The microcosm “big club of the Dorian Gray” was a parallel world from which something developed that no one would have thought possible. It was about being part of something completely new.
COLUMN BY RAPHAEL KRICKOW
An exclusive preview from the Gerd Schüler biography (early 2023),
and excerpt from the cover story of the December 2022 issue of Journal Frankfurt.
Up until now, I had only ever heard of this mysterious disco at Frankfurt Airport and had never associated the name with the protagonist from Oscar Wilde's book of the same name. That was probably because I only knew the book by name.
But then came a Saturday night in 1983 that was to change my attitude to life significantly.
Building on their long history in gastronomy, Gerd Schüler and Michael Presinger unofficially opened the “Dorian Gray” at Frankfurt Airport on November 29, 1978. It was intended to be no less than a German destination for the international Haute Volée based on the model of New York's "Studio 54". The plan worked, and the Dorian Gray immediately became Germany's most famous nightclub.
So far so good and so far, not my world. But then in the early 1980s, an unplanned parallel universe developed at this location, which most of the regular guests certainly did not really understand. This moment also defined the difference between "disco" and "club". Traditionally, you would go with good friends to the “disco” to find like-minded people and potential mates up below the disco ball while listening to familiar music. Now, the new, unknown and magical awaited you in the “club.”
A few years after the opening of the Dorian Gray, various currents met in Frankfurt on fertile ground that determines the musical zeitgeist to this day. The cultural influence of the US soldiers stationed in Hesse, the spectacular location in the catacombs under Frankfurt Airport, and the elimination of the curfew of 1 a.m. still common at the time made the club a hotspot for night owls far beyond the borders of the Rhine-Main area over the years. When everything else was closed, many employees of Frankfurt's nightlife went to the "Gray" after their work was done to experience a place of freedom behind its doors.
What started out as four dance floors (including a roller disco) became the “small” and the “big club”, which over time could not have been more different in terms of style and sound. A microcosm was created in the large club in which night owls, who were looking for something special and wanted to set themselves apart from the monotony of other nightclubs, found a home. They let their passions run wild. Individuality was the motivation, and a community emerged that that could only thrive within such a place.
The unique "Richard Long" sound system, which was already installed in the New York discotheques "Studio 54" and "Paradise Garage" in previous versions, and back then the first water-cooled, cabinet-sized laser system in Europe provided a unique audiovisual experience.
Now to the mentioned Saturday night in 1983:
Looking back, it is probably a miracle that I easily got by the notorious bouncers, whose selection ensured a very special audience even then. What awaited me behind the passage to the big club has never let me go to this day, especially musically.. In the Rhine-Main area, some discos had already oriented themselves on the music of the big club, which already had prepared me.
The faces of the minimalist green laser were all I saw as I entered the otherwise black space. The air was thick with Revlon's "Ciara" perfume, maybe some kind of tribal feature. I immediately had the feeling that this was about being part of something completely new. Visionary sounds that weren't played on the radio and couldn't be found in the record store next door.
The oversized bass amplifier of the new type of exponential speakers made it possible not only to hear the music, but also to feel it. I "experienced" there for the first time the Logic System song "Unit", a milestone in electronic club music. DJ Michael Münzing may forgive me that in 1983 I copied the first C60 cassette tape I bought from him at the DJ desk for 50 DM countless times in my double tape deck and distributed it in the schoolyard. Today, I would call this a promotion of music that you would not have been able to listen to or buy anywhere else.
Early on, the club’s patrons consisted of many self-promoters, birds of paradise and bohemians creating a certain code of honor through appropriate outfits, mohawk hairstyles, strikingly different dance styles and arrogant facial expressions. Entire cliques in white togas with chains and buckled shoes made their entrance late at night with individuals whipping themselves in front of the dance floor’s mirror columns while making strange jungle noises.
Meanwhile, a few remaining suit wearers stood at the bar as onlookers watching the goings-on of the extroverted nocturnal figures on the dance floor. They also certainly contributed more to the drink sales than the usually lower-income, extraordinary scene crowd for whom 10 DM cover charge was a challenge.
The undercut was standard, just like Mao jackets, shorts, combat boots and black eyeliner, a mixture of early gothic and new romantic styles only known in this form from the world of the “Blitz Club” or the “Batcave” in London . The Wiesbaden branch of the trend boutique "Bogey's" inspired the scene to create their own outfits with the motto "Underground Fashion from London." The more expensive options for purchase were available at "Hysterie" and "Filiale" in Frankfurt's Stiftstraße or "Flip Machine" on the B-level of the city center. Really special, however, was that this avant-garde scene carnival was defined musically by a certain type of electronic music that did not correspond to the usual synth-pop, post-punk or new wave.
It was the nameless precursor of Techno.
Everything fit together: sound, music, light, birds of paradise. It was a magical spirit of optimism, my world, "Get Into Magic"! Over the years that followed, the Dorian Gray became a legend internationally as well attracting Saturday regulars from as far away as Brussels and Amsterdam.
But who were the organizers who are due much credit today because they strategically ceded the Dorian Gray to some kind of subcultural momentum that in the big club had little to do with the original celebrity disco? Rather, it was a place of refuge that in many ways had a significant influence on club culture, the type of DJ self-realization, and the associated development of electronic music. Gerd Schüler and Michael Presinger were known above all from the pictures in the monthly, eight-page “Dorian Gray Parade.” It should stay that way for me for a long time to come.
However, the greatest influence on this development was the simultaneous change in DJ culture, which, far removed from the service providers of the disco era, realized itself through music selection and a new mixing technique. The role models were the early hip-hop block party DJs in the New York Bronx, who mixed together the first instrumental 12-inch versions of the early electro productions at the end of the 1970s and thus provided the soundtrack for the breakdance culture. At Gray it was primarily Peter Römer (1978), the first resident DJ Bijan Blum (1978-1986), and Ralf Holl (1981-84).
