Alphaville’s 20th anniversary celebration in Berlin in 2004 marked the best week of my life. Meeting the Alphaville family, seeing the band live for the first time, the adrenalin rush at meeting my idols: these created a unique kind of euphoria that will be difficult to find again.
The six years following have been very different: much darker and sadder than I could have imagined. Time spent living in Switzerland to try and grow as a person served only to burn away the core of my being, and left me a shadow of what I knew before. It became increasingly difficult to engage with the Alphaville crowd, and to be reminded of the euphoria that only ever seemed further away.
Returning after a long illness and months of recovery made travel abroad a real struggle. Prague last December seemed impossible. It is so easy to fall into dark behaviour that becomes increasingly hard to break. What could provide Miracle Healing? The late announcement (offering little time to ponder) of a small intimate event in the soulful city of Berlin made the opportunity of echoing that ineffable time of 2004 great enough to overcome the darkest of demons.
November in Berlin
And so a wet, cold and quiet evening in western Berlin burst into excited anticipation as the select crowd moved from the upper Quasimodo Café down the narrow side staircase to the underground club. The line slowly traipsed in from the rain, with everyone greeted and registered by the club, and a single drink ticket was provided. Fairly typical of the Berlin underground circuit, the club was dim, compact and bustling with character. The atmosphere was brought to life very quickly by the Scandinavian contingent, whose disappointment at the lack of free bar was exorcised in very good humour. It was particularly great to catch up with Peter and Willy, who I had met all too briefly in 2004; one night to make up for a lot of lost time.
Owing to the proximity of a professional theatre with evening performances, the band would not perform until late. As a few regulars and invited guests filtered in to fill the venue, the band also emerged quietly to join the merriment. To be amongst the first to speak to Marian was beyond real. Although I knew that I would not be recognised, in my disorientated surprise, there was nothing more important to say than to reinforce how grateful I was to be there. Martin, calmness personified as ever, was equally gracious. He explained that the party was fitted around the company’s late changing of the release date, together with a tough promotional schedule, which had left him little opportunity to celebrate his birthday the previous day. His eye twinkled in the direction of the bar as the word ‘unconscious’ came up for the evening’s celebratory plans.
Amongst the revered guests were Bernhard Lloyd and Rainer Bloss, whose affiliation continues to be recognised with the older material featured on Catching Rays on Giant (the deluxe edition in Bernhard’s case). As an owner and huge fan of Aphrica and Drive Inn Vols. 1, 2 and 3, Willy was the greatest of gentlemen in introducing me to Rainer, who shared some inspirational thoughts on his influences (we are both lovers of Mozart), his musical development, and the merits of composition from different musical angles. I was graced by a great mind.
We took up positions for the 22:30 start, and the place was electric. Alphaville took to the stage to rapturous applause, and Marian began his trend of speaking in German before translating at fan request. Martin assisted by greeting us all and thanking us for coming. [All videos except Växjö courtesy of Willy 'Wii' Nielsen, owner of the Alphaville forum. Please enjoy in their beautiful HD splendour and visit the commemorative thread]
“Normally I am professional enough not to hit the stage … on the drugs. But tonight it’s going to be different! So, I can’t really tell what’s going to happen now.”
SLAM! The ‘unplugged’ event thundered into life with the 1984 classic, one of four that was to feature. The tight environs and abundant energy made for a terrific sound and radiant atmosphere. Marian kept his imperial best for the beginning and the end.
The second track was, in some ways, the centrepiece for the set: ‘I Die For You Today’. Still so different in live and studio forms, the crowd provides some of the extra energy the song has come to need. It is testimony to the pulsating synth riffs that the song has come to miss a limb without them.
Three and four were the biting soul of Alphaville. ‘Big in Japan’ is the true chameleon. It is never the same twice, and the arrangement has gone through several reincarnations since my last witness in 2004. Unplugged, it reminded me of the Culture Mix from First Harvest: an intriguing combination of lounge jazz with a syncopated pulse.
