maandag 17 april 2017

Bowie in Berlin, a conversation for three

Former Hansa Studio, Berlin
On 20 March Wo. received an e-mail from Mark with the title "Focus switches to Berlin". What about Focus and Berlin, I thought, still thinking that we were discussing Dutch progrockers Focus,as  published recently on this blog. Instead the discussion focused on Bowie's Berlin period and a tour Mark went on when visiting the German capitol. All the Berlin pictures were made by Mark Carvell.

Mark, 20 March:
I had some spare time in Berlin on Saturday after attending a G20 digital economy conference the previous day and decided to join a Bowie walking tour. The German guy explaining things was very expert so I learnt a lot in particular how Bowie ended up in Berlin rather than Dusseldorf which was the main centre of German electronic music (Kraftwerk, Neu! etc). Berlin was important for youth culture and avoiding military service but it was not where it was happening musically - so Berlin was a surprising choice to live and record actually. But Berlin is uniquely Berlin - and Bowie enjoyed the low profile there and got his life back on track after his years in LA when despite all the fame and world tours, he was pretty much broke on coke.

First main spot on the walking tour were the Hansa studios which are near the glitzy redeveloped Potzdamerplatz - a couple of my photos attached. The guide is holding a photo of how the studios looked in mid-70s when the neighbourhood was a wasteland right on the Cold War front line of the Wall. We were only able to go into the ground floor lobby of the studio so I did not go up the stairs to the "Meistersaal" which is a big old dining hall behind the large Greek columns facade in the photo where the "Heroes" track was actually played and recorded, making maximum use of the hall's excellent acoustics.

My photo of the Meistersaal interior is a photo of a photo in a downstairs display panel: the room is used mainly for dinner events now - but with working recording studios still in use in the nearby rooms. There is a separate tour of the inside of the studios but that was not available in the time I had - have to do that next time! -  and  (Thilo Schmied is the guy I got in touch with to enquire about visiting Hansa Studios). Iggy Pop also recorded here, and U2: the first sessions for Achtung Baby (which did not go well - band was trying to find its way again).

The guy leaning out of the back window in the photo is looking towards where the watchtower with the guards was as in the Heroes lyric - but it is all redeveloped now with office blocks etc so you have to imagine it. The guy was actually telling us to halt die Klappe because they were recording! Still a special spot in the history of music though!

Unfortunately I ran out of time to get my flight home so I had to drop out of the last part of the tour which was to take the U-bahn to Bowie's apartment in Schöneberg district; not much to see there apparently but there is a plaque:   - and the local clubs and bars where he would hang out. I might do that on my next G20 trip!

I wasn't a glam fan or big on Ziggy but have most of Bowie's records starting with Station to Station - including a German language version of Heroes: "Helden". The Berlin guide said that so bad is Bowie's pronunciation it is difficult for a native speaker to understand what he is singing! He also did a French language version - again mainly to promote the album (as The Beatles did with "Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand") . Bowie's lifestyle stabilised in Berlin and he cleaned up on his drug  addictions: Low and Heroes made him rich again and he left his non-descript Berlin apartment in 1978 to resume world tours and a more fashionable lifestyle in New York.

Wo., 20 March:
Thanks, Mark. If you allow me, I'd like to publish this. The sort of nice addition to what is usually on the blog. Have you seen the Bowie work in progress? All the rarities, covers, cover version, tv shows, etc are being listed. You find it on 8 January 2017 and is expanded every month.

Gary, 20 March:
This is a very interesting account. I must say I am more of a fan of early Bowie’s work up to the Diamond Dogs era, and while I would agree that he remained innovative up to the end his work did not chime so much for me (with the odd exception). I thought his work with Eno and Fripp was very good but maybe just a little too ‘fashionable’ for me (something you would probably agree I never was!). Still Bowie’s music and spirit was/is always a part of me, I grew up listening to his epic works that told me you are young and free…. “Let the children boogie”….

Mark, 20 March:
A friend of mine is a complete Bowie nut and will be interested to check that list - for accuracy!

Wo., 20 March:
Sounds like someone who ought to get along with my cousin who is our family Bowie nut and is the editor of the 8 January contribution. (The date is no coincidence.) She put me onto Bowie in the mid 70s for real, but where I just like the guy's music, she has to know and have everything.

I'll respond to your Bowie e-mail tomorrow and then we go online early April.

The guide with 70s photo
Mark, 20 March:
Yes Bowie's Berlin albums must have seemed quite radical and eclectic, mixing songs with short, sometimes doomy or intense instrumentals - influenced by the German electronic bands. You are the only Faust fan I know. RCA must have thought their biggest star was taking huge risks with his global fan base but - unlike Geffen who sued Neil Young for going electronic - they stuck by him.

