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Bowie and Iggy in Berlin

A new career in a new town: Bowie and Iggy in Berlin

September 30, 2012

Richard John Davis


“So there’s Bowie and Iggy, and they’re doing some recording together. And they’ve ‘called in’ some girls.” There’s a short silence as our German driver-cum-tourguide gauges the potential fallout of what he may or may not be about to play to us. He stops the DVD interview we’re all watching, momentarily. Then starts it again. A former studio technician is speaking to the camera. “There are three of them – they ‘called in’ three women.” Nervous laughter. It’s “yeah, we know the score” laughter. Though it’s highly doubtful that any of the motley bunch of Bowie-philes and obscure-fact-hunting music saddoes (me included) that make up our small group have ever in fact “called in three women”, or are ever likely to. But we’re also united by the desire to know where this tale is going.

“So these women are waiting around, waiting for David and Iggy to finish

whatever it is they are doing. And the studio guys can hear them talking. They are wondering… so, there’s two of them – two guys – and three of us. How is this going to work? So then they finish and come out and David says, ‘Ok, Iggy’s going to pick out his favourite, and I’ll have the other two’.” More knowing, yet slightly nervous and self-conscious, laughter.

And so the myth-making continues.

Thilo, our guide, takes up the information-delivery – speaking through a microphone while driving us around Berlin. The occasional knowing smirk is thrown our way. “And here is where a famous club used to be – it was forced to close… and here is where parts of the wall still stand… and here is where Nick Cave used to live…”

We are all, of course, gripped by his every word.

Rock stars getting it on with fans is a story that’s been told a million times before. But we’re here for Hansa. Hansa studios. Or Hansa Tonstudios, to give it its full and proper name. And the reason we’re here for Hansa, is quite simple: some of the greatest, most admired artists and albums were recorded here. It’s more than that – it couldn’t be just that. Many studios could make the same claim. But there’s something about Hansa. Something about its situation. Something about its legacy.

Long, long ago, in a country not too far away, in one of its most dilapidated, war-destroyed parts, an unassuming building contained a little secret: a relatively cheap, yet relatively well-equipped music recording studio. In the mid-seventies, Berlin was a desolate place. It is difficult to tell now, but where many of the often high-tech developments (like the enormous Sony Centre) and clean new buildings stand, there were just open spaces, in a decimated city. In fact, this was still the case in the eighties. Just take a look at Wim Wender’s classic film of the period, Wings of Desire, where you’ll not fail to notice the bleakness of the city’s landscape. You’ll also not fail to notice Nick Cave – but more on him later.

In the middle of all this sombre desolation, Hansa Tonstudios stood. And it was quietly attracting attention. Soon, a certain skeletal, LA-wrecked, androgynous English rock star, looking for a quiet place to both record and hang low took notice.

David Bowie had already recorded most of Low, his dramatically transformative, minimalist electro-wonder over the border in the pleasant studio, Chateau D’Herouville, in Pontoise, after producing the dry-run that was Iggy Pop’s first Euro-pop masterpiece, The Idiot, at the very same place. Bowie, by now a shattered, emaciated cocaine-fuelled train-wreck (though still managing to create the best albums of his life), had previously removed himself from what he had by that point considered to be the source of his discomfiture, LA. Spending his time travelling the world and stopping from time to time in Switzerland, he and Iggy (who had recently done time in a mental health institution, due to drug problems) struck a deal to clean up. Bowie was also developing a timely new-felt responsibility for his young son, Zowie (AKA Joe, or Duncan, eventual maker of the movie Moon). And the town Bowie set himself on setting down in was Berlin. Incredible as it seems, Bowie and Iggy shared a flat together, in the multicultural Schoenberg district, in a kind of innovative rock version of Men Behaving Badly. Only these were two men cutting themselves loose from their respective cultural pasts, eyeing up Teutonic subculture as a kind of shot-in-the-dark salvation.

Hansa was the perfect place to finish recording and mixing Low (and also the final mixing of The Idiot), whose merging Euro-influences – not least Kraftwerk and Neu! – were becoming manifestly apparent.

At that time, the wall was still up, separating the communist east from west. Berlin was actually reached via a 100-mile corridor, which went deep into the communist side. The wall was clearly visible from the upstairs Hansa windows. Thilo delights in regaling us with the story of how Bowie and Pop once dived for cover when a studio technician began rudely taunting a wall checkpoint gunman through the window. “And this is where they dived – just behind here.” He points lovingly towards an area of floor near a studio bar.

Soon, Bowie was ready to help Pop with euro-masterpiece number two, and Lust for Life was recorded in Hansa studio 3, in 1977, on the ground floor – a wide sprawling pine-lined pad that today is being refurbished for an outsourced recording company. We tread carefully, as we match the ghostly steps of an emaciated, yet muscular Pop, who screamed and wailed here about 16-year-old girls and being a passenger in a lust-filled life.

