Nightlife? Vienna? You Bet!

Since the 1980s, a burgeoning scene of live music Lokale clubs, pubs, Beisls and designer bars have transformed the city

On The Town | John Hodgshon | April 2010

Off for a night out in Vienna? You’ve got a fair few choices. You could go to Bermudadreieck (Bermuda Triangle), a small area around Schwedenplatz. This area is packed to the gills with clubs, cocktail bars, cafés and pubs where you can get served at the bar (hooray shout the English!), ranging from Beisels and designer bars to Guinness-proffering Irish pubs. The small area is heaving on the weekend, with hundreds of party-goers navigating the steep, cobbled streets.

Or... go to the Gürtel, the series of railway arches which follow the U6 from Thaliastraße up to Nußdorferstraße. Practically every arch has a bar tucked inside, playing everything from indie music to electronic. It’s a popular area: The club Chelsea is full of sweaty indie rockers on the weekend, so you can only move if you’re really ready to pogo. It fits the bill for a traditional rock/indie club: step past the watchful bouncers and you’re immediately confronted by a wall of sweaty bodies, cigarette smoke and Arctic Monkeys blasting out from the speakers.

Once you’ve elbowed and grinned your way to the bar and got a beer, you can then fight your way to the dance floor to pogo around with the young rockers and spill beer on yourself and others. Clubs like Rhiz and Fenster go for the cooler, electronic feel. So stripped down to the point of poverty furnishings (think bare walls and sofas from someone’s flat), lots of bad dancing and people looking ostensibly cool on the sofas.

The point is that, Vienna has plenty of options when it comes to a night out.  After all, it’s a major European capital! What else would you expect, right? Actually, the nightlife (as we know it) in Vienna has only been around for about 20 years; it began to change in the 1980s, picking up steam after 1989 and taking off with the opening of the borders to the East.

Ask a lot of people what Vienna was like before the 1980s, and they will describe a dead, provincial city with no nightlife to speak of and outside the Ball season, no opportunities for young people to stay out late. Until the discos like U4 opened and the Bermudadreieck got going, says long-time Viennese resident Walter Grubanovitz, the only place for a late night date was a coffee house.  It was only later that young people had places to go for more than talk, and, most importantly, where they stay out late.

Not that the Kaffeehäuser were such a bad deal, actually, as they were and are rich in atmosphere and serve wine and beer, as well as a range of stiffer libations. They were also the haunts of writers and artists. And, of course, politicians.

Take Café Bendl for example. Open since 1884, this café has been a place for "one last drink" for students, politicians (its right behind the Rathaus), civil servants and theatregoers for 50 years or more. With its policy of "we close when the last one leaves", it engenders a relaxed, convivial atmosphere, that holds its own with any bar.

When you enter through the low door, you feel you have entered a place time forgot and end up chatting to people from all walks of life. Denizens confirm that it’s been like this for years and, as the proprietor vehemently confirms, proves that Vienna did have a nighttime scene before the clubs came.  (Although it’s not really a place to dance, unless you’re verrrrrrry drunk.) And, like many of the finest Kaffeehäuser, it did and does stay open late.

So up to the 1980s, the Kaffeehäuser were the only chance for partygoers to stay out into the wee hours. But after that, you were rather stuck for things to do at night.

Then came the United Nations. The UNO City in the 22nd District opened in 1979, making Vienna the third UN Headquarters city along side New York and Geneva.  It attracted many young professionals from abroad, with secure jobs and money to spend, high in energy and low in context, bringing new ideas and wanting a good night out.

The second reason, according to FM4 founder Martin Blumenau, can be traced back to the Austrian ‘68ers, keen to break with the habits of their parents and looking for new settings for their own alternative culture. This began, he says, with the sit-in of the old slaughterhouse in the 3rd District that had been used for years as a platform for avant-garde theatre during the Vienna Festival Weeks.

But in 1976, word got out that the Schlachthaus was to be torn down following the last performance. This led to massive protests and a sit-in at the site, which acted as a catalyst for the Viennese cultural scene. And when several big names like Leonard Cohen and Peter Turrini showed up to perform in support of the protesters, Blumenau says, it began to dawn on the international music scene that Vienna still, or perhaps again, had something to offer. And it gave Austrian musicians the impetus to start creating. People saw it was possible to start their own projects and do things that weren’t always so acceptable to the authorities.

The first signs of this came when the bar Krah-Krah and the live music bar Rote Engel were founded in 1980 and 1981 behind Ruprechtskirche. Once a center of tailors and textile this ancient corner of the 1st District with narrow cobbled streets and terraced staircases had long since gone to seed, a neighborhood where the peace was broken only by the blare of passing cars and Mopeds.

But the arrival of these two bars began the transformation of the area into the hip Bermudadreieck it is today – named because students would disappear inside it for days on end and come out without any memory of what had happened to them.

This explosion in clubs though, was only possible through the liberalization of the license allocation, which allowed many clubs to be concentrated in a small area. Indeed, as Martin Blumenau explained, the 80s and 90s can be seen as a long slow fight with the authorities, with the club owners on one side and residents and police on the other.

Eventually, early in the 1990s, the city government saw the need for some liberalization and clubs in some neighborhoods were allowed to stay open a few hours later.

