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Reflections on the Love Parade (1995)

A British journalist discusses both the history and the allure of Berlin’s annual Love Parade, one of the world's largest street festivals. He asks whether it is actually a political demonstration for peace, as organizers contend, a pop phenomenon, or just a huge party fuelled by youthful exuberance and exhibitionism. The author was not alone in his questions: in 2001, German courts ruled the Love Parade a commercial – not a political – event. In 2007, the Love Parade (a registered trademark) moved from Berlin to the Ruhr region, but its problems went along with it. The Love Parade continues to be plagued by funding and organizational problems, and its impact on the environment (i.e., damage to festival grounds and post-parade clean-up) is an ongoing source of concern.

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Berlin Cabaret, Old Chum

Matthew Collin joins the ravers at one of Europe's biggest street parties

“Scotty, mehr Energie!” The can of Warp 4 Star Trek soda on the stall in front of us bears a mantra for the moment. We reached Wittenbergplatz around 2pm, but even then, two hours before the start of the parade, the square was packed with bodies, flesh throbbing to the pulse of a sound system. That morning we had felt the anticipation building, the clamour of car stereos as people arrived in town, beats clashing as they parked up alongside each other in the surrounding streets. As we walked down to the square, a tacky boutique cranked up its PA with some tinny techno tune and a colossal cheer erupted out of nowhere to the surprise of the staff. Mehr energie! More energy! The temperature is pushing 35 degrees.*

A group of boys who have customised bin-bags into sou'westers prowl through the crowd, seeking likely victims. Poking out of slits in their curious attire are monstrous fluorescent water pistols; it would seem that spray guns are this year's essential accessory. A Tank Girl clone struts by arrogantly. Strapped to her back are three canisters of H2O reserves, a water cannon jerks in her hand. No one is going to take her on. Another part of the square has turned into a sniper's alley – scuttle through quick and cover your back, or risk a dousing. We purchase a little squirter for DM20 (pounds 9) from a passing arms dealer. Just in case.

Bang on 3.45pm the floats, each one stacked with speakers and decked with the colours of its club or city, pull into the square, massing for the off. It seems as if every raver in Europe is assembled here. Orange hair, red hair, green hair, blue hair, no hair. The men sport studded codpieces and see-through flares, army camouflage T-shirts with dayglo CND logos**; hearts, flowers and stars decorate nipples; beards are like ornate facial topiary.

As the first truck begins the two-mile crawl down the Kurfurstendamm, Berlin's upmarket equivalent of Oxford Street, people start clambering up trees, shinning up lampposts and scaling the sides of buildings. The pressure of the throng and the chorus of whistles is almost unbearable, the humidity worse. The thud of techno deepens and the smiles stretch as wide as those on the painted banner adorning the oncoming vehicle.

The biggest conga in the world starts up and water guns spurt liquid salutes into the air – it's on, it's on! The local newspapers estimate that there are up to 300,000 people celebrating out here in the July heat. But in the beginning, there was just one man: a Berlin DJ known as Dr Motte. Motte is a talismanic presence, the patron saint of the day. Or, as one friend describes him, “a holy fool, a brilliant man, a force for good but completely crazy.”

The idea came to him – like many mad schemes come to devotional clubbers – at the peak of an ecstatic night out. Let's dance in the streets and make a stand for togetherness and peace, let's build a piece of heaven right here on Earth. Let's have a Love Parade! But unlike most 3am visionaries, Motte hadn't forgotten all about it the next day. He was determined to carry his plan through.

“I didn't want to spend anything or earn anything,” he recalls. “In Germany you have the basic right to demonstrate under the law, but how and what about is up to you.” He called the authorities, obtained a licence to demonstrate and, in the summer of 1989, 150 friends caroused down the Ku'damm with one sound system beating an acid house tattoo under the banner “Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen” – “Peace, Joy, Pancakes.”

* 35° Celsius equals 95° Fahrenheit – eds.
** Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament: the logo is commonly known as the peace sign – eds.

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