Former Roxy Music member, and inventor of ambient music, Brian Eno, had hitched a ride on Bowie’s European adventure, and is today viewed as being as much a part of the so-called “Berlin trilogy” as the great man himself. Often mistakenly thought of as producing all three, Eno was actually more of a muse, source of inspiration (see panel), fellow musical contributor and court jester – with longstanding Bowie (and Bolan) producer Tony Visconti brought back into the fold for production duties. Another part of the myth is that there is in fact a Berlin trilogy at all – when the last of the three, Lodger, was actually made in Switzerland and New York, in 1979. Only “Heroes” in fact was made in Berlin.

But the central piece of the triptych arrived soon after Lust For Life, and came to be the defining moment of that time in Berlin. “Heroes” – complete with deliberate inverted commas – was recorded in Studio No 2, otherwise known as “the hall by the wall”.

We are led into Studio No 2, and are immediately overwhelmed by its size and grandeur. It is indeed a great hall, complete with stage and seating area. A further story ensues, of how Eno took great delight in fixing microphones in far corners of the palatial space, above and below, all the better to capture the cavernous ambience available. A former Weimar-era ballroom and Nazi meeting place, the great hall has retained its ghostly glamour. However, nowadays it, along with most of Hansa, has the feel of a high class stately hotel, rather than cutting-edge recording studio. There are no signs of former distress: the ceiling of the great hall had been destroyed in a fire, and the “discoverers” of the building – still the current owners – had to invest greatly in the entire building’s renovation over a lengthy period spanning decades.

When Bowie and Pop were here, the building was a very different place: still partly dilapidated and under construction. Neither could speak German, so the English speaking sound engineer, Edu Meyer, was the ideal candidate to support them. Meyer also worked with Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds in the eighties (see panel). Although the recordings for “Heroes” were made entirely in the great hall, the control room was actually downstairs, connected by cables. Bowie, Eno and Visconti became embroiled in experimental games involving relaying sounds back and forth, building feedback and distortion to absurd and transmogrifying levels.

We’re shown into the adjoining bar-room, which as previously stated was not a bar-room at the time, and in fact was a control room. But the significance of this room in the making of the album soon emerges. The view from the window, at that time, would have been of the wall – around 200 metres away (we’re shown a photo from that time which proves it). Also clearly viewed would have been the paired-up armed guards. A new building now stands right outside the window, dominating the view. Visconti, at the time, was conducting an affair with the singer Mary Hopkin, while married.  They would meet by the wall, every night, during the recording of “Heroes”. Bowie eagerly spied these shenanigans and used the emerging narrative as a primary source of inspiration for the album’s celebrated title track, which depicts heroic lovers under threat of gunfire, meeting by the Berlin wall.

But what of Iggy and Dave’s lives outside of the recording studio at the time? We take a look at the apartment block that the pair lived in, and it’s as unassuming as it’s possible for a building to be. And, contrary to the plan, the reckless overindulgence, at least at first, continued. Although Bowie had left his cocaine nights behind him in LA, he had, by his own admission, moved to “the heroin capital of the world”. Despite this, the main intake was booze. As Angie Bowie, his wife at the time, wrote: “Virtually ever time I saw him in Berlin, he was either drunk or getting drunk.” But it was the anonymity that appealed. Berlin was, and still is, a place where people are not impressed easily. A man could quite literally get lost. And so it was the quiet backstreet bars of a desolate, divided city that became the new haunts of a pair of shattered rock stars from the UK and US.

The pairing was eventually to drift wide apart. Pop’s need to find his own way forced it. He grew his hair back and went back to the States. Bowie, meanwhile, got divorced, got custody of his son and began a protracted battle with his manager that cast a shadow as late as the early eighties, by which time he was living in Switzerland and looking astonishingly healthy. They didn’t work together again until 1986, on Pop’s album Blah Blah Blah. Ironically, it was a song that Bowie and Pop had created together just before their move to Berlin, ‘China Girl’, that gave Pop his first real fortune when Bowie covered and released it as a single from his 1983 album, Let’s Dance. Bowie, for his part, has had his Berlin period, and trilogy of albums, assessed, reassessed, and admired. Many of the bands and solo artists that followed shortly after this period, including the likes of Gary Numan, The Human League and Joy Division, owed much of their inspiration to Low, “Heroes” and The Idiot. Joy Division were indeed originally going to be named after one of the tracks on Low, ‘Warzawa’.

And Hansa? Well, its fame and reputation grew and grew, following the near-mythic status achieved in the seventies. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Killing Joke and Depeche Mode recorded there in the eighties. Brian Eno returned there to record U2’s Achtung Baby in the nineties. And the studio is still seeing action, with KT Tunstall and R.E.M. recording there more recently.

As Thilo shows us out, he can’t resist shooting us another of his knowing smiles. He’s seen it all before, seen our look, seen our embarrassed wonder. “You know, we’re going to be soon starting a tour of the city which will just focus on Bowie/Iggy – where they lived, where they drank, Hansa…” he says. He knows too well that our sort will be back for more. We can’t help it.

Hansa studio tours

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One Response to A new career in a new town: Bowie and Iggy in Berlin

  1. Nikki on February 21, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    ‘Der Himmel Über Berlin’! Nostalgia!

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