The flight from Manchester to Hamburg, handily, is a great introductory metaphor for what we’re about to experience at the Reeperbahn Festival. I love it when that happens.
On this particular row of three seats there’s me, and two Leeds lads I’ve never met before who look equally scenesterish and mention Chickenhawk pretty early in the flight; a codeword that seems to indicate that we have all subconsciously gravitated towards each other for safety, surrounded on all sides as we are by a Geordie stag party. We’re all headed for the Reeperbahn – a famed mile of Hamburg that holds something, we think, for all of us.
The stag party offer us small gifts throughout the journey – half a bottle of lager, three peanuts, their cocks. The air hostess has to tell them to shut their flaps while she demonstrates the safety instructions. I’m wondering when she’s going to do the bit about protecting yourself from a Geordie stag party. But as it turns out, they’re amusing all the way there, more so after we’ve had a couple of drinks anyway.
And so to the Reeperbahn circus. Crawling with stags, strippers, bands and music whores, all with a similar agenda, this street is a mashup of worlds so perfectly complimentary but rarely thrown together that it can’t help but get messy – immediately. Night one brings tales of tit dens milking visiting journalists for cash in return for overpriced drinks and a flash of nipple, but I couldn’t possibly comment. What I will say is that I didn’t know there was such thing as a condomerie, and I’ve never been dragged off by a drag queen before ”â every day is a school day.
The Reeperbahn could be the middle ground between Blackpool and Vegas. It’s filthy and fun, with endless bars, restaurants, clubs and cafes to dive into who are all operating as one in a mission to make sure everybody has a seamlessly bloody good time. But this doesn’t feel like a neon front for mere debauchery, it’s more like a giant afterparty for something much more important that has descended into self-aware hedonism just for a bit of light relief. And that’s kind of how the Reeperbahn Festival came to be. A red light district turned Beatles’ spiritual home, turned hive of government-supported artistic endeavor, the Reeperbahn is quietly giving Berlin a run for its money in the creative haven stakes, which is no small achievement. The Reeperbahn now feels like a nod to the area’s troubled past, but a huge, sanitised, lesson-learned improvement – Reeperbahn 2.0.
Wandering the city in the sober daylight, there’s plenty to see outside the Reeperbahn. Whoever you are, even if brothels are the only reason you’re here, I challenge you to walk the streets here sober without marvelling in a thoroughly civilised manner at some of the art and architecture around you, and without occasionally being more tempted by an inviting restaurant than a window full of porn.
Alongside the official festival, there is a fringe festival – a protest at the gentrification of Hamburg, a proposed policy of kicking out the homeless, but this is also simultaneously a celebration of some of the incredible musical talent, the good humour and the imagination of the city that it takes the form of impromptu raves and gigs in the street. So someone sets fire to a car at some point, but we’ve all done that when we’ve run out of ideas, right?
My first gig stop is Prinzenbar, a gorgeous mirrored cave with balconies overlooking the stage, and I’m here to see Scams ”â again from Leeds, do you see a theme here? It really wasn’t intentional. They seem to be at least 12 times more popular here than in the nonchalance of home, and the packed room dances and cheers through and after every three minutes of top class spiky pop.
Gypsy and the Cat are a musical highlight – Wild Beasts before the trauma or perhaps after their therapy with Deacon Blue and Fleetwood Mac – and with the emphasis on French and German bands, they’re one of the very few Aussies on the bill. That’s the other thing about Reeperbahn, it’s not a showcase really. Not for your band anyway, only for the Reeperbahn.
Yelle is ok, definitely suited to the light-up dancefloor she’s mincing on, but far better is a quiet point in her set where a smart arse Brit calls “OU EST LE BOULANGERIE?” – a man turns round and gives him the dead eye. He’s quite clearly Yelle’s dad.
Moving on to venue after increasingly blurry venue to see nobody in particular, they are all equally quirky, actually NICE places to just BE, rather than mere gig processing plants.
And then we’re onto the clubs ”â oh dear, the clubs.
Everybody smokes in these places ”â if the bouncers don’t see you, it doesn’t seem to count. And they NEVER see you, or any of the other shitload of people smoking, in their faces, all night. It’s amazing really, it must be all that smoke obscuring their view.
Molotow is where we eventually end up both nights ”â a tiny, red bar at the edge of the strip, with a big cellar downstairs full of people dancing to Arctic Monkeys in a way that wouldn’t even happen in Sheffield. I meet a man from Barcelona who has been wanting to make it to the Reeperbahn Festival for a few years and is wide-eyed with admiration even at this spectacle. I hate the Arctic Monkeys, but maybe I’d hate them less if I’d grown up here.
We win a lot and lose a lot to a lot of different people from a lot of different countries at a lot of table football without money or fists being exchanged once, before riding air motorcycles round the dancefloor. It’s not quite the filthy behaviour that might have been on offer, but it’s a little bit of freedom.
The short walk back to the hotel at shit o clock each morning brings the realisation that this entire thing has happened around one street, an island in the middle of a pretty but otherwise unassuming European city centre, where metres from the madness there are supermarkets, chemists, flats even. On one side of the street, do anything you want. On the other side, you’d probably get arrested. And it seems to work. I’ll be back next year safe in the knowledge I know the difference between the two.