Following David Bowie’s Love Affair With Berlin

Bowie with Fripp, Eno and guest during the recording of ''Heroes'' Photo by Christian Simonpietri.

Few artists cast so long a shadow as David Bowie. For the past five decades Bowie was restless, constantly changing his sound, his look, his entire style. He changed so many times and in such dramatic ways that his audience continually expanded, taking in people from all walks of life and all parts of the world. He smashed gender boundaries as easily as he did musical boundaries, cutting a path from mod to hippie to androgynous spaceman and everything in between. He was utterly unique, an icon for misfits everywhere who were drawn to his effervescent strangeness. It was as if he had come along to show everyone that it was ok to be a freak, to be whatever it was that you truly were inside, and for that he was adored.

Bowie lived in many places over the years, but his attachment to Berlin is one of the most important of them all. It began with a fascination for the Kosmische Musik that began to emerge from Germany in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with bands like Cluster, Neu, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk. Bowie became obsessed with this sound and soon began talking about it to anyone who would listen. He loved Kraftwerk so much that they gave him a mention on their seminal album Trans-Europe Express, and he would later repay the favour by naming a track from “Heroes” after their founding member Florian Schneider.

By the mid ‘70s, five solid years of drug abuse had taken its toll on Bowie’s health and sanity. Notoriously, he was living on a diet of “cocaine and milk”, which made him physically weak and extremely paranoid. He grew increasingly delusional and made a series of controversial appearances during which he was barely able to speak properly. Realizing that if he continued in that manner for any longer he would soon be dead, Bowie made the decision to get away from all the drugs and hangers-on. After briefly moving to Switzerland, he decided to relocate to Berlin with his friend Iggy Pop, as neither of them knew any dealers there and they could support each other through the detoxification process.

First, they made a detour to France to begin recording new albums. They were joined by producer Tony Visconti and the enigmatic Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno, who assisted Bowie to record his strangest music yet. Meanwhile, Bowie assumed production duties for Pop’s first foray into music outside of his band The Stooges. They’d recorded a large amount of material for both albums when Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream managed to secure apartments for them at Hauptstraße 155, Schoeneberg. And so it was that in late 1976, Bowie and Pop moved to Berlin.

Once they were settled, Bowie reconvened with Visconti and Eno at Hansa Tonstudio to finish recording and mixing his new album. This was Low, and despite an initially hostile response, it became one of the most influential and acclaimed albums of Bowie’s entire career. A quantum leap from his earlier records, Low was the first album to reflect Bowie’s obsession with German electronica. Side A comprised of seven deranged pop songs while Side B was entirely instrumental, containing four hauntingly beautiful ambient pieces that were like nothing that anyone had ever heard from him before.

Following this, work resumed on Iggy Pop’s debut album, The Idiot. When their job was done, Bowie joined Pop on tour (as his keyboardist!) and then returned with him to Hansa to make Lust For Life, which was completed in a mere eight days and cemented Pop’s status as a towering icon of filthy rock music. Pop had proven to be a somewhat difficult neighbour - reportedly making a pest of himself by regularly emptying the contents of Bowie’s fridge - but the two of them were together constantly in Berlin. Aside from hanging about in the local bars and clubs, the pair took in a lot of art and made countless trips to the Brücke Museum.

Eno and Visconti got back on board for Bowie’s next album, and they called in King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp to add his distinctive brand of guitar wizardry to the mix. The record that they crafted became perhaps Bowie’s best known album, and set a high-watermark that he would be judged by for the rest of his career. This was “Heroes”, the only album in Bowie’s somewhat misleadingly named “Berlin Trilogy” that was entirely recorded and mixed in Berlin. The famous title track was inspired by the threatening situation at the studio - Hansa was situated directly beside the Berlin Wall and was under constant surveillance by the Russian military, who stood with their rifles mere meters away from the control room window.

Never one to worry about lyrics early, Bowie worked himself into quite a state while writing the words for “Heroes” immediately before he was due to track the vocal parts. Sensing the air of desperation, Visconti left the studio and went outside with backing vocalist Antonia Maaß. Bowie momentarily stopped writing to have a cigarette, and while looking out the window to the Wall below, he caught sight of Visconti and Maaß sharing a covert embrace. Inspired, Bowie completed the now legendary lyrics “I can remember, standing by the wall. The guns shot above our heads, and we kissed as though nothing could fall”.

The Blackstar launch party at Hansa Tonstudio, Friday, Jan 8th, 2016.  Photo by Greg Reason. 

Having successfully kicked his drug habits, absorbed vast amounts of visual art through regular trips to Berlin’s countless galleries and released two highly innovative albums, Bowie staged an epic world tour before moving back to Switzerland to record Lodger. Despite living in Berlin for only two years, it remained special to him for the rest of his life. Notably, he would return to perform in front of the Reichstag in 1987, prompting thousands of East Berliners to clamour to the Wall’s edge to listen. Western music was banned by the Russian administrative government, and it was considered a subversive act for the crowd to gather for the concert. The performance left a very strong impression on Bowie, as he later recounted:

“I’ll never forget that. It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears. They’d backed up the stage to the wall itself so that the wall was acting as our backdrop. We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. And there thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did ‘Heroes’ it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. However well we do it these days, it’s almost like walking through it compared to that night, because it meant so much more.”

The following night, a riot broke out on the Eastern side of the wall and police responded with brutality. The heavy-handed response reportedly helped shift public perception about the state of affairs in Berlin, and after another two years of activism, political intervention and sustained criticism from public figures the world over, the Wall was finally brought down on November 9, 1989. Complete German reunification followed less than a year later, despite attempts from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand to maintain the segregation.

David Bowie's former apartment in Schoeneberg shortly after his death was announced. Photo by Greg Reason.

Bowie would go on to play Berlin again and again, most notably for the launch of his brilliant 2002 album Heathen, during which he performed not only that record in its entirety but also the album that started the whole adventure, Low. After a decade out of the spotlight, he made his comeback in 2013 with the single ‘Where Are We Now?’, with both lyrics and video based heavily on his time in Berlin. Evidently the feeling of love and respect was mutual, and when Bowie’s death was announced on the morning of January 11th 2016, the German Foreign Office tweeted a send-off which stated “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are among Heroes now. Thank you for helping to bring down the wall”

By Greg Reason

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