What’s going down
On 4th October in West Germany, proudly presented by indieBerlin, Martin Bisi will be showing the documentary Sound and Chaos about his BC Studio in New York.
There will be a Q&A followed by a concert by Martin Bisi and Band plus support from Berlin-based band nunofyrbeeswax.
Who recorded in this here studio and why should I care?
Brian Eno, Dresden Dolls, Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes Swans, Herbie Hancock, Afrika Bambaata, John Zorn.
Do I have your attention?
Some older people from the US will often say that Berlin now is a lot like NY in the 1980s. Even though most of us have come to think of New York primarily as Wall Street and where all the money is made; as well as, you know, the city that never sleeps and all that, NY was at one time the place simply where all the new music came out of.
THIS is the place to be, THIS is where it’s all going on
NY in the 1980s was apparently just like Berlin in the zeroes. The same sense of possibility, the same sense that you’re on the cusp of everything, the same sense that of all the places in all the world, THIS is the place to be, THIS is where it’s all going on, and if something new and exciting is going to come out of anywhere, it’s going to come out of here.
Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads and Sonic Youth
In the late 70s NY had all the new wave bands bubbling up, the same bands that would twenty years later define the music that was coming out of Berlin. Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads and Sonic Youth were some of the best known but it was in fact an explosion of raw talent and creative energy, the kind of thing that happens only once every decade or so. With CBGB’s and the Mudd Club (twenty years later reborn for a little while in Mitte, Berlin) at the centre of the scene, bands would come from everywhere in the US to find record deals and make their mark.
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At the time major labels still held the music business in its grip. Before the internet, computers and cheap CD manufacturing – in fact before CDs period – the big corporations controlled what people heard: you could pretty much only record your music in a studio that cost a thousand dollars a day, the tape you had to record on was hugely expensive, and if the labels weren’t paying the costs, you were fucked.
Dodgy, industrial and pretty much abandoned
So when a still teenage kid who was hanging out in the brand new emerging scene, having convinced CBGB’s to let him do the sound from time to time, announced that he and his mate Bill Laswell, a bassist who was also constantly playing in numerous bands, were setting up a little studio in a dodgy, industrial and pretty much abandoned part of town called Gowanus, Brooklyn (which with its street gangs, industrial decay and diseased canal only recently started facing gentrification), and you could get in and get something down on tape without worrying about the major label crap, they who were ignoring the burgeoning new scene anyway, everyone was excited.
Studio starts with Brian Eno session
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And so the 19 year old kid, whose name was Martin Bisi, and his mate Bill Laswell kicked BC Studios into life. The rumour was going around that the studio was about to be opened; some of the cooler British musicians were now hanging around in New York to soak up the vibe. One of them, the keyboard player with Roxy Music, was called Brian Eno. Brian Eno got hold of Bisi and Laswell and, excited by the possibilities (he hated instruments, and Bisi also hated instruments. Cellos, violins, pianos, guitars? Retro.) got in touch.
And that’s how it came to be that the first ever session in the brand new BC Studio, started with the barest of budgets in a rundown part of town, was with Brian Eno on one of his earliest experimental albums.
I’d say that’s a propitious beginning.
The money that Brian Eno contributed enabled Bisi and Laswell to realistically realise their idea of doing the studio. They started getting bands in – anyone who was brave enough to take the trip to Gowanus, which was seen as somewhat playing with your life. And that’s how they came to record all the new cool bands coming up out of that scene.
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It was only shortly after this that a new kind of music was starting to be experimented with in the black clubs in New York; where DJs had started talking over the records they were playing, and had started messing around with jiggling the vinyl around to get that scratching sound. Someone came up with the name hip hop. One of the first people to start doing all this new-fangled talking over the records and jiggling them around a bit was an ex-gangster dude who called himself Afrika Bambaata. Who found himself at this dodgy weird place called BC Studio with a man named Bisi.
This new-fangled scratching business
Herbie Hancock, he was also a man who was going places: he dropped into to BC Studios and recorded a song with Bisi called Rockit. He stuck a load of this new-fangled scratching business on it. Rockit was used in a film which featured a load of white kids popping and snapping, and it quickly became a huge worldwide hit – the first ever mainstream song to use scratching in it. And Bisi and his weird BC Studios were there.
There was a brand new singer called Whitney Houston
Another job came in – there was a brand new singer called Whitney Houston that no one had ever heard of. They recorded the music first. The young Miss Whitney Houston decided at the last minute though that Gowanus, Brooklyn with its street gangs and a studio where you could drop an empty beer bottle down between the steps that led to the live room and hear it splash as it hit the waters of the Gowanus as it ran directly beneath the house, wasn’t quite her kind of thing. Whitney recorded the vocals elsewhere.
I hope I’m making my point
Martin Bisi was a quiet dude, he sat in his recording studio and refused to go mainstream; he was interested in what was new, weird, fresh, different. And from that day in 1978 until today, he’s been at the cusp of a huge number of cutting edge, often genre-defining albums. This is a man with cred, bucketloads of it, and the stories to go with it.
The list goes on – Violent Femmes recorded there not long ago; the now-huge Swans also recorded there; Sonic Youth conducted a lot of their noise experiments there; as I say, the list goes on.
Go to West Germany on the 4th October
This article is already getting a bit long for my tastes. Let me stop there, and suggest as strongly as I can that if you’re even a teensy bit interested in the history of independent pop / or antipop / or hip hop / or new wave bands / or in fact where all the cool bands coming out of Berlin through the zeroes until today got their sound from – then go to West Germany on the 4th October.
Watch the documentary, chat with Martin Bisi and with the film makers themselves, and then dig Martin Bisi live, as well as one of Berlin’s coolest new post-punk bands, nunofyrbeeswax.
See you there.
Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a ‘recovering musician’, he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.