Between 1976 and 1979, Bowie lived in the city, a period known fondly as ‘the Berlin years’, where the city played a significant role in his career, inspiring his work and impacting him personally in a magical way.
In late 2018 I ventured through the streets of Schöneberg, and I stumbled upon Hauptstraße 155, the former residence Bowie shared with Iggy Pop, a place that saw the birth of some of his most iconic work.
Their home was neighboured by Anderes Ufer, a beautiful gay-friendly café, which later came to be known as Neues Ufer.
My journey didn’t start off looking for Bowie’s history. It was by pure luck that an acquaintance had told me just before I left for a long weekend trip about the life, art, and inspiration that thrived during Bowie’s Berlin years and captured the essence of a city that played such an important part in the musician’s legacy.
David Bowie’s Arrival in Berlin
Reasons for Moving to Berlin
When he first moved to Berlin in the mid-70s, he found himself struggling with cocaine addiction.
He was searching for a new environment to break free from his drug dependency and get his creativity back on track. He found a city in Berlin that allowed him to cleanse his mind and restore his focus on music.
During this time, he shared an apartment in the Schöneberg neighbourhood with Iggy Pop, a close friend who also played a key role in his journey to recovery.
The city of Berlin provided a disconnection from glam and drugs (for the most part), enabling him to work on some of the most significant projects of his artistic path.
Influence of West Berlin’s Culture
The culture of West Berlin played a massive role in shaping his music and his personal growth. The city was going through its transformation, evolving and changing over the years, which resonated with his own self-evolution.
In Berlin, he recorded three studio albums, which became known as the “Berlin Trilogy.” These albums are Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger, created in collaboration with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti.
The ways that this place inspired his work and impacted him personally are nothing short of magical.
While staying in Berlin, he found inspiration in the city’s underground culture, which he channelled into his music.
He also experienced the influence of German bands like Kraftwerk and Neu!, who proved crucial in shaping some of the most significant parts of his musical journey.
His time in Berlin allowed him to grow as an artist and individual, developing some of the most iconic music of his career while overcoming personal challenges.
Berlin’s culture and its people had a lasting impact on his life, and the city continues to be a testament to his transformative years as a musician.
When he first started working on the Berlin Trilogy, his collaboration with English musician Brian Eno and American producer Tony Visconti commenced.
The first album they created was Low, which was heavily influenced by the city’s environment and carried an ambient, experimental sound.
The recording process was a critical and transformative period for him, as he sought to distance himself from his past work and was inspired by the German electronic music scene.
Continuing the Berlin Trilogy, “Heroes” was the second album he crafted during his time in Berlin.
This album was built upon the foundations of Low, incorporating new elements and taking his music to new heights with a broader sonic palette.
He adopted a more expressive, direct approach, reflecting the city’s vibrant energy and the personal relationships that had grown during his stay.
Recording at the iconic Hansa Studios, he was deeply immersed in the sonic environment, and the studio itself became an integral part of the album’s creation.
The final piece of the Berlin Trilogy, Lodger, marked a shift in style, exhibiting a more accessible, pop-oriented tone while still retaining some of the experimental qualities from the previous albums.
Lodger incorporated influences from multiple world music styles, displaying his curiosity and willingness to embrace eclectic sounds.
While recording, he collaborated closely with Eno, exploring avant-garde techniques such as the creative use of song fragments and the manipulation of lyrics to transcend typical songwriting conventions.
Throughout the creation of the Berlin Trilogy, he was fascinated by the city’s unique atmosphere, history, and artistic culture.
This experience allowed him to redefine his musical identity and resulted in a set of groundbreaking albums that would leave a lasting impact on the music world.
Collaborations with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti
Brian Eno and Tony Visconti played a pivotal role in shaping his music during this period.
The Berlin Trilogy was heavily influenced by the German krautrock scene and Brian Eno’s recent ambient releases.
As he delved deeper into making these albums, I came across a BBC article which provided insight into how Tony Visconti worked with Bowie to create the iconic song “Heroes.”
It revealed that every song on “Heroes” began with a backing track, and their collaborative effort resulted in its distinctive sound.
Key aspects of their collaborations included:
- Use of experimental recording techniques
- Combining electronic and rock elements
- Creating atmospheric soundscapes
I found an interesting interview with Tony Visconti on how he recorded David Bowie’s vocals on ‘Heroes.’
The article detailed their unconventional techniques, such as placing microphones at different distances to create a unique vocal effect. This collaboration allowed Bowie to tap into a more experimental side of his music and marked a transformative moment in his career.
Recovery from Addiction
His time in Berlin played a significant role in his personal life, primarily serving as an escape from his drug addiction during the 1970s.
He moved to the city with Iggy Pop, and they shared an apartment in the Schöneberg neighbourhood.
This move was a conscious decision to distance himself from the drug-infused lifestyle he was experiencing in Los Angeles.
Berlin offered him a chance to start anew and focus on his health, healing, and artistic growth. It was there that he truly began his journey towards recovery and embraced a different lifestyle that prioritised his well-being.
This transformative period positively impacted his mental and physical health, his approach to music, and his subsequent works.
Legacy of David Bowie in Berlin
Berlin Bowie Walking Tours
As a testament to his connection with Berlin, walking tours trace his footsteps throughout the city. These guided excursions provide fans with an opportunity to get a glimpse of the places that most impacted his life during those formative years. Here is a rundown of some of the stops on the tour:
- Hauptstraße 155, Schöneberg: This inconspicuous building was his residence from 1976 to 1978, where he shared a flat with Iggy Pop. Today, visitors can pass by and appreciate its quite ordinary exterior and imagine how the building was witness to extraordinary creative collaborations.
- Hansa Studios: The Hansa Studios were his musical base during his time in Berlin. This famous recording studio is where the Berlin Trilogy and Iggy Pop’s albums The Idiot and Lust for Life were born. Fans can tour the studios and visualise the magic that transpired within its walls.
- Paris Bar: He frequented this iconic West Berlin bar during his time in the city. It remains a popular destination for those looking to capture a taste of the artistic atmosphere that once attracted the likes of him and other artists.
Bowie lived in Berlin during a transformative time in history. His experiences there contributed to his musical legacy and continue to draw interest from fans and those curious about the city’s history.
The impact of the symbiotic relationship between Bowie and Berlin no doubt still shines through in many parts of Berlin’s music scene today.