Alphaville’s 20th anniversary celebration in Berlin in 2004 was possibly the best occasion I’ve ever experienced. For a variety of reasons, the six years since then have been very difficult. The late announcement of an intimate event in Berlin to celebrate the launch of Catching Rays on Giant was enough to draw me back into the light.
November in Berlin
A wet, cold and quiet evening in western Berlin burst into excited anticipation as the small crowd moved from the upper Quasimodo Café down the narrow stairs to the basement club.
Fairly typical of the Berlin underground circuit, it’s dim, compact and bursting with character. The atmosphere was brought to life very quickly by the Scandinavian contingent, whose disappointment at the lack of free bar was displayed in the best of humour.
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 Alphaville frontman Marian Gold caught me by complete surprise. I found little to say other than to reinstate my gratitude for the invitation.
Martin Lister, calmness personified, explained that the label’s late changing of the release date and a tough promotional schedule had left him little opportunity to celebrate his birthday the previous day.
His eye twinkled in the direction of the bar, and the word ‘unconscious’ came up for the evening’s celebratory plans.
Amongst the guests were Bernhard Lloyd, part of the original Alphaville lineup, and synth pioneer Rainer Bloss, whose affiliation continues with Catching Rays on Giant. As an owner of Bloss’s Aphrica and Drive Inn trilogy, it was inspiring to speak to him and to understand his influences (we are both lovers of Mozart).
He spoke a little about composition from different sections of the orchestra. A shame there will be no Drive Inn 4, but it was a privilege to have exchanged words.
We took up positions for the 22:30 start. Alphaville took to the stage to rapturous applause. Marian addressed the crowd in German before translating. Martin assisted by thanking us for coming.
[All videos except Växjö courtesy of Willy ‘Wii’ Nielsen, owner of the Alphaville forum. 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. 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 something without them.
‘Big in Japan’ is the true chameleon – it is never the same twice, and the arrangement has gone through several reincarnations since my last attendance in 2004. Unplugged, it reminded me of the Culture Mix from First Harvest: an intriguing combination of lounge jazz with a syncopated pulse.
‘Forever Young’ had verve and pride. Martin Lister’s execution of the tricky keyboard arrangement is a great sight. “Do you really want to live forever? … YES!” Gold bellows. Alphaville are not a spent force yet.
The penultimate number, ‘Carry Your Flag’, has risen from a shy appearance in Dreamscapes VI and a poignant cornerstone of Crazyshow to a commercial spot on Catching Rays on Giant. The Växjö performance in May stands out as the most meaningful performance of the song I have ever heard. It never feels less than profound.
Marian’s customary dedication to those present and not present for keeping the flames burning offered me the prospect of brighter times ahead. Through the difficulties in arranging this party, it could have easily not happened at all.
The best was saved until last. ‘Dance With Me’ has been the most underestimated of the band’s classic hits of the 80s. The new ballad version, introduced in 1999, which concluded the Stark Naked live album and accompanying DVD, Little America, offered a new dimension to the song. This was the first time I had heard it live.
The compositional skills at work with Alphaville are easily overlooked. The Einaudi-style piano arrangement here is a showcase in itself. The conclusion of Alphaville Unplugged was a 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 air exultantly on his own. More than a dream indeed…
Great cheer was had with more drink and merriment. This sole Brit, Germany and the USA danced along to the first public playing of the new album as the minutes counted down to midnight, when manager Christian Mielke made it available for sale.
The band swiftly returned to join proceedings. Free from the confines of larger events, they cordially mixed for photos, album/body signings and laughter. Handshakes turned into hugs, and moments and memories cemented themselves in time.
As the band filtered away around 1am, Marian circulated once again to say farewells, and offered an embrace befitting a long-lost friend.
The Quasimodo club closed its doors at 2am, leaving the last remaining fans to continue the party through the quiet Kurfurstendamm. Talk of Alphaville past and present turned to the future. We played tunes and videos on our phones and had hours of laughter to warm the Berlin chill.
Before the evening, it had seemed so difficult to travel for one night. After a magical time, I could only regret that it was not for longer.
I owe a lot of thanks for this opportunity and experience: to Karen and Clare, who provided lots of encouragement despite their own disappointment at missing out, and to Patrik, Richani, Katrin, and Reiko for their company throughout the night.
I owe a special thanks to Willy Nielsen and Peter Krappinger for being so welcoming when I arrived a total bundle of nerves.
And, of course, I owe the band for a great 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.