Inside David Bowie's Berlin: How The City Transformed His Music

Without Berlin, David Bowie’s music would not have been the same. The years Bowie spent there in the late 1970s had a transformative effect on the artist and the music he went on to create.

We recently opened our new store in Berlin and invited Tony Visconti, Alison Goldfrapp, Gudrun Gut, and Michael Rother to share their memories of David Bowie’s famed Berlin Trilogy and revisit its reverberating impact on the city’s cultural landscape.

David Bowie’s song “Heroes” soars as a full-throated anthem. Recorded in the renowned Hansa Studios in Berlin just meters from the Berlin Wall, its cultural legacy can be traced in the grooves of pop culture and rock music from the 1977 release to today’s charts. Starting as a gravelly whisper under the rock-steady chords, Bowie’s voice nearly cracks as he declares his love: “I can remember standing by the wall and the guns shot above our heads and we kissed as though nothing could fall.” It’s a song that envisions a life together written in a time and place marked by division; it’s a song about championing the possibilities of the future: “We could be heroes just for one day.”

“The feeling of the song was more important than the words, but the words were epic,” said Alison Goldfrapp of electropop duo Goldfrapp during the Bowie Song Stories event recently held at the new Sonos store in Berlin.

Goldfrapp was one of the five distinguished speakers invited to share a personal story exploring a song in Bowie’s trilogy of albums written and released while he lived in Berlin. When “Heroes” was released, Goldfrapp was a teen living in a sleepy village in southeast England, and Bowie had just moved to West Berlin in search of a reprieve.

A decade in the spotlight as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke had left Bowie crumbling, having fallen prey to the temptations of the rock-n-roll lifestyle in Los Angeles. Indeed, a consuming relationship with cocaine found Bowie compromised artistically and ideologically, and aftershocks of his dependency led to some erratic behavior.

“When I first heard ‘Heroes’ it was like sticking my head out of a really fast car. It was all about escape—the idea that you could be anything you wanted to be.”

“I kind of lost track with him, because he made that film The Man Who Fell to Earth and he was doing Station to Station in the evenings and staying up all night, hardly having an hour of sleep—he burnt himself out,” said longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti, who most recently received won a Grammy for his work on the posthumous Bowie release Blackstar. “It required a lot of a certain kind of stimulant to stay up at all hours of the night.”

The legendary producer and longtime Bowie collaborator continued: “He came to Europe to dry out. He had to get to bed normally. He started to eat food again. It was crucial to his life itself to come back here and have a fresh start.”

Bowie arrived in West Berlin in 1976 when the city was still a shell left ravaged by the war. “Most Berlin houses were left as they were,” recounted Gudrin Gut of German experimental electronic group Malaria! “You could see the bullet holes—no gentrification at all.”

“Berlin has changed a lot since then and Neukölln as well. A lot of young people move to Neukölln right now but not in those days,” she continued. “Luckily, we always had the nightlife.”

Tony Visconti (L) and Alison Goldfrapp (R) talk share stories about David Bowie’s creatively formative years in Berlin during the Bowie Song Stories event at the Sonos store in Berlin.
Tony Visconti (L) and Alison Goldfrapp (R) talk share stories about David Bowie’s creatively formative years in Berlin during the Bowie Song Stories event at the Sonos store in Berlin.

It was from that nightlife that Bowie drew inspiration, testing sonic boundaries and experimenting with ambient textures alongside groundbreaking musicians and producers, including Brian Eno. Take “Neuköln” off of Heroes, for example. Co-written by Eno himself, the song’s bubbling, rippling synths give way to a chorus of drones in a mellow but melodic setting of the scene. It was here that he wrote, recorded, and released a trio of albums now known as the Berlin Trilogy: Low (1976), Lodger (1977) and, of course, Heroes.

“On these records he captured my dreams and longings and my life,” Gut recollected. “He took in the grey air of those days: Low, Warschau, the wall, the latent fascism that was still a part of Germany, the strange loneliness over West Berlin, the forgotten island next to the Red Sea.”

“When I first heard ‘Heroes’ it was like sticking my head out of a really fast car,” said Goldfrapp as she recounted her youth spent dancing with hemophiliac punks in her off-the-map hometown. “That searing, soaring drone of Robert Fripp’s guitar and Bowie’s yearning, lustful, defiant performance made me feel somehow triumphant but also inexplicably sad.”

Goldfrapp continued, “It was all about escape—the idea that you could be anything you wanted to be in a place that I didn’t even know existed.”

“On these records he captured my dreams and longings and my life. He took in the grey air of those days: the wall, the latent fascism, the strange loneliness over West Berlin, the forgotten island next to the Red Sea.”

Indeed, “Heroes” offered a vision of a future together that many simply couldn’t envision until the wall fell in 1989. The city filled with new residents from around the world, and the underground club scenes thrived with an influx of musicians, producers and people looking for an escape. Once shrouded under a dark history, the city bloomed with economic growth and artistic creation.

When Bowie died on January 10, 2016, around four decades after his residence in Berlin, the city united once again under his songbook. The doorway to his old apartment in Schöneberg’s Hauptstrasse was flooded with flowers, candles and notes as “Heroes” played from a stereo. Together, the city remembered the artist who had changed the face of music from its humble, broken streets.

Michael Rother (Neu!, Harmonia) shares his own anecdotes about Bowie’s Berlin years.
Michael Rother (Neu!, Harmonia) shares his own anecdotes about Bowie’s Berlin years.

“Berlin, for him, was a rebirth,” Visconti said. “And he led a very clean, simple life here.” Away from the spotlight of Los Angeles and away from the temptations of his former life, Bowie found a sense of peace in Berlin, and a sense of renewal. In Los Angeles, Bowie was lost; in Berlin, he found himself, and many like Goldfrapp have found themselves in his Berlin Trilogy in the years since.

“All I knew was that in my nowhere town, I was in the middle of a dancefloor with a tribe of punks who might start bleeding and never stop,” she said before concluding: “The dancing was life affirming, and so I shed the skin of someone I didn’t want to be anymore as I danced, and danced and danced with my heroes.”

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