CLASSIC CLUBS: The Dorian Gray, Frankfurt

Before the Panorama Bar and Berghain and even long before the Front in Hamburg, there was the Dorian Gray in Frankfurt. Secreted in a terminal in Frankfurt Main Airport, the Gray opened during disco’s heyday, and ran through to 2000 when it finally closed. It was the crucible in which the German trance scene was defined and developed – plus, it was also the only location in Europe which had a Richard Long sound system. Sarah Gregory takes a soft landing to central Germany to find out more.

Think Dorian Gray, think Oscar Wilde’s immortal libertine. The ideal name then for a nightclub intended to be Germany’s answer to Studio 54. A club whose impact was so far-reaching that even today, the roots of Berlin’s Berghain can be traced all the way back to November 28, 1978, when The Gray opened its doors to the Hi-NRG beats of Sylvester’s disco anthem ‘(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real’. 

“As a DJ, I got to know hundreds of clubs,” says DJ Dag, techno specialist and Gray resident from 1988-1993. “But none were as cool as Dorian Gray.” Located in Hall C, Terminal 1 of Frankfurt Airport (and in turn providing the template for the airport club), the Gray was the brainchild of Gerd Schuler and Michael Presinger, who decided to create their own centre of musical decadence in the middle of Europe – spending 2.5 million Deutschmarks in the process (about £3m. in today’s money.)  

“It was all built very simply,” says Ralf Holl, dancer and Gray resident from 1980-83, as he talked to Frankfurter Rundschau about the magical effect of dancing in darkness, the long hallway, the neon lights – even the smell! With three floors catering to every dancer’s need (Runningman, Studio 54 and Chillout), The Gray absolutely followed up on its promise of emulating New York’s disco powerhouse. “My life was just one huge party back then,” says the club’s first resident DJ, Bijan Blum. “I was constantly meeting people and there was a lot of partying.” VIP Playboy and Formula 1 parties were staged there, beauty pageants for a while; even camels and elephants were brought in – a step-up from Bianca and her white horse.  

And the comparisons don’t stop there. With a very similar door policy, security had no hesitation in turning hopeful punters away – not that that put people off trying. The Gray became the in-place for the hoi polloi of Frankfurt… and Roger Moore. But it wasn’t just about the moneyed or the social set, the Gray appealed to everyone – attracting converts and the newly initiated. Holl, for one, had been highly sceptical when he first crossed the threshold – a Zappa acolyte and vehemently not a fan of disco. But within 15 mins he was sold.  “When you were in it, it was a world of its own,” he remembers. “You forgot where you were for hours.” He saw it as a place where people could be whatever they wanted. “The first gays were seen at Gray,” Holl remembers. 

Spanning two decades of immense cultural change, the musical content shifted accordingly. The late ’70s was all about disco, funk and soul – in keeping with its Studio 54 template, while the mid-80s saw a move to electronic music – house and techno – and by 1992, ‘urban’ had even found its place. With Blum instilled as the Gray’s first resident (having been courted by the club’s founders while playing at Malesh in Dusseldorf), seven-day work schedules were de rigueur, as the German courted the crowd with the likes of Chic’s ‘Le Freak’, ‘Dancer’ by Gino Soccio and Instant Funk’s ‘I Got My Mind Up’ from 9pm to 8am. Blum did manage the occasional night or two off though, as other early DJ spots were also taken by Michael Munzing, German producer and co-creator of Europop combo Snap! and Ulli Brenner. Plus, guest DJs often made an appearance. When Blum went to Aschaffenburg’s disco palace Aladdin’s, Peter Römer came over from Hamburg’s Trinity to fill his spot. 

And despite the sensibility of excess, excess, excess, the music was never sidelined. Imported records was where the hits were, and Gray DJs would travel to ensure that they had all the latest; the rest of Europe providing the source. “The DJs went to Amsterdam and bought imported records that you couldn’t get here,” says Holl. “You have to keep a store like that at such a high level for so long.” Blum agrees. “I went to Amsterdam and Paris and flew to London especially.” But the dancers in those early disco days trusted the DJs – ready to embark on whatever musical journey lay ahead. Some have called the club avant-garde and DJ Dag confirms that the freedom that was part of the club’s appeal. “I experimented,” remembers DJ Dag. “That was possible at the Gray.” As recalled in Frankfurter Rundschau, he would turn all the lights out, and as the fog started billowing would drop The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’; Dag wasn’t averse to throwing in the odd whale song either. 

DJ Dag at the Dorian Gray, 1992

What made the club even more special was its sound system – built by none other than Richard Long; student of Alex Rosner (who had constructed the Loft’s sound system) and sonic innovator for the Paradise Garage. The system was built on a JBL and Gauss-Alnico base with Thorens turntables inevitably giving way to Technics over time. And given that the club opened at the height of disco, there was a light system to match.  Red, green and orange lights were reflected in the mirrors that adorned the dancefloor; lasers had their place too even renowned producer Alexander Metzger was a VJ there. 

By the mid-1980s, the sound and general aesthetic of the Gray began to change as the music gradually shifted from disco to techno playing host to some of the great German DJs: the sadly-missed Mark Spoon (one half of Jam & Spoon and veteran Love Parader), Torsten Fenslau (originator of Culture Beat and ‘Mr Vain’) and of course, Frankfurt techno DJ and producer Sven Väth alongside other big names including Oakenfold, Paul Van Dyk and Carl Cox. DJ Dag is even credited with triggering a worldwide passion for trance at the beginning of the 90s. “Something completely new emerged in Frankfurt,” says DJ Dag. Gone were the sequins and glitter – this was a wholesale change. 

Welcome To The Dorian Gray by Crazy Malamute.

Alas, however, as is often the case, technical problems brought the club to a close in 2000. A fire at Dusseldorf airport had ushered in stricter fire regulations which put paid to the Gray – it would have just been too expensive to renovate – so the owners cut their losses. But that’s not before going out with one last big bang on New Year’s Eve climaxing with the vocal brilliance of Minnie Riperton’s ‘Lovin You’. The owners tried opening a new venue in Berlin in 2003, but it barely lasted a year, although a sister venue does live on in Stuttgart. 

The Gray closing party in 2000.

At its peak, the Dorian Gray was packed out with over 2,500 dancers – at the forefront of the German dancefloor scene and an inspiration for clubs and DJs worldwide – a dedicated fanzine called Frontpage even sprang up. Sadly, largely forgotten in the minds of partygoers, without The Gray things may have been very different. 
Sarah Gregory

Dorian Gray classics.