Bowie's Berlin

Without You

david bowie in germany in 1978 dpa
David Bowie at a concert in the German city of Frankfurt in Germany in 1978.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    David Bowie recorded three of his most influential albums while living in West Berlin in the 1970s.

  • Facts


    • Bowie, born in Brixton, England, moved from Los Angeles to Berlin in 1976.
    • For a while, he roomed with U.S. musical chameleon Iggy Pop, helping Pop record “The Idiot,” one of his most successful albums.
    • This week, Bowie’s fans in Berlin draped his former apartment in Schöneberg with flowers to mark his death.
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No, the Deutschlandhalle concert hall was only just “quite full” in April 1976 with 7,000 visitors who witnessed what a critic for daily newspaper “Der Tagesspiegel” enthusiastically dubbed a “major rock event.”

“We have never before experienced such an intelligently conceived and perfectly performed show,” the reviewer  wrote, referring to the razor-knife scene from Luis Bunuel’s seminal 1929 surrealistic short film “Un Chien Andalou” which opened the rock-pop spectacle.

Music from German band “Kraftwerk” filled the hall in the intervals, the lighting was dramatic,  perfect and the performance drew raves. “Every gesture of the hands and body was fitting, every pose well conceived, and every dance step harmonized with the spotlight movements,” the newspaper gushed.

So began David Bowie’s life-long love affair with Berlin, then West Berlin, a city that gave him gritty asylum in the mid-1970s as he sought to shake a drug habit and restart his musical career.

During his stay, Berlin granted Bowie his wish. He rediscovered his creative muse, cut three influential albums and, in the process, burnished the German capital’s reputation as a good place to make edgy, new music and to be reborn.

But it all started with Bowie’s 90-minute performance in the immense hallway, a reconverted relic of Nazi German architectural excess, which exceeded all expectations.

The reception from the critic at Tagesspiegel, then and still the city’s leading daily newspaper, was immediate, warm and unconditional: “He is a great, serious artist,” the newspaper wrote.

“He is a great, serious artist.”

Der Tagesspiegel, Review of Bowie's Berlin Concert April 1976

The first concert in Berlin was the fulminating essence of David Bowie‘s “Station to Station” tour, and the beginning of a fond relationship with Berlin that was to endure for decades. It was an important year for rock history, benefiting the artist and the city.

The tour in a sense led Bowie to Berlin. After four months on the road around the world, he moved from Los Angeles to Berlin and dived into one of the most creative interludes of his career.

For West Berlin, Bowie imbued the walled city with near-mythical status as a fertile, poor but honest marketplace of new ideas and unconventional creativity, which lives on today in books and exhibitions.

david bowie during a concert in Berlin in 1978 dpa
David Bowie at a concert in Berlin in 1978. Source: DPA


But it was probably just this everyday nature of West Berlin that made Bowie flee the trappings of stardom and everything it entailed – in his case cocaine addiction, to the modest apartment on Schöneberg’s Hauptstraße 155 – anything other than a glamorous neighborhood.

It was here that the first fans gathered on Monday after Bowie’s death was announced – bringing flowers, candles and pictures of Bowie. They continued to stream in, nearly reverential, until late last night, celebrating their musical hero and role model.

It was in a seven-room apartment painted entirely in black by a previous tenant in the first floor of this building that Bowie moved into in 1976. He had to pay to refurbish the apartment. A short time later, he moved in with “Tangerine Dream” guitarist Edgar Froese in nearby Schwäbische Strasse.

Iggy Pop, a musical chameleon like Bowie from Michigan, also moved in – forming a symbiosis as creative as it was edgy. Pop helped himself to the tasty snacks Bowie bought from nearby luxury department store “KaDeWe” without replenishing them. This state of affairs didn’t last and Pop moved into a neighboring apartment. The flatmates had “very different daily routines,” Bowie later told Tagesspiegel in 2002.

david bowie during a concert in Berlin dpa
David Bowie at a concert. Source: DPA


The accommodation was reportedly ascetic by rock star standards — with mattresses on the floor serving as beds, according to Eduard Meyer, a sound engineer at Berlin’s Hansa studios and then a friend of Bowie.

Three of Bowie‘s most important albums – ”Heroes,” “Low” and ”Lodger” – were forged during his three-year stint in the city and Mr. Meyer of Hansa studios, located near Berlin’s then infamous wall, produced them.

“Wow, the big hall by the wall,” Bowie reportedly said of Hansa when he saw its location near the Wall.

East German border guards were arguably the first beneficiaries of Bowie’s ground-breaking work on the three albums – or perhaps they were irritated when the studio windows were left wide open toward the East.

A couple who regularly met and kissed in the shadow of the wall were reportedly the inspiration for Bowie’s song “Heroes.”

It is hard to sort fact from fiction in Bowie’s Berlin references and trivia.

For example, it is difficult to prove whether Bowie did find the car of a crooked drug dealer on the Kurfürstendamm and angrily ram it with his Mercedes before racing in circles around a parking garage until the tank was empty – the supposed inspiration for his song ”Always Crashing in the Same Car.”

Whether the story about the dealer’s car is true or not, Bowie had a rusty Mercedes in Berlin more than 10 years old, in which he and Iggy Pop toured the city. He often went to the Wannsee lake area to a favorite restaurant.

There are other Bowie hangouts in Berlin including “Anderes Ufer,” a nearby gay bar in the Hauptstrasse, “Exil” in Kreuzberg and “Dschungel” (The Jungle) in Nürnberger Strasse.

But Berlin meant much more to him than working in recording studios and going on pub crawls, which he enjoyed because of the anonymity and freedom from fans’ attention.

For him, West Berlin was a city of museums, especially the Brücke Museum and its exhibition of expressionists.

There’s no way he could have suspected at the time his own work would become the subject of a well-attended exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum near the city’s Potsdamer Platz in 2014.

Bowie was also fascinated by Berlin film history, particularly cinema from the 1920s and early 1930s. So it is appropriate that this spring, his son from his first marriage, director Duncan Jones, wants to make the science-fiction movie “Mute” in Berlin along the lines of “Casablanca” with Danish actor Alexander Skarsgård and American Paul Rudd in the leading roles.

Bowie returned often to Berlin after leaving the city in the late 1970s. In 1987, he performed in front of the Reichstag, then a hulking, damaged World War II relic in the no-mans-land zone between Cold War powers.

The first concert he gave there appears in a German documentary “We the Children of Bahnhof Zoo.” Bowie recreated scenes for its director, Uli Edel, in New York, patching in fans from an AC/DC concert as the audience.

Bowie’s last album came out on his 69th birthday, a date with some history.

Three years ago, on his 66th birthday, Bowie wrote a song and video to Berlin in his album “The Next Day.” The tune, called “Where Are We Now?” is a melancholy reflection of his time in Berlin, full of places he remembered, such as Potsdamer Platz, the Dschungel bar and the shopping emporium, KaDeWe.

This week, the answer is perhaps clear to “Where are We Now?” Bowie is back in his adopted home, back in Berlin.


This story first appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:

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