Berlin

Welcome to the European Rock Pilgrimage (also known as my family holiday February 2020 including something of a celebration for a significant birthday milestone, but more about that later) where I’ve managed to visit some of my favourite ever rock spots, and discovering some new ones along the way. A lot of fun was had by all.

Part one of my ERP starts in Berlin, the first stop in the magical mystery tour. This (and many others) concentrates heavily on Bowie and Iggy when they lived in West Berlin in the late 70s, creating some of the greatest music of all time.

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Haupstraße 155 – Schöneberg

We arrived in the hip West Berlin neighbourhood of Schöneberg after sightseeing many significant historic locations throughout chilly Berlin: it goes without saying it is simply an incredibly fascinating and frequently moving place to visit.

Walking up the wide, tree-lined Haupstrasse with the afternoon sun in our eyes, the anticipation was palpable. The thought of retracing in the exact footsteps of these guys was exciting and a major thrill for this big fan; knowing albums such as The Idiot and Low (both recorded at the Château d’Hérouville outside of Paris and mixed in Berlin), “Heroes” and Lust for Life (both recorded entirely at Hansa Studios) were created here.

Bowie lived in the 1st floor apartment between late-1976 to approx 1978, and shared the flat with Iggy Pop and assistant Coco Schwab, Iggy eventually moving into another room in the building and staying on in Berlin with girlfriend Esther Friedman.

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This moment in Bowie’s career has held a magical place in my heart, it’s been on my radar since early childhood – the “Heroes” album particularly held in highest esteem. That’s me with my brother Jus enjoying the moment at 155 in the late-afternoon sun. I even sneaked a look inside the art-deco entrance.

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The experience of visiting the place where these guys lived and hung out while creating this music was quite exhilarating. The apartment was located on the main street, near their local U-bahn Kleistpark, just down the road. 

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Number 155 is an old building apartment, with an unassuming façade. You’d be mistaken for walking straight past this place. At this point in his career, the singer was heavily immersed in the drug and party scene in his former home of Los Angeles. After a series of controversial public appearances where he was barely coherent, Bowie realised that he needed to separate himself from the rock and roll lifestyle he was living. Infatuated with the electronic music emerging in Germany at the time, Bowie ultimately moved to Berlin and lived in relative anonymity.

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In location, there was a plaque that incorrectly stated that Bowie’s 1979 Lodger album had been created there, as it has long been under the misapprehension that it was recorded in Berlin (and forming part of the “Berlin trilogy”) however as most Bowie fans know the very good Lodger album was recorded in Montreux, Switzerland.

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Schöneberg during the 1970’s was a unique part of Berlin, a common area for outsiders and people who weren’t exactly mainstream. Since the golden decade of the 1920’s (think the beautiful writings of British novelist, playwright, screenwriter, autobiographer, and diarist Christopher Isherwood – a big inspiration for Bowie back in the day), the neighbourhood has been known for its acceptance of freedom and LGBT lifestyles in the city. I felt that in the short time we were there. Magical.

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Cafe Neues Ufer – Hauptstraße 157, Schöneberg

A few short steps down the road was David and Iggy’s local bar, now called Neues Ufer, back then called Anderes Ufer – Hauptstrasse 157, Schöneberg. Its a staid part of town, Schöneberg nevertheless had a significant Turkish population, and this cafe was a regular haunt for Bowie, and the area was also the birthplace of the beloved Bowie idol Marlene Dietrich. Adorned with the majestic Blackstar album cover, this supercool spot is well aware of its importance in the Bowie Berlin story.

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It opened in 1977 and had no bell, nor was it hung with thick curtains. Free access and an open look, it was the first open gay and lesbian bar in Germany. Upon entering and chatting the friendly manager, I noticed photos of the British icon plastered all over the walls. Back in the late-70s Bowie and Iggy would habitually breakfast in the morning and tipple in the evening. I stopped by and tipped my hat to an image of the Thin White Duke circa ’76.

Bulowstraße Station

Heading north is the exquisitely art-nouveau Bülowstraße Station, a Berlin U-Bahn station located on the Berlin U2 line in the Schöneberg district.

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Completed in 1902, the architecture is stunning and located on the corner of Potsdamer and BulowStraße, big but peaceful.

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Esther Friedman took multiple photos of Iggy around this beautiful area circa 1977. This one taken on the other side of the street.

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Where Are We Now?