I was given "Heroes" for my 22nd birthday while living in Rotterdam and  I thought "wow this is the future!"  But then I also noticed my usual record shop suddenly adding a special "new wave" section to their singles rack and Bowie suddenly seemed out of it - literally. The German electronic bands must have been caught off guard too I guess. Kraftwerk hung in there with those short catchy songs and robots. Some new German bands appeared on the scene: it was a struggle to spell Einstürzende Neubauten after taping them off a John Peel programme and needing to list it on the C90 inlay card! They were from Berlin by the way - so by the 1980s after Bowie and Iggy Pop had left, something was happening in the city. 

Wo., 21 March:
For me Bowie is someone who has nearly always been in my musical awareness. When I was 9 he scored his first hit with 'Space Oddity', a song I just loved and still do. Things went silent for a few years, but I did not forget him. 'John, I'm Only Dancing' e.g. did nothing over here, but is a part of my singles collection since 1972. From 1973 he featured regularly in the singles charts, so I heard all his singles. One of the first albums I bought was 'David Live' in 1976 which brought me somewhat up to speed on all the albums I'd missed.

In 1976 I went to my first rock show in Rotterdam: David Bowie in Ahoy, just after the 'Station To Station' release. That became my second Bowie album and is still my favourite to this day. In 1978 I saw him again in Rotterdam, a fantastic show with loads of 'Ziggy Stardust' songs in there.

Hansa Studio mixing room
His move to Berlin did not go unnoticed, but there was not much that prepared me for some of the music I was hearing in 1978 when I bought both 'Low' and 'Heroes'. I loved the singles. Both 'Sound And Vision' and 'Heroes' are fabulous songs right up to today. So powerful, playful and visionary. 'Low' of course is a sort of hybrid where Bowie both presented fantastic songs and made his move towards (electronic) instrumentals. 'Heroes' is the end station of that development with songs I still do not care a lot about.

I followed Bowie up to 'Let's Dance', the third time I saw him live in 1983, now in stadium form. After that he still had a few great singles, but the albums just were not up to par. Btw, his biggest hits, the #1s here are nearly all collaborations, with Queen, Jagger, Tina, Pat Metheny. How is that in the U.K.? Let's Dance is his only solo #1.

For me his albums remained average, at best, until early 2016. Reading the review I thought this is just another of his experiments that will be slightly disappointing. I bought the album on the day of release any way, on a whim. Something urged me to do so. Don't ask for an explanation. 'Black Star' simply blew me away. One of his best albums and one of the best albums ever made. It remained on repeat the whole weekend and then came that Monday morning.

What went before did not stop me to go see him twice more in 1990 and 2002, again in Rotterdam. The last time, the 'Reality' tour, was somewhat disappointing. He played too many songs from those average albums. I'd decided that I'd seen him enough, not knowing that it would be the last time as I skipped the ArenA show, days before his final show.

Photo: Wo.
The Bowie exhibition last year in Groningen was something I went to not expecting much. It was only then that I understood more of the impact the man had on art, music, style, fashion. Things that I had missed, being too young at the time and totally uninterested in everything not having to do with the music. It was then that I understood how he modelled everything for himself, had total control over all things Bowie, from the very early stages of his career when nobody had ever heard of David Bowie as he still worked as Davy Jones at 16, 17. The man saved everything. Nearly all artefacts came from his own collection. Next to the music that was everywhere as I walked around in my own cocoon, headset on and all. Emerged in Bowie. Life can be worse.

Thanks for the tip on the Bowie tour, Mark. Next time I'm in Berlin I will certainly take it. You are filling my travel itinerary somehow.

Gary, 22 March:
You mentioned Bowie's 'John, I'm only dancing' is one of my all time favourites of Bowie and the '70s era. Strange that it was a B-side single in the UK and doesn't appear on an album.....

Wo., 22 March:
John, I'm Only Dancing was an a-side single here with Hang On To Yourself as a b-side. I also have a 45 released later in the 70s with the version of the Young Americans sessions. I think that was released in 1979 or 80. What was it the b-side of in the UK?

Gary, 22 March:
The B-side was the same here  "Hang onto yourself".

I read that it has been suggested that Bowie wrote the song in response to a derogatory comment made by John Lennon about Bowie's cross-dressing or that it is gay/bi relationship excuse for dancing with a girl. I had no idea at the time as I assumed it was a self-protective narrative between friends where 'Bowie' is assuring his friend that he is not moving onto the girlfriend but "only dancing", something I would have identified with at the time... oh!... obviously I was so innocent then... this would have never occurred to me at the time!

Wo., 22 March:
Same here, Gary. By the time my English was good enough to follow the lyrics, that's what I made of it. Bowie standing in front of a big guy about to beat him up. Something like that.

Wo. , 22 March:
Come to think of it. The last part of the song does sound a bit like he's making fun of this John. No matter what is truth here, they were or were soon to become great friends, I think, with Lennon working with Bowie on 'Across The Universe' and co-writing 'Fame', during those covered by white powder months in L.A.

And so another conversation for three closes. You can find more information on the David Bowie guided Berlin tour here: 

Gary Hunt
Mark Carvell

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