Paul Bergen's concert photography: Smells Like Teen Spirit

The nineties. When smoking was still allowed, and stage diving was an absolutely normal thing to do. The decade that grunge was born, and rock music was back with a vengeance. And in the middle of it all: photographer Paul Bergen. We show his best pictures.

  • Text
    Wiebke Brauer
  • Photos
    Paul Bergen

Ask some people, and they’ll say it was the decade of Nirvana, Britpop bands like Oasis and Massive Attack, and large open-air music festivals in general. Of designers like Helmut Lang and Tom Ford, who redefined style with his work for Gucci. Others, and this includes those who grew up in the nineties in particular, would say it was an era of bad taste with no long-term appeal. A time when people fawned over Miuccia Prada’s “ugly chic” aesthetic, wore tight tops, baggy pants and gaudy New Balance sneakers, and danced to songs like the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” or, even worse, “Macarena”. The beauty of it is, they’re all right.

Anthony Kiedis invented the sock look in 1983. Five years later, the Red Hot Chili Peppers performed in Eindhoven. At the end of that tour, guitarist Hillel Slovak died of an overdose, and Kiedis, who was also addicted, decided to get clean. Paul Bergen: “You’re often rewarded if you can make it all the way through a show. During the encore, the Chili Peppers stood naked on stage with only socks covering their genitals. Proof that as a photographer you should never leave until it’s over.”
Anthony Kiedis invented the sock look in 1983. Five years later, the Red Hot Chili Peppers performed in Eindhoven. At the end of that tour, guitarist Hillel Slovak died of an overdose, and Kiedis, who was also addicted, decided to get clean. Paul Bergen: “You’re often rewarded if you can make it all the way through a show. During the encore, the Chili Peppers stood naked on stage with only socks covering their genitals. Proof that as a photographer you should never leave until it’s over.”

Something everyone can agree on is that the nineties were the last decade in which people still smoked and drank in clubs without restraint and drugs still seemed like a fun thing to do. Though none of this was due to youthful rebellion. Rebellion in the nineties consisted in not rebelling, in passivity, or autoaggression. In the eighties, people had still demonstrated against nuclear power smelling of patchouli or for the hedonistic lifestyle with oversized shoulder pads. In the nineties, people let their shoulders droop as they sang along to songs infected with misanthropy and malaise.

Which shouldn't be understood to mean that nothing at all happened in those years. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, and mobile phones and computer technology were developing at breakneck speed. The first cellphone had been sold commercially as early as 1983, but it did not reach the masses until ten years later. Anyone who didn't own a Nokia 1011 in the mid-nineties had sort of missed the boat. The same was true for computers. At the start of the decade, you were still called a geek if you had a personal computer at home; ten years later, you were a freak if you didn't own a PowerBook 100 from Apple (which came in sixteen different shades of gray). In any case, everything that already existed was digitized: People began reading on the internet instead of in books, writing messages by email or texting instead of sending letters. And as for music: The CD replaced the vinyl record and the cassette.

“I had a shoot with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry on an interview day. I was last in line, and everything was very relaxed and professional. When I was done, Steven Tyler took a mouthpiece out of his bag and asked me to photograph it separately. He told me to get really close and make sure I saw myself in his sunglasses. It turned out to be a beautiful, unusual portrait. You don’t think up something like that when you go on a shoot.”
Paul Bergen

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the nineties is that everything was possible. University students got tribal tattoos on their backsides and put rings through their noses. Office workers carrying whistles, pacifiers and glow sticks writhed in bunkers and warehouses during the first raves. The great range of musical styles was actually quite astonishing. Rock, which had been thought dead, celebrated a revival with bands like Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, Oasis and Skunk Anansie. Drum and bass emerged in the U.K. Germany gave rise to the Eurodance and trance project Snap! with its pounding 4/4 time.

From today’s vantage point, the nineties seem like the last decade when all was still right with the world – though that’s nonsense, of course. But: September 11, 2001, was a watershed moment in history, as the attack on the World Trade Center inaugurated a new era of fear and prohibition. Seen in this light, the nineties were remarkable for their combination of levity and gloom. That’s rather ugly and crude, but that’s exactly why the nineties were so unique

For Prince the 1990s were dominated by his conflict with Warner, as a result of which he changed his name several times and wrote the word “slave” on his cheek.
For Prince the 1990s were dominated by his conflict with Warner, as a result of which he changed his name several times and wrote the word “slave” on his cheek.

The music photography book Nineties Spirit: Music Caught on Camera, with nearly two hundred color and black-and-white photographs, was published by teNeues. You can also find more photographs in rampstylw #27 "By the Way".

Wiebke Brauer

Wiebke Brauer

Head of text ramp & Freelance author
After graduating from high school, Wiebke Brauer studied English and German as her first major with a focus on media culture. Interested in topics of all kinds and bird-free since 2016, as she says herself. With work for Spiegel Online, auto, motor und sport, Motor Klassik, Fuel and Stern, long a blog for the young and classic car site carsablanca.de - and more than fond of ramp magazine.
rampstyle #27 By the Way

rampstyle #27 By the Way

Mal ganz nebenbei bemerkt: Rund 30 bis 50 Prozent aller Entdeckungen lassen sich auf Zufälle zurückführen. Ob Klettverschluss, Viagra oder Röntgenstrahlen – man findet etwas, was man so überhaupt nicht gesucht hatte, doch dafür wird man mit anderem belohnt.

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