Bowie’s January 8, 2013 impeccable comeback single Where Are We Now? reflects on his years in Berlin with some poignancy.

Sitting in the Dschungel
On Nürnberger Straße
A man lost in time
Near KaDeWe
Just walking the dead

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Ellington Hotel, Nürnbergerstraße. 50-55, 10789 Berlin, (the Dschungel)

The site of the now defunct Dschungel nightclub, where Bowie and Iggy partied many nights away, located at Nürnberger Strasse 53. Built in the 1920s, this magnificent art-deco monolith has quite a story to tell: it’s been the home of a Weimar-era nightclub, the 1940s Badewanne club where Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald played, and then Dschungel in the 1970s to host the likes of Bowie, Iggy and Lou Reed.

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The Dschungel was Berlin’s answer to Studio 54, and it was uber cool in the 70s. The badass female bouncers were more than happy to turn away Sylvester Stallone. Now it’s a gorgeous design hotel, but keeps its musical heritage alive with regular jazz nights in the bar.

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Today, memories of Bowie and Iggy’s Berlin float along the Berlin streets. The Dschungel was the most important club of 1970s, and defined nightlife West Berlin. It is now the beautiful, modernist, elegant, 4 star Ellington Hotel.

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Continuing the Where Are We Now? theme, Bowie pays homage to the city by name checking Berlin landmarks past and present, including giant department store KaDeWe, where he used to while away the days like “a man lost in time“. The KaDeWe became a mecca of capitalist freedom for former East Berliners after the Berlin Wall collapsed. The place had a strange feel to it. A bust multi-level department store sure, but it held a certain charm, and strangely was filled with only middle-aged Berliners.

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Potsdamer Platz – Mitte

By the 1920s and 30s, Potsdamer Platz had become the busiest traffic centre in Europe – think of it as the German equivalent of London’s Piccadilly Circus. But in the 70s, when Bowie was living in the city, the Berlin Wall had divided it in two and it became a desolate patch of land surrounded by watchtowers. Earlier, in the thriving and decadent 1920s Berlin, Potsdamer Platz was the place to be, full of glamour. Then it was bombed.

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After the war, the East Germans built the Berlin Wall around it, placing it in a no man’s land. If you’ve seen Wim Wenders masterpiece, Wings of Desire, you’ll remember the old man sitting on a sofa in what purported to be the deserted Potsdamer Platz.

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Today, Potsdamer Platz is a shiny new commercial centre with extremely wide roads (throughout Berlin), modern shops, restaurants and entertainment facilities, however a certain melancholic atmosphere envelopes the place, like much of the city, and reminders of the wall are at every turn.

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Hansa Studios – Köthenerstraße 38, Kreuzberg 10963 Mitte

A major highlight was the Hansa Tonstudio, the recording studio where “Heroes” was recorded (in oak-panelled Tonstudio 2), and the location for the production of several other masterpieces such as Bowie’s Low and The Idiot and Lust for Life for Iggy Pop. The studio is located on the quiet Köthener Strasse 38 near Potsdamer Platz – you can only enter with an official tour like the ones lead by Thilo Schmied, and photos are not allowed.

Back in 1977, the Hansa Studio was an imposing figure; the rear aspect of the studio overlooked the Berlin Wall and it’s mixing room overlooked the turrets packed with armed guards. The Hansa building was one of about four in the whole district that wasn’t flattened by bombs. A photo from back in the late-70s when Bowie was recording there, and then my snap of the majestic structure, now surrounded by other buildings.

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It is well documented that Bowie found inspiration for the lyrics to the masterful title track when he observed Tony Visconti – album producer – and backing vocalist Antonia Maas kissing by the wall. On Iggy’s Lust for Life, and with Bowie in the producer’s chair, the iconic drum beat that kick-starts the title track owes its echoey sound to the reverb of Hansa’s walls, while Iggy’s scratchy vocals were recorded through an in-house guitar amp.

So many artist-defining records were made here from U2’s Achtung Baby to Nick Cave’s seminal The Firstborn is Dead. Certainly Einstürzende Neubauten’s dark, twisted soundscapes emanated from Hansa which continues to be an important monument and a beacon for those looking to unleash their musical freedom. Artists talk of a ‘Hansa Sound’, one defined by darkness and industrial textures, but also by creative freedom.

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The “Heroes” spot (where “Standing, by the wall … we kissed, as though nothing could fall”) is just behind the studio building, accessible through an arch albeit on private property. The position of the Berlin wall is now marked by a double line of cobblestones.

