Bowie’s Berlin: the city that shaped a 1970s masterpiece
David Bowie’s groundbreaking album “Heroes” features a presence as palpable and influential as any of his many personas: the city of Berlin. Des Shaw, producer of a BBC documentary revisiting the record for its 40th anniversary, explores how the historical, cultural and social landscape of the capital shaped one of the musician’s masterpieces.
This article first appeared in issue 7 of BBC World Histories.
Berlin in the mid-1970s had an air of danger and intrigue. And that was exactly what attracted British singer, songwriter and actor David Bowie when he chose to move there in 1976. It was a conscious effort to reboot his creative processes, which had become severely depleted after months of living in what he described as “hell on earth” in Los Angeles.
Bowie had always been restless, changing musical styles and personas several times since his first album was released in 1967, searching for the formula that would propel him to stardom. He scored his first hit in 1969 with the song ‘Space Oddity’, recorded during his hippie phase. Then, in the early 1970s, his exotic alien alter ego Ziggy Stardust became a founding force in the glam rock scene. Soon, though, Bowie abruptly dumped that character, moved to the United States and – inspired by soul and R&B music – recorded the 1975 album Young Americans.
The song ‘Fame’ from that album became his first number-one single in the US, but Bowie found that the trappings of fame were leading him into dark places. He was taking large amounts of cocaine, and his life came dangerously close to spiralling out of control. As he told the BBC in 2005: “It was like being in a car where the steering had gone out of control and you were going towards the edge of a cliff. Whatever you did with the wheel, it was inevitable that you were going to go over the edge. I had almost resigned myself to the fact that [I was] not going to be able to stop, and that would be it. I started to get very, very worried for my life, and just had to get myself out of that situation… so I ended up in Berlin.”
When he arrived in Berlin, Bowie made a concerted effort to clean up. With the help of friends, he veered away from drugs. “There was a small bar on the corner of the street near my flat, and we would occasionally have a beer with lunch or dinner, but I was able to avoid drugs, and the surprising thing was how well I was able to write,” he said.
“I had always feared that, by eliminating mind-altering substances, I would limit my creativity, but I found that as I stayed clean I could write very well. That was probably one of the most pleasing aspects of the whole Berlin experience. It was a miracle for me… It was probably one of the most rejuvenating aspects of it all, [understanding] that you don’t need to get stoned out of your gourd to write well. If you are a good writer to begin with, you’re still going to be able to write... Realising that it was possible to survive all that and not become a casualty was such an eye-opener to me. It was literally like being reborn, and it was an incredibly important period for me. I did see light at the end of the tunnel – and it wasn’t a train.”
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Bowie had been enamoured of Berlin since he was introduced to German expressionist art and Fritz Lang’s epic 1927 film Metropolis while studying at Bromley Technical High School in south-east London. He very quickly developed what he called “an obsession for the angst-ridden, emotional work of expressionists, both artists and film-makers, and their spiritual home: Berlin”.
As he learned more about the artistic ethos of the expressionists, Bowie incorporated their influences into much of his early work, especially while working with Lindsay Kemp’s mime company in the late 1960s. Coupled with his expressionist obsession, Bowie always had an ear for new music that broke with traditional norms. He became very excited by the music of German electronic band Tangerine Dream and, in particular, the solo work of its founder Edgar Froese, whose 1975 album Ypsilon in Malaysian Pale deeply influenced Bowie’s work on his 1976 album Station to Station. Bowie was particularly impressed by the randomness of the compositions, a mode that he was determined to utilise more in his own music. So Bowie followed Edgar to Berlin.
Sound and vision
“I liked the idea of the Berlin Wall because, at that time, I felt that it was always necessary to be in a place where there was tension,” Bowie said later. “And you couldn’t find a place with more tension than… West Berlin [with its] factional elements, both musically and artistically. There was also a very strong socialist left-wing element there which gave it this kind of anarchistic vibe. I can see why, throughout the 20th century, it was the city [that] writers continually returned to, because both the negative and positive aspects of whatever’s going to happen in Europe always emanate at some point, right back to the 1920s, from Berlin.”
Bowie very quickly discovered that the city offered what he was looking for – an alternative to Los Angeles. “I was very lucky to be there at that time, mainly because it was undergoing artistically its greatest renaissance since the Weimar days of the 1920s, when it was definitely the cultural gateway to Europe. When I was there the whole new German expressionist period had started, and all of the German electronic bands were starting to come down to Berlin to work.
“Berlin was a strange, singular place,” Bowie remembered. “After the Second World War, when it was just an island in the middle of East Germany, all of the industry and all of the big business moved out of Berlin, leaving behind factories and warehouses that were empty. So what happened is [that] students and artists moved in, so the whole place became like a workshop, and it was just a wonderful place to be for that.”
Bowie invited Iggy Pop to join him. The American punk’s brash style of music had made a big impact on Bowie, and they had become great friends. Iggy shared Bowie’s fascination with the city, and accepted the invitation.
“In Berlin you had a city that was built to hold millions of people, and in the western half there were very few people – around half a million – and most of those were draft-dodging, grumpy German students, resistant to any western influences,” Iggy said later. “And then you had the very personable prewar leftovers: bankers, cab drivers, restaurateurs, innkeepers. And, most importantly, there was very cheap space. There was no economy. The whole premise was being propped up artificially by political pressures of the time, and that’s what made it interesting. And Bowie’s wise investment was that he’d gotten to a point that he could afford to go there.”