Over recent years, any slight waiver in Marian’s confidence in his voice on the night has been most evident in Forever Young, where most adjustment is needed. YouTube insects have been predatory in their stinging. Tonight, performed with gusto and pride, the old hit had verve, pierce, and saw justice paid in wonderful fashion. With the celebrated Pet Shop Boys notorious for false instrumental, seeing Martin Lister’s masterful execution of the keyboard arrangement is always a delight. “Do you really want to live forever? … YES!” Alphaville are a 2010 concern, and critics had better believe it.
The penultimate, ‘Carry Your Flag’, has always meant a lot to me. It rose like a Phoenix this year: from the shy appearance in Dreamscapes VI and a poignant nucleus of the perilously underrated Crazyshow, it received a veritable pedestal on Catching Rays on Giant, and the Växjö performance in May was the most meaningful performance of the song I have ever seen. The song has special meaning for being at the centre of finding a new community back in 2003, the first I ever had, and it was equally as profound for the same reason this night.
Marian’s customary dedication to those present and not present for keeping the flames burning, offered a brighter life to me. When we face the dilemmas of Orpheus, or the fragility of grasshoppers, will our fate find future and life, or grief and death? Through the difficulties in arranging this party, it could have easily not happened at all, and much the deprived being I would have been. I offered my life to Alphaville this night, and they offered life back to me.
The best was saved until last. ‘Dance With Me’ has arguably been the most underestimated of the band’s classic hits of the 80s, featuring in the richer and mellower Afternoons in Utopia rather than the esoteric first album. The new ballad version, introduced in 1999, which concluded Stark Naked and the accompanying DVD, Little America, offered a new dimension to the song, and this was the first time I had heard it live. What Crazyshow demonstrated most palpably was the compositional skills at work within Alphaville. The sumptuous piano arrangement brought to this ballad is a masterpiece in itself, comparable to Ludovico Einaudi. The conclusion of the unplugged concert was not stripped bare, but with the perfect combination of soft melody, percussion, and power. Marian broke into his hearty higher register in the second half of the song, which brought shivers through three layers of clothing. “More than a dream, maybe?” he yearns, before ditching the microphone and cutting through the exultant air on his own. And more than a dream it continued to be.
Great cheer was had with more drink and merriment. England, Germany and the USA united in dance to the first public playing of the new album as the minutes counted down to midnight. At the crest of the new day, manager Christian Mielke offered the new album for sale.
By that time, the band had returned to join proceedings. Unlike the confines of larger events, they freely and cordially mixed with adoring fans for photos, album/body signings and laughter. Handshakes turned into hugs, and moments and memories cemented themselves in time. As the band filtered away after 1am, Marian circulated once again to say farewells, and offered an embrace to me befitting a friend.
The Quasimodo club closed its doors at 2am, but the merriment would not end. The last fans standing meandered through the quiet Kurfurstendamm to continue our own party atmosphere. We are sure that all of the disturbed residents will understand our jubilation. Talk of Alphaville past and present turned to the future. We played tunes and videos on our phones and had hours of frolic and laughter to warm the Berlin chill.
What existence is this where such greatness comes out of nowhere? It was all over far too soon, and it was hard to say goodbye. Before it had seemed so difficult to travel for one night; so quickly, there was regret that I was not there for longer. But, for this magical, magnificent evening I was left in no doubt that I had to reunite with this family at the first possible opportunity.
I owe enormous thanks for this opportunity and experience: to Kaz and Clare, who provided lots of encouragement despite their own disappointment at missing out; to Patrik, Richani, Katrin, and Reiko (RaGeVille) for their wonderful company throughout the night. I owe a special thanks to Willy and Peter for being so welcoming and accommodating when I arrived a total bundle of nerves.
And, of course, I owe the band for arranging the fantastic party. They continue to dig inside my pyramid, to resurrect me from the dead, to light up my darkness, in the way that only they can.