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It should be noted that the recording space wasn’t a traditional studio, it’s more like an ornate ballroom (a former Gestapo Ballroom no less). The control room wasn’t even connected to the performance space, so they used video feeds to communicate with each other.

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NB: The “Heroes” album (in fact the Berlin trilogy) is often mistakenly referred to as being produced by Brian Eno. The producer was Tony Visconti with Eno being a songwriting and instrumental collaborator on the projects.

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Ex-King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp also flew in for a couple of days, coming out of retirement, to record his blistering guitar treatments, often without hearing the initial track. Tony Visconti goes into detail on the recording process of the title track to “Heroes” and explains how he captured Fripp’s guitar takes to shape the defining sound of the track.

The version of the German lyric “Helden”, released on the Bowie Rare album among others (eg: Christiane F. soundtrack), and is a great alternative take on the timeless title track which holds a prominent place in popular culture, deservedly so.

Paris Bar Kantstraße 152, Charlottenburg

Paris Bar is an elegant restaurant in affluent Charlottenburg district where Bowie and Iggy regularly went for special occasions to hang out with artist types located at Kantstrasse 152, Zoologischer Garten.

Nouveau rich Charlottenburg is an extremely beautiful part of the city and one can only imagine what it looked like back in the golden 1920s when the sublime architecture, theatres, cinemas, bars and restaurants made Charlottenburg the Berlin centre of leisure and nightlife.

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Whilst Bowie lived modestly during his time in Berlin, he and Iggy would occasionally splash out with a visit to Paris Bar; an upscale French restaurant in the Charlottenburg district. An area filled with elegant pre-war buildings and high-end boutiques, the western district of Charlottenburg is known for its upscale vibe. Inside Paris Bar there was a wall of Polaroids featuring previous guests, and if you looked hard enough Iggy and David could be spotted among the famous faces.

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Located just 5 minutes on foot from Savignyplatz station, it continues to serve up excellent French cuisine to locals. The restaurant is also where Iggy Pop’s notorious Rolling Stone interview took place – the one that ended with him crawling out of the bar after one too many.

Bertolt Brecht Haus – Chausseestraße 125

Bertolt Brecht lived in his apartment on the first floor of the side wing and rear building from October 1953 until his death on August 14, 1956. His proximity to the Berlin Ensemble, the academy and the historic cemeteries next to him had given him this apartment with “decent measurements”, as he wrote to his publisher Peter Suhrkamp.

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The size of the rooms provided Brecht with enough space for many work desks and space for discussions with his students. The apartment also houses his estate library with approx 4,000 volumes that are available to users of the Bertolt Brecht Archive. During Brecht’s lifetime, Helene Weigel lived in rooms on the second floor of the side wing, which she made available to the Bertolt Brecht Archive she founded after Brecht’s death. She had a porch leading to the garden added and moved to the ground floor in 1957. She lived in this apartment until her death on May 6, 1971. The Brecht Weigel Museum was opened on what would’ve been Brecht’s 80th birthday on February 10, 1978. Three rooms of the apartments have been preserved in their original condition.

Berlin never left Bowie. After completing the first leg of his Low/”Heroes” tour, he stopped off in London to record a tub-thumping reinterpretation of Brech/Weill’s Alabama Song, a regular in the live set. Three years later he was back at Hansa recording songs for a BBC television production of Brecht’s Baal.

Alien Architecture

Well done for getting this far.

Separated at birth? The Alien Queen and the Mosse House – I saw a striking similarity between architect Erich Mendelsoh’s Berlin art-deco monolith built in the early 1920’s, and Swiss painter and Alien designer HR Giger’s salivary Alien Queen Mother.

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Next stop: London.

This entry was posted in David Bowie, European Rock Pilgrimage, Iggy Pop. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Berlin

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  4. You covered that pretty good.

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  7. clarkie71 says:

    Really enjoyed that. I was in Berlin a few years ago on a stag weekend and one of the regrets from that was not seeking out the musically history of the city. Our group tended to going on the history tour of the city instead, If I ever go back I will definitely check these places out. Did see the museum that had the old Trabent car that U2 used on their cover for Achtung Baby.

    • And thanks for reading Clarkie. The history of the place is, needless to say, amazing. I did some general touring around (not all Bowie-related) while we were there, if only for a short time. East/West quite a contrast. Like you, I’d love to go back and see more one day.

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