New sonic worlds
In order to bring together technically the various elements he was proposing to unite, Bowie asked producer Tony Visconti to help him create what he described as “expressionist mood pieces”. Visconti had worked with Bowie on his 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World, and found that Berlin was the ideal place for Bowie at that point in his life.
“Because Berlin was cheap, it suited his financial situation at the time, as he was almost bankrupt,” Visconti recalled.
“He was divorcing his wife, separating from lawyers and management – and it cost him a fortune, but the financial costs gave him artistic freedom. So the first album he worked on in Berlin was Low, the title reflecting his personal mood at the time; then, once his legal situation was sorted, he began work on “Heroes”.
Looking to experiment with new ways of writing and recording music, Bowie also approached avant-garde musician Brian Eno, who rose to the artistic challenge of pushing creative boundaries in the studio. “Berlin was a good symbol of the state of mind, which is to say that the state of mind existed before the choice of city,” Eno said. “Berlin at that time was this peculiar juncture between two cultures and, in a sense, we were quite consciously trying to fuse two cultures.
“It wasn’t communism and capitalism we were trying to fuse, it was something like high art and low art. Low art included all of the things that Bowie had been working with, such as funk musicians, which even among European pop musicians you weren’t meant to be interested in. [The view was that funk] was black people’s music: good for dancing, but you couldn’t take it seriously. Well, Bowie did – and brilliantly, I think. He had already made that synthesis between white glam, art rock, and R&B from New York on Station to Station, so the synthesis we went on to make together was [with] the background I came from: an avant-garde-tinted ambient landscape sensibility with a lot of attention to creating new sonic worlds.”Bowie began work on “Heroes” in the summer of 1977.
The album was recorded at Hansa Studios, in a huge former concert hall alongside the Berlin Wall. “We recorded the album in the shadow of the wall, which was about 500 yards from our control room window,” Visconti remembered. “Directly in front of us was a guard tower with East German guards – you could actually see the red stars on their fuzzy hats.”
The sense of foreboding that arose from being so close to the wall had an impact on the music Bowie was creating. According to Eno, seeing the soldiers on the guard tower “added a thread to the geography of the record, in that we were in a place with a very strong personality. I suppose the way that translates is in making you think you’re going to do something strong as well. It’s no use releasing something mediocre or pallid in an atmosphere like that. You tend to make strong statements.”
With experimentation very much the driving force, and with the encouragement of Visconti and Eno, Bowie completely revised his approach to making music. “I started using the album as an instrument. If a note or sound effect would go wrong I’d keep it, and get another four instruments to play the same wrong note,” he said. “Then it sounds like an arrangement, and an integral part of the composition.”
Darkness and division
This process led Bowie and his collaborators to create some truly remarkable music, including the album’s title track, which has become regarded as a rock classic. And though his record company and management at the time were stunned and appalled by what they heard, Bowie insisted that the album was released just as he delivered it. That included several dark, atmospheric instrumentals, such as ‘Moss Garden’ and ‘Neuköln’ – the latter named after a district of Berlin – inspired by the tensions evident in the city in which it was recorded.
As Bowie recalled in 2005, “There was a darkness to the music I wrote in Berlin, but it also had a great celebratory nature to it… This was most evident in tracks such as [album opener] ‘Beauty and the Beast’, which is a great representation of how Berlin affected my writing during what was I think the most creative period of my life.” It was a lasting impression: Bowie revisited Berlin musically in 2013 with his single ‘Where Are We Now?’, a poignant look at the changes in the city since his seventies sojourn.
“Heroes” is remarkable for its echoes of Berlin; though not an overt portrait, its music and lyrics, themes and sounds reflect a singular moment in the city’s unique history. When the album was released in October 1977, it was met with critical acclaim. It has since become recognised as one of the most important and influential albums of Bowie’s long and varied career.
Berlin 1977: in context
The city that inspired David Bowie’s album “Heroes” evolved as capital of the Brandenburg principality from the 15th century, then of Prussia from 1701. With the establishment of the Weimar Republic following the end of the First World War, Berlin became a hotbed of cultural and artistic innovation, famed for the hedonistic nightlife scene depicted in Cabaret, the musical (1966) and film (1972) based on the writing of Christopher Isherwood.
That period of artistic and social freedom came to an end with the ascendency of the Nazis from 1933. The city was devastated by the Allied bombing campaign and military invasion that ended the Second World War, and was divided into American, British, French and Soviet sectors by the occupying powers in 1945, surrounded by the Soviet- controlled eastern part of Germany.
Growing Cold War tensions led to a Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948 and then the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, physically dividing the city. East Berlin was the capital of Communist East Germany (officially the German Democratic Republic), but the West German capital was established in Bonn, and West Berlin became economically isolated, with many businesses reluctant to operate there.
Geographically and culturally distinct from the rest of West Germany, West Berlin became known as a centre for radical and student activism, especially the Kreuzberg district immediately south of the wall. The area abutting the wall was considered part of East Berlin, so parties were often thrown there, outside the jurisdiction of West German police. From the 1970s a string of foreign musical artists, attracted by cheap rent and the city’s unique cultural brew, arrived to record. Hansa Studio by the Wall, where Bowie recorded Heroes, hosted acts such as Iggy Pop (whose Lust for Life album, co- produced by Bowie in 1977, includes ‘The Passenger’, inspired by the city’s S-Bahn train), Depeche Mode, U2 and Nick Cave.
Des Shaw is a radio producer for the BBC who has produced several radio documentaries about David Bowie’s career
The BBC Radio programme Music Extra: David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ 40th Anniversary is available to listen online via BBC World Service