As a young teenage student in Amsterdam, my first experiences of the 'underground'—the clubbing scene and the diversified nightlife—consisted primarily of techno raves and clubs. Having not been initially exposed to techno as a mainstream form of media, it was an element of the 'going out' scene that appeared new and refreshing to me. My own experiences, originating from a small town in England, contrived a music setting that revolved around indie gigs at pubs and Drum N Bass variations. Techno music as an overall statement was seemingly not as readily available, or at least not a popular form of both background and foreground noise. By default, it was enticing and new and gave the feeling of wanting to experience something new in this unknown surrounding. What I quickly gathered from Amsterdam was that techno was entrenched within the vibrancy of the night and that it was more of a mainstream outlet than I'd initially realised.
The most coveted and interesting clubs within the city's limits predominantly play and exhibit techno. This ranges from a more minimal and accessible style and beat to a darker, harder, and more fitting to the notion of the underground, tempo and genre. It's not to be mistaken that the entirety of the genre beholds a plethora of technique and finesse, which I think is an easy dismissal of first-time listeners and partygoers, myself included. Its repetitive rhythm and nature can potentially allude to a sense of tedium for those unaccustomed to its purpose and intent. And on the other side of that, that is exactly its first sense of charm and intrigue. The clockwork beat, fast-paced yet controlled, bursts into the dimly-lit and confined spaces, the smoke and fog interweaving with the disoriented feel one can have. It feels a part of something: it's meant to be like that.
Amsterdam is seemingly alive again, and I found myself spontaneously at a techno party at an infamous venue named Shelter. Situated in the A'DAM Tower in the northern part of the city, the club is secreted, the taxi dropping us off in the middle of a car park with no knowledge of the entrance aside from the thumping bass emanating from beneath our feet. The signs weren't obvious, but we finally found it, entering an underground car park, where there were huddled crowds of people and clouds of smoke atop the polluting noise. What is striking is how fitting these scenes consisting of darkened hues and shades are to the industrial setting; how this club was, quite literally, underground, as we descended the flights of stairs and a lift to reach the tangible sound of the music. The stationary cars surrounding the periphery gave it that removed feel, like the intimate setting of the gathered nightlife was here on accident and in the middle of something else.
It's always interesting to note the crowd's diversity at a techno event. Naturally, when held in well-known and somewhat commercial clubs, the scene is not as alternative as when attending an underground, secret rave. But the scene is still fun and refreshing; one notices the glittered patterns across the array of faces and the generalised monochromatic fashion. In Amsterdam, it can be normal to sense a perhaps pretentious air, people adorning long, black coats and sunglasses indoors in the dark. Girls with huge ponytails perform exaggerated arm movements, and a variety of ages populate the scene. It adds to the feel of an other-worldly population underneath the city.
The tangibility of the underground location lends a hand to the past two years of a forced, quietened presence of the clubbing scene. Specifically, techno is essential here in its formulation. It feels like a timeless concept, the idea that once something is forbidden and difficult to attain, it becomes more exhilarating and desirable. Techno is a form of musical entertainment that somehow requires these industrial-like, dark and metallic environments to ameliorate the experience. With the city's boundaries and spaces reserved for this seemingly dead and gone—for the time being—Amsterdam's nightlife scene moved from the underground and essentially into the unknown. An integral part of keeping the cultural significance afloat were the illegal techno raves held together by various sponsors and organisations to ensure that the diminishing of the spaces wasn't permitted to reduce the impact and credibility of the scene.
Shelter pulsated and ebbed with heavy techno reverberating against the walls, and the refreshed crowds of people gave the sense of there being a return, a sense of techno being seen in its most prime context. I think the prominence of this, of seeing the bustling crowds of people sharing the music in intimacy again, is that these scenes do not belong in a prescribed nor structured underground role. As much as nightlife itself exists to allow a variety of alternative genres play out in a manner that is open and inclusive, to throttle their cultural influence is entirely significant here. It'll be interesting to see how Amsterdam's dominant and influential techno scene will flourish once again, post-pandemic and without the plethora of tight restrictions.
Written by: Emma Betts of South Lanes Studios
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