However, anybody who goes to Flex or elsewhere knows that complaints about noise from residents still cause problems for many clubs and means that Flex is only allowed to stay open until 4 a.m. In other places, such as the Gürtel, local workshops have brought club owners and residents together discuss and moderate the problems.

Such problems bedeviled the Chelsea in the beginning. Opened in 1986 under a residential block in the 8th District, it was the first club in Vienna to provide a venue for homegrown underground music and that regularly hosted DJs. But constant complaints from the residents forced them, in 1993, to sharply reduce the number of live acts and in 1994, to close.

They were able to reopen there a year later, however as a pioneer of the city’s redevelopment of the Gürtel, renting out the spaces under the brick archways that supported the elevated railway at very cheap rates, allowing a new crop of young, creative people to move in and re-energize the area. Thus the Gürtel, a once run-down neighborhood of  "Live Clubs" drug dealers and prostitution, became transformed over the next decade to a lively beltway of chic and edgy nightlife under the arches of the elevated U6 Subway line.

Another part of the 80s explosion was the emergence of discos in Vienna nightlife. The cult club U4 on Schönbrunnerstraße in the 12th District opened in 1980, following on the New-Wave trend from London. U4 was THE club in the 80s and with acts such as Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Manson and Prince passing through its doors. And, of course, their most famous patron, the Austrian international pop star, Falco. Anybody who wants an impression of what sort of music U4 was playing and what sort of scene it was just needs to listen to Falco’s ‘Ganz Wien’ (which name-checks U4) to get an impression of the atmosphere of the time.

And perhaps hippest of all is the DJ culture in Vienna, begun as a spin-off of the club culture in Berlin and London, but expanded because of the "relaxing of attitudes." Thanks to the efforts of autonomous collectives like the Arena and the WUK (Werkstätten- und Kulturhaus, the House of Culture and Workshops), more and more creative people looked for free spaces and areas to create their own style of music.

The club Flex, for example, began as an "ultra-left" punk location in the early 90s, but has now become a center for club culture in Vienna. The club was rated by the German magazine Spex as one of the best clubs in Vienna and, while it may not be as underground as it used to be, it still pulls in a large crowd. One of its big advantages is that it has a big dance floor (a rarity in Vienna) and excellent lighting and special effects. TV screens plaster the walls while a constant light show takes place above your head. But of course, a club is only as good as its DJs and their roster includes top DJs such as Kruder and Dorfmeister, whose remix includes a rich range from Downtempo and Dub to Electronica and Trip-Hop, performers who have become big names in the international club scene, helping to put Vienna on the map as vibrant city and changing attitudes within the city. A more up-and-coming DJ is Philipp van Het Veld, who combines house, electro and breakbeats and is particularly well regarded by colleagues.

The music scene in Austria is now becoming more international, as newer bands such as Soap and Skin do not feel so constrained by Austrian culture and can operate across Europe, without being labeled as Austrians, but by the type of music they play. Bands such as Soap and Skin and Sofasurfers now play to international audience without having a particular "Austrian" label.

What you notice about trends in Vienna is that they tend to be influenced from outside. This is not a coincidence, as Martin Blumenau explains. The Nazi era left a deep cleft in the cultural life of Austria, in all the arts but particularly in music. Because folk and traditional country music was closely associated with the Nazis ideas of "Heimat Kultur," – familiar to English-speaking theater and movie audiences from the chilling patriotic songs of the Nazi Youth in the musical Cabaret – this enormously rich tradition became effectively taboo; nobody wanted to use it for creating new trends. Therefore, most Austrian musicians drew on sources they encountered overseas.

Since then, attitudes have changed again. For one thing, traditional folk music has been given a big boost by the influx of immigrants from ex-Yugoslavia and other Balkan countries, which brought with them their own parallel traditions, untainted by Nazism. This music, that includes the Gypsy and Jewish traditions, grew out of the same common heritage as Austrian Schrammerlmusik of stringed instruments, usually violins and double bass, guitar and accordion, often topped with clarinet. Today it is often referred to as Balkan folk, or Balkan jazz music, and has become very popular in Austria in recent years with ensembles such as the Tsuschenkappelle (Tschuschen is a derogatory name for immigrants from the Balkans that "new Austrians" also now use among themselves in an ironic sense) have succeeded in fusing traditional Austrian folk music with their own brand of Balkan music.

A related music style is Klezmer music, a revival of Jewish folk music from the region that also relies heavily on the accordion and violin, and has spawned its own KlezMore festival each November. Similarly an Akkordion Fest fills venues across the city in February and March attracts many bands and a wide public, giving Klezmer ensembles, Balkan folk bands and Austrian folk bands a chance to all play together.

Traditional Viennese songs – the Wienerlieder tradition also with its own festival each September – have also made a comeback with masters like violinist Paul Fields and singer guitarist Roland Neuwirth play traditional Viennese folk music known as "Schrammeln" mix with jazz and blues to a wide following.

Ensembles such as the award-winning Jazz Werkstatt Wien (Jazz Workshop Vienna) are also driving this trend, in this case having created a dazzling blend of classical mastery and jazz invention, that finds its way regularly onto the programs of music festivals around the world.

All in all, it’s a kind of musical Renaissance, once again encouraging and nurturing homegrown Austrian jazz musicians. Thanks to all these new trends and the efforts of the musicians and organizers, Vienna is again becoming a place to make new music. And art too – but that’s another story.

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