not to be the case. In order to meet a demand for hotel beds during the 1972 Olympics the building was partly converted into the Arabella Bogenhausen Hotel offering 467 rooms, becoming perhaps the largest hotel in the city. In 1998 a joint venture was formed between Arabella Hotel Holdings and Starwood Hotels which saw it rebranded as the Arabella-Sheraton Bogenhausen and it has since been renamed the Sheraton Arabellapark Hotel. The company now operates the hotel jointly with the Westin Grand Munich which is located across the street and, apart from the hotel, the building is at present home to two clinics, 500 rental apartments and 100 offices and surgeries.

The building is not protected under architectural heritage legislation nor is there any official signage or indeed graffiti to indicate the former presence of Musicland in the basement. This is significant when the subsequent recording history of the studio is considered, where two ‘graffiti walls’ are officially tolerated in Dublin in homage to U2. Graves-Brown (2012, 74) has considered the ‘memorialisation’ of popular music with reference to Soho, where memorials to artists and events ‘represent a variety of attempts to resist the ephemerality of the relationship between music and place’. The relationship between music and its place of production should be easier to negotiate, yet as we have seen and experienced, traditional recording studios in urban contexts, when considered simply as spaces, have a surprising tendency towards a bland homogeneity. It is easier therefore to imagine the ‘creation’ of disco and the early recordings produced by Moroder and Summer in such a modern space, prior to Musicland’s later development, although it would be a mistake perhaps to think that these sonic experiments could not have occurred elsewhere, given Moroder’s musical background and evolving knowledge of recording techniques. It was felt however that this was an idea worthy of further exploration and that an inquiry through a critically-focused archaeological lens may result in the production of a more nuanced narrative.

Musicland

Bogenhausen is today dominated by the triangular Hypo-Hochhaus, a massive steel and glass edifice constructed between 1975 and 1981 which serves as the headquarters of the HypoVereinsbank. The building features on the inner sleeve of ELO’s Time (1981), perhaps a nod to a new modernism being forged by the band in an adjacent concrete basement. The Arabella-Hochhaus has perhaps seen better days and it is not difficult to understand how it would have dominated the landscape prior to the construction of its taller neighbour. The neighbourhood was extensively redeveloped in the 1980s and 1990s and the anodyne architecture of corporate Bavaria is the dominant form in the surrounding streets. This rebuilding and change is a constant theme in urban archaeology, where the pace of transformation often renders it impossible to write a coherent past, leaving perhaps too much to the imagination. This is even more the case in areas outside of the historic core, where there is little of the past to preserve.

Recording studios appear custom-made for archaeological investigation and interpretation. As analogue technology changed over the ‘60s and ‘70s, so did the studios, although the physical layout tended to remain conventional, if not rigidly conservative. The digital revolution of the 1980s brought further changes to the technological hardware available, yet most studios contacted as part of this project would admit to holding on to more obsolete equipment, where the second-hand market in analogue equipment only took off with the advent of the internet in the early 2000s. With yet more recent technological advances brought on by software such as Pro Tools, many such facilities have closed down over the past several years. In some cases they have become heritage destinations in their own right and some, such as Sun Studios in Memphis TN combine both functions, although actual recording appears to be a small part of the business today.

When considering the heritage of Musicland as the birthplace of disco, we made a conscious decision to ignore other, later aspects of the studio’s history, information which can easily be attained by accessing websites associated with specific bands who recorded there until its closure. Indeed the subsequent success of Musicland was perhaps simply a function of the proximity of an international airport facilitating British tax exiles and the availability of good beer (or in Freddie Mercury’s case, where Munich was found to be ‘a cornucopia of forbidden pleasures’). As studios by definition tend to be relatively homogeneous in terms of layout and equipment, bands such as ELO and Queen could have conceivably recorded anywhere such conditions existed, although Mack’s input is possibly an important, though generally unacknowledged contributing factor.

The studio was stripped out in 1987 and the spaces appear to have been used for storage in recent years. In the absence of available early photographic footage, a documentary on the recording of Queen’s ‘One Vision’ in late 1985 gives a claustrophobic insight into the layout of the original studio. Here, the recreation areas were approached down a narrow flight of stairs; a solitary pinball machine took up a corner of a small corridor where a home-made table and bench in cheap painted timber occupied a corner of an adjacent small room. Off this space was another similar room with another less than comfortable table and bench arrangement placed in a corner. A dark corridor led off to the sound room where the performances were recorded, with the control room evident at a slightly higher level behind a large glass window, replete with the Harrison desk, monitors and comfortable chairs for the playback. Off the main room was a small space to isolate the drum kit (or the drummer), a feature common to all recording studios of this calibre.

To a non-musician these spaces appear utterly non-conducive to the production of art in any of its forms. Irrespective of the quality of the hardware, one is reminded of the overriding theory of sound recording, exemplified in the way each individual contribution is broken down and recorded separately, to be put back together as a whole behind the mixing desk in the control room.

Yet, where musicians refer to a studio’s ambience or even its history as a contributing factor to the music they record there, can the same assumptions be made for ‘vintage’ electronic music recorded in studios in the days before Pro Tools rendered such spaces redundant? Notwithstanding ELO’s ‘disco’ album Discovery and Queen’s various attempts at the genre, all recorded at Musicland, is there any tangible way in which archaeological inquiry can articulate something of the recording process, beyond an examination of the temporal range of the equipment used and a physical survey of the spaces themselves? Further fieldwork and research in 2013 will attempt to address some of these questions.

The missing artefact

When the studio was closed up, the most up to date equipment appears to have been transferred to another studio established by Mack in the outer Munich suburbs. The earlier analogue equipment stored in Musicland appears to have been sold off or given away, including the mixing desk used by Moroder to record ‘Love to Love You Baby’. Inquiries to date suggest that the desk was taken away by another producer associated with the studio, Jürgen Koppers, and that it survives today in a barn in Upper Bavaria. It is hoped to identify and secure the equipment as part of the greater project.

Conclusion

The Musicland project has thrown some light on a perception of disco as a uniquely American construct by recognising another, earlier European dimension, one undoubtedly nuanced by centuries of cultural exchange and movement. The project has further underlined the value of taking an explicitly archaeological approach to the more ephemeral material culture of late modernity, by the simple evocation of Musicland as an archaeological site in its own right. There is nonetheless little to see in Musicland today beyond the bare concrete walls and superfluous wiring and our initial visit did not extend beyond the corridor at the base of the stairs. Yet there is undoubtedly a feeling to be had here, something similar to that experienced when visiting an abandoned, unmediated archaeological site. For Musicland is a place where the past remains somewhat legible, though imperfectly, in the very built fabric, a past nonetheless as real as the music streaming through the headphones or pounding out of the bass bins in the clubs.

References

Buchli, V. and Lucas, G. 2001. Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. London.

Buskin, R. 2009. ‘Classic tracks: Donna Summer ‘I Feel Love’’. Sound On Sound [http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct09/articles/classictracks_1009.htm, as accessed 24/05/2012].

Byrne, D. 2012. How Music Works. Edinburgh.

Graves-Brown, P. 2012. ‘Where the Streets Have no Name: a Guided Tour of Pop Heritage Sites in London’s West End’. In S. May, H. Orange and S. Penrose (eds.) The Good, the Bad and the Unbuilt: Handling the Heritage of the Recent Past, Studies in Contemporary and Historical Archaeology 7, BAR International Series 2362, Oxford, 63-76.

Tarlow, S. and West, S. (eds.) 1999. The Familiar Past?: Archaeologies of Later Historical Britain. London.

Image

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s