The guests' thirst for something new at all levels made musical experiments possible for the DJs. Places like the Dorian Gray helped to make the DJ the now common “Master of Ceremony” without having to be a pop star back then. The DJ desk was placed somewhere at the edge of the dance floor as a workplace rather than on a gallery. Even at Dorian Gray, the DJs earned small fees which were enhanced by the "DJ at Dorian Gray" sticker available for their own releases. The star was still the club.
Countless home studio projects were started mainly producing for the rousing sound of the big club of the Gray, and demos were also done there by DJs such as Michael Münzing (1982-1985), Uli Brenner (1982-1985), Sven Väth (1987-1988 ), DJ Dag (1988–1993), and Torsten Fenslau (1988–1993). Music scouts from major record companies stood near the DJ booth to copy label information and then to commission similar music. For a long time, however, small dance labels dominated this development.
At the time I was the Rhein-Main correspondent for a German music newspaper and wrote, among other things, about the first releases by Maximilian Lenz (aka Westbam) who let me regularly sleep on his floor in Berlin when I interviewed him. His request before any visit was memorable: “Bring me some tapes from the Gray. I need to know what's going on there."
Nothing about the Gray matches the standard 80s clichés, but much from that era has certainly influenced contemporary youth culture more than the stereotypical examples of current 80s retro shows on TV. Even the in-house Dorian Gray publications rarely talked about these currents in their own club. Hardly anything indicated the future importance of electronic music or DJ culture. It was still a functioning subculture, one that the Yellow Press did not care about either. Many of the former guests of the big club are not aware today that they were part of this development in the 1980s because they had already closed the chapter on nightlife through career and starting a family in the early 1990s.
All in all, Dorian Gray was part of a formative era of nightlife linked to electronic music and to early DJ culture, which later spawned successful movements and music projects. The "Techno Club" (from 1984) is an outstanding example of this. After several stations, founder Andreas Tomalla (aka Talla 2XLC) moved to Gray in 1987 with his “Techno Club” first on Wednesdays and then on Fridays and was probably the first club-within-a-club. Gerd Schüler: "They came with ideas, and we said, for heaven's sake, they're crazy people." Despite their skepticism, he and Michael Presinger placed their trust in him because they were looking for innovations.
At the same time, Sven Väth left Gray to DJ in his own club as a co-owner of “Omen.” Nitzer Ebb performed at the Dorian Gray on November 6th, 1988, and Front 242 on November 30th, 1990. Many previous electronic music genres have only now merged into "Techno." Even if Atkins Toffler speaks of the "techno rebels" in his book "Future Shock" published already in 1970, to which the Detroit techno scene lays claim, there is no doubt that Frankfurt and Dorian Gray played an important part and are jointly responsible for this musical development in the 1990s and 2000s and influenced the worldwide triumph of Techno. Talla 2XLC: "For me, the Dorian Gray was a kind of launch pad into a new music universe, in which I discovered previously unknown spheres of electronic music and could try it out."
In 1988, Torsten Fenslau and DJ Dag continued to develop electronic music with new flat sounds. DJ Dag was inspired by the monotonous drumming that puts humans in a trance. Hence the genre term.
The period between the beginning and end of the 1980s was probably the most formative and innovative for the new electronic music. After the Frankfurt pre-techno genre "Aggrepo" (aggressive-positive), the phenomenon "Sound of Frankfurt" emerged in 1988. The big club was still a spectacular club, but the music and crowd were no longer unique. Techno was everywhere and became mainstream. In 1989 followed the "Love Parade" and in 1990 the "hr3 Clubnight“.
The wave was unstoppable, and Frankfurt no longer had a unique selling proposition when it came to Techno from Germany. The commercial successor was the globally successful "Euro-Dance." In addition to many veterans of the Rhein-Main DJ and producer scene, former US soldiers from the Rhein-Main area were also significantly involved by contributing rap vocals to electro productions. A unique success story leading from authentic subculture to inevitable sellout. Some DJs became superstars, their sounds still influencing the club music of today, and producers became record millionaires.
After a fire at Düsseldorf Airport in 1996, new fire protection regulations for the airport gastronomy were put in place. Schüler & Presinger decided not to make the necessary investments. So on December 31, 2000 an era came to an end.
Could such a microcosm still exist today?
Even if subculture in such places had little to do with real life, an exclusivity emerged there that could not be copied or shared due to a lack of technical capabilities. Physical presence was a prerequisite, because there were hardly any public sources for the music. Regardless of the fact that no one would have gone into the club with a camera at the time, there were no platforms to share the pictures either. The inflationary, digital ubiquity since the 90s takes away the exclusivity of such events and makes them less interesting due to unlimited availability. At the same time, the DJ became the star, and people tended to follow him or her rather than a good club concept.
The nature of the music towards a retro-romantic background noise due to the specifications of streaming platforms means that the target group for the unexpected, the demarcated is getting smaller and smaller. A club culture by the standards of the past hardly exists today. Through an externally controlled sense of belonging, today’s generation at comparable ages prefers to consume what everyone else is consuming.
Appropriate to the topic also on this page:
1980-1990 | DORIAN GRAY | NONSTOP MIXES
The 80s Dorian Gray sound beyond the mainstream.
Annually chronologically and in nonstop DJ mixes:
Pre-order the Gerd Schüler biography:
The author Raphael Krickow (picture 1984).
Gerd Schüler Archiv
Dorian Gray Archiv
picture-alliance / dpa | Arne Dedert